author of Midnight in Peking
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I’m a Londoner born and bred from a long line of Londoners. However, a lot of my time seems to have involved getting out of London, first to university in Glasgow and then to Shanghai where I live now and have done for going on 20 years.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Twelve saw me the tallest in the class so I thought maybe a London fire fighter – the uniform was cool and the big red fire engines obviously appealed. However the discovery that I didn’t like heights much put a rather rapid halt to that ambition.
At eighteen I did seriously think about the merchant navy. The London Docklands were still the Port of London then and you’d see boards calling for sailors willing to sign on to go to Accra, Istanbul, Taipei and I thought that sounded good. It’s also maybe where I first fell in love with the idea of Shanghai – it’s just about the most evocative word in the world to me.
Thirty saw me where I wanted to be – living in China, owning my own business and signing my first book contract. Of course then I just wanted to be 18 again!
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I’d never fall in love but would remain young, free and single forever. It’s not the worst strongly held belief to lose but still…
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
As a young lad I read Kipling’s Kim – that convinced me that I had to somehow broaden my horizons and travel. I reread it every year when I get depressed about the amount of time I spend in soulless airports and cramped train carriages just to remind myself how thrilling travel can be!
At a rather underachieving North London school I got a new English teacher, Mr Marks, who gave us all a copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and told us to read it to obvious groans from the lads. I went home, read it, and didn’t stop till the end. I realised that you could take real events (in Brighton Rock it’s the razor gangs and all that) and weave a powerful story through those events.
It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered the novels of Alan Furst. However, after reading one I bought them all and now reread them all regularly. His ability to create an entire world (always Europe on the brink of the Second World War) intensely described and yet without layering on the details heavy-handedly is amazing. His injunction to research everything and then throw it all out when you start writing, to wear your research lightly, is a mantra for me.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?
Far from obsolete – but I rather think a simple book on its own is going that way. But Midnight in Peking includes maps of old Peking, loads of photos of the locations and characters plus there’s a great website (www.midnightinpeking.com)(launching soon) with more photos, videos of old newsreels and old parts of the city, links to old documents and newspaper articles relating to the murder investigation, an audiowalk…everything you need to really immerse yourself in the Peking of the 1930s either after reading the book or during. By the end of the book and all the other stuff you really should be able to smell the Peking of 1937…I hope!
6. Please tell us about your latest book… Midnight in Peking
Midnight in Peking is the story of the murder of a 19-year-old English woman, Pamela Werner, in January 1937. Her killing was never solved but the investigation was conducted during the last days of old Peking as the Japanese massed on the outskirts and then eventually invaded and occupied the city. Pamela’s murder became a metaphor for the attack on all of China. I have reinvestigated the case and believe I have the solution – I can’t say more than that obviously. But the book is also about a city, Peking, and the two foreign communities that co-existed, sometimes well and sometimes uneasily, within it – the privileged diplomats and businessmen in the walled and European style Legation Quarter and the foreign driftwood of prostitutes, pimps and opium addicts that lived in an area called simply “the Badlands”. Pamela’s murder brought those two worlds into violent collision.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
Less looking at screens, more reading of books
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
John Le Carre – if I could create a character like George Smiley and then write a series of books like the Smiley novels I’d die happy. (BBGuru: To watch the trailer of the new George Smiley film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy click here)
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
But simply, to write a book (and hopefully then some more books) that leave people turning pages, being late for work, forgetting to eat, ignoring their partners and losing all track of time.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Never, ever, under any circumstances put pen to paper and start to write about anything that doesn’t completely obsess and fascinate you. Without a complete absorption in the subject you’re guaranteed that, at best, it’ll turn into a dreary and frustrating slog and, at worst, it’ll drive you mad and put you off writing anything else ever again.
Paul, thank you for playing.
And thank you James Bradley for lining this interview up.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.