The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Poet’s Cottage
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Born in Tasmania. Raised in Lae, Papua New Guinea, then back to Tasmania for my high school years in Oatlands, a beautiful historic village in the midlands. There’s a population of about 500 people so it was a very small community.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Twelve – a writer. I not only wanted to be a writer but I wanted to also be a character in a book (Ben Mears from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot). Slightly odd as we’re not the same sex – but I wanted to wear a leather jacket, write books and stake vampires. And he came from a small town like myself. When everyone else was off making mayhem in school holidays I was at home typing stories on the old manual typewriter. My teachers said they should call the yearbook the Josephine Pennicott Annual because I contributed so much to it. My English teacher even sent a story of mine to a woman’s magazine. All my fantasies involved being a writer. I was in love not only with King’s Mears, but also Allison MacKenzie, the writer character in Peyton Place (a book about another writer in a small town). All these years later with Poet’s Cottage, I wrote a book about a small town…
Eighteen – A Nurse. I didn’t believe it was possible for somebody with my educational and working class background (I left school at sixteen) could be a writer. I had been to several writing courses and they all seemed to consist of very rarefied, gentrified folk who wore tweed jackets with leather patches and I didn’t fit into that world. I remember my English teacher’s reaction when I ran into him in the street and told him I was nursing: ‘I thought you would have done something with your writing,’ he said with a disappointed tone.
Thirty – Art School at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. I was studying painting as my major but I had no idea of what I wanted to be. I was getting over a decade of nursing and was very burnt out from the wards. All I knew was that I was burning to do something creative.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That it wasn’t possible for somebody from my background to become a writer. I now know that you can come at writing from different apprenticeships and avenues. My academic qualifications ended up being a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Sydney. I didn’t do a Masters in Creative Writing, which seems to be the normal route, but I did attain a lot of life experience over the years in a wide variety of jobs.
Remedios Varo’s Creation of the Birds, which is enigmatic and has always represented the soul and creativity to me. I love all Varo’s paintings. They are strange and beautiful dreams inside miniature canvases. Like myself, Varo was drawn to the magical and mystical. I’m slightly obsessed by both her and Leonora Carrington.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, the book and the movie. For the eeriness and unsettling portrayal of the Australian landscape. I was simultaneously terrified and entranced by that film as a child. Victorian beauty’s juxtaposed against spectacular scenery. I never tire of Joan Lindsay’s haunting mystery and take my hat off to her.
Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy. A most sinister and gripping book. I often found Agatha’s books to be much darker than they are normally thought of. The line from Murder is Easy, ‘Oh why do you walk through the field in gloves?’ still gives me the horrors.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
In my final year of art school I had a car accident and almost severed the radial nerve in my right arm. I lost the use of my arm for over a year as I had several operations and a pin and plate inserted. I wasn’t capable of doing the physical work involved with painting. I had to release all the images I was playing with over the several years I was at the College of Fine Arts in Paddington and that’s when I began painting with words – which became my first trilogy, The Circle of Nine series.
Poet’s Cottage is a murder mystery set in an imaginary sea-fishing village of Pencubitt in Tasmania. On a foggy day in July, 1936, a little girl, Thomasina, witnesses the violent murder of her mother in the cellar of Poet’s Cottage. Supposedly, she says by the Tasmanian devil Mummy kept in the cellar to keep us quiet when she’s trying to write. But was the beautiful, flamboyant children’s writer; Pearl Tatlow, murdered by a Tasmanian devil – or did something more sinister cross the threshold of Poet’s Cottage?
In the present day thread of the book, Pearl’s granddaughter, Sadie, inherits Poet’s Cottage and with her daughter, Betty tries to uncover the mystery behind what really happened to her grandmother on that foggy day. And who Pearl Tatlow really was. Not an easy task as there were plenty of people in Pencubitt with reason to discredit Pearl; including her own biographer and friend, Birdie Pinkerton, who wrote Webweaver, Pearl’s biography .
Poet’s Cottage is a mystery with a dark edge and should appeal to fans of Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie or Australian Women’s Fiction. It was inspired by a house I fell in love with on a Tasmanian holiday with my family combined with the real-life scenario of Enid Blyton’s two daughters giving different accounts of their mother, Midsomer Murders and the cosy English-style, domestic mystery.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope their initial reaction is, ‘No way! I could never have picked that!’ Which is what all mystery writers hope to achieve. Followed by a sense of desolation because they enjoyed the characters so much and don’t want to let go of them. I would also hope to make them view something normal in a slightly different way. Or make them consider the ripple effects of murder. And if I get told that they couldn’t sleep because it was too creepy in a certain place – or kept them up all night reading – I’ve achieved my aim as a writer.
My Holy Trinity of writers are all British and all women. Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier. They knew how to spin a story that kept you bolted to the book turning pages. All were dazzlingly inventive in their different fields. They were also very prolific and fascinating women personally.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To be sold internationally. Poet’s Cottage was sold in a bidding war in Germany and I’d like to see it go onto other countries. I’d also love to see Poet’s Cottage be picked up for a movie and it to be filmed in Stanley as I think the North-West town where it was partly based, would lend itself beautifully to cinema. Johnny Depp is welcome to audition for me to play anything or everything really.
To continue to write in my garden writing shed and with each book improve – and like the great Beatrice Wood, ‘Mama of Dada’ die at 105, still creating until the end. To use my tale peddling gifts to be of service to this amazing universe in some shape or form.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
To read a lot and across genres.
Write a lot – every day if possible even if it’s only for a short period of time.
Believe in yourself – even when the rest of the world doesn’t. Stay open to the thought that there is perfect timing in your writing career even when it doesn’t feel like it. Don’t compare your career to others – stay true to your own rhythm.
Don’t over-analyse first drafts. You have to turn off the analytical brain to enable the creative brain to come through.
Support the industry you want to be a part of. Buy books. Buy authors you may not have heard of.
Always treat the people who are above and below you in the world of publishing equally – they can change places quickly.
Build a garden writing shed or create a space where there’s no computer access to write.
Pleasure the Muses by devouring works of visual art, poetry. Record your dreams and think outside the box.
Believe in a luck but use whatever spiritual means it takes to get you there. I’m a big believer in the power of visualisation and affirmations.
If one book doesn’t get picked up; dry your eyes, get off the floor and put on your big girl (or boy) pants and start again. Start again straight away. Fortune rewards the fearless. You’re allowed to keep the handkerchief by the computer as you write (I did) but just start again.
Never give in. Never give in. Never give in. And if possible, have a day job that isn’t too demanding on your energies so you can make time to write before and after work.
Josephine, 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, was published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.