Sylvia Johnson, author of Watch Out For Me, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |August 27, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks


author of Watch Out For Me

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 was born in Sydney, raised in Mosman and the Blue Mountains, schooled by some truly terrifying nuns in primary, and eventually dropped out of High School. Later I went to the Australian Film and Television School and studied script-writing.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, I wanted to be a poet or an actor or a writer – I was in love with words. At eighteen I wanted to be a writer or an actor – I wanted to understand people. By thirty I was writing, and I just wanted to keep on doing it. Why?

Because writing matters: because it’s about people and ideas and emotion and politics and because good books lead to great conversations and great conversations are among life’s truly indispensible pleasures. And also, of course, because it’s one of the very few jobs you can do in pyjamas.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

I believed in Papal Infallibility when I was eighteen. That’s been a bit of a disappointment, frankly…

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

Firstly – Dad used to recite Shakespeare and the classical poets at length without notes or elucidation to us in our cradles. I think that should probably be mandatory for every child on earth.

Then, when I was bigger, I discovered Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” – an unattractive, bad-tempered, sleep-deprived brat who had clearly never been dreamed of by Enid Blyton. I still remember the very private happiness of reading about someone who might just have become my best friend.

Thirdly – some of the truly great speechmakers and speechwriters have managed to get my head and heart and pulse racing all at once. If that’s not art, it should be.

(I do enjoy music very much; I love painting and I’m a sucker for a good bit of architecture – but on balance I’m afraid, I’m pretty much all about words).

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

I love books, especially character-driven books – I love them immoderately. When you love something that much, you want to make one yourself – and that gets addictive.

6. Please tell us about your début novel…

In Australia, in 1967, four children tell a lie to get out of trouble with horrific results. Forty years later, in a post 9/11 world, during a summit attended by heads of state that include the American President, the appalling consequence of that childhood lie will come back to haunt them.

I wrote Watch Out For Me about the end of innocence and the burden of guilt. It’s about prejudice – distrust of the outsider – and fear and mob violence. It begins as an intriguing mystery – what happened that summer to those children? – and I’d like to think little by little as the voices and stories come together, it becomes an explosive drama of terrorism, madness, hysteria and violence. I meant it to be a novel for the dangerous times we live in, a statement about the appalling craziness of this post 9/11 world, when an innocent man can be shot seven times in the head while not resisting arrest.

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

In essence, Watch Out For Me is a psychological thriller – but I’d like to think there are ideas in the book about the links between childhood and terrorism, about playground bullies and modern-day shock-jocks, and about the errors and dangers of social and political discourse being hijacked by fear and opportunism. Beyond that, though, I hope people will be swept up in the story and feel they’ve met these characters somewhere in real life – or that they’d like to.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

American novelist Marilynne Robinson is my current crush. She’s written two of the five books I want to be buried with – Gilead and Housekeeping. I adore the way her books conceal their stories within the characters so seamlessly.

Harper Lee gave us a brilliant example of the importance of ideas when she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird – and showed how to integrate themes, plot and characters just though the perfect timbre of voice.

And speaking of voice, there is the constellation of Australian writers from the earliest Bulletin days, through Sumner Locke Elliot, Ruth Park, Jessica Anderson and on to the present mob who are brilliant and vocal and full of ideas – and are consistently and enthusiastically punching above their weight.

Those are the ones I think I admire most of all.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

Getting the next book finished is always an ambitious goal. Getting it published is even more ambitious.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Do more than just read books – engage with them. Judge them. Share your opinions. Encourage talk about books – we need to cultivate reading discussion as a part of our general discourse. Be part of ensuring that literary conversation isn’t just confined to book clubs and literary mags.

Support literacy in all its guises. Get on board with The SydneyStoryFactory – help create the next generation of readers and writers. Don’t just read in the café – take a book to the footy.

Also – write. But I’m guessing you’re already doing that.

Thank you for playing.

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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, 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.

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