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 had more schools than most because my father worked for the Bureau of Meteorology and was shifted around Australia. Although born in Melbourne, I spent six years of my childhood in Charleville in far west Queensland and only returned to Melbourne via Adelaide when I was about 10. I went to Kew State School, East Kew Central, Watsonia High School and University High School. After being almost constantly barefoot and casual in Charleville, it was a shock to be wearing a cap and tie in Melbourne.
It was hard to imagine being anything when I was twelve. By the time I was eighteen, I thought of becoming, of all things, an accountant. I even did accountancy in sixth form and began a commerce degree at university before the Vietnam War got in the way.
3 .What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I was eighteen, I still believed that owning an MGB would be the ultimate in life’s achievements. I never got to own one.
The Vietnam War had a profound effect on me, leading to a couple of brief stints in gaol for resisting conscription. Along the way, it prompted me to write a brief history of Laos, which was then being bombed by the United States. Although I did not realise it, that booklet was the start of my career as an historian. The second big event was being re-admitted to Melbourne University to do an Arts degree after failing to complete my Commerce degree and being expelled for occupying the Vice-Chancellor’s office. The third big event was marrying Silvia, whose love and support has been instrumental in all that I have managed to achieve.
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?
Books continue to be important as the main means of communicating big ideas. However, I also write for newspapers and magazines and consult on television documentaries.
Antartica: A Biography is the result of some five years research and writing. It was an exciting journey that took me to some fascinating places around the world, although not to Antarctica itself. There was always a more important place to go, whether it was the whaling museum in Norway, the Explorers Club in New York or the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. The resulting book provides the first major international history of Antarctica. It takes the reader from the voyages of Captain Cook to the campaigns of Greenpeace, revealing how the ownership of the continent has been fought over for two centuries by explorers and diplomats. Antarctica remains the only significant land mass without owners.
(From the publisher:
A groundbreaking history of human interaction with Antarctica, the last continent on earth.
“This is an intoxicating book by Australia’s greatest historian.” – Peter FitzSimons
For centuries it was suspected that there must be an undiscovered continent in the southern hemisphere. But explorers failed to find one. On his second voyage to the Pacific, Captain James Cook sailed further south than any of his rivals but failed to sight land. It was not until 1820 that the continent’s frozen coast was finally discovered and parts of the continent began to be claimed by nations that were intent on having it as their own.
That rivalry intensified in the 1840s when British, American and French expeditions sailed south to chart further portions of the continent that had come to be called Antarctica.
On and off for nearly two centuries, the race to claim exclusive possession of Antarctica has gripped the imagination of the world. Science was enlisted to buttress the rival claims as nations developed new ways of asserting territorial claims over land that was too forbidding to occupy. Although the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 was meant to end the rivalry, it has continued regardless, as new nations became involved and environmentalists, scientists and resource companies began to compete for control.
Antarctica: A Biography draws upon libraries and archives from around the world to provide the first, large-scale history of Antarctica. On one level, it is the story of explorers battling the elements in the most hostile place on earth as they strive for personal triumph, commercial gain and national glory. On a deeper level, it is the story of nations seeking to incorporate the Antarctic into their national narratives and to claim its frozen wastes as their own.)
This book is the third one that I have written about the methods humans employ to seek exclusive possession of the places they happen to inhabit. It reveals that the drive for territorial acquisition was just as fierce in Antarctica as elsewhere. Yet nations have so far agreed to share the continent rather than fight over it. It would be good if this book encouraged those in other lands to follow the recent example of nations in Antarctica.
I admire the boy who dared to say that the emperor had no clothes. In the present context, that would be Julian Assange.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My goals are to write all the books I have in mind, to learn French, to catch a ten kilogram salmon in a Canadian river and to run ten kilometres in under fifty minutes.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
David, 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.