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 a small country town on the coast of NSW where my father was a successful inventor and he and my mother built a factory to manufacture these inventions and other things for the dairying industry. I was sent to Wollongong Tech the toughest school in the State where most of the students were destined for the mines or the steelworks and where I was to learn technical subjects and help run my father’s factory. I didn’t. But I ran the school newspaper and published my own stories in it.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was 12 I was writing what I thought were funny stories and passing them around the classroom – in a sense, I still am. When I was 18 I wanted to be a short story writer – I still am. When I was thirty I thought I might want to live in New Orleans and be a writer and mix with jazz musicians and artists and transvestites. I went there to live. I realised that there were jazz musicians, artists and transvestites in Australia who were just as much fun if not more so.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That a relationship of domestic intimacy in a fine house with a dog called Spot was the only fulfilling pathway through life; it isn’t. It is not for everyone.
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?
Woody Guthrie’s and Joe Hill’s IWW songs of work and protest – brought home to me the daily pain, insecurity, and injustice still suffered by many working people.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
In the small country town where I grew up I did not see that I had innumerable artistic avenues but from my school days I thought I could perhaps write short stories and now I have found my way to long novels and the essay. But I now see that all my shorts stories and novels are a continuous narrative and my characters reappear in them in unexpected ways.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel, Cold Light
For a while after Dark Palace I thought that my character Edith, a young Australian trying to make her way in international diplomacy in the 1920s and 1930s, had found her ambitions at a deadend with the collapse of the League of Nations. She had come through this great disaster in human vision — what some saw as the greatest diplomatic embarrassment of the 20c — the new UN had rejected her, and some of her friends at the League had suicided because of their failure to stop World War 2. In the new book Cold Light Edith flees back to Australia in some personal and professional disarray.
But in Canberra, Edith again confronts all the great problems of the human race –and her own personal dilemmas – all staring at her again. Wherever we go the existential questions follow us.
Edith is a woman in her prime, also woman still trying to understand her sexuality even if it means crossing sexual borders or trying to live without borders.
She is a woman who wrestles for her say in the world; to find a family life; she wrestles with alcohol, and she strives for a sexual life which fits her personality and she searches for peace of mind.
In Canberra, she tries to create her own an unconventional elite, her own ‘Bloomsbury set’, of bright new people with bright ideas about how we should arrange our ways of living together on the planet as it drifts towards nuclear and other disasters.
Finally, as a special envoy, Edith is sent to Vienna where the rest of the world trying to control uranium and all its horrifying consequences.
The book has taken over five years to write and the three Edith novels, together, have been written over the last 21 years – in Geneva, in France, in Washington DC, in Cambridge, in Canberra, and in places around Jaspers Brush on the NSW south coast, where Edith began her life.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I like to think that my books entertain the reader by working with the world of ideas and at the same time give all the aesthetic pleasures of good story telling.
I admire those writers in other countries such as China who write fearlessly against oppressive governments and risk everything. There are many names. Writers in Australia live privileged lives.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Every book is a hugely ambitious venture: it is a rather audacious if not arrogant request of people by the writer that they give up hours of their life and put aside everything else to seriously read what you have written. I am always aware of the honour a reader confers on a writer when they do this.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Shed ideas of privacy and shame and live by candour as best you can in your writing and in your relationships – use the great freedom that we have.
Frank, 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.