author of Life! Death! Prizes!
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 Norwich, raised in Bedford on an estate of ugly new houses where all the streets were named after wading birds. I rather liked my ugly new house. Wasn’t so keen on my ugly new school.
At 12 I mostly I wanted to be left alone to daydream and read books. At 18 I wanted to be left alone to read daydream, read books, listen to music, drink and hang out with the smartest girls. Actually nothing really changed after that…
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I didn’t rate Bob Dylan. I thought Echo and the Bunnymen would be the biggest band on the planet. I thought I would always be sharp cheek-boned and thin no matter what I ate or drank. I thought sport was for losers.
I’d like to think my narrative style makes me the love child of Robert Louis Stevenson and Franz Kafka, both of whom I love. And all I know about observing the political dramas of the every day life of ordinary people comes from records by The Jam and The Clash. The quirky eyes, impeccable ears and storytelling instincts of the Coen Brothers are pretty inspirational.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I’ve written plays and hope to do more. I’d like to write films too. But actually the artistic avenues open to me weren’t all that innumerable. All you need to write a novel is a pen and an exercise book. All other art forms cost the artist money and/or mean you have to collaborate with others. And this was a novel sized story, by which I think it needs time to breathe, time for the reader to work with it.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel, Life! Death! Prizes!
A single mother is killed in a bungled street robbery. Her oldest boy – Billy Smith, 19 – tries to become mother, father and everything else to his six year brother. It is kind of a comedy, but not just that…
I ask Oscar how I could be a better guardian and he does his special concentrating face. ‘Well,’ the little philosopher says at last. ‘You should send me to bed earlier. I shouldn’t eat so many chips and you shouldn’t let me watch so many 12 and 15 DVDs. And you should get a cleaner in.’ Jesus. Why does everyone reckon they’re the boss of me? I say, ‘Perhaps you should take some responsibility for yourself big man.’He fixes me with a stern look. ‘Billy, I’m six.’
Billy’s Mum is dead. He knows – because he reads about it in magazines – that people die every day in ways that are more random and tragic and stupid than hers, but for nineteen-year-old Billy and his little brother, Oscar, their mother’s death in a bungled street robbery is the most random and tragic and stupid thing that could possibly have happened to them.
Now Billy must be both mother and father to Oscar, and despite what his well-meaning aunt, the PTA mothers, the social services and Oscar’s own prodigal father all think, he knows he is more than up to the job, thank you very much.
The boys’ new world, where bedtimes are arbitrary, tidiness is optional and healthy home-cooked meals pile up uneaten in the freezer, is built out of chaos and fierce love, but it’s also a world that teeters perilously on its axis. And as Billy’s obsession with his mother’s missing killer grows, he risks losing sight of the one thing that really matters…
Funny, bittersweet and unforgettable, Life! Death! Prizes! is a story of grief, resilience and brotherly love.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they close the book with a smile and keep thinking about the characters days and weeks later. I hope they keep thinking of possible future lives for them all… I hope they sketch out sequels in their heads
Too many to list but I’m specially admiring of those artists who keep tearing up their own personal rulebook – who aren’t afraid to change. Damon Albarn is a great example. His work is always distinctively his own but he switches styles with a genuinely reckless abandon.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My ambitions are modest. That I’m allowed to put out a new novel every year or two, and that novel have the chance of reaching a wide readership. That every now and again someone asks me to write a play or a film or a TV programme. Anything except a poem.
I don’t really give advice. But if I did it would simply be the usual: The Don’t give up. Don’t try and second guess the market. And remember there is no secret code, no golden key, no magic words. And if your book doesn’t come out – well, hey, it’s only a book…
Stephen, 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.