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 the north of England, in a place called Hexham, which I’ve never been to, apart from being born there, so I can’t tell you anything about it. Then I was raised, and schooled, in Luxembourg, where my father worked for the European Parliament. So I was a euro-brat. This means that, while I’m English, I arrived at University in England without having lived there, and knowing nothing about British cartoons or children’s television in general. This is a disadvantage in drinking games, as it turns out.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I don’t know that I wanted to be anything in particular, other than irresistibly attractive to girls. I probably dreamed of being an assassin or a spy or something stupid (awesome) like that. When I was eighteen, though, I was already fixated on the idea of being a writer. I grew up in a house full to the rafters with books, my mother encouraged reading from an early age, and I had a couple of really inspirational English teachers at high school, so it was something of an inevitability. When I was thirty, my wife was pregnant, and so I suppose my overriding wish was to be a good father. And a lottery winner, so that I could surround my unborn child with the kind of security defences usually seen in a nation state.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I was eighteen it seemed obvious to me that God did not exist. And I still don’t believe in a sentient, interventionist God. But since the birth of the aforementioned child, my position has reversed. It now seems to me a self-evidence that the universe, and life, are holy.
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 think I have to choose Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, as the first one, because it arrived in my life just when I was about to go into publishing (I’m an editor as well as a writer), and it completely opened my eyes to what it was possible to achieve in a book for younger readers. I think it’s a masterpiece, one of the few utterly perfect books I have ever read. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have become a children’s book editor, and in turn I probably wouldn’t have written for children.
It’s not something I’d admit to when talking to any member of the literati (just on an online questionnaire that anyone can read), but an absolutely formative influence was the film True Romance. I was a teenager at a time when several people – particularly Quentin Tarantino, who wrote that film – were making films that placed a real emphasis on writing. By which I mean the kind of novelistic structures that Tarantino uses, but also the importance he places on the rhythms and poetry of speech. At the same time, he and his coterie were bringing demotic, genre influences into arthouse cinema, combining grand ambitions with the violence and cool music of the drive-in. I don’t know if books like In Darkness – which as much as it’s a novel about slavery and the brutalizing effect of poverty, is also essentially a gangster story – would exist without Tarantino. (I’d also trace the current mingling of literary and genre fiction, not to Kavalier and Clay as some have claimed, much as I love that book, but to Tarantino.) And True Romance, for me, while it has its flaws, is the purest expression of that era and that ambition. It’s stylish but it also has substance; it’s a genuinely moving love story but it’s also a violent B-movie fantasy. I love everything about it. In fact one of my first dates with my now-wife was to make her watch it on DVD. She loved it so much we had the theme music at our wedding.
Finally, and more inexplicably, I happened to see a sculpture at an exhibition just as I was writing In Darkness, and it had a really profound, visceral effect on me. It’s by Rachel Schwalm and it’s called ‘Body Incarnate’. Schwalm works with huge slabs of marble, into which she cuts rectilinear holes. And then inside the hole, she uses pigments and rust and who knows what else to create these splashes of colour. ‘Body Incarnate’ is a frame of white marble, and then inside, ochres and reds, kind of glowing. I don’t know what it means, but to me, it conjures associations of the heart within the body, the baby within the womb, Jesus within the tomb. It seems to say something about deserts, and life itself, and religion. I would go so far as to say that it’s the most beautiful object I have ever seen – and I have thought about it almost constantly since. It induces mad thoughts in me, along the lines of, ‘I just need to win the lottery so that I can get a bigger house and then I can buy the sculpture (as well as aforementioned army)’. Since In Darkness is about a boy, a little point of human light, trapped in the darkness of fallen rubble, I think the influence is probably obvious.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I don’t believe there were any other artistic avenues available to me – I can’t draw, and I’m appallingly lacking in musical ability. Writing is the only artistic thing I can do. Having said that, I do think it’s a uniquely fascinating art form: what it does is to create – not even on the page but in the mind of the reader – a four-dimensional picture, a kind of time-sculpture, made up of the story stretching from beginning to end. And it’s not just visual – it incorporates smell and taste, all sensations. Reading a book is the closest thing possible to possession, to being another person, and you can carry it around in your pocket. It’s astonishing.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel In Darkness…
In Darkness is about Shorty, a teenage gangster from the slums of Haiti, who finds himself trapped under a fallen hospital, after the earthquake of January 2010. There, in the darkness, thirsty, desperate and alone, he looks back on his life as a gangster, on his long search for his sister, who was kidnapped by a rival gang, and on the terrible things he has done to try to get her back. There’s a certain aspect of mystery, too, since Shorty has been shot in the arm, hence being in hospital, but we don’t know why. And of course there’s the greater mystery of whether or not he will be dug out, whether he will be saved.
At the same time, as the days of isolation and thirst stretch out, Shorty starts to dream, or to hallucinate, the story of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the Haitian slave leader of the late 18th century, who managed the extraordinary military achievement of defeating the French army, as well as forces from Spain and Britain, to free his people.
As the lives of these two characters merge, and we learn more and more about the dark history that has brought Shorty to hospital with a bullet wound, and the terrible things he did to try to find his lost sister, the line between reality and fiction, between past and present gets increasingly blurred, and a kind of possession occurs, of the present day boy by the 18th century hero.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I think the overarching theme of the book is hope, and the existence of hope. Really awful things happen to Shorty in the course of the story, and to the slaves of the eighteenth century. And Shorty does awful things too. But in the end, all hope is not lost, and I feel that’s an essential truth about life in general.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
This really is a terrifying question, because admiration is very different to liking. There are plenty of authors whose books I love, but do I admire them… I don’t know. Admiration implies a moral dimension, doesn’t it?
There is a writer I love and admire, though, and that’s Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead and Home. Until I read Home, I thought Middlemarch was the best novel I had ever read, but I think Home might just edge it out. Robinson’s prose is a thing of miracle – honed, poised, often turning on the ineffably perfect placement of a semi-colon. No word is wasted. And, at the same time, Home is the most extraordinarily good book in the moral sense. On the surface it’s a family drama, rather quiet, without any startling events. But as the book goes on, it reveals itself to be about, among other things, segregation in America in the mid-twentieth century, and the failure of Christianity to face up to what was, essentially, an egregious offence to the very principles on which Christianity was founded. It also reminds you, powerfully, of just how recently the civil rights movement occurred – by giving you this very small human window into what it must have been like to be condemned to the life of a second-class citizen because of the colour of your skin.
It’s quite an angry book, in a very restrained and quiet way. It’s also overwhelmingly sad. But I would urge every person in the world to read it.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I don’t know that I have goals, in particular. To write good books, I guess. And maybe to move people, and, if at all possible, to get them to think about and empathise with people in very different situations. To reveal the common humanity, the common story. I hope it doesn’t sound too naïve or evangelical to say that we still live in a world in which half the population live in conditions of horrific deprivation and violence, and that seems unacceptable. In that context I can’t see the point of writing about a love triangle in London. (I apologise for this excess of sincerity.)
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
My advice to aspiring writers is to ignore all advice to aspiring writers, including my reply to this question. I would also like to preface this reply with the caveat that, by answering, I’m not suggesting that I know what writers should do. I don’t. I’m answering this more as a reader and editor than a writer, because to answer as a writer would suggest that I think I’ve reached a point where I’m pleased with my writing. And I’m not – I think I still have a long way to go.
But anyway… what aspiring writers should especially ignore is any kind of injunction to write what they know. You don’t have to write what you know – that is, you don’t have to write about your place and time. What you do have to do is to put some of your own emotion into what you write. I think a book is like a Frankenstein’s monster – you build it out of fragments of inspiration and ideas. But then you animate it with your own feelings. You can write about a place you’ve never been to, as long as you put some of your own, real, human emotion into the story. That’s what makes the story feel real.
Personally, I’ve also found that the advice to write every day, or its subtle variant, to have a notebook at hand at all times, is nonsense. I tried this, and what I ended up doing was working hard to incorporate the clever lines I had jotted down in my notebook, which ends up feeling like rather an artificial exercise; better, I think, to remain in the flow of the story as you’re writing. If you happen to come up with clever lines as you go, then all the better, but if you’re shoehorning them in from a notebook, then you’re interrupting the movement, I think.
I also don’t believe this notion that you have to write a thousand words a day, or what have you. There are plenty of very good writers (like Marilynne Robinson) who have barely written at all (three books in 20 years), and, vice versa, there are plenty of very prolific, very bad writers. To go back to that Frankenstein analogy, I subscribe to the Pixar view of stories, as articulated by John Lasseter: If the story doesn’t have a heart, it doesn’t work. That’s the all-important thing. You can write a thousand words a day if you want, but as far as I’m concerned you’d be better off thinking about the story, and how it’s going to operate on an emotional level. It has to make the reader feel something.
Oh, and some advice from my side-career as an editor: spend a lot of time on your title – maybe just as much time as you spend writing the book. Titles are very, very important. And then the usual Hemingway stuff: Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use any other replacement for the word ‘said’ (‘replied’ and ‘shouted’ are allowed, at a pinch.) The point of the word ‘said’ is that the reader doesn’t see it. Don’t use the word ‘suddenly’. Never, ever write a dream scene – they distract from the story, and are usually a cheat for giving the reader information they haven’t earned.
But, as I said, this advice is probably wrong for you anyway – it’s just the advice I wish someone had given me, instead of all that stuff about writing in notebooks. Please, therefore, ignore everything I have just said. (Apart from the dream scene thing.)
Nick, thank you very much 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.