author of Far To Go, which has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011,
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 Toronto, but my parents moved to the smaller town of Kitchener when I was three weeks old. I spent my childhood there playing Detective in the park behind our house, and eventually went to University nearby in Guelph. I studied Psychology there, and in the final year of my undergraduate degree I took an elective in Creative Writing. It was love at first sight…
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen, thirty? And why?
Although I often say I was not a child who wanted to be a writer, if I think back to age twelve, that’s exactly what I wanted to be. Of course, my notion of what that actually involved was hazy and unformed, and had been excised entirely by the time I was eighteen. I’d just graduated from high school and was volunteering in the Amazon basin in Guyana. I wanted to explore the world. That didn’t last long! By the time I was thirty I was back in the calm port of my desk, with a first book published and working on a second.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I was very interested in doing good, and vegetarianism was an integral part of that. I was concerned about the welfare of animals in factory farms, and the impact that this industrialized way of producing food had on the environment. I still hold these convictions—perhaps even more strongly than I did then—but my resolve is weaker. If only I didn’t so love a good beef tenderloin…
4. What were three works of art—book or painting or piece of music—you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your development as a writer?
Despite a strong desire to be so, I’m neither musical nor visual, so my most powerful influences were all literary. A book of poetry by the Canadian writer Karen Connelly was the first to make me really fall in love with all of language’s myriad possibilities. The Small Words in my Body, I think it was called. On a larger scale, Anna Karenina blew me away and made me understand for the first time the real power of fiction. And early on I also loved Bronwen Wallace’s writing, and when I was given an award in her memory, for the most promising Canadian writer under the age of 35, I knew I was on my way to a lifetime of literary endeavour.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose write a novel?
Writing is irresistibly compelling to me. I don’t know if I believe in “callings,” but if they exist, writing is mine. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a productive morning with my pen and my notebook. (Okay, perhaps there are one or two things I enjoy more, but nothing artistic…)
6. Please tell us about your latest novel.
Set in Czechoslovakia in late 1938 and early 1939, FAR TO GO tells the story of the Bauers—secular, assimilated Jews—who must make a terrible choice that will affect their son’s fate as well as their own. Part mystery, part love story, it explores the legacy of trauma over several generations. It was my first foray into historical fiction, and I’ve been incredibly gratified by its reception, winning the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction and now being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
(BBGuru: The publisher synopsis – An extraordinary piece of fiction that chronicles the history of the Kindertransport and one Jewish family’s desperate struggle to escape Czechoslovakia during the Nazi invasion.
FAR TO GO is a powerful and profoundly moving story about one family’s epic journey to flee the Nazi occupation of their homeland in 1939, and above all to save the life of a six-year-old boy.
Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews, whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces in Czechoslovakia. Desperate to avoid deportation, the Bauers flee to Prague with their six-year-old son, Pepik, and his beloved nanny, Marta. When the family try to flee without her to Paris, Marta betrays them to her Nazi boyfriend. But it is through Marta’s determination that Pepik secures a place on a Kindertransport, though he never sees his parents or Marta again.
Inspired by Alison Pick’s own grandparents who fled their native Czechoslovakia for Canada during the Second World War, FAR TO GO is a deeply personal and emotionally harrowing novel. )
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
With FAR TO GO I wanted two things. Intellectually, I wanted people to understand that evil is slow and creeping, that political and social pressure can cause even everyday people to act reprehensibly, and that nobody is immune. I hope the book causes readers to reflect on what they would do in the characters’ situation. From an emotional perspective, I wanted the readers to be caught up in the Bauers’ story, and to really feel the pain and terror of what faced them. It might sound odd, but when readers tell me that they cried at the end of the book, I feel that I’ve done a good job!
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm or writing and why?
I’ve been asked this a lot recently, and it of course changes on a dime. At the moment I’m besotted with Woolf: her lyricism, her sensuality, her razor-sharp intelligence, her literary range.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My goals change from book to book, but in a general sense I hope to keep pushing myself. I want each new project to be bigger and more challenging than the previous one. This keeps things interesting for me as the writer, and hopefully for my readers as well. I’ve learned to recognize fear as a good sign: if the material scares me, feels risky or vulnerable, if the form feels insurmountable, I know I’m heading in the right direction.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. Everything, all genres, as widely as possible. Followed by: write, write, write. Everything, all genres, as frequently as possible. Only with practice does good work get accomplished.
Alison, 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.