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 Jakarta in Indonesia, but of French parents who were working there for a big French construction company. (They built the port of Tanjung Priok in Jakarta, and later a big air force base in Surabaya). My parents and two older sisters(who were born in France) were there for six years but when I was 9 months old my mother took me back to France as I was very sickly and they didn’t think I’d survive if I stayed in Indonesia. She left me with my paternal grandmother and aunts in Toulouse and I was raised by them till I was nearly five years old, when my parents and sisters (with another little addition, who’d been born in Surabaya while I was away!) picked me up and took me with them to their next home–in Australia! (dad had been transferred there.) I arrived in Australia with no English at all, and had to start school the very month we landed! We stayed in Australia after that but went back to France every two years for a holiday as per my father’s contract. And sometimes we even had to go to school in France during those holidays! My parents never migrated, they just kept renewing their work contracts–so in many ways it was a funny way to live, suspended between two countries and languages–like living in two different worlds. I sometimes think that’s why I became a writer.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Well even further back than that, at the age of four I wanted to be a princess! That’s the first ambition I remember clearly. At twelve it was a toss up between actress and writer, both of which I loved–I was doing heaps of drama in and out of school and I was already writing lots of stories and poems and even comic books. By eighteen actress had receded into the background (stage fright too acute by fourteen) and I wanted to be a writer. At thirty I still wanted to be a writer–and was one!
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I thought the Celts were much better than the Romans! Sounds nerdy I know but I was obsessed by the Celts–Bretons, Irish, scots, Cornish, Manx, Gaulish–and thought the Romans were a bunch of technological deadheads. Now I’m much more even-handed about it, and can see both have their good and bad points!
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
1/Coming to Australia, which made English into not my native tongue but my adopted tongue, a tongue I learned to love and mould and in which I really discovered I could express myself and my love of stories.
2/Discovering Shakespeare, whose works continue to inspire me;
3/Writing, as a teenager, to Australian poets whose work I’d admired at school, and sending them some of my own work–and getting generous letters back from them, giving constructive criticism. I knew nobody in the publishing industry and had no idea how to get published but these letters were my first introduction to the idea that there really was a kind of fellowship of writers, and encouraged me greatly.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?
No way, they’ll never be! all those other things are ephemeral–the book will always remain, in whatever medium, print or electronic, it happens to be in. There is nothing more satisfying than reading a good book–except writing one! I might add that I’m no Luddite, I love the Internet and I participate fully in all kinds of electronic media, including writing blogs, creating trailers for You Tube etc etc–but none of these can ever replace the book. It’s not an electronic ephemeral which was arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of modern times–but a series of books, the Harry Potter books.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
The Understudy’s Revenge is a historical mystery, inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and set in 1860, in the exciting London theatre world of Charles Dickens’ and Wilkie Collins‘ time (they both appear as cameos in the book!) It’s told by lively young Millie Osborne, daughter of a theatre company’s manager, who decides to investigate the story behind a mysterious new arrival, who’s taken on as an understudy–Oliver Parry. He’s fascinating–but he’s also hiding a secret… And curious Millie and her friend Seth are determined to find out what it is–and fall into great danger.
My Father’s War is set in 1918, in the last year of the First World War, and is about an Australian girl called Annie whose soldier father has been away for two years fighting on the battlefields of northern France. They haven’t heard from him in months; Annie’s French mother is very worried and decides they’ll go to France to look for him. They arrive in Amiens and start the search–but then Annie’s mother also goes missing… at the very moment when the war starts hotting up again. Annie’s desperate to find them–but will she be too late? This is very much about the experience of war as seen from a child’s viewpoint–and it climaxes around the ‘other Anzac Day’–the terrible but decisive battle of Villers-Brettoneux on 24-25 April 1918.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
That people might not take life and the people they love for granted.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Well, that’s a hard one! There’s quite a few people I admire! they range from Shakespeare to Solzhenitsyn, the people of the Philippines for freeing themselves bloodlessly from a corrupt dictator, and the peoples of Eastern Europe for at last tearing down the grey regimes that had controlled them for so long; from my maternal grandmother who despite a hard life and much suffering never showed any bitterness but was the kindest, most loving and genuinely joyfully religious person I have ever known, to my English teacher in high school who encouraged me in every way–and that’s just a beginning!
In terms of my writing, to be the best writer I can possibly be, within my own nature and the abilities I was granted–not to look over my shoulder at other people, not to be envious, but just to do the very best I personally can, every time. I am very very lucky–I can earn my living doing what I was born to do, the thing that comes as naturally to me as breathing. but that doesn’t mean I can be complacent, not for one minute!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read as much as you can, observe as much as you can, practise as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to imitate–it’s good practice–but develop your own voice, learn to understand it and what it’s telling you. People often say–write about what you know–but that doesn’t mean limiting yourself to the details of your life. It means–write about what you know–from the inside. Be true to your emotions. Your own way of seeing things. But don’t be closed to others. Don’t look over your shoulder. Don’t waste time thinking, I would like to be writing like so and so. Work with what you have. Don’t be afraid to do things differently. And don’t take anything for granted!
Sophie, thank you for playing.
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.