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 city of Melbourne and I’m one of the ubiquitous Baby Boomers. We lived in Clifton Hill in an old terrace house that I couldn’t afford to buy today. From the age of five, I walked to St John’s school with a child only one year older – no helicopter parents then. Walking home along Queen’s Parade, we’d call in at our favourite shops: we played with the puppies at the pet shop; scrounged wilted flowers from the florist; bought our English comics at the newsagent and prowled around the second-hand shop, believing we’d find some hidden treasure. The owner of that shop watched us like a spider from his high counter, but we weren’t there to steal, just to discover.
Later we moved to Watsonia to a house with a huge backyard and I caught a train to Catholic Ladies’ College in East Melbourne where we had another magic walk from Jolimont station through the Fitzroy gardens. When we lived in Clifton Hill, my father joined us in two libraries because you could only borrow two books at a time. We’d also trawled the many second-hand bookshops in the city – another treasure hunt. My cousin and I, though strictly forbidden, sometimes climbed through the fence of the Collingwood tip, but no treasures there. The joy, as it often is, was in the anticipation and the hunt.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I wanted to be either a pilot or an archaeologist. (There’s that treasure hunt thing again). I had read some of my father’s books about the Second World War and hero-worshipped the Spitfire pilots. The choice between the two careers was a difficult one, but as dad pointed out, there was no reason why I couldn’t be both. Then my cousin told me that archaeologists dig up dead bodies, news that turned me off that option.
Sadly, by the time I was eighteen, I had no idea what I wanted to do and drifted into teaching so I could continue to study without being a financial burden on my parents.
At thirty, I had two small children and don’t know that I had the time for career planning, but somewhere along the line I considered politics or being an ABC radio presenter. (Dreams only – I enjoyed my career in TAFE and have no regrets that I didn’t beat Julia Gillard to the post of first female Prime Minister).
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I am not being flippant when I say I believed I would never be old (defined then at about forty) and my body would never let me down. I was very fit and ran everywhere, with feet that barely touched the ground. I had an excellent memory, an inquiring mind and was happy to die at thirty. As for beliefs, political and philosophical, whatever they were, I believed them utterly. I was a black and white person then. You gain subtlety with the years.
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?
As a school student, I always found Australian history boring, preferring to learn about revolutions or ancient civilisations. The most boring of all were explorers with their tedious horses and deserts and maps. Then, in my late teens, I read Patrick White’s Voss. This had a profound effect on my understanding of the transformative power of the imagination. It changed the way I at looked the ordinary.
Marc Chagall’s ‘Three Candles’ is a wonderful melding of the corporeal, the spiritual and the imaginative. The bride and groom float in space, in a realm that is both spiritual and physical. Marriage is the spiritual blessing of a physical union and the bridal couple, while floating above the earth are tethered by their bodies and their home in the very real village below their floating figures. Other, shadowy figures inhabit the painting: some very much of the world, for example a woman waving at her gate; others are winged, angels, perhaps, inhabiting the middle-air. Two candles burn with a yellow flame, one with green. The charming whimsicality of the scene, its strangeness and its reality, confirms my sense that there is a spiritual dimension to life that can be both surprising and unknowable.
Through poetry I learnt that words, no matter how humble, affect meaning. Emily Dickinson, in one of her lesser poems, wrote about a snake and in a tutorial I attended, a student read the last line as ‘Zero on the bone.’ The line is actually ‘Zero at the bone’ – the contextually unexpected preposition ‘at’ giving the line a force no other applicable preposition could have done. I have never forgotten that seemingly small mistake that gave me a new respect for words.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
If I’m brutally honest, I’ll admit that writing is the only one of the arts in which I had any hope of success. Painting and sculpture are particular passions of mine, but only as a spectator. The reason I chose novel as my main medium is that I have always loved stories and spent much of my childhood reading or making up stories. Even the treasure hunts were enactments of possible stories. They had nothing to do with wanting to be rich. When, after a long apprenticeship of reading, I realised that I knew how to tell a story, it was one of life’s ‘wow’ moments.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Memory Tree is the story of a family deeply affected by the mother’s death and the father’s struggle with mental illness. It explores family and friendship and the extent to which love imposes burdens of loyalty and duty.
(BBGuru: the publisher’s blurb –
When Paulina dies mid-dance, leaving 12-year-old Zav and 7-year-old Sealie with Hal, their loving yet often unstable father, the family decides to plant a tree in her memory. This beautiful magnolia tree grows apace with the children, standing proud in the garden, a special place where secrets are whispered and feelings can be confessed.
As the memory tree grows, Hal, in pure grief for Paulina, feels increasingly suspicious of the world, and turns to his own brand of salvation to make sense of the voices he hears. Mrs Mac, the housekeeper and second mother since Paulina’s death, cooks, cleans, loves and worries about ‘her family’. She is even more concerned when Hal brings a stranger, Godown Moses, to the house for a beer. But Pastor Moses B. Washbourne of the Church of the Divine Conflagration, ex-sergeant of the US Army, soon becomes part of the family, with surprising and long-reaching consequences.
As the seasons pass, Sealie blossoms into a lovely young woman, the apple of Hal’s eye; Zav, having spent his childhood quietly trying to win his father’s lost attention, marries young and has a daughter, born while he is on his first tour of duty in Vietnam. And the voices continue to murmur poisonous words to Hal who knows to keep them hidden . . . until he is persuaded into the most tragic of acts.
Written with humour, compassion and poignancy, The Memory Tree is an unputdownable story of love, grief and forgiveness.)
As a lover of stories, I hope that readers can immerse themselves in the world I have created and come to care about the characters. It would be presumptuous to expect any more than that. In a general sense, however, fiction should be valued because at its best, it allows us to know a little about what it is to be someone other than ourselves.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire many writers for different reasons – the imaginative power and richness of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the austere prose of Cormac McCarthy; the timeless elegance of Jane Austen. The list could go on and on. Nevertheless, my greatest admiration is for poets who create images that show us the world with new eyes and who use words with such amazing precision.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To continue to write and make each book a little better than the last.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write .Write. Believe in your created world and engage with your characters. If they are not real to you, they won’t be real to your readers. Read your work aloud before sending it off. It’s a great editing tool.
Read and write some more and remember you are never too old to try.
Tess, 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.