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: Northern Ireland. For years I thought I was born on the fire escape of Newtownards Hospital, since someone pointed to the building when I was three and said ‘That’s where you were born’. It’s still the first image I see when anyone asks me.
We moved to Australia not long before I turned nine, and I’ve lived in Brisbane since then.
I went to Churchie (now the Anglican Church Grammar School) in Brisbane and then did Medicine at UQ, scraping through with the dodgiest honours degree in my year, probably due to my examiners being distracted by the arrival of the Pope during my final clinical exam (yes, seriously).
At 12 I wanted to be a diplomat for a week when one of my friends at school said he wanted to be a diplomat because his uncle was one. I had not idea what it was. Most of the time, though, even at that age, I wanted to be a creator of stories of some kind. Working out when I was eight that the person whose name was on a book got money for writing it was quite an epiphany – you sat around making things up, and GOT MONEY FOR IT??? Could there be a better job? The answer, decades later, is still No.
At 18 I was a med student and terrible poet and I wrote a bad novel on Friday nights (Vogel strikeout #1 of 4, I think).
At 30 I was a part-time GP with one book behind me, desperately trying to overcome that one book and find out what I’d be writing next.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
My father showed me an email for the first time around then. I was pretty confident the whole ‘communicating using computers’ thing was a non-starter …
Okay, that’s not exactly a belief. I don’t think my core beliefs have shifted a lot, but let me put that down to great parenting in the first place rather than a hopeless lack of reflection on my part.
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?
Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box was given to me in the early 90s when I really needed to find something as a writer. I had been too busy outsmarting myself until then. I read it as a book, but it was also written as a monologue and the voice was what got me. It felt like truly being inside someone’s head, and getting access to every foible, revelation and missed beat. I set out to try my version of that and my luck changed.
Richard Ford’s fiction has been an influence too, I think. We did an event together in Vancouver in 2001 and I heard him read. It gave me access to his rhythms, which put me in a great position to read him after that. Reading him – and other writers a bit like him – made me slow down as a writer and think and focus my observations.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
You obviously haven’t heard me sing. Or play guitar. Or seen me act.
The odd thing is the way the job has opened up other avenues and allowed me to prove that this is the only artistic endeavour I have any kind of shot at. Maybe any endeavour. As a novelist I’ve been involved in canoe races (uselessly partnering Mal Meninga, who dragged us into fourth at the finish), soccer games (in front of 1000s of people), cabaret, making food, acting (including two TV campaigns promoting Brisbane and a cameo in a movie adaptation of one of my novels), and making objets d’art for fundraisers. I’ve painted two mugs, a plate, a stump cap, a pillow slip, a box, a T shirt, a bra and so far six canvases to raise funds for charity. There’s another canvas waiting on the chair next to me right now. I can’t say No. I’m terrible at it, but I love doing it and people keep asking.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The first ideas for The Fix came along 7-8 years ago. I was thinking about identity, and someone projecting themselves as someone they weren’t and it coming unstuck.
I read The Great Gatsby to see one really accomplished way of narrating that kind of character from the point of view of another, since that was the point of view I wanted to use. The Great Gatsby also got me thinking about what it said about America then, and I wondered if I could find a couple of characters who might offer something about early this century. That might sound as if I had some big agenda, but it’s more about finding a way in or having something to hang a story on. A big idea can be a weight on a story or a hook, and I wanted this one to be a hook. And I wanted to develop enough story that the idea could vanish into the background – I wanted to deal with it, but I wanted the story and characters to be the dominant force.
Media management and the manipulation of stories (I’m not even going to try to say ‘truth’) looked like an interesting prospect. Then I needed to come up with the person I was launching at the media and the person managing the process. I needed to know what the story was supposed to be and what was really going on. I thought about it on and off for several years and I came up with Ben Harkin, who is to be awarded a Star of Courage for his role in a siege, and Josh Lang, the media fixer hired to get him through it.
Actually, I didn’t come up with Ben and Josh then – not the names anyway. The names came when I put out a call on Twitter and Facebook for people to have characters named after themselves. Despite the proviso that they had no say over what the characters did or said, and that anyone could end up as an ageing man-boobed strip club manager in a XXXL Mambo shirt with a nose rendered two-dimensional by boxing in the seventies, 500 people got on board. I think they gave names to 20 characters.
But back to the novel … I wanted the story to have a lot to it that Josh could discover or pick at bit by bit and I wanted to have fun with it. It was then a question of accumulating the hundreds of small details that would deliver that for me. That required a pretty thorough grounding in Gold Coast minigolf and the behind-the-scenes workings of Brisbane strip clubs, and a fair bit of time with publicists. My only mistake was not keeping receipts for the minigolf.
Over time, the story took shape. I realised what Ben’s agenda might be, and Josh’s – they each had to have at least one – and I decided to complicate the present by giving them a difficult past. So Josh, as he’s preparing Ben for the inevitable media coverage to do with his bravery award, picks and picks at the details of his story, and it starts to come undone. At the same time he meets a girl, which is great, though it only makes life more complicated (good for me as the writer, not always easy for Josh).
I worked on it as a screenplay first because I could see it, right from the opening chopper shot with voiceover. Then feedback from a producer all of a sudden gave me another layer – to both the story and the fixing that was going on by various characters – and one of the endings to a story that I’ve been most excited about. Suddenly, I had a real need to write it as a novel.
A compelling urge to buy the book for all their friends. It’s pretty much the perfect choice for any breathing Anglophone human over the age of 14 (with translation pending for those beyond the Anglosphere…).
With a few books behind me now, I feel if anything less inclined to tell people how to read them, or to suggest that they might take anything particular away. Even very positive responses can vary hugely from one reader to another. That’s the beauty of reading, I think – it’s the same words each time, but how they land in your skull is personal.
This time there’s more story, maybe, and I hope that works. I hope the story pulls people along. I hope the parts that are supposed to be funny are actually funny. I hope the people who like those parts will also connect with the rest. I hope anyone who ferrets around for Gatsby references gets something out of it too.
I hope it’s good writing.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Maybe Jessica Adams, for dreaming big with the War Child fundraising anthologies and pulling it off. She and her friends took commercial fiction and got it to raise $3m for really important work instead of the authors’ own pockets. Jessica in particular put a lot on hold for years for that. That’s something to admire.
To keep doing this job. To get better at it, every time if possible. To rack up a string of New York Times bestsellers plus commercially triumphant Oscar-winning film adaptations and lead a total rockstar life while being an excellent family man at the same time. That’s not too ambitious, is it?
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Honestly, this job is already a crapshoot and the industry is facing its biggest changes since 1450. You should only be pursuing this if you can’t talk yourself out of it. I’m not saying that negatively. I’m doing this job because, between 1978 and 1996, I couldn’t talk myself out of trying one more time. If you don’t want it badly, it’s really okay to do something else.
If you do want it badly: read, think, write, find your voice, try to get a sense of how the industry works and remember that rejection is the norm but if you try 50 things and only 49 of them don’t come off, you’re a rung higher up the ladder than you were before.
Nick, thank you for playing.
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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.