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 London, but was soon moved to a village near Cambridgeshire and spent the next 20 years trying to make the reverse journey. I’m an asphalt flower in that I need concrete to survive and even now that I have children and all my contemporaries are talking of the joys of rural life, I’m convinced I’ll only leave the city in a hearse.
My parents are Catholic so I went to four schools, all called St Mary’s and all peopled by nuns. From there to Oxford University to read history.
At 12, I wanted to be 13. At 18, I wanted to be snake-hipped. At 30, I wanted to end all the dating disasters and to work out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Career-wise, I always wanted to be a writer, though for a long time I was so convinced that it was impossible and that nobody ever gets published, that I failed to do the most important thing of all – actually write. Though I had written lots of snippets in my 20s, it took the end of dating disasters and meeting my husband to give me the stability and confidence to finish something and dare to send it out.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That being snake-hipped would make me happy, that I would marry Morrissey, that feminism’s most important battle was to improve street lighting.
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?
Ooo how not to sound pretentious with this answer? Does anybody say watching Dallas or Neighbours?
Books, I’d go for George Elliot’s Middlemarch because I think it was the first book I read where I didn’t feel that at 1000 pages it was too long and whose heroine tapped in to all my teenage feelings of destiny and greatness.
Anything by Rosamond Lehmann because she made me realise what a comfort books could be as her two best heroines, Judith Earle and Olivia Curtis, struggled to reconcile their interior and exterior lives.
Architecture – anything by Inigo Jones, an English architect working in the first half of the 17th century. His work is never bombastic or grandiose. Plus he designed theatrical sets, came from an impoverished background and has the name Inigo. Which is just the sort of trendy name that parents give their sons these days, but at the time must have made him stand out amid the Williams and Johns.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
There are no other artistic avenues open to me – I am cloth-eared, can’t draw and have two left feet.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs…
The tagline is ‘What do you hate most about the one you love?’
My heroine (or anti-heroine, depending on your perspective), Mary Gilmour, feels that her life is going down a plughole clogged with cornflakes and play-doh. She is convinced that there’s only one thing standing between her and colour-coded storage heaven: his name is Joel and he’s her husband. Since star charts have improved the behaviour of her two sons, she decides that she will make the equivalent for her husband. She writes an Excel spreadsheet of everything he does to annoy her, and some of his plus points, and gives him six months to prove himself to be more of an asset than a liability. Or else…
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
The Pile of Stuff is supposed to be an enjoyable, romantic and funny read, but I also hope to raise some issues about who does what in modern relationships. Women’s work outside the home has changed dramatically over my lifetime, but inside the home the changes are lagging behind. That makes it sound very earnest and it really isn’t. It raises questions, but I’m an observer not a politician, so it’s not prescribing answers.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
The people whose books I rush out to buy are Nick Hornby and Barbara Trapido. They are very different writers but, like Inigo Jones, their work has a perfect ‘smallness’ about them. I don’t like work that shouts too much and someone like Nick Hornby can get dismissed as ‘commercial’ just because he doesn’t make his work self-consciously literary. David Nicholls’ One Day is another book that’s popularity shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s just damned good.
US writers Carol Shields and Anne Tyler share this sensibility and some of their observations will stay with me forever. Carol Shields has one about a character’s attitude to disabled parking spaces that comes to me almost daily.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I am not one of those artists. I don’t, in fact, think of myself as an artist. I find it quite hard to admit even to being a writer as it sounds so fraudulent to put yourself in the company of Austen, Shakespeare et al.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I remember saying to my best friend when I was writing my first (ultimately very unpublished) work, ‘No one will publish it anyway’. And she said, ‘well they definitely won’t if you don’t write it.’ And it’s obvious but very true, you have to put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard or it will never happen. Don’t worry about it being any good. When I wrote this book, I was so tired with three children under five, I can barely remember the process and all I do remember is a continual feeling of the utter pointlessness of the endeavour. You just have to try to battle through this.
Christina, 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.