The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Pigeon English
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 Luton, a midsize town about 30 miles north of London, UK, and was raised on a council estate there called Marsh Farm. I went to school there, first at Waulud’s Infant and Junior Schools and Lea Manor High School, then at the University of Luton.
From the age of six I’ve wanted to be a writer. I’m not sure I can really explain why beyond the fact that I always felt a powerful inner pull in that direction. I was an avid reader from a very young age and my desire to write went hand in hand with that.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That the results of the football team I supported were somehow important to my life. Now I know otherwise.
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?
The first book I fell in love with was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I was given a copy by my grandparents at the age of 6 or 7 and not only was it the first book I read over and over again, it was also the first time I remember reading a book and thinking, ‘I’d like to do that.’
Later on, another book, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, convinced me of what type of books I would one day like to write – imaginative, economical, politically engaged.
For similar reasons, and at a similar time – around the age of eighteen – the song Faster by Manic Street Preachers was like a breath of fresh air to me. It’s urgent, angry and articulate, and provided great motivation for a young man struggling to find something meaningful to pin his ambitions on.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I remember reading Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha for the first time – with just a series of words typed on paper I could clearly picture this little boy cowering under the kitchen table while his parents argued, I could see his face and what he was wearing, could feel the dread and the confusion he felt. The great potency of the novel as an art form is that it allows the reader to use his own imagination to create images which seem to live and breathe, while at the same time the novelist can explore ideas and provide access to his characters’ inner lives in great detail. It’s that ability to achieve both these things simultaneously that attracts me.
My latest novel is called Pigeon English, and it’s narrated by Harri, an eleven year old boy who has just moved with his mother and older sister from Ghana to live on a housing estate in London. Harri tells us all about his exciting new life, as he makes new friends, learns the rules of his new home, and shares some of his experiences of the life he left behind in Ghana. But when a boy he knows is stabbed to death and the police appeal for witnesses yields no results, Harri decides to try and solve the murder himself – unwittingly endangering himself and his family. It is a detective story, a social commentary, and a coming of age tale starring, in Harri, a uniquely loveable protagonist who has been described as ‘a hero for our times’.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I think good fiction should inform and entertain in equal measure, and I hope that Pigeon English will give readers an insight into a world they might not have seen portrayed before – a dark world at times but one which, with the exuberant voice of Harri to guide them, is revealed to be full of optimism, too.
I love Kurt Vonnegut – a true original, uniquely spirited and mischievous yet disarmingly humane. Richard Yates – technically masterful with great emotional acuity. Patrick Lane – he writes with an unsentimental beauty that all writers should aspire to.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
If I have one goal, it would be that my work might somehow reveal and reinforce the ways in which people are essentially the same despite their differences; that, in a world fraught with divisions, it might help to unite them.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write about those things which inspire you; write to inspire others.
Stephen, 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.