author of Big Girl Small
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 Kyoto, Japan, because my parents were adventurous academics, there studying and teaching. I spent my infancy sleeping in a suitcase, my childhood excavating ancient instruments and eating sea slugs in rural Chinese villages, and my adolescence falling in love and writing bad poetry about it. I went to college in NYC and wrote lots of academic papers about very good poetry. When I was 21 I moved to China and acted in a ludicrous Chinese soap opera called “Foreign Babes in Beijing,” about sexy Western girls falling in love with macho Chinese men. Then I moved home and read and wrote books.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was eighteen, I wanted to be Anna Karenina, but not dead.
When I was 30, I wanted to be fluent in Chinese, so I could communicate with my 1.6 billion potential new friends.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That only other people became calcified chunks of their own personalities, but I was exempt from that (and mortality) myself.
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?
Brothers Karamazov, which I first read from Beijing, during the OJ Simpson trial, and seemed to me to have been written both hundreds of years ago and that week. I hardly slept because I burned through that book so pathologically.
Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which I’ve read too many times to count, and which has taught me that genre rules about poetry and prose can be bent and reinterpreted to gorgeous effect. And that there’s no such thing as objective truth (and that that makes the world more liveable, writable, beautiful.).
Finally, Rickie Lee Jones’ album “Pirates” sang me to sleep with its music and woke my mind up with its lyrics – my entire life.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Big Girl Small is in large part a story about how to tell your own story, and making it as a novel made the most sense to me, pace wise, balance wise, line wise. I wanted the elasticity of chapters, and the vast span of 300 pages – in order to unfold the various versions of what happened to the heroine, Judy Lohden.
Big Girl Small is about a teenage dwarf who gets involved in a sex scandal at her performing arts high school. Her name is Judy Lohden, and she’s three feet eleven inches tall. I thought of her because I watched “The Wizard of Oz” a hundred times with my four year old, and felt tremendous empathy for the Little People in that movie. I wondered what it would feel like for my daughter if she were a dwarf. What if she wanted to be Judy Garland, but involuntarily identified with the Little People? This thought plagued me, and I wrote a book about a girl who is small, wildly talented, different from everyone else, and brave. After a genuinely horrific experience, Judy Lohden, like many teenagers, manages to be a resilient warrior.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire writers who have a kind of core certainty, who know what they mean to say and are able to say it with clarity, beauty, precision and compassion. Here are some eclectic examples: Akhmatova , Baldwin, Bechdel, Bishop, Dickinson, Nabokov, Pinsky, Proulx, Stegner, Walcott, Wang Wei, Ware. The list goes on.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I try not to stick my head in the oven, to do a good job raising my lovely girls, and to be an engaged citizen of the world, paying attention to the stories taking place around me and keeping my perspective careful, open, wide.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read and re-read and re-read some more and then write and revise and revise some more. . .
Rachel, 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.