The Booktopia Book Guru asks
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 a place called North Walsham, in Norfolk, England. It was a one-horse town until the horse got bored and left. I lived there until I was nearly eighteen. Mine was a working-class family; we lived in a council house. (Maybe I should explain that, because I don’t know how to translate it into Australian: a simple house rented fairly cheaply from the local authority.)
I went to the local Grammar School when I was almost eleven. It was a fairly mad place that thought it was still in the 19th century. If you want to know what it was like, read – when you can, it’s only just out in England – Life: an Exploded Diagram where it’s thinly disguised as ‘Newgate School’. After that, by some miracle, I got a place at university and got the hell out of Norfolk.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve I was going to captain the England soccer team. I was pretty good at soccer. My hero was the then England captain, a guy called Billy Wright. I spent hours in front of the mirror trying to get my hair to look like his. If by some weird freak of fate I failed in that ambition, I wanted to draw strips for the comics. I was addicted to comics.
When I was eighteen my only ambition was to be irresistibly attractive to girls. Or even slightly attractive to girls.
When I was thirty my life was fairly messed up and I had no real idea what I wanted to be. Although I think that by then I knew I had to be a writer, but I had no idea how to set about it. I didn’t really get down to it until I was forty and married to Elspeth, who made it possible.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I knew at least a hundred times more about life than my parents did.
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?
Lord, these really are terrifying questions… When I was thirteen or thereabouts I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and understood that books could be about real and serious things and that they could take you on long journeys of the imagination during which you were somehow changed.
Ten years later, I got deeply into music, especially jazz, and became aware that music and writing had important things in common. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious bullshitter, I try to write the way musicians compose. It’s about rhythm and harmony and little themes or melodies that echo and vary. There’s an album by the great Miles Davis called Bitches Brew that I played over and over while I was writing The Penalty and I tried to give the book the shape of that music.
These days, when I feel my words getting slack or stale, I read Emily Dickinson, a 19th century American poet. Mostly she wrote short poems that are deeply religious, which I realise might sound kind of boring. But they’re full of electricity. One begins with the words ‘I heard a fly buzz when I died’ and you just have to go Whoah! What??
Another begins ‘Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me’. What a use of the word ‘kindly’! Emily was terrifyingly good at giving new magic to ordinary words. Which is what writers should do, it seems to me.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I much appreciate your use of the word ‘innumerable’, which implies that I might have chosen to repaint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…
I wrote my first novel, Keeper, simply because I was bored. Elspeth and I had spent ten years writing picture-books for very young children learning to read. These books had few words (some, in fact, had no words at all) and you work to a very tight discipline. I just wanted to break out into something bigger and wilder. Also, I had this nagging ambition to write a book about soccer that blew apart all the ‘rules’ of that genre. Sports novels, it seemed to me, were very dull, very unrealistic, very unmagical, very unambitious, and written only for boys. I thought it might be fun to turn all that on its head. I was very lucky to find a publisher, Walker Books, who didn’t think I was insane.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Well, at its heart Life: an Exploded Diagram is a sexy love story about a working-class boy called Clem and a rich girl called Frankie. It takes place during the summer and autumn of 1962, in Norfolk. While they’re struggling with the kind of stuff that inexperienced young lovers have to deal with (especially when they have to do it in secret) the USA and the old communist Soviet Union are shaping up for a nuclear war because the communists have parked missiles in Cuba, just thirteen minutes rocket flight from Washington. The apparent fact that the world might explode into radioactive ash any minute puts a little pressure on the young lovers.
But the story is wider than that. It covers a time-span between about 1898 and 2001. It goes back into the past of Clem’s family and forward into his adult life. It shoots back and forth in time, and between England, America, Russia and Cuba. I guess you could say that the theme of the novel is that old Love versus Death confrontation.
I should also say that it’s quite funny.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
The memory of a pleasurable journey and some unanswered questions.
That’s tough, because I read too much to have a ‘favourite’ author. But I admire those writers who were bloody-minded enough to go on writing when nobody realised how good they were. I admire all writers who were brave enough to die in poverty still clutching a pen.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Unambitious. Modest. To get the next book written as well as I can write it. Then the one after that. And not to die in poverty clutching a pen.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read lots of books. Writing isn’t about ideas, it’s about words, and the best place to find them is in books.
Always go to bed before you run out of words. There’s nothing worse than a blank screen and a blank head in the morning.
Don’t kid yourself that doodling about on the internet is the same thing as research.
Don’t write about yourself unless you’re absolutely convinced that you are globally interesting.
Mal, thank you for playing.
My pleasure. Thanks for asking, and best wishes.
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.