author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Los Angeles Times Book Award and National Book Circle Critics Award
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 Chicago, Illinois. My father was proudly Irish-American, the son of a policeman, and my mother grew up in nearby Rockford, Illinois. My parents divorced when I was two, and when I was seven, I moved with my mother, stepfather and younger brother to San Francisco. We arrived in 1969, at the height of the 60’s counterculture, although my mother and stepfather had no involvement with it. I came of age in the 1970’s, wishing I’d been born ten years earlier and doing everything in my power—along with most of my friends—to evoke the era we had missed. After graduating from high school, I took a year off and travelled in Europe with a backpack and a Eurail pass before starting college at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating, I had a scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where I spent two years reading English Literature and travelling widely to China, the USSR, and in Europe. After that, I moved to New York, where I’ve grown happily into a New Yorker during the past 24 years!
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, I wanted to be a surgeon, so that I could cut people open and see how they worked on the inside.
At eighteen I wanted to be an archaeologist, so I could dig into the earth and learn about how human beings lived long ago.
By the time I was thirty, I knew I wanted to be a writer—as I think I always had, without realizing it. So I managed to find a job that fulfils my longstanding wish to me pry into people’s lives, but without the mess!
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen, I believed that everyone was fascinating. I wanted to talk to every person I encountered in depth, to draw him or her out, and to hear his or her story. Now what I often most appreciate is silence.
4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Reading TRISTRAM SHANDY in my early 20’s had a gigantic impact, because it made me see that all the things we now call “experimentation” were present from the very origins of the novel, playfully and raucously employed in the service of storytelling. That discovery has guided my sensibility ever since.
There is a video piece by the artist Bill Viola called (I think) “The Reflecting Pool,” that I saw in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York some years ago. It involved spectral figures moving around a pool, and it was hugely evocative and mysterious. I think it pretty directly inspired my last novel, a Gothic thriller called THE KEEP in which a mouldering, fetid pool plays a large role.
And finally, the TV series THE SOPRANOS, which I loved, got me thinking about how to use a more lateral, polyphonic form of storytelling in which peripheral characters move in and out of the role of central characters. While A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD was most directly inspired by Proust, its structure is a fairly direct result of my musings about what made THE SOPRANOS so powerful.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Speaking personally, there is no more powerful artistic experience than that of reading an excellent novel. So for me, the highest artistic achievement would be to write on myself.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
My latest novel, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, takes place in 13 chapters, each of which has a completely different mood and tone and feel than all the rest. The two main characters are a record producer, Bennie, and his younger assistant, Sasha, and the story follows these two—and other people connected with them—backward and forward through their lives over about 50 years, beginning in 1973 and extending into the 2020’s. The book is about time and music, and it’s structured like a concept album, with an A side, a B side, and a wide range of sounds all colliding to tell one story.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I always hope that readers will leave my books feeling that they’ve been gripped and entertained—briefly transported out of their own lives, and filled with new questions and ideas when they return.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
The writer I’ve most consciously hoped to emulate is Edith Wharton, because her books manage to do so many things beautifully at once; they’re funny, intelligent (both sentence-by-sentence and in terms of their larger vision), deeply sensitive to the intimate struggles of the people whose stories they tell, but also keenly aware of the political and cultural implications of those stories. I’m not sure I could ask for more than to do all of that.
My hope is always to write work that feels fresh and different from what has come before.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
1. Read at the same level at which you hope to write.
2. Make writing a regular part of your daily routine—even just a tiny amount per day—so that it feels more natural to write than not to.
3. Be willing and unafraid to write badly, because often the bad stuff clears the way for good, or forms a base on which to build something better.
Jennifer, 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.