author of The Universe Versus Alex Woods
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, raised and schooled in Lincolnshire, England. Imagine perfectly flat farmland from horizon to horizon and you’re pretty much there. Lincolnshire is basically the UK’s greengrocer. Vegetables aside, its only major export has been Isaac Newton.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I wanted to be a novelist – I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first story at the age of six. It was about a dragon called Blanche Hortense de Vere Montmorency Jones Edwards Dragon, and the first line ran as follows: ‘Once there was a king with a pisses but no wif.’ At eighteen my spelling had marginally improved and I still wanted to be a novelist – but only in secret, as adolescence had made such dreams seem vaguely shameful. I didn’t pick up a pen with any real sense of purpose until I was twenty-seven. I’m now thirty and want to be an astronaut.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I believed that I’d never, never want children. I’m now father to a beautiful seventeen week-old daughter. Like all babies, she has the personality of a psychopath, but for some reason, I’m besotted.
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?
a. The Lord of the Rings. When I was about twelve I feigned a three-day illness so that I could bunk off school and read this (for a second time) cover to cover. Eighteen years later, I can still remember exactly how it felt to be on my own, in my pyjamas, with a long stretch of empty time and a project that filled my imagination to bursting point. I wrote at least 90% of my début novel in my dressing gown, and certainly owe Tolkien a debt.
b. ‘The Raven’. I wrote my mother a thirteen-stanza Poe parody a few years ago, when I couldn’t afford to buy her a birthday present. It was called ‘The Baker’ (she used to think her house, a converted bakery, was haunted by its previous resident) and it was the first thing I wrote that I actually liked.
c. Back to the Future. This is another of those childhood artefacts that never lost its lustre. I always loved the advice that Marty gives his father in 1955 (which his father then returns to him thirty years later): ‘You know, George, if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.’ I’m thinking about getting that tattooed on my forearm.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
There’s something incredibly pure about writing a novel. When you set out, it’s just you, your brain and a pen and paper. You rely entirely on your own, inner resources. I’d imagine it’s a similar feeling to being lost in the wilderness and trying to find your way home, or being shipwrecked on a desert island and having to recreate your world from scratch. It’s a beautiful, scary process which shows you what you’re made of. Also, I wanted to impress my girlfriend.
It’s my début novel, The Universe versus Alex Woods. This is the ‘teaser’ blurb I sent out hoping to net an agent:
‘April 2011, the middle of the night. Seventeen year-old Alex Woods is stopped at customs in possession of 113 grams of marijuana and an urn full of ashes. What follows is Alex’s account of the strange events that have led to this circumstance …’
To add a few more details: it’s essentially a coming-of-age story told from Alex’s point of view. At the beginning of the novel he’s a geeky, bullied child with no father, a clairvoyant mother, severe epilepsy and a very bizarre accident in his past. By the end he’s an unlikely hero. And in between, he befriends a reclusive Vietnam veteran, runs a Kurt Vonnegut book club, and learns a lot about life, death and astrophysics. That’s the most I can say without revealing too much of the plot.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
First, I just want them to enjoy it. I want them to take away the feeling that they’ve spent a few hours doing something pleasurable and worthwhile. I like books that touch feelings first and intellect second, and I hope that’s the kind of book I’ve written. More specifically, I hope that I can make a few people laugh and a few people cry (and the latter is an odd wish, one that I can’t imagine having in any other arena). Beyond that, if anything I’ve written makes anyone, anywhere look at the world in a slightly different light, I’d count myself very satisfied.
Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and Vladimir Nabokov – because all three are laugh-out-loud-on-a-packed-commuter-train funny. David Mitchell – because he has the kind of imagination I envy. And Haruki Murakami – because he could write a shopping list and it would be interesting.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d like to write a story that my daughter enjoys. I’d like to write a screenplay. I’d like to write at least half a dozen more novels without repeating myself. I’d like to invent a word or phrase and get it in the dictionary. I’d like to write something that surprises everyone, including me.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Don’t be afraid of writing crap. There’s probably a more elegant way of expressing that, but never mind; it wouldn’t be as truthful. The fact is you’ll have to write a lot of crap before you write anything good. You wouldn’t sit down at a piano for the first time and expect to compose Beethoven’s 9th – don’t have similar expectations of your writing. Practise as often as you can, and be prepared to edit and revise extensively; don’t think one or two drafts – think five, six, seven. If you’re writing a novel, set aside regular writing times and stick to them. If you can work every day then do so. Writing a novel is all about momentum. You have to keep the boulder rolling. Finally, don’t set out trying to write something better than Lolita / Harry Potter / Moby Dick (delete or replace as applicable). Just write the best book you can at this point in your life.
Gavin, 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.