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 in Sydney and spent the first few years of my life in Manly. When I was four or so we moved to Bourke – the small town in Western NSW where my Dad grew up. Here I was made to join pony club, despite the fact that I feared and detested horses, and insult was added to injury when my Grandfather bought me a horrible chestnut pony. When I was ten we moved back to Sydney. I went to Manly Girls’ High – which sounds really cool, but sadly I wasn’t much good riding the waves, either, so there went my surfie chick dreams. We went bush again when I was sixteen, this time to Wellington ( NSW , not NZ), where after much effort (and possibly bribery) I eventually made it to second reserve on the Brown Cup volleyball team. I also met the bloke I married at Wello High (no bribery this time). I headed back to Sydney when I’d finished school. By this stage I was quite confused about whether I was a country or a city girl. Still am, really….
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I made the decision that as science and maths clearly weren’t my strong points, I was unlikely to be a doctor. At eighteen I really wanted to study music or act : so I settled for nursing – for six weeks or so. By thirty I had two kids and was writing writing writing…
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That life would become simpler and less confusing as I got older.
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?
Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat – opus 9, no 2 — this piece inspired me to slam down the piano lid. Quite resoundingly, and pretty much permanently.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I love all of Austen, but seem to reread this particular novel most frequently. Perhaps it’s the way the pathos and irony are perfectly balanced : a lesson for living, too.
Margaret Preston’s woodblock prints. My parents once had a numbered print of Preston’s Lorikeets – I remember being utterly unimpressed by it when Mum first showed it to me as a teenager. But over the years I’ve become a devotee – of Preston and block printing in general. It’s hard to explain the attraction… though I’m sure there’s an analogy with the way I see the world there somewhere. My second novel, THE STEELE DIARIES, was about an imagined Australian woodblock artist, Zelda Steele. I’ve recently had a go at doing lino-prints myself. I’m not much good – but it’s fun – and the battle scars are far more impressive than those you sustain whilst writing ( computer-eyes, muffin top, bad posture, etc…)
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Ah yes, all those alternative careers… Well – I was a very ordinary musician, too be honest, also lazy; and I was far too diffident to throw myself into the maelstrom that is the actors’ life; and let’s not discuss my artistic abilities … Reading had always been my greatest pleasure – still is, really – so eventually writing seemed a natural extension of this .
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
My latest novel – THE MISTAKE – is essentially the story of what happens to a family when a mother’s closely guarded secret is revealed – very publicly. It’s about many things – marriage, parenthood, the media, growing up, friendship, class ….
(BBGuru: the publisher’s blurb –
We all have secrets . . .
Jodie Garrow is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks when she falls pregnant. Scared, alone and desperate to make something of her life, she adopts out the baby illegally – and tells nobody.
Twenty-five years on, Jodie has built a new life and a new family. But when a chance meeting brings the adoption to the notice of the authorities, Jodie becomes caught in a nationwide police investigation, and the centre of a media witch hunt.
What happened to Jodie’s baby? And where is she now? The fallout from Jodie’s past puts her whole family under the microscope, and her husband and daughter must re-examine everything they believed to be true.
Potent, provocative and compulsively readable, The Mistake is the story of a mother and the media’s powerful role in shaping our opinions. With astonishing insight, it cuts to the heart of what makes a family, and asks us whether we can ever truly know another person.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Robert Graves’ puts it beautifully in “The Devils Advice to Storytellers”
…To forge a picture that will pass for true,
Do conscientiously what liars do—
Born liars, not the lesser sort that raid
The mouths of others for their stock-in-trade:
Assemble, first, all casual bits and scraps
That may shake down into a world perhaps;
People this world, by chance created so,
With random persons whom you do not know—
The teashop sort, or travellers in a train
Seen once, guessed idly at, not seen again;
Let the erratic course they steer surprise
Their own and your own and your readers’ eyes;
Sigh then, or frown, but leave (as in despair)
Motive and end and moral in the air;
Nice contradiction between fact and fact
Will make the whole read human and exact.
It’s a brilliant poetic representation of Keats’s idea of negative capability, and expresses just what I set out to do when I write – gathering ideas, characters, events, letting them ‘shake down’ as they will, suspending judgement… I guess I want to leave readers with a sense of wonder and surprise at the world we live in, the people we live amongst – complex, contradictory; to give them a story that’s ‘human and exact’.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I especially admire those who keep on going – disregarding fashion, critical reception, sales…. Persistence is all, to misquote Shakespeare.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d like to get to the point where I sit down with an ‘idea’ for a novel, and have it come tapping through my fingertips and onto the blank screen without effort or angst. I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon, sadly.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
There’s so much conflicting advice out there: write what you know, write only from the imagination, write all the time, write only when the muse is present, make your characters central, plot is all, make your prose lush, pare it down… etc, etc. I think every writer’s approach is unique – which is what makes reading so much fun. Really, the only thing I can say without qualification is read read read. Write. And then read more.
Wendy, 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.