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 Melbourne boy, raised in Balwyn area, went to All Hallows Primary, then Xavier College, then attended both Melbourne and Monash Universities for my degrees.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Nothing really, I had lost all religious inclinations well and truly by then. Possibly only the belief that drinking lots of beer is good for you.
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?
My career path as a scientist and writer stems from mainly inspiration I gathered over my life collecting fossils in the field in many countries. Being a father to 3 children had a big effect on the way I communicate, honing skills at writing for the popular public and children, and to some extent this carries through in how I write science for the lay audience today. My fossil hunting expeditions to Antarctica (1989,1991) were also big factors changing my life philosophy and all (as written up in my book Mountains of Madness: A Journey Through Antarctica, 2000). Finally the discovery of the Mother fish fossil at Gogo was a world-class breakthrough that drew massive media attention and gave me a totally new topic to write about: the origins of sex.
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?
I like writing books because they are not just instantaneous responses, in the way blogs are often thrown together quickly (but not all of them!). Writing a book is a major way to mesh words with moods, create mental images of events and share some of the emotional highlights of the work I’ve done. I enjoy crafting and honing my writing, knowing that I can always do better, and try to do so with each book I write.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Hung Like An Argentine Duck is revelation about the origins of sex , starting with fossil evidence in our deep distant ancestors-the first back-boned animals (vertebrates). It started with discoveries my team made in Australia based on fish fossils from the Gogo sites in Western Australia, but then grew to encompass the breadth and depth of what we know about complex sexual reproduction using copulation in the entire animal kingdom, based on stunning recent research findings. I didn’t quite expect the book to take me as far down this road as it finally did, but it was sure one hell of an amazing journey. I’m very pleased with the way it turned out and the very positive responses I have so far received from the media’s questions about it. I think it’s my best book yet in terms of reader accessibility and amazing content. I hope it starts many interesting after dinner conversations!
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
To educate everyone to enough of a degree to be able to understand where our scientific knowledge really comes from (derives from quality peer-reviewed research), leading them to be confident enough to trust in science and act upon its advice. There is no plot or scam occurring – the evidence is crystal clear that our planet Earth is in already really serious trouble from climate change. It’s something we can start to mediate if we comprehend the gravity of the problem and begin to act upon advice already received – to seriously reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Sir David Attenborough for his gentle polite attitude, inquisitive nature and deeply genuine respect for the world’s natural environments and its biodiversity.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I don’t set goals, just keep busy working on my various projects. I do aim to keep improving in terms of better writing and research quality, and continually experiment with new methods and directions in both these fields of endeavour.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Just write, as Stephen King says in his book about writing – the more you do the better you eventually become. Try and vary writing styles and formats as an exercise in development (eg fiction v non-fiction, writing in new formats like plays or poetry) . My published books include children’s fiction, adult and children’s non-fiction, and one of my books has 8 poems I wrote in Antarctica. Also just read a lot of good authors to see how they craft their works.
John, thank you for playing.
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.