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 and raised in Helena, Montana, right on the edge of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. I went to public high school there, graduating with a lot of the same kids from my kindergarten class. When I was thirteen I thought Montana was really boring, but now I think boredom can be useful, and that I was just being thirteen, and I’m incredibly glad I grew up there.
When I was twelve I wanted to be a newscaster, one of the smart ones who’s good at asking difficult questions and looking concerned and attentive. When I was eighteen I was in plays, but I was also an English major: I think I knew even then that I was going to have a life that was about books. When I was thirty I wanted to be like William Trevor, and still be writing stories at eighty.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I was in a huge hurry, at eighteen. I had very little patience. At eighteen you should think you have all the time in the world, but I got it backward. I’m still impatient, but I think I have less of a sense that time is running out right now.
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?
I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when I was fifteen, and his advice about writing and about life had a profound effect on me. He talked about having patience, which was a thing I needed to learn, and about the possibility for discovery in the things that terrify you.
Also at fifteen, I was obsessed with Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and had a print of the Seurat painting on my wall. The idea of artistic absorption, of being completely involved with the creation of something new, and with its intricacies, was really compelling to me. But clearly the trick was to be engaged in the work and still connected to the people around you.
Does that count as two works, the musical and the painting? Many books have influenced each book I’ve written, but that would be a very long answer.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I can’t imagine any other choice. I did other things and there was pleasure in it, but I was a reader always, and writing was the thing that instantly felt like a vocation.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel… The Apothecary
It’s a Cold War spy novel with kids and magic, but it’s magic that’s akin to science, that has to be learned. It’s about a boy struggling with his destiny, and a girl finding a new life, and it’s about an apothecary who wants to free the world from the threat of nuclear disaster.
(BBGuru: The Publisher’s Synopsis:
It’s 1952 and the Scott family has moved unexpectedly from Los Angeles to London. Janie feels uncomfortable in her strange new school, until the local apothecary promises her a remedy for homesickness. But the real cure is meeting the apothecary’s son Benjamin, a curiously defiant boy who dreams of becoming a spy.
Benjamin’s father is no ordinary apothecary, and when he’s kidnapped, Benjamin and Janie find themselves entrusted with his sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia. And it seems that Russian spies are intent on getting their hands on it.
What secrets does the book contain? Who is the Chinese chemist Jin Lo? And can they trust a skinny pickpocket called Pip to help them?
Discovering transformative elixirs they never imagined could exist, Janie and Benjamin embark on a dangerous quest to save the apothecary and prevent an impending nuclear disaster.
The Apothecary sparkles with life and possibility. This is a story that will delight kids and return not-so-young readers to the magic of childhood. )
The experience of having been in a world that isn’t their own, inside the minds of other people—recognizing some things and finding others unexpected. That’s the great thing about reading for me: that imaginative exercise, the visceral experience of empathy. And the surprise of what happens next.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
One person? That’s too hard. Philip Roth, Susanna Clarke, David Mitchell, Laura Hillenbrand—writing is hard enough without being sick. I don’t know how she does it. George R. R. Martin at the moment, because I am lost in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Are dead people fair game? If so, then Iris Murdoch for starting a new novel the second she finished the last one. I can’t do that.
I want to keep myself interested, and write things that aren’t like what I’ve done before, and keep getting better. And I still want to be writing when I’m eighty.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read all you can and write all you can. I know that’s not very original, but I think it works. It’s like practicing the cello. Even the stuff you have to throw away gets you to the next thing. It makes you a better writer.
Maile, 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.