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 Melbourne. When I was a child we lived in San Francisco and then in Paris, where I started school. I didn’t understand a word anyone said, but I learnt the language quickly, as kids can. So it was clear to me from the age of 6 that language is a magic curtain, and that you can express yourself differently depending on which language you use. I was mad about words from then.
At one point I wanted to be a forensic pathologist – as a teenager I think. My grandfather was a pathologist, and my father a doctor, and it didn’t seem such a stretch (this was way before the forensic pathologist was the star of every cop show.) But then I dropped maths and sciences at school, so I must have known that wasn’t going to happen. The impetus to investigate people and causes is pretty much still there though – Stasiland is in a way the autopsy of a failed State. And the novel All That I Am – though it’s about love and risk – also involved a kind of intimate examination of why people wanted Hitler. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 6 years old – there were some detours, but I was always taking notes.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I knew everything when I was eighteen. This illusion has – thankfully – unravelled over my adult life.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for psychological immediacy, Giacometti’s sculpture, for how one can see the human in the cosmos, Barthelme’s short stories for sheer inventiveness with voice and point of view.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Innumerable avenues? I don’t think so. Writing is the one thing I can do, so I do it. (BBGuru: A play, poem, screenplay, television series…)
6. Please tell us about your novel…
All That I Am is about four people who had to flee Germany the night Hitler came to power. They land in Bloomsbury, London, and keep trying to fight Hitler from there. It’s about how hard it is to make love work, and how some people have so much courage they can’t save themselves. It is based on real people, and real events over 1933-5 in London, and on the little known fact that the Gestapo were menacingly active there way, way before the war.
(BBGuru: Publisher synopsis:
‘When Hitler came to power I was in the bath. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon . . . ‘
Ruth Becker, defiant and cantankerous, is living out her days in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. She has made an uneasy peace with the ghosts of her past – and a part of history that has been all but forgotten.
Another lifetime away, it’s 1939 and the world is going to war. Ernst Toller, self-doubting revolutionary and poet, sits in a New York hotel room settling up the account of his life.
When Toller’s story arrives on Ruth’s doorstep their shared past slips under her defences, and she’s right back among them – those friends who predicted the brutality of the Nazis and gave everything they had to stop them. Those who were tested – and in some cases found wanting – in the face of hatred, of art, of love, and of history.
Based on real people and events, All That I Am is a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal, of the risks and sacrifices some people make for their beliefs, and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places. Anna Funder confirms her place as one of our finest writers with this gripping, compassionate, inspiring first novel. )
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
They might ask themselves, ‘What would I do in that situation?’ They might also think a bit about how humans are extraordinary and ordinary in a really explosive admixture. Writing can slow down time and retrieve stuff we usually pass over. I’d hope ALL THAT I AM does that.
Shakespeare, for how acute and how condensed he is.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d like to keep writing better and better work.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Look very closely and tell the truth.
Anna, 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.