The Booktopia Book Guru Asks
Rhubarb, The World According to Warren and Jasper Jones
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 grew up on an orchard in the South-West of the black swan state. I was a pretty effete child labourer, much to my parent’s disappointment. I used to take books out with me while I picked and packed apples, resulting in a fairly lax work rate. I went to a strange but lovely school which was curiously integrated inside a Victorian era tourist attraction called Pioneer World, which featured street theatre, Clydesdale rides, gold panning and anything that was remotely Ye Olde. It was fantastic.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I think I was enamoured with the idea of being a palaeontologist. By eighteen, I was writing my first novel, Rhubarb. And I’ll let you know when I get to thirty. I’m thinking I might start a cult.
Oh, there were many. Pertinently, I guess, I used to have this rule where if I started reading a novel, I had to finish it, no matter how excruciatingly painful it was. That was, of course, until I began reading a particularly acclaimed novel by one of our most celebrated and best regarded writers. I resented every turgid word of it. Still, I forced myself to finish that big bitter bastard, which sat on my desk like a foetid turd, causing me nothing but dread and turmoil. It took me over six months to chew through it, and at the end, after I’d flung it as far as I could, I resolved that life is too short to invest time in art that doesn’t move you. Sorry Patrick.
4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Because a knee injury prevented me from a promising career in interpretive dance. (BBGuru: Best answer to Q.5 so far!)
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
It’s a mysterious gothic bildungsroman set in the mid sixties in regional Western Australia, concerning itself with two boys who set out to solve a horrible crime. (BBGuru: Craig’s wonderful novel, Jasper Jones is on the longlist for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award. Go Craig, Go! More…)(And he’s up for Cleo’s Bachelor of the Year! One fan comment declares he is – the thinking woman’s buttered crumpet! More…)
An experience. I guess, as the conductor of a story, you hope that the journey had worth and merit. You hope that it was beautiful for the reader, that the characters were alive for them, that their chest stalled with hope and horror and laughter and love, and all these wonderful things that novels afford us. It’s the incredible thing about books: they’re so intimate. When we pick up a novel, we need to breathe life into them, and so they live inside us. That’s why it feels so deeply personal when we move with the story, so much so that our recollections of it can feel like real memories. Good books feel as though their events have happened to us, in a way that isn’t synthetic or untrue. Good art let’s us feel what others feel, and as a creator, you can’t wish for anything more profound than that.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
There are a bunch of authors I admire a great deal. In Australia, folks like Shaun Tan, Markus Zusak, Christos Tsiolkas, Tim Winton and Gail Jones write such distinct, brave and beautiful books that simply render me awestruck. Abroad, there are too many. I don’t know. I have a great deal of admiration for Dave Eggers. He’s an incredibly talented artist with an amazing heart.
To be honest, I rarely look beyond the story itself. My goal has always been to write a novel that might, were it presented to me by a stranger, be special to me. Beyond that, it’s out of my control. I can’t anticipate how it will be received, or how many people will come to it. These are things you can only cross your fingers for. My ambitions rarely extend beyond my characters and their story.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I would urge any aspiring writer to be patient and stubborn and driven. Writing is incremental, it’s done by degrees. Every day you show up, you nurse the same doubts, you field the same concerns, you fret, you worry, you panic, you prevaricate, and inside that painful, delicate act, you finally let the story come to you in small sparks. It takes time. Reams and reams of it. You should have a healthy appetite for solitude.
The longer I write, the more I come to understand that authors are really just conduits for stories, we are the guardians of their development. For me, my writing works the best when it feels meditative and unforced, which means I need to forget that I’m a fretful author in a dim room with debts and a deadline. I need to almost remove myself from the process altogether, and let the story weave itself on the back of some kind of subconscious intuition.
I would especially urge them against concerning themselves with pointless, external exercises like Word Counts and so forth. Volume is the last thing you need to worry about. Songwriters don’t work to Note Counts. It is what it is. Don’t force it.
And, finally, practice the craft because you love it. It’s a privilege, and it’s good for you. Kurt Vonnegut used to say that practising any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. And I’m inclined to agree. Then again, I’ve got no idea what I’m doing.
Craig, 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, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five 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 Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.