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 Edmonton, Alberta, an oil-rich prairie capital a few hours drive east of the Canadian Rockies. After spending my childhood on country acreage, I moved back up to the city, discovered journalism in university, and kept writing for various newsrooms and newspapers until I ended up in Melbourne about four years ago.
2. What did you want to be when you were 12, 18 and 30? And why?
Growing up, I never had an answer to that question — and I still don’t. I guess this has led to a continued career in journalism: everything is of interest and it’s one of very few jobs that exposes someone to all sorts of interesting characters, places, and experiences. One day as a reporter can be spent interviewing a convicted murderer, the next it’s the prime minister. As a journalist, I’m given a front-row seat to all sections of history as it happens, which can be pretty exciting.
I remember my mother once stuck a magnet on the fridge when I was a teenager that quipped, “Better ask your kids now while they still know everything.” I think that sums up the attitude of youth. At 18, I thought I had it all figured out. Today I’m not so sure.
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?
Richard Price’s Clockers, a novel examining the lives of American drug dealers and detectives, remains one lasting influence. While the story is fiction, Price certainly did his homework by job-shadowing police officers for years.
I admire the cross-cutting used throughout the book, alternating chapters between two very different perspectives. His writing style also has a beautiful sense of place, and I’ve always felt a good book will use the setting itself like a character.
I’m also a fan of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, which speaks of a time and place like any great big novel should. Quite funny at times.
And in university, I was an avid film fan and watched a lot of film noir and neo-noir, which I think led to my interest in reporting on the darker side of things. Everyone should watch films like The Night of the Hunter and The Third Man. Hollywood doesn’t tell captivating stories like this anymore.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete??
Only a narrative non-fiction book can transform print journalism into storytelling. In a newsroom, I am often writing articles about facts or policy and rarely get to dive into the lives of the people behind the news. In a book I have space to explore the emotional narrative behind a real-life story. It’s more honest and raw, taking the story to a much deeper level.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Taking place in October 2008, The Devil’s Cinema is the bizarre true story of filmmaker Mark Twitchell, a charismatic young man who is accused of turning his move script into a real-life slaying by replicating elements of the Dexter television series.
The narrative explores the lives of the killer, his victims, and the detectives who chased him. But it also gives the reader a rare “insiders account” of everything that happened because I interviewed all the major players over several years, including a year of exclusive contact with the killer himself.
The book details how and why a suburban father with no criminal record could seemingly transform into a wannabe serial killer by stealth. One day he’s a bit of a geek infatuated with Star Wars, and the next he’s charged with murdering a complete stranger. His wife, young child, friends — all had no idea.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Mark Twitchell’s criminal trial drew international attention largely due to its connections with Dexter, the popular TV and book series about a fictional vigilante serial killer. But what I’ve discovered is how my take on the story has resonated with a wider audience who’ve never even heard of Dexter because it is so oddly relatable.
We’ve all had a dream of becoming famous, even if it was just as children. Here we have a group of friends who never grew up, became fanboys, and saw their sci-fi fantasies merge with reality as they reached for Hollywood fame, only to have one of them slowly turn it into something quite strange and in the end, terribly horrific.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire any journalist who can remain enthusiastic and passionate despite how toxic the industry has become. There is not a lot of hope out there for non-fiction writers, especially when newspapers are shrinking and shutting down. We need to support those writers out there who are still fighting for good journalism.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I try to set more realistic goals and let others worry about the rest. I just want to be able to keep doing what I love: find interesting true stories, get them published, and hope readers find them fascinating as I do. Everything else is out of my control.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Aspiring writers need to write every day, and then write some more. For every book an author has published there is the equivalent of two more in the recycle bin.
Steve, 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.