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 right here, in Dundee on the east coast of Scotland, 49 years ago. I’ve lived all my life within the same few streets in an old fishing village that was swallowed up by the city a century ago. We’ve been here for generations. My kids went to the same schools I went to. I’ve travelled the world but this is where I want to be. I stand on the beach at my front door and I know exactly where I am on the map of the world.
Have you any idea how long ago that is? When I was 12 I think I wanted to be a tank commander and the reasons are all too obvious. All that rrrrrrowar and the booming and the banging and stuff. When I was eighteen I was working in the forestry and I wanted to be something else – anything else – and, when I was 30 I just wanted to be a good dad.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I was 18, I firmly believed that I was in love with a girl called Sheila. I no longer believe that.
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?
That’s fascinating. I couldn’t pretend that Love and Death is actually eckphrastic, it’s not at all inspired as a response to one particular work, but I wanted to give it the atmosphere of a Jack Vettraino painting; louche, sleazy, dark, threatening, sexually charged. I enjoy the visual arts but let’s get serious: books are what it’s about. I’m not conscious of a lightbulb moment, when I read something and, suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes and I knew what to do and how to do it. I don’t think it’s like that. It’s about osmosis and immersion, swimming in books until they soak through your skin.
If I had to pick two more, I would go for the End of the Affair by Graham Greene and The Leopard by Lampedusa. The first because it is so small, such a tiny thing, a jewel containing gigantic themes and also because it describes the London of the Blitz where Greene worked all night in Hellish conditions and then, in the day time, wrote real words. The second because Lampedusa died unpublished. He had written this magnificent novel, so wonderful and so big that countless publishers could not even see it but he was right and they were wrong. That was a great comfort to me.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
There are not innumerable artistic avenues open to me. I am a big fat hairy bloke and I would look pretty silly in a leotard so modern dance is definitely out. I’ve never tried sculpture so, for all I know, I might be quite good at it and I can draw a bit but my paintings tend to look like something the dog sicked up. No technique. No, my artistic avenues are far from unlimited.
I know it sounds really poncey but I don’t think I did choose to write The Good Mayor. That book just happened to me. I chose to write the second one because some nice people came along and said: “That went well. If we gave you a bundle of cash, would you do it again?”
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Love and Death of Caterina is about a man called Luciano Valdez. He’s a superstar author in a nasty South American police state but he has run out of things to say. Then, one day, he sees this beautiful girl at the university where he teaches and he realises that, if only he can have her, everything will be ok again. Only it’s not.
(BBGuru:The publisher’s synopsis:
Luciano Hernando Valdez is his Latin American nation’s most celebrated novelist and he’s suffering from writer’s block.
So far his latest great work comprises the words “The scrawny yellow cat crossed the road”. He’s tried all his usual tricks to get back on track – he’s had a few debates with his trusty colleagues at the university, he’s had an affair with the banker’s wife, nothing will work. Until he meets Caterina. Beautiful, young and one of his biggest fans, she has idolised him since she was a child and he has inspired her to write. Convinced that falling in love with her, spending every minute he can alongside her, moulding her to his world, will unlock something and enable him to write, he pursues her and soon enough, he falls headlong into her arms.
But it’s only a matter of time before he murders her.)
Questions. I am very firmly of the view that a book should not be something that is done to the reader. It’s a dance, writer and reader cooperating together. The reader has to bring something to the party too; a bit of knowledge and experience, a willingness to fill in some gaps, imagine a little. I want to leave a little space where the dance can take place and the reader can make up his own mind about motivations and back stories. I haven’t tied up all the ends. I haven’t spelled everything out. There is no scene where one character turns to another and says: “But there’s one thing I just don’t understand…..”
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Greene and Lampedusa, for the reasons set out above. And Joseph Conrad who wrote the stories he wrote, with those words in what must have been his third or fourth language. I admire them for the grandeur of their themes. They write about stuff at the atomic level. They write about how to live.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Well I’ve got this mortgage I’d like to pay off.
Write. Don’t plan to write. Don’t promise that you’re going to start writing just as soon as you conclude another vital piece of research. Don’t talk about writing. Don’t tell me about all the things you’re going to write if you can only get the time/ the right kind of paper/a new computer/a proper pen/ a little money and a room of one’s own. I’ve written three novels in lined paper notebooks on the train to work. Trollope did it exactly the same way and then went off to run the Post Office when the Post Office was a thing worth running. If you want to write, just write.
And read Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. It might take ten minutes and it’s going to save you the trouble of doing a degree in Creative Writing.
Andrew, 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.