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 Cape Town, South Africa, and spent my first fourteen years there. I’m not sure I can imagine a more beautiful, stimulating place to have grown up— at least not for someone from a white middle class background, as I was, and not while still young enough to be mostly oblivious to the apartheid system. Rather than any memories of political unrest, I have fond recollections of week-long hiking trips with my father, and the countless weekends on the Cape’s beaches. In 1991, my family immigrated to Melbourne, where I went on to finish high school and then university.
At twelve, a medical doctor; at eighteen, a backpacker; at thirty, a doctor again. I’m not sure as to where the medical aspirations originated. My grandfather was a pharmacist in rural South Africa, which seemed appealing to me, and I have a vivid memory of my Mum being rushed to hospital when I was young, so maybe that was a part of it—of trying to address that sense of helplessness that came from seeing someone close to me being so unwell. The writing came largely from the medical career, and from the people and experiences it exposed me to. I felt compelled to share that.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I had any answers.
i. Growing up in Africa, and the subsequent experience of immigration. That challenged any notions of a ‘here’ and ‘there’ for me. With only a visa and a determined effort to shed my old accent (year nine is not a good time to stand out, and on top of that Lethal Weapon 2 had just been released, in which the bad guys were portrayed as white South Africans), I was now an Australian with a far more certain future. It could just as easily have been me who was born with a darker complexion in the townships outside Cape Town, though, and had none of the opportunities I’ve had. That seemed incredibly lucky to me. And unfair.
ii. The popularisation of email, and of blogging. I’d not previously considered myself a writer, but I remember composing my first emails and posts during a trip overseas. I loved the process, of trying to render an encounter in a unique, entertaining way, and of trying to craft the right phrase. I was utterly drawn into it, and because of the medium I would know relatively immediately whether or not the stories resonated with others. If my only other option had been a typewriter and bottle of Tippex (BBGuru’s note: That’s Liquid Paper to us), no connection to the reader along the way, I’m not sure I’d have attempted a book.
iii. Coming across a copy of Midnight’s Children in an old Nepalese bookstore. I was at a dead-end with writing, having submitted a couple of very rough initial drafts, and my prior diet of mostly dry non-fiction works wasn’t helping with any solutions. For me, Midnight’s Children turned that around: the voice was so strong, the passage of time so seemingly malleable (something I was struggling with in my drafts), and the rules of grammar as I knew them went out the window. Writing was suddenly exciting again.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
They’d better not be—I just spent three years writing mine!
Band-Aid for a Broken Leg tells of my experiences as a young, inexperienced volunteer doctor working with Medecins Sans Frontieres in several war-torn African countries, and of ultimately coming home—a little earlier than planned, and a little more shell-shocked than I’d anticipated—only to encounter equally difficult circumstances in Central Australia. It’s an honest book, if nothing else, and I’d like to think an uplifting one in spite of the context. The narrative really focuses on the people I was surrounded by—the local health workers, the patients and the townspeople—and conveys their stories as I understood them. So it’s not a political book, and it wasn’t written as a guilt trip for the West. It’s just a story about some fascinating people, and of the difficult circumstances they happen to live in.
(From the publisher: Damien Brown, a young Australian doctor, thinks he’s ready when he arrives for his first posting with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Africa. But the town he’s sent to is an isolated outpost of mud huts, surrounded by landmines; the hospital, for which he’s to be the only doctor, is filled with malnourished children and conditions he’s never seen; and the health workers – Angolan war veterans twice his age and who speak no English – walk out on him following an altercation on his first shift.
In the months that follow, Damien confronts these challenges all the while dealing with the social absurdities of living with only three other volunteers for company. The medical calamities pile up – a leopard attack, a landmine explosion, and having to perform surgery using tools cleaned on the fire being among them – but it’s through Damien’s evolving friendships with the local people that his passion for the work grows.
Band-aid for a Broken Leg is a powerful, sometimes heart-breaking, often funny, always honest and ultimately uplifting account of life on the medical frontline in Angola, Mozambique and South Sudan. It is also a moving testimony of the work done by medical humanitarian groups and the extraordinary and sometimes eccentric people who work for them. )
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
As a doctor, access to healthcare. As a writer, that we could know a little more about each other.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Too hard. Far too many people. The local staff I worked with overseas did incredible things; many were barely literate but could spot rare conditions from across the room, and would improvise a solution to almost anything—even if they had a tendency to arrive for work late some days, and with the most wonderfully unlikely excuses. I’ve also developed an immense respect for professional writers. Theirs is a tough, tough gig.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To stop setting ambitious goals. I’d like to spend more time just watching. And thinking. And listening to others. And reading, and…
i. Log out of Facebook.
ii. Commit wholeheartedly. Then, solicit all the professional criticism you can, swallow your pride, and cancel your social engagements for the coming months…
Damien, 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.