author of Absolution,
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 California but grew up in Nebraska, where I attended state schools. I went to Georgetown University for one year before transferring to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I studied film. After working for a few years on the development side of the film industry, I moved to Britain, earning a doctorate in Twentieth-Century English Literature at Oxford.
At twelve I wanted to be an astronaut, preferably on a mission to Mars. By eighteen I was going to be a diplomat, stationed all over the world. At thirty, I was finishing my doctorate and believed I was working towards a career in academia.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I still believed in the inevitability of human progress. This was based both in a fervent early optimism, and my schooling: we were trained to believe in progress as an innately human quality, but also, paradoxically, made to think of it as a uniquely American destiny. For many years now, all I have been able to do is hope for the possibility of human progress, having no faith in its inevitability.
Passage to India by E.M. Forster. I read this as an adolescent, and was awed by its formal balance and elegance. However problematic it may now seem in its depiction of India, it remains a work of great power and fundamental strangeness, with profound ambiguities at its heart.
The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. As with Forster’s novel, I first read this in my teens, in an edition with no textual apparatus or notes apart from the cryptic ones provided by Eliot himself. While it would be years before I understood the poem in any serious way (or thought I did), that first reading, late on a Friday night, in bed, falling through its hallucinatory multivocality and stark vision of modernity, was like discovering an incantation of aesthetic and formal possibility.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I came to Faulkner quite belatedly, although this and several other of his most important novels were on my parents’ shelves as I was growing up. I remember opening this book when I was still in primary school, reading a page, and thinking that one must need some kind of key or map to understand what it was all about. When I was finally ready for Faulkner, with my own key and map, giving me access to his unblinking vision of an American family in its decline, I was instantly converted by his audacity of style.
Over the years I tried quite a few of the others: acting, music, painting, filmmaking, screenwriting, plays, poetry, but in each case I failed badly—either quickly or over the course of several years. I think the first ‘novel’ I started writing was around the age of 10, about two brothers stranded with their grandparents and a cleaning woman in a snowbound house. I had no idea how to write fiction and it burned out after a few pages, although the impulse was there. Throughout my school years I wrote poetry and short stories (the fiction mostly inspired by Hemingway, the poetry by D.H. Lawrence), and after university started writing fiction in earnest. I spent more than a decade failing at that, too, writing pieces that no one wanted to publish and that not even I liked, until I finally hit upon the voices and themes that grew into Absolution. During those years in the novelistic wilderness, I kept thinking of Beckett’s line: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ The form of the novel, the potential for it to encompass and incorporate so many other forms and genres, to have so few constraints on what it can be, made it the most attractive and mysterious ‘artistic avenue’ I could travel. I was determined to fail better as I went on exploring it. I still am. But more to the point, I ended up writing rather than pursuing any other art form because it always felt the most urgent, the most dangerous.
In Absolution, Sam Leroux, a South African expatriate long resident in New York, returns to Cape Town to begin work on an authorized biography of a celebrated novelist, Clare Wald.
As the two of them begin the process of digging over Clare’s past, it becomes unclear just how forthcoming she is willing to be—as well as how complicit she might have been in crimes against her family buried in South Africa’s apartheid past.
Sam’s arrival occasions Clare’s own process of trying to reconstruct the final days in the life of her daughter, Laura, who has been missing, presumed dead, for twenty years.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I would not want to dictate how readers should interpret the book, but I hope they finish it with a strong sense of place, of voice, and of having read a compelling story that, although set in South Africa, could have happened in a great many countries.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I could name any number of giants from the various canons of world literature. Equally, however, I admire those writers working and surviving under systems of government or social oppression—the dissidents, known or unknown by the rest of the world, for whom every word is laden with risk.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I hope each book I write will be at least as good as or better than the previous one.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read widely—not only the literature of your own country, but also the great works of world literature. Train yourself to participate in the ongoing global dialogue that writing can be.
Patrick, 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.