author of The Dressmaker,
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Ah, where to begin. Born in England and on one count (mine) went to 14 schools. My mum maintained that was an exaggeration. She said it was twelve.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve , eighteen and thirty? And why?
At 12, an archaeologist: When I was twelve we lived in Cyprus. The past is so present there and I used to feel, in some ancient places of human settlement, that if I just held out my hand and closed my eyes, it would be grasped by someone who’d once lived in that place. I still like to dig, by the way. Something very satisfying about turning up an old bottle, or a buckle, in a garden bed. Research is like digging in rich black soil I think.
At 18, a singer: As to the second, at eighteen I was lucky enough to get a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to University (in Adelaide) however I’d been singing with a local band around town and, unexpectedly, talent spotters came to town. I was asked to audition and they offered me the chance to become a professional singer with a group they were putting together. An agonizing choice! However, in the end, I opted to go to Flinders (Drama, English, Fine Arts) and… turned out, being naïve saved me. The project I so hankered after didn’t actually happen (I knew nothing about how the music industry worked – just believed what people told me) so I got over my broken heart and plunged into another world.
At 30, I wanted to rule the world: I was an assistant editor and hating the drudgery. I also thought, arrogantly, that if I was just given a chance I could… rule the (entertainment) world. Well, had a bit of a go. Went and played with fire and just got a rosy glow in the end; only a bit scorched, not disastrously burned.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That the nature of art is absolute ie. that some created objects/works, in all cultures, at all times, will be recognized as great. I’m a relativist now.
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?
Three? Three??? Gaaaaaaaaard. Already with the tough questions. Ok…
York Cathedral. A very great building. And one Easter I was sitting there quietly, listening to a service being sung. And I began to cry. I am not conventionally religious but the glory of that place, the music, the sense that prayers of countless, countless people had drifted up into that roof for a thousand years hit me like a hammer. I shiver still when I think of it. Ah, the Gothic. Love of those places – Monasteries, Cathedrals, the houses of the nobility, the barns, the outbuildings, the cottages in the country towns of Northern Europe – ran like a river through my first three books. Medieval buildings feel like home to me.
Music? Wall of Sound (from the Good Phil Spector, not the Bad one) and Amy Winehouse (the great contemporary practitioner – and by the way, is she a case of nominative determinism??). Then there’s Vaughan Williams, any florid bit of sing-along opera, Snow Patrol. Moonlight Sonata. So many songs that I can sing but don’t know the name of. Leonard Cohen. Nick Cave. Music takes me to the moment, the feeling. That’s so valuable, writing.
And as to Art. Blimey. Van Eyck, when I’m writing about the medieval past. Finds at Sutton Hoo and Viking longships (how perfect are they, those machines of death??) now I’m in the world of the Vikings. Images of numberless great country houses in England when I was assembling the world of The Dressmaker – set in 1850’s England. And pictures by Winterhalter – those luscious, luscious fabrics! – too. Impossible to unpack, properly, the images in my mind to answer that question. Too many clamour for attention.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
It chose me.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
I seem to want to explore what makes someone who they are – just build up the layers until you get the picture of a life, a person, in as complete a way as I can. The Dressmaker was originally called “Ellen Gowan”, and in a way that was odd, because Ellen was not the star of the show for the first couple of drafts (I must have known, viscerally, that she would be – and yeah, verily, that’s what happened.)
The process of writing is discovery for me. I don’t plot – that’s a reaction, I know, against the comparatively controlled world of telling stories in television drama. However, not plotting can be a killer and so it was with The Dressmaker. The first two drafts went badly astray – the shaggy, baggy outline of a world – just too many words, too many characters, too much darkness and not enough light. I was circling the idea, not nailing it. Fortunately, I have an editor who is able not only to analyse but to guide. In a surgical manner she showed me that I needed to begin again. That was very hard – I was eighteen months in by that time – however I did agree (bugger!) that she was right. It was then that Ellen stepped forward and the book became the story of her life. And, if there’s a theme to what I do in both books and on TV, it’s that I’m interested in the strength that allows us to endure what life hurls at us. I also like telling stories that have women at the centre of the action. The men interest me too, of course, especially the bad ones, but I find the complexity of why people turn out the way they do fascinating.
It’s a yummy world, Ellen Gowan’s. So unjust, so rich, so gaudy, so grim, so passionate. Something about whalebone corsets and passion – energy, in the end, always triumphs over constriction. What a canvas to play with!
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
That the characters become real people for them. And that they don’t want to leave the world.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Another deeply, deeply impossible question to answer. I’ve admired different people at different times – and it changes all the time too. I think I most admire storytellers. People who take me into the place they’ve created and show me around. I have so many unfinished books around me – things I get impatient with because the story just runs out of puff. But Chaucer made an early, and deep impression on me. So human, so funny. Such a fresh voice. And Samuel Pepys, too. He was so honest. And then, Dickens has to be in there – for the characters, for his journalism, too. Look, I could work my way to the present… but does anyone have the time??
To get better at what I do. To say that is to acknowledge that I’m hunting something illusive and very annoying (writing, some times, drives me crazy – but then, just from time to time, I find myself smiling. I’m smiling now.) Right now, in the mist at the back of my mind, another bunch of people are starting to walk towards me. They all want my attention. The question is, who do I pick to play with? Ah, too many people, too many stories. My mind is a very crowded place but perhaps, when I am being brave, I think this is what I was meant to do.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write. Set aside a piece of time and make that a habit. Three to four hours, say, once a week is all you need. I started writing on Sundays because it was something I could actually do (if you set yourself indigestibly huge goals – a novel in six months say – you might hate your lack of progress, and give up.) Just make the cup of tea and sit down. Take the chance. Be patient. It’s surprising how quickly the words mount up.
Posie, 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.