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 Southeast Queensland, living for a time on a farm. I was the oldest of eight kids, but I failed to set the standard in schooling where I was always too easily distracted by girls, music and almost anything else you care to mention. The best thing one of my teachers could say as I left school was, “Should do alright in the Army.”
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I always had an interest in the Defence Forces and joined the Army as a private at the age of 17; little did I dream I would serve for 38 years and end up as a major-general. When I joined I was attracted to the idea of adventure and mateship. Years later, the friendships I formed in the Army remain very important to me, especially among those I formed in difficult situations such as combat or emergencies.
I was incredibly naive at the age of 18. I’m not sure I had any strong beliefs, except for the value of family life. When I completed a Masters degree many years later I had a chance to think deeply about profound issues like life and death, the importance of big ideas, and the mess human beings have got themselves into on so many occasions. Wisdom comes late to some people.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
No.1. My marriage to Jane was far-and-away the best thing to ever happen in my life; she has been at my side through so many adventures and a few dark days for the last 35 years.
No.2. Going to war (first Gulf War n 1990-91) was a life-changing event; it was the start of 20 years of struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
No.3. Seeing my book in printed form, on a shelf in a bookstore, was pretty cool; I hung around hoping to see someone buy a copy but I was out of luck!
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?
There’s nothing quite like the feel of a book in your hands, the anticipation of opening it for the first time, and the satisfaction of closing it when it’s been read. Books may one day disappear but I’m glad mine saw the light of day in physical form. E-books are, for the moment at least, a powerful adjunct to traditional books; we need to embrace them. Electronic media (blogs, etc) is instant but ephemeral.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
“Exit Wounds” is the story of my experiences in three wars, all different but brutal. It is not a war story, however, although it uses modern war as its framework. The book describes my struggle with the emotional damage that comes from terrible experiences. I have laid myself bare in the hope of exposing this often hidden aspect of what we ask of our military personnel, and encouraging others to seek help. I have battled PTSD for 20 years; this book is an account of that fight, the ugliness of combat, the sorrow of loss, and the first of many steps along my pathway to recovery and redemption.
(BBGuru: Publisher’s blurb – ‘This is my story, but it is also the story of thousands of Australian veterans from Iraq, East Timor, Afghanistan and other conflicts who bare similar emotional scars. This is what becomes of those men and women we send off to war, pay little attention to, then forget once they are home.’
As a country boy from Queensland, John Cantwell signed up to the army as a private and rose to the rank of major general. He was on the front line in 1991 as Coalition forces fitted bulldozer blades to tanks and buried alive Iraqi troops in their trenches. He fought in Baghdad in 2006 and saw what a car bomb does to a marketplace crowded with women and children. In 2010 he commanded the Australian forces in Afghanistan when ten of his soldiers were killed. He returned to Australia in 2011 to be considered for the job of chief of the Australian Army. Instead, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
Exit Wounds is the compassionate and deeply human account of one man’s tour of the War on Terror, the moving story of life on a modern battlefield: from the nightmare of cheating death in a minefield, to the poignancy of calling home while under rocket fire in Baghdad, to the utter despair of looking into the face of a dead soldier before sending him home to his mother. He has hidden his post traumatic stress disorder for decades, fearing it will affect his career.
Australia has been at war for the past twenty years and yet there has been no stand-out account from these conflicts—Exit Wounds is it. Raw, candid and eye-opening, no one who reads this book will be unmoved, nor forget its imagery or words.)
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I want this book to show others that the emotional damage that often accompanies warfare and other traumatic experiences is a normal reaction to abnormal events, that is anything but a sign or weakness or failure, and that there is a way to recover through admitting that the problem exists then getting help.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
My wife Jane is my hero. She, like so many wives and partners of soldiers, has served her country in ways that never get recognised but which support and heal our fighting troops. She is the love of my life.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I want to beat my PTSD; I’m well on the way. I want to help others recognise and heal their own emotional wounds; this book is a start. I’d like to write some more; it is hard work but intensely satisfying.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write from the heart, be disciplined, strive for brevity, and ignore advice from newly published first-time authors. (BBGuru: Great answer!)
John, 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.