author of Water under Water
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Born in Melbourne, raised as a surf bum on Sydney’s northern beaches. I loved school and attended every single day the surf was not running. But eventually I conformed and earned (?) a string of tertiary qualifications – on balance they have marginally helped more than hindered.
I cannot recall ever wanting to be just one thing. Age has made no difference; twelve, eighteen, thirty, fifty…I did what I wanted to do at the time. I seem to have always been happy to be, and forget about the something part.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
As a teenager I was an Ayn Rand disciple. I believed strongly in the ultimate power and responsibility of the individual. Now, I see that some people get such a bad deal that we have a collective responsibility to them. The realisation probably began with the birth of our first daughter who has Down syndrome.
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?
1. In the Skin of a Lion. Michael Ondaatje: Poetry in prose, requirement for the reader to concentrate, and a story that gives entry to an unknown world.
2. My wife, Jenny Rix’s photographic series Fabricated Landscapes: images that are at once, beautiful in line and tone, and that only reveal their truths to the most perceptive observer
3. Desolation Row. Bob Dylan: Lyrics that can mean much or little, and either way, evoke an emotional response.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I am tone deaf, can’t make a straight line with a ruler, clumsy as…what innumerable avenues? Anyway, I like the way words arrange themselves at the start of a good novel, and then strike out bravely into the story, as if their only wish is to show me the way home.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Latest novel (first, only…so far). Water under Water is the story of a father and son. Jim Campion knows he should love his second son, Tom, but cannot find love for a child who has not lived up to his expectations. As Tom has one main aim in life – to be the son his father wants – both are embarked on quests that test them to the limit.
Water under Water explores the world that people with intellectual disabilities inhabit. It questions the responses that we ‘normal’ people have to them. The story challenges the notion that they can be categorised, and presents them as complex, different and unique individuals.
Water under Water is also a road story. Jim and Tom make journeys along the northern New South Wales coast, the son to prove his independence, the father hoping to save his marriage by finding his son.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
My aim with Water under Water was simply to tell a story that readers would enjoy. I consciously and repeatedly rejected any veering towards didactics. Now, though, as readers begin to talk about the book, I will admit to a hope; that they might see a new possibility; that in behind the unusual face or misshapen body at the train station or at the counter at Maccas, there may well be hidden a human being with passion and longings the equal of their own. Or that the lolling head in the wheelchair contains a brain that not only ‘sees’ but is perfectly capable of evaluating those that pass by or turn away.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire books or chapters or even paragraphs, rather than writers; even the best seem to have good and not so good days. Cormac McCarthy for the cut-to-the-bone descriptions in The Road, Ian McEwan for the first few pages of Enduring Love, Nabokov and David Foster Wallace for their gymnastic brilliance, Michael Ondaatje for three lines (In the Skin of a Lion) specifying the compact that every novel should enter into with the reader. Lots more…
Ambition is a goad for the young. I am content to write. I will be happier, of course, if I manage to write well, but if I cannot, the writing itself, pleasure in the process, will suffice. Right now I have three manuscripts in various stages of completion. I will work on each as time passes, and then I will see.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
After one completed novel I would presume to give no advice. As a writer who felt no burning desire to write then on discovering in middle-age the sublime joy of writing, I suppose I might say, Get started. And as a writer of textbooks for twenty years, I could also advise that accuracy, detail and discipline may not make you a great writer, but they will ensure your greatness is not unnecessarily defeated.
Peter, 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.