author of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf
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 and raised in Perth, Western Australia. This is the country of the Nyungah Aboriginal people, a place of black swans, towering eucalypt trees, and long beaches. I sometimes wonder what my great-grandmother thought of the ocean when she first saw it, how strange and terrifying it must have been. She was an inland woman, a child of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Her country, the country of the Palyku people to whom I belong, is one of great contrasts, of red earth, purple hills and endless blue sky. I think we have those contrasts, in different ways, across all of Australia – we are a land of diverse peoples and histories and opinions, and I value that diversity.
When I was twelve I wanted to be writer. When I was eighteen I wanted to be a writer. When I was thirty I wanted to be a writer. In between these times, I’ve done lots of things – I’m a lawyer, I’ve worked in government and politics, and now I teach at a university. The wonderful thing about being an author is that no experience is ever wasted, it all goes into my writing in some way.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I would write a novel by the time I was thirty. Turned out it took a few extra years. But better late than never…
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
When I was young we didn’t have a lot of money, and all my books came from the local book exchange, which was really just three rows of books sitting at the back of the newsagency on the corner. The only books anyone ever seemed to exchange were detective stories, and pretty old ones at that, so I read a lot of Agathie Christie. I think now that my love of unexpected twists and devious plots comes from reading these books. My love of the science-fiction genre, on the other hand, was inspired by the Star Wars trilogy. I saw these movies so often when I was kid that I could recite a lot of the dialogue by heart, and I still enjoy watching them today. I love the way science fiction asks ‘what if’, the way it imagines both the great and terrible things humanity could do, if we had the technology to take us to the stars. I like to think that the best instincts of the human species will triumph in the end, and we will forge a future world that is kinder and more just than the one we have now.
The other stories that have influenced me are not always contained in books. They are the stories told by Aboriginal elders, and by other elders from other cultures across the globe, the ancient stories of the earth.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Writing connects me to worlds and worlds of possibilities that ordinarily seem so far beyond reach. I remember the first time I saw a whale, a huge creature surfacing momentarily before diving back into the deeps. It struck me with such awe and wonder. And sadness, too, because whales are hunted, and it hurts to love something so vulnerable.
When I write I sometimes think of the whale. It will never be open to me, a human, to truly understand her underwater world, or to know the meaning of her keening songs. But to write is as close as I will ever come to touching realities beyond my own. Perhaps in one of these realities, whales are not hunted, and human beings live with each other and the earth in far greater harmony than we do in this one. Maybe such a world, or the possibility of it, is what the whales sing of.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a dystopian fiction novel, set three hundred years after the world ended in an environmental cataclysm. In the society into which Ashala is born, those with ‘abilities’ are considered a threat, and are herded into detention centres, forced to wear collars that block their talents. Ashala has run away to avoid such a fate. Others have joined her, forming a Tribe of runaways who live in the ancient Firstwood. When the book begins, Ashala has been captured by the government, and is about to undergo an interrogation. She has secrets that she cannot afford to reveal, secrets that will put the Tribe at risk. She is being guarded by Justin Connor, who betrayed her to the government, and she knows she has little hope of holding out against her interrogators. Only all is not quite as it seems.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope that, above all, they feel they have read a well-told story. Beyond that, I hope they find The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf to be sort of book I like to read myself – one with mystery, and tension, and romance, that tells one person’s story but asks bigger questions about the nature of human society and the world.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
The songwriters and the poets, who can capture the heart of a story in a few magical words.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To make a difference in the world.
Learn to be at once your own strongest supporter and your own harshest critic. You have to be able to keep yourself going, in the tired and lonely times, to pick yourself up after your one-hundredth attempt at writing something that still hasn’t worked, and to stick with writing even when others tell you that you’ll never do it and most especially when you feel like that yourself. But you also have to be able to accurately judge your own work, to recognise when something needs to be cut or when a character or a scene is not living up to their potential, and to know when your good idea has not translated into a good story (I have a box of half-finished novels sitting in the bottom of my wardrobe. None of them worked, but I learned something from each).
Ambelin, 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.