On Melbourne Cup Day
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?
It was 1981 when I arrived with my family from Ireland to begin a new life in Australia. I was only 10 months old, and we spent a decade living in Sydney. I then spent my teenage years back in Ireland, and another four in university in Scotland before I returned to Australia for good. I’ve been back for nearly eight years now, and never intend to live anywhere else. Australia had a huge influence on my globetrotting identity. I adore this country.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At 12 I wanted to be an author. I loved books, and loved creating my own little booklets with articles, illustrations and photographs knocked together on my dad’s typewriter. At 18 I wanted to be a feature writer for Australian Geographic, writing elaborate spreads on the environment. Now that I am 30, and an author, I want to be an author for the rest of my life. I’ve never done anything so satisfying, and have never been so completely happy as I was during the writing of Peter Pan.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At 18 I really believed in the environment movement, and I was quite anti-capitalism. I thought I could swan through life with wholesome, green guidelines. These days, however, with a mortgage and a business to run, I realize that being a little bit capitalist means financial survival, especially in a huge, competitive city like Sydney. It’s unfortunate, but true.
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?
Number one event occurred when I was seven years old. The old lady that ran the second-hand bookstore downstairs from our house gave my mum a beaten-up copy of Michael Wilkinson’s The Phar Lap Story for me. It was the first thoroughbred biography I ever read (a momentous honour in my writing life), and it is still one of my favourite possessions. Number two event was more a realization. When I went away to university, I found myself watching the racing on Channel 4 every single Saturday afternoon. Despite an exciting new student life, and all measures of distractions, I did not stray from my racing passion. I realized after that that racing was in my skin; it would forever demand my attention. And the number-three event was certainly the publication in 2003 of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. Her book, and its wild success across the world, inspired me to be a racing author more than any other single event in my life.
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 don’t think books are obsolete. I don’t think they will ever be obsolete. There is a romance in this little paper object that can’t be replaced with cold technology, no matter how impressive it is. Online media will always loom and billow and threaten, but it won’t ever replace the printed page entirely. And any author who does not want to hold their bound and published work in their hands, and I mean physically hold it, is not an author in the traditional sense of the word.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Peter Pan: The Forgotten Story of Phar Lap’s Successor is the tale of a horse that came after a legend, and when you come after a legend that has died at their peak, it is almost impossible to stake a new claim to greatness. Such was the story of Peter Pan. The book begins on the morning of Phar Lap’s death, and meanders through the Great Depression, documenting Peter Pan’s two Melbourne Cup wins and 21 other stakes-race victories. It divulges never-before known facts about the life of this magnificent racehorse Peter Pan who was as good, if not better at times, than Phar Lap, and it takes history (and Phar Lap) to account for forgetting him so effortlessly.
A wonderful, forgotten racing story set in The Great Depression.
In 1932, they said there would never be another Phar Lap. Yet within months there came a racehorse so wildly brilliant that he was instantly compared to the dead champion. He was Peter Pan.
Within months of Phar Lap’s death, Peter Pan had won the Melbourne Cup and then two years later, won it again – the first horse in 72 years to take home a second. The newspapers of the day called him a ‘superhorse’ and declared ‘another Phar Lap takes the stage.’ But over the long years, Australia forgot their new champion.
Peter Pan: The Forgotten Story of Phar Lap’s Successor is the tale of the horse that came next – the brilliant, speedy Peter Pan. Casting off the shadow of Phar Lap, this tells the story of triumph during the Great Depression and the coming of a champion when Australia least expected one. It is time to restore the standing of our other great racing hero. )
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I would like Peter Pan to change public perceptions of horse racing. Racing is a magnificent sport dripping with history, where a single magnificent animal is king. If more people recognized this, and understood the sport better (which is what Black Caviar is doing, and what I hope Peter Pan will do also), racing would be loved by so many more Australians.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
The RSPCA will forever top my admire list. They have the heart to battle on with saving little animal lives when they see so much cruelty, and so many reasons to throw in the towel… thank goodness for them.
In the next few years I would like to write the biography of the most elusive man in world horse racing – Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien, the Master of Ballydoyle. Wildly ambitious!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Know your craft. Read every book on writing and publishing that you can find, and refer back to them often. Write about what you love, and what you know. When you get your publishing contract, keep your feet on the ground. Submit on time. Treat each of your books like it were the only one you would ever write, because ‘that which is written without effort is often read without pleasure’.
Jessica, 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.