Booktopia’s John Purcell appears on Sunrise

by |June 11, 2013

The true identity of one of Australia’s bestselling erotic authors has been kept a closely guarded secret, until now . . .

Industry rumours had been circling about intensely private author Natasha Walker since the 2012 release of the first book in The Secret Lives of Emma series until Booktopia’s John Purcell revealed Natasha Walker is a pseudonym and that he is the true voice behind this phenomenally successful series.

Q. Why did you publish under a woman’s name?

I chose a pseudonym to protect my family. The kids didn’t need to know. And I didn’t want to be known as that guy who wrote those dirty books.

Q. But why a woman’s name?

I’ve been a bookseller for twenty years. Women are more comfortable reading erotica written by women. Besides, if I had published under my name Emma would have been eyed with greater suspicion. I would have been told that women don’t behave like that. But in the good and bad reviews I have received, no one has questioned Emma’s behaviour. No one has said, a woman wouldn’t do that, or doesn’t think like that, or speak like that. More often than not women are saying they relate to her, or vehemently dislike her, or want to be like her.

Q. Was it hard keeping it all a secret?

So hard! I’m proud of these books. They are great fun. They are bestsellers! I wanted to tell everyone I knew and all those I didn’t know, too. I wrote The Secret Lives of Emma! After twenty years of writing I finally got a book published and it did really well and I couldn’t tell anyone. It was very frustrating. I told my boss at Booktopia, Tony Nash, before publication to make sure it wouldn’t affect my work. But he was supportive. He was excited for me actually. He wanted to shout it to the world, too! But we kept our secret. My close family knew, of course. They, too, were frustrated. They had put up with my dream of being a writer as long as I had and wanted to enjoy my success.

Q. Were there any close calls?

I heard that another bookshop in Mosman knew that a man had written the books and were telling their customers. I don’t know if they knew it was me. Word got around. Other booksellers had their suspicions. Booksellers like to know everything. When a book by an anonymous local author breaks into the Australian top ten they have to find out who it is. One came right out and asked me at some function. I denied it. I’m sure there was talk. But in the book business only. Even those I work with every day were stunned when I told them.

Q. The Secret Lives of Emma books are set in Mosman. I have to ask, why Mosman? It’s so conservative.

At the age of twenty-seven I opened a little second-hand bookshop in Mosman called John’s Bookshop. A few years later I moved to Balmoral Beach where I rented a small flat from one of my customers at a reduced rate (thank you nice lady!). So for seven or so years I lived and worked in Mosman. I wrote most of books one and two in my second-hand bookshop. I also wrote a historical novel set in England just after Waterloo. My little shop wasn’t a great business but it kept me alive and gave me eight or nine hours a day to read and write. It also gave me the opportunity to meet and make friends with a great variety of women. I was a young, straight, single male with an interest in literature sitting day in, day out amidst, what was essentially, a world of women. Nine to five
Mosman is a female affair.

Q. And women talk?

Yes, that’s what I was getting at. Women talk. I quickly discovered that Mosman was not the place most people assumed it was. It has its underbelly, too. These women had lives beyond the façade and they were itching to boast about it. From then on I thought about Mosman in an entirely different way. And when I came to write about Emma, it made sense that she lived just around the corner from my shop.

Q. You said earlier that ‘everything happened quickly’ − how did you get published?

Without the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey my Emma stories would still be hidden away in a drawer. My agent had read my historical novel, A Gentleman of Sorts and had liked it and asked if I had anything else. I’d just given her my Emma stories to read when the Fifty Shades of Grey story hit the front page of the papers. Emma was in the right place at the right time. I was published because erotica was suddenly all people were talking about. But the truth is Emma is very different to Fifty Shades. And I think Emma suffered under the constant comparison. Readers didn’t want something new they wanted Fifty Shades of Grey repackaged under a different name. But Fifty Shades of Grey is rather conservative – two unattached people meet, fall in love, get married and have children. Throw in a bit of bondage, the kind of sex play Tory MPs enjoy, and that is that. Good clean fun. Under the trappings it is essentially a romance novel.

The Secret Lives of Emma is a romance, too, but a very modern romance. It contains elements many romance readers will not put up with. Infidelity, for one. Some readers won’t read a book with cheating wives or husbands in it. And worse, Emma isn’t an innocent. She is thirty, has lived a wild, erotic life and is already married when we meet her. Emma seeks pleasure for pleasure’s sake. She is willing to face the consequences of her actions and knows what she is doing. Emma’s desires are the driving force of the novels. Most romances end in marriage. Mine begins where they leave off.

Q. What made you think you could write an erotic novel from the point of view of a woman? How can you know what women want?

I don’t know what women want. Anyone who thinks they do know is either a fool or a liar. I write fiction. I know what Emma wants because I made her up. If she rings true it is because I have always been surrounded by strong, independent women who influenced my way of thinking about the world. I was raised by very determined and confident women, my mother and two elder sisters. They made damn sure I respected women. But in truth, they didn’t need to try that hard. I did respect them. I was able to witness my sisters becoming women, their entry into the world of work, their trials and tribulation with men, their marriages and their growing families.

Q. Why did you start writing erotica?

For the same reason I once became a vegan – to impress a girl. She’d been given an erotic story by another guy, a rival, and I wanted to write a better one. I did and I got the girl. But that wasn’t the end of it. She said mine was better but thought both were pretty crap. So I wrote more. She shared them with her friends and they all critiqued them. It was a steep learning curve. They were brutal to begin with. But I started to catch on.

Trying to write erotica for women is very much like trying to be a good lover in real life. There’s no golden rule. What is exciting for one woman makes the next laugh. What’s perfect for one situation can be completely inappropriate the next.

And then Emma Benson turned up on my page and I started to write for her needs alone.

Q. Tell me about Emma

I started writing about Emma back in 2001. She may seem unreal to some readers but others recognise themselves in her. She’s a distillation of the some of the strongest and most challenging women I have known. Women who cherish their independence and who seem to know what they want, most of the time. Women willing to take risks. They get hurt, sure. They hurt others, true, but that’s life. Our experiences make us who we are and no two people ever share the same experiences. We don’t all want the same things at the same time. We’re all maturing at different rates. So we’re bound to collide from time to time. It’s just that in love and in lust we are naked and it hurts more.

Q. But Emma is a married woman.

She is, but . . .

Q. But, what? She either is or she isn’t?

We all do things for love we later regret. Some get tattoos, some sit through musical theatre, some take up bridge. Emma did it on a larger scale than most. She married a man, David Benson, because it meant something to him. It meant very little to her. But she loved him and it made her happy to see him happy. Marriage wasn’t the problem. To Emma, their being married gave life more erotic possibilities. The real trouble was she hadn’t ever come clean about her past. That was the biggest problem with their relationship. David didn’t really know who he was married to.

Click here to buy The Secret Lives of Emma from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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