author of Armageddon: Two Men on an Anzac Trail
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
My background is completely unremarkable, especially for a writer. I was born in Melbourne to middle-class parents and I had a fairly cloistered, traditional Catholic upbringing – parish primary school with nuns (among them Sister Brendan; I kid you not) who were tougher than any trooper I’d ever go on to meet, then private boy’s school. The priests and brothers were a mixed lot: some were incredibly compassionate and dedicated to teaching – others unthinkably cruel and driven by frustration. I was blessed to receive a free tertiary education. University bought me time – time to carouse and experiment more energetically than I’d like my kids to. But time also to figure out what I wanted to do with myself when play-time was over.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I wanted to be a vet. I collected strays and I felt for them. My wife says I still do collect strays – except these days they’re mostly people. At eighteen I wanted to paint because I could. I got into art school. My father convinced me it wasn’t a good idea. I went to university instead. At thirty I wanted to write. I was already a writer of sorts – as the national affairs correspondent for a major metropolitan newspaper I was in Canberra covering politics. I got into journalism as a means to becoming a writer. It was always my plan to write beyond journalism. But I got good at the journalism – covered big stories, travelled widely and won awards. It was a fabulous two-decade diversion. Now I’m close to where I want to be.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That justice prevails and that the good guys mostly win.
Reading Great Expectations for the first time as a teenager, and then George Johnston’s My Brother Jack trilogy, repeatedly, set me on the course, although I may not have known it at the time. Dickens showed me that writers do more than entertain – that their job is to actually uncover the truth about humanity, to expose it to us through their characters and to make us ponder those truths. Johnston taught me that it is okay for me to love my country and to hate its excesses and prejudices at the same time. He gave me a yearning for the edge and a burning desire to see the world, while I sat at home in Melbourne’s suburbia with his books. Covering the Bosnia conflict in 1993 indelibly undermined my faith in human nature and made me question whether good – or God – existed. I have since had no such doubts about evil. I swore off war and conflict after that. But it took me a few more years to get it out of my system.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book?
Books aren’t obsolete yet and I think that they will always exist. People like the way they feel and smell. And one gets a sense of ownership with a book that it is perhaps not possible to draw from an e-book, beyond the initial purchase of the e-reader (I don’t yet have one). That said, I’m relaxed about the prospect of my books eventually becoming available primarily (though never strictly) as e-books.
Armageddon: Two Men on an Anzac Trail trail is the story in words and pictures of a trip that I undertook with my dear friend, the photographer Mike Bowers. We followed in the footsteps of the men of the Australian Light Horse who traversed Palestine, the Jordan Valley, the Hills of Moab, Syria and Lebanon, spearheading British operations in World War One to end four centuries of Ottoman rule. It is part Gonzo history and part contemporary travelogue that juxtaposes our experiences of the current geo-politics of the region with the experiences of the blokes who were there nearly a century earlier.
(BBGuru: Publisher synopsis – A unique literary and pictorial portrait of a tumultuous, exciting and enduringly dangerous part of the world.
Armageddon. Nazareth. Damascus. The names of these places come straight from the Bible. They are the lands of the Pharaohs, the Crusaders, Lawrence of Arabia. But the forbidding deserts and mysterious cities of the Middle East were also the lesser-known backdrop for the battles of the Australian men and boys who served there during the First World War.
Paul Daley and Michael Bowers follow in the footsteps of the Australian Light Horse divisions, bringing us closer to the realities of those times. As they pick up shrapnel, bullet casings and even the odd human bone, the musings and black humour of these two mates recall the laconic spirit of the diggers.
Illustrated with both archival photographs and contemporary photography, Armageddon is part travelogue, part history – a compelling story about the tragic road the Australians fought to victory.
Evocative, sometimes funny, frequently sad and often disturbing, Armageddon is two men on a fading Anzac trail.)
That we, as Australians, become more honest and open about who we are and who we want to be, about how we colonised this country, about how we view outsiders and about how we behave at war. The real stories are always more compelling.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
I admire the people who do the work we don’t like to do – or whose work we don’t know about. When my father was dying, for example, I was in awe of the people who cared for him in the nursing home where he spent his final months. Their compassion was inspiring. Nobody thinks about what they do until they need them. I admire the 2010 Australian Of The Year, Patrick McGorry. Mental illness, which has touched my family, is a great national scourge and he has done more than anyone to de-stigmatise it and to push our politicians to cough up the money to fight it. I admire Hillary Clinton for refusing to buckle under pressure when confronted by the most potent weapon in public life – shame. I don’t always agree with her. But I admire her resolve.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To continue to write passionately about things that engage me and, of course, to keep my readers engaged. For many more peaceful days and nights with my wife and children and dog. To surf in summer and to ski in winter. To keep seeing the world. It goes fast. I want to keep enjoying it.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Keep writing. If it doesn’t work, junk it and start again. That’s what I do. But most of all make the time to write and do it.
Paul, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for the last twenty years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Head of Product and Chief Buyer at booktopia.com.au.