author of When We Have Wings
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 Vancouver and spent my early life by the sea. The most joyful part of my childhood was hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains, watching red-tailed hawks and golden eagles fly.
My family moved to Australia when I was nine. I was the kid in class with the funny accent; I was teased but not in a nasty way. My last years in high school were at the Australian International Independent School, which was laid-back and had some interesting teachers. It doesn’t exist any more. The principal was passionate about education as the way to promote peace.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I wanted to write since I could read but I wanted to do other things too. At twelve I wanted to be a pilot; I loved flying and thought it would be cool. At eighteen I wanted to crew on films and I did do that and loved learning the technical stuff: loading film magazines in a light-proof bag; calculating the power load on the wiring of a house when you’re using film lights and don’t have a generator; spending all night synchronising the sound and image of feature film rushes when they haven’t been synched by the clapper/loader. At thirty I knew I had to get busy and write and I did.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I believed in the inevitability of progress – in human rights, the spread of scientific knowledge, feminism, animal welfare, environmentalism. I now see how every inch of ground gained has to be fought for over and over again. There are no permanent wins. Even slavery is probably more widespread now than it ever was. Literacy and education are the only ratchets in the flow of history, the only things that stop us slipping backwards.
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?
Elidor by Alan Garner because it taught me the power of restraint and that there can be joy in having your heart broken.
The Collected Essays of George Orwell because they taught me everything about writing an English sentence. I used to read Shooting an Elephant to my engineering students at UTS and watch them start to cry.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the 1981 album by David Byrne and Brian Eno, is as fresh as the day it was released. Not many artists could get away with turning a real exorcism into a dance track. Their use of Islamic holy chants seems prescient now; there was protest over that and they ended up cutting a track. There was no digitised sampling then; they had to work with tape loops. I love the way that album turns the found object, the stuff of the real world, into art.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
The novel is the ultra-marathon of the arts. You do it because it’s hard, because you’re easily bored and because you want to find out what happens when you push yourself. Like climbing Everest or raising a child, it’s painful and it can’t be done perfectly and most of the time you’ll feel it can’t be done at all but when you do it’s exhilarating. The best reason to write a novel is the same as the best reason for reading them, which is to live another life. Reading and writing are the only ways I know to live many lives in one.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
When We Have Wingsis set in a world divided into fliers and non-fliers and asks how far would you go and how much would you sacrifice to be able to fly? The dream of being able to fly is now physical reality but only the rich and powerful can afford the surgery, drugs, and gene manipulation to become fliers. Peri, a poor girl from the regions, will sacrifice anything to get her wings and join this elite but the price is higher than she could have imagined. So why then does she throw it all away?
When We Have Wings makes you feel the exhilaration and terror of flight – over vertiginous skyscrapers, into wild storms and across hypnotic wilderness – as it explores the limits of self-transformation.
Highly visual and sensual, the book is political, philosophical and thought-provoking about the powers we now have to direct our own evolution and design our perfect selves.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
If they look at clouds differently, with real wonder, then my work is done. Seriously, I also hope they’ll feel they’ve lived another life, an exciting and beautiful life as someone who can fly, and that they’ll think hard about where our increasing power to manipulate life itself may lead.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I could list pages of writers I admire. Orwell is the model of clear English prose. Emily Dickinson is a stone-cold authentic genius; she’s fierce as a tiger. I love the steeliness of Alice Munro and the way Margaret Atwood and AS Byatt use their passion for science in their work. The creation of The Culture by Iain M Banks is a fantastic – in both senses of the word – achievement. I love Derek Walcott’s novel-length poem Omeros. There are novelists as good as Rohinton Mistry but none better.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
All writers will tell you to read widely and they’re right. Don’t start as a writer, though; train to be a plumber or a scientist or join the police force or the public service. It’ll take you five or ten years to write your novel. While you learn how to do that you need an absorbing occupation that will give life and authority to your work. Ian Irvine is a marine scientist as well as a fantasy writer. Crime writer Katherine Howell uses her experience as a paramedic. Kenneth Grahame was the Secretary of the Bank of England, Thomas Hardy was an architect and Emily Dickinson was a gardener.
Learn some poetry by heart. Shakespeare soliloquies and the poetic sections of the King James Bible are also ideal. I can’t explain the effect this will have on your writing; do it and it will change your brain, just as learning music does.
Claire, 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.