author of When Colts Ran, Mr Darwin’s Shooter, the Miles Franklin Winning – The Ballad Of Desmond Kale and more…
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 at Young, NSW during WWII. We lived at Bribbaree, a small town on the Forbes-Stockinbingal railway line, where my father was Presbyterian minister. Farmers drove sulkies to church and the policeman patrolled on a horse. My first memories are of looking over a dry-grass paddock and seeing army trucks going past. They were seemingly able to lift through the dust and haze and fly.
I started school at four and a half at Temora, and finished primary school at Bourke and in Sydney. At The Scots College, Bellevue Hill, the secondary teachers I remember were drunken ex-theological students, fake WWII pilots, one-lunged athletes. Their classes ran riot. In my English classes, no matter how well or badly taught, grammar, spelling, and imitation of 18th and 19th century essay structures left no room for “personal creativity”. Paradoxically this was good training for a writer. The lesson was to take your writing seriously, not so much yourself.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve an aeroplane pilot, at eighteen “a writer” – both were equally unreal as ambitions. Writers of the older generation were battlers and eccentrics. I started writing early but didn’t show it to anyone I knew until well into my twenties. “Expressing myself” I found excruciatingly difficult, and still do. Publishing opportunities expanded. In my late twenties and early thirties I published two books of poetry, Citizens of Mist and Airship, then gave up salaried employment to try fiction (I’d worked as a teacher, then as a producer for the ABC, and as an editor in publishing).
My first novel, 1915, was a joining of two unfinished stories set in the WWI period from either end of a chronology. After reading C.E.W. Bean’s account of Australians at Gallipoli I’d found a way in to an earlier time. The writing went steadily ahead meeting a target of 300 words a day over two years. A Literature Board Fellowship made the work financially possible while supporting a family. The novel sold well and was made into an eight-part ABC-TV mini-series, still available on DVD, by the way. From then on I took my chances as a freelance, writing novels and commissioned books and film scripts, with fellowships and prizes thrown in. I was lucky to be born at a time when new writers had cultural support, found readership, and attracted interest from a burgeoning film industry.
That a divergence in beliefs and values made it hard to find common ground, when actually I was standing on it. I saw my father as a religious man, and could not connect to that part of him; whereas now I see him as a spiritual man, and can connect to that. I’m sorry I could never tell him my appreciation of where he stood.
The other difference was with my two brothers, who both became farmers in Queensland (one later farmed in New Zealand). Like them I always loved the idea of living in the country (which I have for many years), but not working it. I saw us in entirely different occupations (they had the hardest work on their hands), but now I see us, all three, as part of the same impulse. Some sort of primary production, you could say, entirely bound up in common ground.
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?
At the family dining table I was the one who used words, the bigger and more pretentious the better. I read everything I could put my hands on, comics, cowboy paperbacks, war stories, epics of girls’ boarding school life, Tom Sawyer, Kidnapped, the dictionary and the encyclopaedia. If there was anyone I would have liked to be, it was Freddy Freeman, the crippled newsboy saved by Captain Marvel from Captain Nazi. He became Captain Marvel Junior by uttering the word “Shazam!”
In starting a book I don’t put an example of the sort of novel I would like to write in front of me. I don’t have specific influential works of art in mind, except in the sense that “a book exists that has not been written yet”, and I write towards it, somehow.
But occasionally, when writing, when stumped at where to go next, I look elsewhere to guide or reassure. When writing my novel The Slap (1996) – about a childhood slap that echoes through a man’s troubled lifetime – I was helped by the structure of a painting by the New Zealand painter Nigel Brown. It depicts a family at the breakfast table, with a huge black dog circling the kitchen. I already had my story but it helped me stay relevant. Otherwise I am not aware of inspiration beyond the story itself, as it comes into being. I do, however, sometimes open the books of other writers while working, just to reassure myself that others have survived the process.
Examples are: E.L Doctorow’s novels, which take a bite at history, experience, and the inner life, all in one intense, headlong narrative; Darwin’s The Origin of Species, offering a vision of connected life, at the level of a work of art; the dusty pile of diamonds spread with gum leaves, that is Patrick White; the portrayal of working life in the plays of Ray Lawler – The Doll Trilogy, and in D’arcy Niland – Call Me When the Cross Turns Over. Altogether it amounts to a trust in Australian life and landscape as a source of inspiration, never entirely barren, always surprisingly subtle, and often beautiful and definitely quirky and confoundingly wise.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I had only one choice – words. They give me my music and my visual perspective. Having started with poetry, after a time my poetry felt restricted – I could never fit enough in. I wanted a variety of voices, situations, conflicts. Novels offered that.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
When Colts Ran began differently from my other novels. It did not grow out of itself in the same way. Its parts originated in long stories, almost novellas, with a variety of main characters. First there was a failed novel about a runaway boy (Colts) and his bumptious mentor, an old soldier (Major Buckler). I finished that novel ten years ago; it was about to be published as “To the Night Sky” when I backed out because of a nagging feeling that I had failed to bring it to a proper finish. Over the next decade parts of what became When Colts Ran were published as stories in “The Bulletin”, “Best Australian Stories”, and “Making Waves: Ten Years of the Byron Bay Literary Festival”. Another part won the O. Henry Prize as one of the best twenty stories published in the USA (2008). The accolades encouraged me to bring them together but they had much more in common than a collection of short stories. Then I’d written a story about a rugby playing minister who became a quadriplegic, and another about two boys who witness a horrific car accident. They became part of the mosaic.
Colts, the runaway boy, the title character, passes through the seven ages of man in this novel – he is present in every chapter from adolescence to old age, watching, walking away, coming back, reliable, unreliable, losing himself in drink and dreams, while rousing love, affection, and sometimes terminal exasperation. Colts is my hymn to the virtues of failure, the way life has of conveying hope while “singing of despair” (to adapt Cyril Connolly’s phrase on F. Scott Fitzgerald).
There was also the love story between the old soldier and a barmaid – it went nowhere, originally, but revisiting the drafts I found (I think) a richer alternative outcome, a passage of the years consolation. Major Buckler went back to his wife, a painter – and I went back to that story and took it in its new direction, spanning the years 1942-2000. This gave the yet to be fully assembled manuscript a chronological sweep matching my lifetime. Another part was a long story about a father and his daughters, the wish for male friendships in a household of women. People are like they are in life. The hero of one chapter (or pair of chapters) is the villain of the next. This pattern of existence gave me the balance, and rhythm, between the separate parts. In assembling the sections I found I could introduce almost completely new characters right up to the end, and still have them connecting back and towards all other elements of the story in a satisfying way. I hope the reader feels the same. I would have to say, too, that the Australian landscape is a character in this book – a villain in drought years, a hero when it rains.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
The feeling of having been inside a complete created world, three dimensional in physical reality, vivid, moving through time with men and women as real as the worn down hills.
Shakespeare, for the marvel of words. Otherwise usually the last book I’ve read and liked.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To get the work done. To have it read.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Don’t talk about your writing or show it to anyone until it is finished (emptied out) to the very end of your own sense of it. The essence of writing fiction is a unique set of demands, or requirements, that arise from the writing itself. The writing will have to answer those demands, however imperfectly, before it is ready to be looked at by someone other than the author. Then the editing and revision process can begin.
Roger, 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.