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; raised in Sydney; and educated in Sydney (at The Scots College, Charles Sturt University and Sydney University) and London (The London School of Economics).
At 12, a novelist, because I wanted to write stories; at 18, a journalist, because I wanted to write ‘true’ stories; at 30, a historian, because I wanted to write histories.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
A belief in freedom, or ‘enlightenment’, being, to my mind, a faith in the capacity of human reason and resourcefulness ultimately to triumph over the forces of darkness, superstition, dogma and oppression.
My first reading of the novels and essays of George Orwell; seeing ‘Guernica’; and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?
I have chosen to write a book because it is the ideal medium for history. I don’t believe books are, or will ever be, obsolete. Their mode of delivery will simply change; but the ‘book’ will always be with us. Once an era passes, what do we have left to remember it by? Without ‘books’ – printed or electronic – the world will enter a new dark age.
6. Please tell us about your latest book, Hiroshima Nagasaki…
This is a controversial history of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book shows that the atomic bombs were part of a campaign of civilian destruction that ‘normalised’ their use – and had a strictly limited ‘military role’: they did not fall on ‘military targets’; they did not directly end the war; they did not ‘shock Japan into submission’; and they were not America’s ‘least abhorrent choice’. Japan surrendered chiefly as a result of the Russian invasion of Japanese-occupied territory and the crippling economic impact of the US Naval blockade.
(BBGuru: Publisher’s synopsis –
′Nobody is more disturbed,′ said President Truman, three days after the destruction of Nagasaki in 1945, ′over the use of the atomic bombs than I am, but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.′
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 100,000 instantly, mostly women, children and the elderly. Many hundreds of thousands more succumbed to their horrific injuries later, or slowly perished of radiation-related sickness. Yet the bombs were ′our least abhorrent choice′, American leaders claimed at the time – and still today most people believe they ended the Pacific War and saved millions of American and Japanese lives. Ham challenges this view, arguing that the bombings, when Japan was on its knees, were the culmination of a strategic Allied air war on enemy civilians that began in Germany and had till then exacted its most horrific death tolls in Dresden and Tokyo.
The war in Europe may have ended but it continued in the Pacific against a regime still looking to save face. Ham describes the political manoeuvring and the scientific race to build the new atomic weapon. He also gives powerful witness to its destruction through the eyes of eighty survivors, from 12-year-olds forced to work in war factories to wives and children who faced it alone, reminding us that these two cities were full of ordinary people who suddenly, out of a clear blue summer′s sky, felt the sun fall on their heads.)
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
Er…to accelerate the process of nuclear non-proliferation? Failing that (!), to remind people what actually happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
I most admire anyone who sincerely works to make the world a more civilised, democratic, beautiful and compassionate place.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To write a few good books.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Sit down and write – and don’t stop.
Paul, 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.