author of The Snow Child
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 Denver, Colorado, but have spent my entire life since I was a very small child in Alaska. I attended public schools in my hometown of Palmer, Alaska. My husband and I went south to Washington State where I received my degree in journalism from Western Washington University. As soon as we were both finished with college, we moved back home to Alaska. We now live here with our two daughters, one golden retriever, one very old box turtle, and 14 chickens. I work as a bookseller; my husband as a fishery biologist.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was 12, I think I wanted to be a scientist of some sort. I can’t remember what I wanted to study – fossils, or neurons, or amoebas or something.
At 18, I wanted to be a university literature professor, but only because I couldn’t think of any other way to earn a living as a reader and writer.
When I was 30, I wanted to walk away from my journalism career and be a novelist, although I wouldn’t have confessed it to anyone and I never expected it to come true.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
As I was coming out of high school, with its report cards and college prep, I believed a successful life was a step-by-step climb up a certain ladder, some type of career in which one obtained increasing amounts of status and money. I have come to believe life is more complex than that; I try to measure my success by how I spend each day, and the love and laughter I have.
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?
* Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait. It’s so strange, but I remember intently studying this painting in an art book I had when I was a child. Even when I was just 9 or 10 years old, I thought it was remarkable — the silky texture of his long brown curls and his fur collar, what I perceived as a sort of sad-kindness in his eyes. I was struck then with the idea that an artist had created something more real than life, something that had survived for hundreds of years and still looked out from the page and engaged me.
* Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine. This was the first book that touched close to my own understanding of existence, the intertwining of the natural world with the heart, beauty with suffering. I read it in college and that’s when I first began to seriously consider writing a novel.
* The Secret of Roan Inish, an American film set in Ireland. It’s a retelling of the selkie folktale, and it brings myth into an otherwise very grounded family and realistic landscape. The film helped me to realize that one could tell a story set in our own world but alight with magic.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Ha! You haven’t seen me paint, dance, or sing. But beside my limited artistic skills, I wrote a novel because I love to read them. If I could only have one art form in my life, it would be the novel, over music or film or theatre or anything else.
6. Please tell us about your novel…
The Snow Child is based on a Russian fairy tale about an old man and woman who are unable to have children. They build a little girl out of snow and she comes to life. Despite this fantastical premise, the novel is firmly rooted in the Alaska landscape. Jack and Mabel move north to homestead in 1920, but they are crumbling under despair and backbreaking work. But one night they build a snow child, and the next morning a mysterious, wild little girl dashes out of the trees and into their lives.
(BBGuru: publisher’s blurb –
A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska.
Jack and Mabel hope that a fresh start in ‘Alaska, our newest homeland’ will enable them to put the strain of their childless marriage behind them. But the northern wilderness proves as unforgiving as it is beautiful: Jack fears that he will collapse under the strain of creating a farm, and the lonely winter eats its way into Mabel’s soul.
When the first snow falls, the couple find themselves building a small figure – a snow girl. The next morning, their creation has gone, and they see a child running through the spruce trees. Gradually this child – an elusive, untameable little girl who hunts with a fox and is more at ease in the savage landscape than in the homestead – comes into their lives. But as their love for the snow child and for the land she opens up to them grows, so too does their awareness that it, and she, may break their hearts.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope readers catch a glimpse of the Alaska wilderness – not just its splendour, but also its raw edges, the complex tangle of life and death in the natural world. I think we can only respect the wilderness when we see its many facets, its fragility and awesome power, its beauty and ferocity. Much like life itself.
I can’t think of a more challenging question for a bookseller and author to answer, at least when she is limited to one paragraph. There are writers like Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov, and Austen whose books I consider the great classics of fiction. Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Annie Proulx I admire for how they’ve advanced the art of the modern novel. There are writers like Larry McMurtry and Stephen King, whom I adore for how they tell a great story. And then there are those, like William T Vollmann, Richard Flanagan, and David Shields, whom I respect for braving new territories. But I could go on and on and on … and I’m still reading.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To finish my next novel. Which might not sound very ambitious, considering I’ve already completed one, but it’s almost more daunting now that I know how many hazards and detours can be found along the route.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Oh, I’ve never been in a position to give advice to other writers before, but I’ll try to make it sound as if I know what I’m talking about. If you love to read and love to write more than anything else in the world, then do it, and do it for the love of it.
Eowyn, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.