Six Sharp Questions
1. Congratulations, you have a new book. What is it about and what does it mean to you?
Moonlight and Ashes is something a bit different, a fairy-tale thriller for young adults, with a romantic twist and a spice of dark political conspiracy! Inspired by the Grimm version of Cinderella, Aschenputtel, it’s set in an alternative world, the Faustine Empire (based in part on the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire), where magic is a reality but forbidden to be practised by anyone except the secretive and dangerous order of Mancers, who are part sorcerer, part secret police.
The main setting is Ashberg (based on Prague), a lovely provincial city in the far reaches of the Empire, where my heroine and narrator, Selena, lives. She’s the Cinderella figure: the neglected and oppressed first daughter of a wealthy nobleman who after the death of her mother, and her father’s remarriage, has been reduced to being a servant. But she’s no passive victim, and when her mother comes to her in a dream and gives her the magic of the hazel tree, she is determined to use it. But though her life starts to change, she must be very careful, and not only because magic is forbidden, for she has a very dangerous secret, an enigma which she must understand if she is to save the man she loves, and her friends, before it is too late. It’s a real roller-coaster of a story, and I loved writing it, but it kept me awake at night too!
I’ve had a lot of good moments in the past year or so—working on books I’m passionate about, like Moonlight and Ashes, winning the NSW Premier’s Prize last year for another book, The Hunt for Ned Kelly, spending great times with my family and friends, travelling, reading great books, watching good movies! There have been bad moments too, such as getting shingles. Still, it didn’t last long. I feel pretty lucky. Touch wood.
Since visiting Russia a couple of years ago for the first time (going again this year, it’s an absolutely addictive and exciting place), I’ve been reading (and rereading) lots of Russian literature, both classic and modern. People often think Russian literature is gloomy, but that’s far from the truth: it accepts that life can be tragic, yes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be joyful. It’s full of life, and eccentric, vivid characters, but also philosophical, with a streak of engaging humour and unexpected insights. So because I love the unexpected, that’s what I want to put down here, a couple of short quotes from two Russian writers I love, one a classic, the great Fyodor Dostoesvsky, the other modern, the wonderful fantasy novelist Sergei Lukyanenko whose Night Watch series just blew me away (by the way, the books are much better than the films):
Never before had she seen such writers. They were impossibly vain, but quite openly so, as if thereby fulfilling a duty. Some (though by no means all) even came drunk, but it was as if they perceived some special, just-yesterday-discovered beauty in it. They were all proud of something to the point of strangeness.
What an unfortunate instrument the guitar is! An instrument of such great nobility, a genuine monarch of music– reduced to a pitiful lump of wood with six strings, constantly abused by people with no ear and no voice.
I guess you’d really have to ask my near and dear if I’m difficult, but I think that it could be fairly said that I’m a compulsive writer! I love my work; it feels to me still that I’ve lucked out amazingly, being paid to do what I was born to do! I’ve also always been pretty disciplined about my writing day to day and can work under almost any conditions – I’m certainly not obsessive about work spaces and what have you. I grew up in a big family and had to learn to block off my head from noise and turmoil if I wanted to read and write, so I’ve always been good at doing that. I work very intensely, not every day of the week but usually around 4-5 days, and I get a lot down in a few hours, then the next day go over it again, rewrite, and go on to the next chapter, and so on – I am always writing a new chapter but also rewriting as I go, so that my first draft is actually pretty polished – because in truth it isn’t my first draft if you know what I mean!
5. Some writers claim not to be influenced by the needs of the marketplace, while others seem obsessed by it. Would you please describe how the marketplace affects your writing (come on, tell the truth!).
Of course you are influenced, in the sense that you need to be aware of what’s going on out there, what sorts of things are selling, etc. You need to be flexible – but I think it’s also a bad mistake to be too influenced by it. The marketplace is very fickle and things move on very quickly, you need a sense of being grounded in your own vision, your own interests, your own passions.
(I’m assuming here we take classics of adult literature)
A book of poetry from early times to now, because the gift of poetry stays with you your whole life, and there’s always something for everyone if you have a selection;
A book of myths, legends and fairytales, because they speak to the deepest truths in us, and form the best base for exploring all other stories.
Sophie, 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.