Six Sharp Questions
1. Congratulations, you’ve a new book, Bitter Greens – what is it about and what does this book mean to you?
My new book Bitter Greens is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force. I’ve been fascinated by the Rapunzel tale ever since I was a child – perhaps because I spent much of my childhood in and out of hospital and so I felt a close affinity with the girl who was locked away from the world, just like I was. I had a damaged tear duct which meant I could not control my tears, while Rapunzel’s tears healed the blindness of the prince – this may be why the story has always had such resonance for me.
I’ve been thinking about writing a retelling of the tale for a long time, but I wanted to do it as a historical novel, not as a fantasy – I wanted to write the story as if it had really happened, in a real place and time, and with real people. My cast of characters in the 17th century sections of the novel include the French playwright Molière; the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his many mistresses; the French fairytale writer Perrault; plus many other fascinating people who lived and loved in the dazzling royal courts of Paris and Versailles.
The other sections of the novel are set in Renaissance Venice, and feature the painter Titian plus an imagining of the woman who was his muse.
2. Time passes. Things change. What would be the best and worst moments you’ve experienced in the past year or so?
The best thing that happened in the past year was definitely the research trip for Bitter Greens – I took my three children (aged 7,10 & 13) on a trip to Paris, Versailles, Bordeaux, Venice and the Italian lakes. We rode bikes around the palace gardens in Versailles, swam in a Roman spa in Sirmione, went on a ghost tour in Venice, and visited the medieval castle where Charlotte-Rose de la Force was born in Gascony. We ate snails in a Paris bistro, duck cassoulet in Carcassone, and black ink pasta in Venice, and decided the best gelati in the world was definitely to be found in Florence. Not only did this trip help me to bring the world of my novel vividly to life, but it created the most amazing memories for me and my family.
The worst moment of the year was without a doubt hearing that my 10 year old son had been hit by a car. I was on my way out to talk to six hundred school children at an event near Liverpool during Book Week when a complete stranger rang my mobile phone. He told me that my son had been hit by a car, that he had called the ambulance and the police, that Tim was alive but that there was a lot of blood … luckily for me I had pulled over to take the call else I may well have had a car accident myself! I was on the M5 in bumper-to-bumper peak hour traffic with no way to turn around … all I could do was keep on driving till I came to an exit. By that time, the ambulance had arrived and I had talked to them, and knew that Tim was not badly hurt, but it was a very bad half hour.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
4. Writers have often been described as being difficult to live with. Do you conform to the stereotype or defy it? Please tell us a little about the day to day of your writing life…
I don’t think I’m difficult to live with! My husband may not agree, however …
The main problem with living with a writer is that so much of our lives take place in the imagination. My body may well be here in sunny Sydney, but my spirit is somewhere else entirely. I may be running through a snowy forest, wolves howling behind me. Or I may be dancing in the arms of a handsome stranger at a masked ball in a Venetian palazzo. Or I may be fighting for my life in a stinking dark alley. It’s hard to survive a knife attack by hooded assassins one minute, and then the next moment have to concern myself with finding my son’s football socks, helping my daughter with her spelling, and deciding what I can cook for dinner out of a larder that has sadly not been replenished in a while.
I try my best to make sure that when I am writing, all my focus and concentration is on my work, and when I am with my family, all my attention is on them, but this is not always easy. My family are very understanding, however, and they do get some benefits from having a mother who’s a writer. Trips to Venice, for example. Lots of free books (My son was the first kid in his school to read the seventh Harry Potter book, because it was sent to me to review). A mother who knows the difference between pathos and bathos, and who can explain a pathetic fallacy. A mother who’s really good at making up imaginary games, and can always be relied on to find a rhyme when it’s needed. Plus they get to meet lots of famous writers. What’s not to love about that?
5. Some writers claim not to be influenced by the needs of the marketplace, while others seem obsessed by it, would you please describe how the marketplace effects your writing…
The marketplace never affects my writing, because I don’t always have much choice in what story I’m going to tell. An idea comes to me, it lodges in my imagination, it worries at me and nags me, I think about it all the time, I begin to daydream about it all the time, and it even begins to creep into my dreams. I play with, thinking about how I could build a story out of it, characters begin to walk and talk and fight and make love, and I make strange serendipitous discoveries that seem to show that I was fated to write this story. I have crises of confidence, I worry that no-one else could possibly be interested in this story that has begun to obsess me, indeed to possess me … but I comfort myself by thinking of all the kindred spirits out there in the world that will surely love this story as much as I do.
I keep an eye on the marketplace, it’s true, but in a hopeful kind of way. Historical novels are hot right now, I tell my husband. Fairytales are all the buzz. That’s good, darling, he answers, knowing as well as I do that by the time I research, write and publish a novel, any trend happening now in books may well be over. It took me seven years to write Bitter Greens!
I am of course hopeful than people will buy my book, and will love it, and will tell all their friends, and that I will have an international bestseller on my hands, and will end up on the cover of Time. I feel that this is something beyond my control, however. All I can do is write the best book I can.
6. Unlikely Scenario: You’ve been charged with civilising twenty ill-educated adolescents but you may take only five books with you. What do you take and why?
Not at all an unlikely scenario, considering I have three uncivilised ill-educated children of my own, plus numerous equally wild nephews and nieces. I buy them books all the time! But choosing only five …
The books I would choose are The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien, and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
Plus a really good anthology of poetry, a really good set of encylopedias, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. But that’s more than five, isn’t it?
Kate, thanks 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.