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 in Sydney, Australia, in a little apartment in Crows Nest, where I lived with my mother, an Israeli immigrant, and my younger sister, Jenny. We didn’t have much, and I remember meals of not much more than baked beans or chicken fat smeared on rye bread or liverwurst, pumpernickel and speck. I used to be teased a great deal for my school lunches and I thought white bread was something ‘rich’ kids ate.
I went to Cammeray Primary School and loved it there. It was quite a large school for its time and the teachers were fantastic and very encouraging of creativity. Drama was important as was writing and stretching the boundaries of your imagination. I read a great deal and used to spend all my pocket money and too much time in St Vincent De Paul, where I would buy second hand books (still love second hand books – the idea of other minds reading the contents, other hands with histories and different lives turning the pages – it’s quite amazing when you stop and think about it!). I had the full collection of Enid Blyton books and later, C.S. Lewis and so many others. I would also play with other kids on the street where I lived. We would clamber over fences, build cubby houses and play cricket and never venture home until the streetlights came on, that was our cue to leave.
My mother was married a total of eight times so, it’s no surprise that for many complex reasons, we went to live with our father and step-mother and, as a consequence, changed schools quite a bit. Later, I went to North Sydney Girls High School for one year, then to Hornsby Girls High. I also spent a year and two terms at Tweed River High on the Gold Coast. I finished my schooling at Hornsby Girls High where I was elected, much to my sister’s chagrin, Head Prefect. I was one of those kids who loved school and the entire learning environment. I should add, a constant in my life was my German grandmother, who instilled in me a love of myths and fairytales as well as musicals.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At both twelve and eighteen, I wanted only to be an actor. I think it was the escapism, the joy of dressing up, wearing make-up, performing, stepping into someone else’s existence for a while, breathing life into characters that, until you did that, were just words on a page – brilliant exciting words, but they also depended on your interpretation to come alive and for understanding. That was quite an intoxicating idea and it took me some time to shed the notion that acting would not be my profession. I taught drama and dabbled in amateur and professional theatre for many years though.
By the age of thirty, I think with two children and a second marriage just commencing, my priorities changed. I wanted to be a good mother and partner but, as far as what I wanted to ‘be’ in terms of career, it was an academic. I wanted to finish my Ph.D. and earn a position at a university. I also started to think about writing as a career. The irony is, I soon learned, that being a good lecturer was also about being a good performer, so I don’t think that any of those years spent studying drama or dreaming about a career on stage, were wasted.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Gosh, that’s a hard question as I think life experiences change your beliefs and ideas about things so much. But, if I had to name one that has changed, it’s the fallibility of parents. I used to think my father could do anything except be wrong. I learned that’s not true and, in doing so, learned to be more generous about his faults.
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?
Only three? 🙂 I’ll try and name one of each. Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus – a sublime and perfectly told story that is just heart-wrenchingly exquisite. Painting would have to be Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ – I find it so beautiful and inspiring and it marks a time when people really appreciated what antiquity bequeathed us – the importance of myth and imagination. Gosh, Venus is a bit of a theme there! Music is a tough one. I love Vivaldi, Grieg and Handel but then I also love Queen, ABBA, KISS, AC/DC and The Foo Fighters, along with many others, so tend to be a bit eclectic.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I gain so much pleasure from reading novels – have my entire life and I think I just wanted to try and be part of that – the giving of pleasure. Having said that, it’s not a selfless act. I also love writing and writing a novel is a labour of love.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Votive is the second book in The Curse of the Bond Riders and, while it’s the sequel to Tallow, I’ve been told it works very well as a stand alone as well. It’s difficult to assign a genre to it, but if I had to it would be historical-fantasy as it’s set in a city akin to Renaissance Venice, but is also wide in scope in that others places and peoples are introduced – many of whom are historically accurate. In this book, Tallow has been taken under the wing of the corrupt Maleovelli family. Under their roof, she slowly sheds her old identity as a candle maker’s apprentice and becomes Tarlo Maleovelli, a beautiful courtesan with a deadly secret. The reader follows her transformation from callow youth, to beautiful courtesan to cold-hearted assassin and learns more about her amazing abilities and why she’s both feared and desired. In the meantime, powerful forces stir within the world, all of whom seek Tallow and what she can do for them. Only too late will she realise they hold the key to her survival and the one thing she cannot possibly resist….
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they take away a feeling of having been on a tremendous emotional and psychological journey; that they experience terrific highs and lows and that they really care what happens to the characters. I would hope they long to know what’s going to happen next in terms of the overall story as well… if they take away that from reading Votive, I’ll be very happy.
There are so many people I admire, but frankly, Sara Douglass the Australian fantasy writer and historian, is the person I admire most. She writes these wonderful page-turners that give so many people genuine delight and the opportunity to lose themselves in another world, and lately she’s been doing that while suffering a terrible disease – cancer. But, she continues to write and create and that amazes and inspires me.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I am no different to them then! I want to write more, publish more and give as many readers as I can the most pleasure from my words and stories that’s possible – in Australia and beyond.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
You know, I think writers all give the same advice and that’s to read lots and write more. But, the trick, when reading your favourite novels or writers, is to read the story like a writer. That is, to look at how the tale unfolds, how it’s paced, how the characters are developed, how dialogue is written, how a sense of place is created and presented to the reader. Reading like a writer is a very different process to picking up a book to lose yourself, and you learn so much and come to really appreciate the craftsmanship and, in doing so, pick up many useful tips.
Karen, thank you for playing.
My pleasure 🙂
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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.