The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Little People
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
In London. I went to George Eliot primary school, North London Collegiate School and Oxford University, where I studied English literature and attempted to learn Anglo-Saxon irregular verbs. I did an inspirational report on George Eliot at primary school complete with my own drawings of the great novelist, so I knew she was a lady with a long nose, but I never actually read any of her books until the last 10 years or so.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve: a novelist. At eighteen: a writer of some sort who could make a living, because by then I suspected most novelists were very poor. At thirty: a top journalist who travelled a lot and made lots of money. It sounded dashing and glamorous and scary and I’d just come to Australia to work on The Age. I did get to make a living out of journalism, and it was rich in experience, though the travel thing didn’t happen quite as much as I’d hoped; but in the end, after a very long time, the novelist thing did.
That my love for my boyfriend at the time would last for ever, despite the fact we lived in different countries. Perhaps the internet would have helped if it had been around then. Probably not.
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?
1. My father Arthur Horner’s strip cartoon, “Colonel Pewter”, which he drew for many years for English and Australian newspapers. I first read them as a little girl. I thought they were the most wonderful strange, funny adventures. I didn’t understand the puns and the political satire until a long time later.
2. The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. Loved them as a child. And the Pauline Baynes illustrations, which are like Persian miniatures. Didn’t get the Christian thing at all.
3. So many books… perhaps I’d pick out Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. I’ve always been attracted to the bizarre.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Good question. Why didn’t I go the way of Picasso or Beethoven or Giacometti? Maybe talent (or lack of it) had something to do with it. I was a compulsive drawer as a kid, I did lots of cartoon stories. But everyone else in the family was a better artist than I was, and gradually I turned more to stories than pictures.
Little People is a historical novel based on a real-life event: the 1870 tour of Australia by the celebrated midget General Tom Thumb and his troupe. They were like rock stars in their day and people flocked to see them. I’ve imagined their adventures through the eyes of a young woman, Mary Ann, and Sideshows starring the little people themselves.
(BBGuru: Publisher’s synopsis – In 1870 the celebrated midget General Tom Thumb and his troupe are touring Australia. While in Melbourne, Tom Thumb is rescued from the Yarra River by an impoverished governess, Mary Ann. She is hired by the troupe, but soon realises that relationships between the little people and their entourage are far from harmonious.
When it becomes clear to everyone that Mary Ann is pregnant, Tom Thumb and his wife hatch a plan that appears to provide her child with a secure future. Others among the touring performers are less happy with these developments, however, and Mary Ann starts to wonder just whom she can trust. As the pregnancy proceeds, Mary Ann’s life and that of her child seem increasingly in danger.
This gripping historical novel is full of strange showbiz folk and has all the colour and flair of the circus, complete with sideshows starring the little people themselves. Reminiscent of the fantastical tales of Angela Carter and early Peter Carey, and of Sara Gruen’s bestselling Water for Elephants, Little People will charm and beguile you.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they will be gripped, dazzled, beguiled, thrilled, amused, frightened – and come away feeling as if they have sat through a wonderful theatrical show.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Very tricky question! Easier to say who I don’t admire (but I won’t). Many heroes including Flaubert, Borges, George Eliot, Peter Carey, Peter Temple, Roberto Bolano, Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, Tobias Wolff, Penelope Fitzgerald, a horror story writer called Rachel Ingalls, Sarah Gruen, W. G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Wilkie Collins, Justin Cronin … Ask me next week and I’ll come up with a completely different list. I clearly have very eclectic tastes, but these are all writers whose work I love to read.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Well, after I’ve topped the New York Times bestseller list and won the Nobel Prize… Seriously, I’d like to write the kind of novel I’d love to read. That is hugely ambitious, believe me.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
My favourite piece of advice is from that lugubrious role model Samuel Beckett. It’s more optimistic than it sounds. It goes as follows:
Jane, 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.