The Booktopia Book Guru Asks
The Book of Emmett
Shortlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin
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 Seddon in the western suburbs of Melbourne. I grew up largely in Braybrook and then Footscray. Went to school at various state schools around there.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve I wanted to be a doctor because I had the urge to help but then I discovered I couldn’t actually do maths ( I was okay up to the five times tables, after that it was a charade). At eighteen I wanted to a write but money was an issue so I became a journalist. At thirty I still wanted to be write but I also wanted to be a mother so I wrote a bad novel (unpublished) and had a baby. Writing has been the most consistent thing in my life.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I thought it wasn’t really possible for me to be a writer, it seemed to be for others so I kept finding ways to stop myself. Now I disagree. I reckon a bit of quiet determination gets you further than a whole lot of wishful thinking.
Books have always been my main influences but I like anything that makes me feel. When I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I was about seventeen and it felt like waking up. Joni Mitchell’s album Blue moves me. All paintings by the Melbourne painter Clarice Beckett are beautiful. The film Midnight Cowboy. I wrote ‘Emmett’ listening to music from Leonard Cohen (Ten New Songs) to Bird York to Los Lobos. Music helps me write.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Writers create worlds out of words and that’s magic. Besides – can’t sing, can’t draw, can’t dance.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Book of Emmett is the story of a family whose father is a moody, violent bully. He gambles and he drinks, but somehow he loves the Arts. He inspires and terrorises. The children who survive their father are bonded like soldiers; they lived through the trenches together. Some forgive him, some don’t. What is love when you hold it up to the light?
Emmett Brown is as dark as Heathcliff, and as unpredictable. Sometimes he’s an inspiration, but not often. He’s a man of booze and obsessions: one of them is his ‘System’, an attempt to bend the laws of probability. But when the lottery numbers and horses fail him, so do love and reason, and he becomes an ogre to his wife and children.
For the innocents – Louisa, Rob, Peter, Daniel and Jessie – the bonds formed hiding in hedges at the end of the street, waiting for the maelstroms to pass, are complex and unbreakable. Over the years, the consequences of Emmett’s rages shape both their spirits and psyches, but as he lies dying they discover that love – however imperfect – is the best defence against pain.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they get confused about love because I think if it’s not confusing, it’s not real. I hope the characters are so alive you think about them for a very long time. I hope they are memorable. I hope you love them and hate them and forgive them. I hope you cry with them and laugh at their daggy jokes. I hope you never forget them. I hope they come to live in your heart.
So many incredible writers have given us so much. I’ll begin with Christina Stead because her masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children was a revelation; so real to me I could barely hold it in my hands. A book about a family that’s off, that doesn’t work but still loves. The book is perfection. I also admire the southern American gothic writers, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee and Carson McCullers. Also Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer, Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro. I like novels that are surprising, well-written and memorable. I hate bland, hate pretentious.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I really only want to write books I’m proud of. My goals are just to keep writing, trouble is, I’m easily distracted so I’m considering nailing my bum to the chair.
10.What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I’m so newly launched in all this, it seems presumptuous to offer advice but anyway here goes, the best I’ve got is to believe in yourself. After that, it’s like that old sign they put up in the London Underground during the war: Keep Calm and Carry On. Treat the reader as your friend, remember they don’t have to read your book. Don’t dwell on knockbacks, just listen to the reader within and give that reader the truth in an authentic voice. That’s what readers want.
Deborah, thank you for playing.
Click here to view The 2010 Miles Franklin Literary Award Shortlist.
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.