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 in Gippsland in Victoria in the same place as Leigh Hobbs, Hal Porter, Wil Anderson (to name a few) which places me in with some pretty good company. Finished high school in Port Hacking in Sydney, went to Uni in Wollongong and am now living on the Far North Coast of NSW. I’ve loved every place I’ve lived in and now I’ve a yen to live in the mountains. I think it might be the gypsy in my soul.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I stopped wanting to ride around on white horse like Maid Marion – there didn’t seem to be too much of story riding around and waiting for Robin Hood to save me – and began wanting to be a vet. At eighteen I lived my dream and became a governess out past Wanaaring in NSW and thirty – this was the result of the eighteen year old dream – I was teaching with every intention of going To The Top. I’m not sure why – except I loved it. I think it was to do with learning the way children learn and then sharing this incredible journey.
Writing was a ‘play’ thing – I loved writing letters, and making up poetry for cards and things like that. In my life, writing or art wasn’t on the agenda as something that you could do for a living – so I hadn’t considered it. There was a brief time, during my senior years at high, when I wanted to do journalism but I didn’t qualify. I seem to recall that there were very few places available and it was highly competitive – enough, anyway, to scare me off.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I don’t know that I had any beliefs. I do know that I struggled to conform to whatever seemed to be important to everyone else. I guess this means that I believed I had to be other than myself to be accepted. I guess I never really believed that people would accept you for who you are, not for who you think they might prefer.
Now I just am – its very empowering.
Too many, too many, too many. I am in love with so many writers and artists and musicians. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ rates high as does Robin Klein and her wonderful children’s work. The Audreys – their songs stun me – they are so perceptive and lovely. And every time I turn around there seems to be a new artist who’s been there forever for me to discover – I have to say, though, I am increasing called to Chagall, Vuillard and Blackman and then that makes me think of Bill Morrison. Largely I’m influenced by the way these artists, and others, interpret their world – each one is so individual. Because they exhibit their view of the world, and master the medium to do it successfully it gives me courage, confidence, discipline and tenacity to take my own work out there – in my own way. Somehow their journey makes mine valid.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say with painting. I think I do now though – in fact, writing has allowed me to use painting as a way to express strong feelings. I can ‘see’ moments now as a painting.
The first novel, though, happened when words failed me… I made up a story to reveal a situation that confounded me. It was a good story and a whole heap of people found expression for their own feelings.
Well, now….this is a story which will take you into bumpy, dark places where you may not otherwise go, where things half seen are preferred truths. A little girl sees something, knows something that is so awful that she prefers to believe it can’t possibly be true. This is where the novel began– with the things children know and don’t tell. And then it became bigger when another character took hold. He’s a young man, a New Australian as he would have been called in 1950’s, whose background is a mystery. He is never questioned about his life, or his country as it was easier to believe half-truths uttered about new comers and their strange ways.
In many ways these two characters are the title – The Innocents. Missie is simply too young to be anything else but an innocent, and Oleks is so new to this country that he has not had time to learn its ways. It is a novel about facing fear and a terrible miscarriage of justice. A listener who heard me describing this work before it was finished said she couldn’t possibly write about something so awful – and I think, in a way, that’s exactly why I was doing it. She preferred the half-truths offered as description of the way things are – I believe that half-truths are fine, but sometimes you need to peel back to see what lurks beneath. And then you can begin to address it.
I’d like to think that people have enjoyed a good read. I’d also like think that they are more informed about the way it was – and can now look at the way it is. Sadly, in spite of lots of good intentions, the world is still grappling with bias as it was in my novel which is set in the 1950’s. I’d also be happy for people to be left with the impression that I’m not a bad writer – for me, that’s probably what it’s all about – bloody good writing.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Of course there are heaps – usually the author of whatever book I’m involved with at the moment. But Margaret Atwood leaves me gasping. It takes me so long to read her work as I need to come away from her words and savour them and roll them around until I’ve sucked them dry – and then I want to call someone to share them. I know I can let any of her books fall open anywhere and read and find something wonderful. My favourite writer for young adults is Jane Gardam – she is wickedly observant and writes truly delicious characters.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I don’t know that I consciously set goals – I think I’m more at the mercy of my obsession which is writing. There is always another book waiting to be started and then another book waiting to be planned and another book that I’m dying to try and so on and on it goes. Ultimately I want to be known as an author of books that are worth reading. I want to be the author whose books become known by word-of-mouth…that’s a pretty good goal I’d say – and I think it’s pretty ambitious. I know I’m certainly working hard to achieve it.
Just do it. Get rid of the critic that is you looking over your shoulder and telling you it’ll be useless or won’t work or who do you think you are. Let yourself drift into your writing – you’re unique so your writing will reflect your individuality. Practise every day. And go find some texts to help you solve the problems you meet – remember, though, someone else’s solutions will still carry your stamp of originality as you’re the one doing the problem solving. And that, of course, is the core of writing – its problem solving. How you do it, how you arrive at the problem to be solved, the characters that you choose to take the solution forward – they’re all yours.
Remember, there is always someone or a book somewhere that will guide you – so many hands willing to help you on your way. All you have to do is give it a run, one word at a time…go for it!
Nette, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.