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 Wangaratta, though I don’t remember it well because we left when I was five. We did go back a few years running to stay in a place called El Dorado, outside Wangaratta. I don’t actually know how or why we went there, but I remember that we loved it. There was a creek running over a road near the tumbledown house we stayed in, and not far away a dredge and a lake that you could swim in, though it was said to be bottomless and when you swam there would be currents of freezing cold water that would hit you like a punch to the heart, from time to time. I went to school in Strathmore at the primary and I remember how much I loved it. I am not sure why but I know I was happy there, other than one sports day when I remember swallowing a fly and stopping in the middle of the race to choke and cough it out!
Then there was an accident- I am not sure of the order of events- but my father lost an eye and was terribly scarred on the forehead. When I say lost an eye it was still there, but it was like a cloud had got into it- this white cloud that he could never see through. And there was some sort of court case and the upshot was that we moved to our own house in Geelong, and I shifted to a primary there, which I soon came to loath. The only good thing I can remember about it was that there was a teacher with really long straight hair and a guitar who taught English, which I loved, and who let me and some other kids who also didn’t have televisions in their houses, come to watch the moon shot. I saw Armstrong walk on the moon in her lounge – I have always been grateful to her for that kindness.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At 12 I wanted to be a scientist. I had a chemistry set and a Bunsen burner and little phials of this and that and I loved all the thrilling alchemy and the amazing things I could do with them. I was fascinated too, by the insect world, and I spent a lot of time with a magnifying glass and a bug catcher, examining them. Mind you I always ended up imagining adventures and lives and situations that clearly were reflecting my human self. Then at some point I realised you needed math and I had to stop because I just did not have that theoretical grasp of math you need to go higher.
At 18, I wanted to be an actress and I studied it at Uni, but I was also writing then and somehow I could always go deeper as a writer. There were things I would not do as an actor- they embarrassed or annoyed or seemed silly to me, but there was simply nothing I would not do and nowhere I would not go, as a writer. I might have written plays- I did write plays- but that required a lot of interaction and collaboration and I realised by then that I was a solitary sort of person.
By thirty, I was published and startled to find that I was actually able to make a living at writing my own stories, and I had already been short listed or won a few awards for it, though in those days, I would also have to do occasional bouts of journalism, which had been my first ( and much loved) job.
3.What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At 18, I thought that if I chose writing, then I had to give up everything else, because I was sure that all writers starved in a garret. I formally accepted to myself that I would never own a house or have a car that was not a total bomb, or that I would have a credit card or travel anywhere. I gave up, without a second thought, the idea of a partner and children, because aside from thinking those things might be expensive, they would certainly get in the way of writing. I gave up any thought of travel overseas, because it would be beyond my reach financially and what need had I of it, when I could travel to other dimensions and other worlds and other times, as a writer?
In the end, I had several bombs and then a broken down sportscar with a soft top that I adored, and even a couple of decent conservative cars, though right now living overseas I don’t have a car and am very happy with trams and metro. In fact I think that unless someone invents a non polluting car, I think the world would be way better off without them. I do have a house, in Apollo Bay and an apartment in Prague, and I do have a partner and a daughter and it is true all of those things cost a lot and steal time, one way or another, from writing, but what I did not know at 18 was how much material they would give me, how they would enrich me even as they frustrated, maddened and demanded time of me.
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?
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I wrote a long story and that was what was published as Obernewtyn. But I have also always written short stories. The first thing I ever had published, the first competition I ever won, was for The Monster Game, which was a short story drawing on my childhood, which I set in the depression. The next book I will have published is a collection of long stories that might well be called novella. In the end all of these names- novel, novella, novelette, short story, are labels we impose. They are useful and I don’t mind them, but I did not choose to be a novelist. I chose to write stories and some are longer than others. I think it would be madness for a writer to decide to write a novel or a short story. We might have an idea that something is likely to be one or the other, but in the end, the story must dictate the form, not the other way round.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
My most recent book is Metro Winds, which is a collection of 6 short stories. They were written over more than a decade. I first signed the contract with Allen and Unwin in 2000, which just goes to show how incredibly patient they have been. To start with I wanted to write a set of four stories about the four archetypal ages of women- Child, Princess, Queen, Crone. I did three of the stories, but Crone would not come- maybe because I am not quite there yet and ultimately I needed something- some ingredient I did not have. Also I had started feeling that I wanted to write about men as well, but not as men. Just as human beings. What I saw in the first stories was not a link of woman- ness, ultimately, but a link of transformation and journey.
I had written one of the other stories in this collection, for an American collection whose editor I like very much, and I thought it would fit will, and I had written another of the stories, The Dove Game, as a gift for my brother. I sent it to him postcard by postcard as I traveled, keeping no copy and he had them all laminated and gave them back to me to copy out, a year or so later.
And that story seemed a perfect fit for the collection as well. So three stories of the six have men as main characters, all undertaking journeys of transformation of one kind or another, and again at different ages. There is no male ‘child’ but there is a male ‘crone’.
As with so many of the projects I have undertaken in my life, the journey is always further and stranger than I imagined, and I always end up somewhere a little else than I had planned. I think this collection contains some of the best writing I have ever done and I am very happy to have it out in the world!
I hope they have found it satisfying. I hope they felt a little of the fire I felt when I wrote it.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire Ursula Le Guin for her spare, beautiful prose style and discipline as a writer, for her mind and her intelligence and integrity. I admire her for writing in a genre that is often despised or looked down on. I admire the brilliance and cleverness of her wit in her essays. I admire China Mieville for the same things, and for his incredible, breathtaking world building. I admire (and sometimes dislike) Peter Handke for his uncompromising ideals about his own writing.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To go on writing, and to try to write better.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
To write for themselves before they ever think about editors or publishers or reviewers or audience. The first person who has to care about what you write is you. How can you possibly affect or reach anyone else, if you are not affected? Never write to preach or teach or change the world. Try to use your writing to understand the world and your place in it. Try to incorporate the questions that animate your life in the things you write, that way even if you never get published, it will nourish and sustain you and help you grow. Do not write unless you are passionately in love with writing. Write all the time.
Isobelle, 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.