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 London, which is something that I’ve always felt very proud of. During the London Olympics I thought I might burst with it. I wanted to stop people and tell them: I was born here.
I was raised in a much less glamorous part of the UK, in Staffordshire in the Midlands. It was very boring, but I’m quite glad of that now, because it fired me up to get myself back down to London where the action was. It so was.
I hated every minute of school. I felt constricted and constrained by it. I made up for it with reading. I read everything, all the time. And my mother took me and my three siblings to see so many amazing things and places, which I am so grateful to her for. She took me to see the musical Hair when I was 10. Full frontal nudity. Oh yeah.
I don’t think I learned anything at school, except how limited people can allow themselves to be. It made me determined to surround myself with people who weren’t like that.
Uni was everything school wasn’t. I went to St Andrews and as well as a lot of great stuff about history of art, I learned how much I didn’t know – and how to learn. Neither of which I had learned at school.
Author/magazine editor/newspaper columnist. E.Nesbitt/Honey/Clive James.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at 18 that you do not have now?
That everyone has a ‘one’ – their one true love who is somewhere in the world waiting to be found. I cannot believe I was so stupid. All love is a choice of which compromises you are prepared to accept to get all the other good bits.
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?
I discovered Joni Mitchell at the age of 11, when my big sister was constantly playing her album Blue. The refrain of Jingle Bells in the song River got my attention and then I started listening to the words… and that was how a life long obsession began.
Her lyrics are simply amazing poetry and I know all of them off by heart, just about. I think I learned a lot about the economy of words from them. How you can convey so much with just a few words; the way a sketchy line drawing can convey more of the essence of cat than a photograph of one.
The writer who has been the biggest influence on me recently is Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress – the amazing British novelist…) In a Summer Season is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Reading and re-reading her books gave me the courage to use the third person for the first time in my latest book, Everything Changes But You. She uses the third person subjective – where the point of view switches constantly from one person to another, showing how they each think and feel about what is going on. Even within a sentence, you’ll get several view points.
When I first read her, I had my mouth open; I was so impressed with how she did it.
She’s the absolute master of it and it was a huge step for me to go from the first person to trying to do that – I’ve written six novels in the first person. I practised first in a few short stories and then took the plunge with this novel. Once I got going I felt hugely freed by it. I just hope the readers like it too…
I’m passionate about art – and studied art history at university, so I could roll around in it. All art reminds me that you don’t have to spell everything out. You can convey so much, very simply. That’s my mantra, really.
Probably the work that has moved me the most was discovering the Austrian artist Egon Schiele when I was 18. I was a punk rocker then and he looked like one, although he died in 1918.
In fact, he looked extraordinarily like my boyfriend of the time and his work – much of it marvellously pornographic – made me understand that rebellion is a universal compulsion among the young, rather than a reflection of the particular times you live in. I still find that inspiring.
It’s like Marlon Brando’s character’s famous line in Rebel Without A Cause, when they ask him: ‘What are you rebelling against?’
‘What have you got?’
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
It’s what I wanted to do from the age of six…
Everything Changes But You is about the idea of home. Is it where you come from? Or where you feel right? Is it a country, a town, a house – or is it simply a person?
It was inspired by my own experiences – growing up somewhere I never thought of as home, never related to. Then moving to London, feeling at home there, but then feeling equally at home in Sydney. Then, how odd it is to feel like a tourist in a city that was once your home…and I feel like that in London and Sydney now.
I think it’s a very current issue, as these days people hop off very casually to live in another country without it being a huge deal – but it is really. And if they then marry someone from that other country, it can get really complicated. Whose family takes precedence? Whose country is their joint home?
The story is based around a couple who meet in Sydney – Matt is an Aussie, Hannah is a Pom. They go back to London to be near her family and it’s all great, but then his mum needs him back in Sydney… And he doesn’t want his kids to grow up without any notion of their Australian ancestry either.
Then there’s his cousin, Ali, a young woman from Sydney, who moves to London because she feels suffocated by her extended family. And his best mate Pete, who’s beginning to think he’s had enough of London and might want to head back to Bondi…
As with all my books, there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well – jokes, sex, nasty people, lovely old blokes, funny dogs, more detail than necessary about what people are wearing, parties, pashing – but that’s the main gist of it.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they feel entertained and satisfied– as you would after watching a really good film with a big box of Maltesers. I hope they’ve had a good laugh, but would have been moved at times too. And I hope they will fancy the male leads as much as I always do…
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
There are two authors I worship and they’re both (more or less) from Melbourne: Helen Garner and Lily Brett. Both of them write with the stripped back tension of a tight rope walker. They approach very difficult subjects fearlessly and lay them bare. And then they make you laugh.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I would like to have a massive international bestseller, which was on the cover of Time magazine and then made into a huge Hollywood film starring Cate Blanchett, with a budget of $10 billion.
Then Cate would be nominated for Best Actress and I’d get to go to the Oscars with her, wearing a Marchesa dress and we’d have a right old laugh at the Vanity Fair party. Well, you did ask.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read – and write. Read as much as you can and as many different kinds of things as possible. And write every day. Doesn’t matter what it is, but like everything, you improve enormously with practice. Also be prepared to take constructive criticism. There’s no piece of writing that can’t be improved upon.
Maggie, 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.