The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
In true medieval tradition, I was born and raised in the same suburb in which I now live, in Sydney’s inner west. I lived there until I was 20, and after that lived in many places around Sydney, and then the world, and eventually (strictly by chance, there was no plan) recently found myself back within a mile of my childhood home. I ride my mountain bike around the same streets I rode my Speedwell. I went to school in the inner west as well. A private school that has a reputation for, um … well, let’s just say the shenanigans at St Johns College at Sydney University are nothing new. So best if I don’t add to that reputation here.
At 12 I wanted to be a writer. No kidding! My elder sister was an avid reader and, after much cajoling, had encouraged a spark in me. I remember reading Wuthering Heights around this time and was utterly astonished at the effect it could elicit. Before that I had been reading Famous Fives and Secret Sevens and so on (among more comics than one boy should be allowed to have), but Heathcliff and Cathy …!
By 18 all that was lost in a (male) adolescent haze. Writing? Who had time for writing when there was so much … well, best again not to scare the kiddies. Suffice to say that my ambitions in those days had trouble rising above my belt.
At 30 I was deep into a career in advertising. I was a peripatetic Creative Director of an international agency – a visiting fireman who, rather than hosing down conflagrations, was charged with firing up moribund campaigns in far-flung offices. My ambition then was to head up the creative department of a decent agency at home. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. When I achieved that, not long after, I quickly wanted something else. Guess what – it was to write something longer than a 30 second TV commercial.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
It wasn’t so strongly held, but at 18 I thought the natural form of government was a conservative one. At 18!! Yes, I know, sometimes the world seems to be full of right wing people who hold that belief (certainly Parliament feels like it), but at 18? I came from a rather ‘conservative’ household, I suppose. I remember my parents referring to Menzies as ‘Uncle Bob’. I wasn’t yet perceptive enough to grasp it was probably meant ironically. That year I realised I had a lot of catching up to do. I did a crash course in understanding the politics and ideas of the Left, and I’ve been learning ever since. I still can’t believe I felt that way at 18! I suppose when you are lost in a (male) adolescent haze you can’t see the obvious.
The first was Wuthering Heights. God, I used to read that under the sheets with a torch. My mother probably thought I had Playboy under there.
The second was the poems of Rupert Brooke, which I discovered while studying Modern History at school. I was lucky enough to have Richard Wherrett as a form master that year. During the day I would learn of politics, and strategic alliances, and geographic outcomes, and economic outcomes; and at night I would read the tragic Rupert and Siegried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and get the other side of the story – ‘in their eyes shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes’ – the effect of all these events on people, and on us, the ones who come after. I have never lost my fascination with history since then, and I thank those poets (and Richard Wherrett) for lighting that fire.
And then Catch 22. Where does one begin to describe the effect Catch 22 had on a boy of 18? What I will say is that even though I spent years being distracted, that book, and its demonstration of what a book can be, kept the tiny flicker alight so that one day I got around to remembering that when I was 12 I wanted to write.
They were the first three great influences. After that, the flood.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
At school I wrote sonnets. I mean, really! Who doesn’t like fourteen lines of iambic pentameter? But I was only interested in classical poetry. Even the above War Poets were classical. After World War 1 came T.S. Eliot, and everything changed. I loved reading Eliot, but his imagery just wasn’t accessible to a schoolboy and I lost interest.
When I began working I found myself writing everything from newspaper ads to brochures to press releases to TV commercials. I found I liked the long copy best. A couple of times my ‘brochures’ became 50-page books. I loved writing them. The trouble with a 30 second TV commercial is that it’s exciting to get the idea, but then it’s just hard slog getting it through the approval process and finally produced and on air. The excitement is maybe five minutes long. The 50-page ‘brochures’ made the excitement last for days. That’s one of the reasons I write novels. The excitement lasts for months.
The other is that you meet the most interesting people who live in your own head.
Amber Road is my fourth novel, and my first ‘epic’, as the publisher describes it, which I guess means it weighs in at hefty 600 pages. As for what it is about, can I refer to the publisher again? This is their cover blurb (they do it so much better than I):
‘As an empire is swept away, a young woman’s world is ripped apart…
It’s 1941 and seventeen-year-old Victoria Khoo lives in luxury in colonial Singapore. Her carefree days are spent fantasising about marrying Sebastian Boustead, scion of a great British merchant family, and becoming mistress of his imposing mansion on Amber Road.
Not even Sebastian’s arrival from London with his new fiancée, Elizabeth Nightingale, can dampen her dream.
Then the war reaches Asia and ‘Fortress Singapore’ abruptly surrenders to the Japanese. As the inhabitants are deserted by Britain, Victoria is forced to protect both her family and her rival, Elizabeth, from the cruelty of the occupation.
Victoria’s old life has vanished in a heartbeat – but nothing will stand in the way of her destiny. Not the war. Not Elizabeth. And certainly not Joe Spencer, the charismatic Australian who both charms and infuriates her at every turn.’
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
After this particular work, a slightly better appreciation for this part of the world, about which there is much misinformation peddled in popular fiction.
Also – and in full realisation of how pompous this may sound – to maybe feel what I felt back when I read the War Poets as a schoolboy. To get a grasp of how major events affect real people, both at the time and the ones who follow. Let’s face it, if only more of us could get that feeling, we wouldn’t be blithely following America into places like Afghanistan and Iraq. And neither would America. We might think … Hey, what about Vietnam? What happened there, then?
I wonder if George W Bush ever read Catch 22. I wonder if he laughed. I wonder if he cried.
Apart from all that, I’d like to think my readers enjoyed the journey.
Graham Greene for his precision, John Steinbeck for his keen social observation, Kurt Vonnegut for his madness, Antony Beevor for the scope and depth of his research, Bill Bryson for his prolific and diverse output, and John O’Hara for his Appointment in Samarra. That’s a start. I realise they are all male (and not all novelists), and none is Australian, so I will add one more from the many: Madeleine St John, who proved that it is never too late, and your life can never be so diverted, that you can’t one day pick up the threads of youthful passion and produce such jewels as The Women in Black and The Essence of the Thing.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To get my first manuscript accepted. I have had four published, but the first one, a most personal story that took years of labour, remains unloved. Peter Carey says he failed to get his first four manuscripts published. I hope mine is not like that.
And more ambitiously – I have written a musical based on one of my earlier novels, Errol, Fidel and the Cuban Rebel Girls, and seeing that on stage, in all its colour and movement, song and dance, fun and games (and on Broadway – why not!) would be sheer delight.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Become obsessed. How do I explain that? It’s like that wonderful old love song says – ‘Who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.’ If you are human, love just happens. If you are meant to write, obsession will also, one day, just happen. The trick then is to allow it to happen and to follow it. You’ll know it has happened when you look at your watch one night and realise it’s 4 am and you can’t stop writing.
I make no claim to wisdom, but I can offer an example. Joseph Heller had been struggling with a story he wanted to write for years. One night, he says, ‘This line came to me: It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.’ He sat down at his desk there and then and wrote the first chapter to what eventually became Catch 22, and those opening lines are now among the most famous of the 20th century.
That is what happens when obsession strikes. You can have all the discipline you like, churn out your thousand words a day with religious regularity, but until you become obsessed, and until you tune in to that obsession, you won’t write anything worth a damn.
Boyd, thanks 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.