author of Zero at the Bone
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 had an army brat upbringing. My dad was posted to Vietnam a week after I was born, so my siblings and I lived on air force bases around Australia and S.E Asia. We later lived in the Pilbara region of WA, and then in Perth. In my late teens I travelled overseas for about a decade, and since the mid-nineties I’ve lived very comfortably in Fremantle, a place I love.
2. What did you want to be when you were 12, 18 and 30? And why?
I was a shy kid, and I spent a lot of my childhood alone with a good book. At 12 I wanted to be a writer, because that was my avenue into understanding the weird mystery that was life. At 18 I wanted to be a poet, because my heart was bursting with things I didn’t understand. At 30 I was a writer, because I wasn’t interested in doing anything else.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at 18 that you do not have now?
The belief that the best way to deal with dissatisfaction is to pack your bag and get the hell out.
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?
The first was Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which I read in my teen years and keep returning to, and which also drew me to other writers who approach the absurdity, pathos and poetry of life with humour and wit – Celine, Genet, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow et al. The second was a Tom Waits song – Burma Shave, which I first heard in the eighties with my head in a VW engine compartment while helping a friend change the clutch of our van, the night before my girlfriend and I set off from London across the Sahara Desert. I borrowed my friend’s tape, and it was the soundtrack for several months of driving around Africa – I loved the lush sound and the poignancy and precise wit of Waits’ lyrics. Finally, the moment I came across Leonardo Sciascia’s 1962 crime novel, The Day of the Owl, was a breakthrough moment for me – providing as it did a template for my first crime novel, using multiple voices and a quiet understatement to tackle the novel’s very weighty subject matter – the pervasiveness of fear in Sicilian life brought about by the peculiar intimacy of organised crime on the island.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I started out writing short stories and was very happy with the form until one day a story got away from me – basically it kept growing until it was pretty clear that I had a novel on my hands. I fell in love with the process of writing a novel – sitting down in the morning and not knowing what was going to happen next, or who would appear on the page.
My new novel, Zero at the Bone, is my second crime novel set in Perth during the seventies and eighties, part of what I hope will be a crime triptych looking at the states policing, political and mining culture leading up to the period known as ‘WA Inc’, when two consecutively serving WA Premiers were imprisoned for corruption as well as several entrepreneurial types. Like Sciascia, I want the novels to entertain but also say something interesting about the period that’s shaped modern Perth as a global mining metropolis. I’m using many of the same characters from the first novel, Line of Sight, including my main character Frank Swann. The novel is designed to be a stand-alone, but like I say can be also be read as the second in a series.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Firstly, I hope to provide a good crime read, with all that that entails – tight plotting, sharp dialog, a sense of tension and something at stake. As well, I also want to reflect some of the conditions of the period that helped shape the place that Perth has become – a place where the surface reality very much belies what happens behind the scenes. Perth shares Los Angeles’ Mediterranean climate, and its noirish light – bright sunshine and deep shadows – the perfect field for crime fiction. The writing of setting is important to me, and I also hope I communicate my genuine fondness for my hometown – its characters, its sense of being isolated from the rest of Australia, its landscape, even while exploring its darker side.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire many different writers for their expression of many different aspects of the craft, and I’m currently going through a period of greatly enjoying Australian crime writing. I think that Peter Temple’s Shooting Star is about the most perfect Australian crime novel that I’ve read – it has the wit and the humour but also the sharp intelligence and clear vision that marks out a genuinely great crime novel.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
This business is too tough to set long-term goals. My ambitions are very short-term – put simply, to aim to make the thing that I’m working on as good as it can possibly be. Beyond that, it’s mostly out of my control.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
The usual – read to learn, look closely at the world around you, become a quick study of human behaviour – even if writing doesn’t work for you as a career, you’ll never regret learning to see the world through a writer’s eyes.
David, 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.