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 Brisbane to a Queensland father and a 22 year old mother homesick for Sydney. When my father was transferred back to the Sydney Telegraph (he was a journalist then) my mother was packed in 5 seconds flat. I think where you spend your childhood marks you, so I still regard Sydney as ‘home’. I grew up on the north shore, and went to St Ives High School but when I was 15 my father – by then in the corporate world; he worked for 3M at Pymble – had a mid-life crisis and we moved to a pineapple farm near Nambour. I went to Nambour State High School and was in the same year as Kevin Rudd; then my parents bought a bigger pineapple farm closer to Brisbane, outside Caboolture, and I travelled an hour by train into Brisbane every day to complete my last two years at Clayfield College. I would not have matriculated if I’d stayed at St Ives, which were the years of Puberty Blues, surf culture, anti-materialism, anti war etc.
Twelve, an air hostess so I could lead a glamorous life jetting around the world wearing a neat uniform. At eighteen, a writer and at thirty, a writer. At some indefinable point I began to think that I wanted to be a witness to history in some way – I had my great grandmother until I was 24 and she spoke about HER grandmother and I was always, always fascinated by time, history, by the lived stories of everyone around me. I recorded my great grandmother in a slice of amateur history when I was about 19. I was always a HUGE reader too; books had always moved me, deeply, and I wanted to write books that might move people too.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I was invincible. Eighteen year olds never believe they are going to die.
I would have to say that Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms was an important book for me. It made me alive to the power of the withheld and the power of language. David Copperfield was a revelation when I was a very young teen and set me on a lifelong Dickens path. Jane Eyre and Little Women made me want to write. Later, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook made me feel that the life of a woman was a valid subject for literature. I was 30 when I discovered the art of Mary Cassatt and Gwen John and their absolute commitment and devotion to their work – as well as the beauty and brilliance of their work – made me want to devote my life to art too.
Because writing novels are the way that I understand and process existence. One of my ex-boyfriends, with whom I am still close, used to make this joke: “What’s the point of having a life if you can’t write about it?” We used to laugh about that but there is a germ of truth in that for me – I cannot really understand anyone who lives without trying to unpick the meaning of existence, even though – obviously – writing another puny little novel and putting it out into the world is hardly solving the meaning of life. But it’s a glimpse out of the corner of one eye towards the mystery at the heart of us.
My Hundred Lovers is the story of a woman’s life told through her bodily memories. I was trying to push the boundaries of what we mean when we talk about sex and love: for many women, sex and the erotic can live anywhere and everywhere in the body, it is not necessarily to do with the genitals. I wanted to write about the loves of one human body and tell one single human body’s tales – a whole life summed up through bodily experience. Even though it’s quite a physical novel, it’s also a cerebral one. Where does the self live? What about the mind/body split? I had quite philosophical aims for it – I wanted to model it like a little French book. (Read an extract)
That they be moved, most of all. I want to capture some small movement of life, some human truth, that a reader can recognise and go “Ah!” I think we read to have our experience of life confirmed in some way, to have all the secret things that pass across our hearts and minds clarified and revealed — for a passing moment, and no matter how fleetingly. I want some truth about life when I read a book, and that is the experience I want to give my readers too.
I admire enormously Marilyn Robinson and Hilary Mantel and Ann Patchett for their sheer commitment to their craft in the face of many obstacles. I adore Robinson’s writing in particular. I admire most that quality of endurance and I salute all those full-time writers out there who are doing it tough, living on the smell of an oily rag. I am a HUGE fan of Helen Garner and her work – she is my favourite Australian writer. No one asks writers to choose the writing life, of course, and yet it is a million times harder than anyone realises. Unless you are J. K. Rowling most of the world regards writing as a waste of time – in that what you put into it does not relate to what you get out of it. But if you are a true writer you will keep writing no matter how mad the world believes you to be.
Before I die I want to write one book that is as perfect as I can get it – for me, I mean. I’m the only one who will be able to judge that, of course, but I still want to try. I am 55 and I have finally realised that I am actually the best judge of my work – in that only I know how close or how far I got to my original aims.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Look, you have to have courage or luck in this game. Some writers strike lucky right off (Tim Winton springs to mind – he won the Vogel and hasn’t looked back) but most writers won’t have Winton’s luck. What’s difficult is fighting the thought that if you DON’T have luck, then that means it must be because you aren’t any good. But in fact history is littered with writers who have been passed over for prizes, awards, best-sellerdom etc, dying in obscurity, only to have their work resurrected later (Richard Yates anyone?). But — equally as important — a lot of writers really ARE bad and that’s the reason they don’t get anywhere!! So – and this is REALLY important but also really difficult – first learn to have a critical eye – read as much as you can and try to judge your own work against the work of others. What is being published? What is its quality? How much better or worse is it than your work? Can you edit? Can you even TELL the difference? You need to be your own worst critic – take your work apart and look at its flaws, and then work on them. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Just keep writing and writing as hard as you can and learn to be your own best editor. There are no shortcuts, I’m afraid. Writers are people who write. Write.
Susan, thank you for playing.
Me: I have read My Hundred Lovers. I recommend it to anyone who feels a little pale and dusty. There is life in these pages, enough, in fact, to take deep, invigorating draughts without exhausting the supply. I felt I was being invited into secret places, but not foreign places. Susan examines emotions, sensations and pleasures many of us will recognise. She teases out meaning from fleeting and now forgotten delights. The book moves gracefully and quickly, never stopping long in any one place, building a gorgeous picture of life with its loves and losses, friendships, self-delusions, introspections and joys. I read it in a couple of sittings, reading greedily. And when I was finished I lay it down and wandered off feeling as though my own past had been opened up and aired.
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.