The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Orange Prize and
Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner
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 Sydney, went to school at the local state schools (North Sydney Demonstration School and Cremorne Girls’ High), then to an arts degree at Sydney Uni. I was lucky to grow up in a house with plenty of books and dinner-table discussion. Dad would have liked to be a professional writer and wrote as a hobby, publishing 3 books (a novel, a memoir and a book about the Vietnam War), and Mum had a powerful sense of the importance of passing on family stories (some of the ones she told me were the starting point for The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill).
At twelve I wanted to be a writer because it was the only thing I was good at and loved. I was writing cliff-hanger stories called things like “Encounter with a Bear” and “Trapped by the Tide”. My first reviews were Mrs Linney at primary school praising me for my “interesting words” and I think the praise went to my head.
At eighteen I still wanted to be a writer, because it was still the only thing I wanted to do (and I hadn’t got any more talented at anything else, either). At 16 I’d sent my first short story (“The Mulberry Tree”, a clunky thing about the anguish of being an adolescent) to the Women’s Weekly and received the first of many rejection slips (remarkable for its thriftiness – it was a tiny printed slip the size of a cigarette- paper.)
At thirty I knew I wanted to be a writer and I intended to be one. I’d written two (mercifully unpublished) novels and several dozen short stories, one or two of which had been published in little magazines. I was supporting myself with temp work in offices and thought I’d probably be doing that for the rest of my life and writing on the side, the way Dad had done. But at thirty I did a degree at the University of Colorado in Creative Writing and learned a whole lot about how to write. By the end of the degree the rejection letters were full-sized sheets of paper, and sometimes they even had scribbles of hand-written encouragement from editors.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That bottle-green suited me, and that curly hair was a punishment for sins committed in a past life.
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?
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto ( one of the two LPs in our house for some years) showed me that “art” wasn’t just about entertainment. It was a way that humans could share some of the deep emotions we all have in common. (BBGuru: Oh, my…)
Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White showed me that Australia could be transformed into art – it didn’t have to be daffodils and moors, as I’d thought from my British-biased literature studies. Our own landscape and our own voices could be the vehicle for grand metaphoric stories.
Sidney Nolan’s “Ned Kelly” series had one message for me: be bold! Hang things upside down, make the floor crooked, disobey every rule. Never play safe, always go for the energy.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I was short-sighted as a child but was only diagnosed at age 14. For all those years, the world beyond my nose was a blur, but the world of words and books was vividly real. Even after I got glasses I loved the way you could go anywhere, feel anything, be anyone, with words.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Sarah Thornhill is the sequel to The Secret River – the next generation, set in the middle of the nineteenth century. The story is told by the daughter of the main character in the earlier book. She grows up knowing nothing about the past – nothing about the massacre of Aboriginal people that her father was part of. She falls in love with handsome Jack Langland, knowing that his mother was an Aboriginal woman, but never dreaming that fact will ever have anything to do with her.
But the dirty secret in her father’s past comes to light, and she’s confronted with the ugly legacy he’s has left her. It seems the end of her hopes for a life with Jack, but in the end it leads her towards new kinds of wisdom.
It’s a love story – one love lost and another unexpectedly found. It’s also a story about families and their secrets, and about how important it is not to forget, not to let the past disappear.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
A novel is a way of living in another person’s reality for a time – in the case of Sarah Thornhill, of living the life of a forceful young woman unafraid to go wherever life takes her. She does everything with passion, taking her destiny in both hands, travelling into a dark place with courage and determination, and coming out the other side changed. I hope the reader can take the journey alongside her and share her passion for life and love.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I read anything by Helen Garner, for its insightful honesty about how human beings think and feel. Saul Bellow and Virginia Woolf for making prose into music. Eric Rolls and Henry Reynolds for plunging into the past and writing about it inspiringly.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To always have the good luck to come across stories that fill me with passion. And never to settle for flabby “good-enough” writing.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Don’t feel you have to know exactly what you’re doing before you start writing – just plunge in… trust your imagination and throw caution to the winds!
(For more tips on writing, read Kate’s book The Writing Book: A Practical Guide for Fiction Writers )
Kate, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.