Pulitzer Prize Winner
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Born on Bland Street, Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west. Raised in nearby Concord. Schooled at St Mary’s Concord, Bethlehem Ladies College Ashfield, University of Sydney, Columbia University, New York City.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
A journalist, from the time I was eight years old. My father worked as a proof reader for a Sydney newspaper, and I loved the feel of the presses rolling underfoot, the ink-misted air, the spin of the newsprint through space and the feel of the paper when I took it off the conveyor belt, warm in my hand. Hot off the presses. The sense of being the first to know the news.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That it was easy to change the world for the better. I lived through a period of miraculous reform during the brief Whitlam years. It made me over optimistic. Now I know that the forces of reaction are hideously tenacious.
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?
I was in my 20s when I saw my first Papunya Tula painting. It changed forever the way I looked at the Australian landscape.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
There was a story that had taken root in my imagination–a true story, about a Derbyshire village that had voluntarily quarantined itself during the Bubonic Plague in 1665. There were too many gaps in the historical record to know what that decision had meant for people, what it had been like to live and die at that time. So I had no choice. I had to imagine it. (BBGuru: What a wonderful answer!)
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Caleb’s Crossing is also inspired by a true story–of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665. It’s the story of two cultures colliding, told from the point of view of a young, intellectually curious Puritan girl named Bethia who lives on the wild island of Martha’s Vineyard. As she struggles for a voice in a community that demands women’s silence, she also becomes entangled in her father’s efforts to convert the Indians, and in the life of Caleb, the brilliant Wampanoag youth who becomes a prize in the struggle between traditional belief and Christain orthodoxy.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
That’s not for me to say. We take different things from books according to our needs when we read them. What I look from a particular novel at 13, for instance, is not what I will take when I read it now. The ebb and flow of ideas and inspiration between writer and reader is one of the glories of fiction.
Too many to enumerate, and for a score of different qualities. Tim Winton dazzles. Jane Austen is close to perfection. Marilynne Robinson wrote my favourite novel, Gilead. Mary Renault is my model for how to write historical fiction. Dave Eggers has a passionate engagement with the world.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To be read. That is quite ambitious enough for me.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Get out of your room, out of the classroom, into the world. Go some place where you think in one language and buy groceries in another.
Geraldine, thanks 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.