The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of A Tiger in Eden
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 Belfast 40 years ago, slap bang in the middle of the Troubles. My family lived on the Shankhill estate, which is probably the most Protestant place in the world. No offence to anyone who lives there now but it wasn’t the best place to be raising a child in the 70s. My parents moved into one of the small satellite towns thirty minutes up the road and I grew up in a Protestant housing estate – Union Jacks and Red Hand of Ulster flags everywhere, the streetlamps and kerbs painted red, white and blue. I went to a ‘mixed’ school though (Catholics and Protestants), one of the few in Northern Ireland at the time. It sounds terrible because my family still live there, but it was always my intention to get out of there and make a life for myself somewhere with less bombs and automatic weapons.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I used to believe that I had been found in a glowing pod at the end of a long furrow in a local field, so when I was twelve I definitely wanted to be an astronaut. I sort of thought I might already be one anyway and that eventually a spacecraft would land to take me back to my home world. It hasn’t happened (yet). When I was eighteen I wanted to be a film-maker, but there was no film school in Ireland. The only one was in London and it was super expensive so that put paid to that pipe dream. I did a bit of acting when I was in my late teens so film was always an ambition. When I was thirty I was starting to think about writing some novels. I got good advice from a friend early on in life when I told him I fancied being a writer. He told me to go and live, and worry about that when I was in my late 30s, which is exactly what I did. I spent my 20s travelling the world, learning languages and gathering experiences that would hold me in good stead for later.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
This might be controversial, but I believed that everyone had to go to University in order to make something of themselves. I no longer believe that. I met some great people at Uni but unless you’re studying something vocational, I’m not sure it’s worth it. I often feel I would have been better off taking off, like I did later, to live and work in other countries. Nothing like travel to broaden the mind, plus you get to meet a lot of attractive people, if you know what I mean.
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?
A book that had a big influence on me was Post Office by Charles Bukowski. He worked as a postal clerk for more than a decade and wrote this novel on the side. I spent most of my 20s working boring and sometimes strange jobs – pillow stuffer, sumo wrestling referee in a travelling fair, garbage man and a bunch of office admin jobs. It wasn’t much fun, though I had fun outside of hours. The idea that you could live like this and also be a writer was revelatory to me.
In terms of art, the chaos of Jackson Pollock always appealed. He was another one just doing his thing, not knowing or caring if anyone liked it but there was something magical going on. When you see video footage of him painting in the air above a canvas, it’s pretty amazing.
My musical tastes change all the time. I’m not much of a one for romanticising the past, so I get bored with bands and albums pretty quickly and want to hear something new. I went to clubs a lot in my 20s and still love dance music (not the cheesy stuff, mind). My hard drive got wiped a few years ago and I lost all my music, but it was kind of refreshing having to start again. I listened to Crystal Castles a lot when I was writing this book.
Bukowski, Pollock, Crystal Castles – you don’t see those in the same sentence too often.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I was always a writer, there was never any doubt about that. It wasn’t a question of choice, it was just a matter of finding a cool publisher who understood where I was coming from. I was terrible at Art and am tone deaf, so those vocations were out the window early on. And much as I love short stories, I can’t write them for toffee.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
A Tiger in Eden is the story of Billy Montgomery, a young Loyalist thug from Belfast who is on the run from the police and who is hiding out in Thailand amongst the backpacker set. They have no idea about the monster in their midst.
The only problem is he’s stuck there in this corrupt paradise, and it starts to get to him. He’s harbouring a lot of secrets from his unpleasant past that begin to resurface, right when he’s trying to leave it all behind and move on. It’s a romp, lots of fun, written in Billy’s distinctive brogue, but there’s a bit of serious stuff in there too about sex tourism and changing direction in life.
It’s also very sexy, so be warned.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Most everyone who’s read it so far says they did so in one four hour session. I hope that will be a common experience. As long as readers feel like they’ve enjoyed themselves and had a few laughs, then my job is done. If they’ve learned a little bit about what life might be like for a young guy in Northern Ireland, then all the better. A lot of reviewers are describing it as ‘uplifting’ and that’s perfect. There are too many miserable books out there already!
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
For sheer imagination, skill and readability, I love British writer China Mieville. He seems to be capable of anything, and I suspect more non-science fiction fans are finding him every year.
Jennifer Egan seems to be able to effortlessly write about contemporary life without coming across as patronising, and remembers to include humour, which for me is vital in writing, and sadly too often neglected.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Do they? Yikes. To win the Booker Prize! Ha ha no, I don’t think so. Geez, my goals are quite modest, in that case. I’ll be happy if I get to write half a dozen books that are entertaining and quite well written. If I write one really memorable, wonderful book by the time I’m 80, then I’ll have done well. That’s about all I aspire to as an author.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Be patient. The average age of a first time novelist is 42. And don’t think you’re a genius. You’re not. Relax. Have fun writing! If you enjoy writing your book, chances are someone will enjoy reading it.
Chris, 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.