author of The Moment, Temptation, The Pursuit Of Happiness and many more…
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 and raised on an island: Manhattan. Yes, I am that rare and curious species – a native New Yorker. I grew up in a Manhattan that still had a middle class (of which my family were members), that was raffish and grubby and tough and frequently violent and never less-than-interesting.
Manhattan still remains endlessly compelling today, but it has become a city of the well-to-do – and has lost its edgy underside. I spent my first four years of education at a very progressive school called Downtown Community that was located on the edge of the East Village. We used to have our recreational time in Tompkins Square Park – located in Alphabet City and a park frequented by junkies. Downtown Community’s politics veered towards the social democratic – and when I came home one day and sang a pacifist song to my father (who had served in the Marine Corps) the next thing I knew I was sitting the exams for entrance to the Collegiate School for Boys.
I won a place at Collegiate – which besides being the oldest school in America (it was founded by the Dutch in what was then New Amsterdam in 1628) was also the most academically rigorous and intellectually oriented of New York schools. Run very much along the lines of an English public school it was a rude shock after the progressivism of Downtown Community. But I stayed there until I went to university – and it was an emotionally chilly and highly forman place back then, I did receive a truly classical education. And I am still benefiting from the way Collegiate taught me to think.
When I was twelve I had discovered the cinema – and was spending every free moment of the weekend hiding out in the repertory cinemas and the cinematheque of the Museum of Modern Art (I was far too precocious). So, of course, I thought about either being a film critic or having a job programming my very own rep cinema.
When I was eighteen I was directing many plays at university in New England – so I very much wanted to be a theatre director.
When I was thirty I was in Dublin – and had just had three plays produced by BBC Radio 4 and a play about to be performed at the famed Abbey Theatre (where I had spent 1978-83 in charge of their second theatre, the Peacock. So, at that juncture, I saw myself as a playwright. But when that play turned out to be a critical and commercial disaster I vanished for a spell – and wrote my first book (‘Beyond the Pyramids’). It was published in 1988, the year my then-wife and I moved to London – and it marked the start of my literary career. I suppose the moral of the story is – what you think you want (and can do) at a certain age changes radically as life impacts you.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I thought, back then, that you could actually know yourself and others. If life has taught me anything it’s the fact that behind most human actions there are five things going on, three of which you yourself are unaware. Or, to put it another way, something I didn’t realize at eighteen is the fact that the biggest argument you have in life is with yourself.
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?
Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair was the novel that made me want to be a novelist – because it looked at a doomed love affair from the perspective of that very terrible, yet all-too-human need to possess and control. And unlike so many literary novels Greene wasn’t afraid of framing this most-existential of novels within a page-turning narrative. In short, The End of the Affair got me thinking how a serious novel can also be accessible – which (I hope) is the hallmark of all my fiction.
When I was ten years old I heard Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in a Music class at Collegiate – and this began a life-long involvement with classical music that will stay with me for as long as I am a sentient being.
And there is a song by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim called Finishing the Hat (from his superb musical. Sunday in the Park with George) – which essentially speaks about the self-obsession and personal isolation required to create art. It’s the story of my life.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
After trying to be a playwright, after writing three narrative travel books, I spent August-October of 1981 driving from Darwin to Perth. Somewhere along the many vast, unsettling roads I travelled (the bush always feels like it can swallow you whole) an idea for a novel fell into my head. It was called The Dead Heart – and once I was fifty pages into the first draft I realized this is what I’d always meant to be doing. It was first published in 1994 – and in the seventeen years since then I have published a further nine novel. In short, thanks to Australia (BBGuru: Yay!), I found my creative metier and became a novelist.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel… The Moment
Thomas Nesbitt is a recently divorced writer, living out a largely isolated and rueful middle-age on the coast of Maine. But his quiet, orderly life come unstuck when a package arrives from his publishers: a package with a Berlin postmark. The name above the return address – Dussmann – unsettles him completely. For it is the name of a woman with whom he had an intense love affair twenty-five years ago in Berlin – at a time when the city was cleaved in two, and personal and political allegiances were haunted by the deep shadows of the Cold War.
Refusing to initially confront what he might find in the box Thomas nevertheless finds himself forced to grapple with a past he never discussed with any living person – and in the process relive those months in Berlin, when he discovered, for the first and only time in his life, the full, extraordinary force of true love. But Petra Dussmann – the woman to whom he lost his heart – was not just a refugee from a police state, but someone who lived with an ongoing sorrow beyond dreams – and one which would rewrite both their destinies.
I hope I have written that rare thing: a love story as morally complex as it is tragic and deeply reflective. And it’s one which (judging from advance critical reactions I’ve been receiving) seems to make readers ponder their own intimate histories and why and how we fall in love. To order your copy of The Moment click here
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope two things – 1/ that they have had to stay up half the night because they have wanted to know how things turned out. Most tellingly I hope that my readers will come away from my novels pondering many questions about their own condition and life’s immense complexities.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I’ve always said that the modern novel began with Madame Bovary, as this was the first novel to tackle domestic entrapment and boredom. One hundred years after Flaubert a great (and, for years, greatly underrated American novelist named Richard Yates reinvented Flaubert for the post-war world in two brilliant novels: Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade. No one has written more devastatingly about the tragedy of modern American life than Yates. And Graham Greene – whom I previously mentioned – showed me how serious fiction can also be popular.
To write stories that both make the reader turn the page and also grapple with all the large, unanswerable questions that we all grapple with.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Keep writing, no matter what. And learn how to live with disappointment. Because there will be plenty of that along the way. That’s why the quotidian discipline of writing every day is so crucial. You only learn by writing – and even after thirteen books and success on a level I could never once imagine, I still find myself learning. As such I see success as a fragile veneer. You never ‘arrive’ as a writer. You just keep trying to do better.
Douglas, thank you for playing (and for giving such wonderful and thoughtful answers.)
For more details about any of the books mentioned here click the images and links to go through to Booktopia Bookshop.
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.