author of The Book of Summers
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 and grew up in the county of Devon, England. My village was a tiny scattering of cottages nestled in a valley, with the seaside only a short drive away. My first school had just forty children in it and on summer afternoons our headmaster used to let us forget lessons and we’d all just play sports and go on endless nature walks. It was heaven, really. When I was older I went to the local state school and then did my A-levels in the county town of Exeter, which was hardly a heaving metropolis but enough to whet my appetite for life a little further afield. After spells in London and the French Alps I’ve now returned to the Westcountry, and live in Bristol.
At twelve, I wanted to be Wimbledon Champion.
At eighteen, I wanted to be dating a Wimbledon Champion.
At thirty, all I wanted was to be a Writer. The best thing about writing fiction is that through it we can live as many lives as we want – slip inside other people’s skins, skip time and place. Freud talked about wish fulfillment through creativity. I think I’ve lain to rest my tennis dreams but who knows, maybe they’ll resurface in a novel one day – Lionel Shriver did it with style, after all.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That if you were a good person then good things would just happen to you – that Fate had a plan and she’d treat you kindly. I’ve been very lucky in my life so far but I also know that the very best things that have happened to me all seemed unattainable at some point, and it was only through perseverance and doggedness that they came off.
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?
Paintings… anything by Caravaggio. I have a postcard of ‘Supper at Emmaus’ on my desk at home and it keeps me firmly in my place. The skill of the artist is so humbling – the extraordinary detail, the light and shade, the capturing of humanity – that if I’m struggling with words on a page it makes me strive harder to get it right. Not that writing is easy, but it seems like it should be, in comparison!
As to books, there are far too many to mention, but my literary crushes on Jane Austen, Anne Tyler, JG Ballard, Dylan Thomas and Ernest Hemingway have proved enduring. I like listening to music as I write, but I’m constantly fiddling with the volume so that the lyrics don’t interrupt my thought patterns but my imagination still feeds off the sound. Lately I’ve been playing Au Revoir Simone’s album ‘Still Night, Still Light’ a lot as it seems to fit my writing mood; dreamy but precise.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I’m a life-long lover of books. Especially stories that take you somewhere you’ve never been before, or tell you something new. To have written a novel and to find that there are actually people who want to read it feels like nothing short of a dream. I can’t imagine any other art form feeling quite so personal or precious to me.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Book of Summers is my debut novel, and is a coming-of-age story, set between England and Hungary. It looks back over the seven childhood summers that Beth, our main character, spent in rural Hungary, and how this time changed her and her family. The setting is inspired by holidays abroad as a child (my mother is Hungarian). And while the characters are fictional, and the drama is make-believe too (thankfully) the writing of it was a wonderfully satisfying process of revisiting old memories and making something wholly new from them.
(BBGuru: From the blurb…
The perfect summer read from a glorious new voice in commercial literary fiction.
Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel.
Inside is a letter informing her that her long-estranged mother has died, and a scrapbook Beth has never seen before. Entitled The Book of Summers, it’s stuffed with photographs and mementos complied by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spent in rural Hungary.
It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries; her bewitching but imperfect Hungarian mother and her gentle, reticent English father; the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen.
Since then, Beth hasn’t allowed herself to think about those years of her childhood. But the arrival of The Book of Summers brings the past tumbling back into the present; as vivid, painful and vital as ever. Extract)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope that people will find it transporting, and take pleasure in being submersed in a world they’ve not previously known. I hope they’ll feel tender towards the people in it, and understand each of them as they would hope to be understood.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
My husband and his brother are the comic book creators The Etherington Brothers. In the UK comic books aren’t really in the mainstream, but their stories for children have every right to be – they’re ripping yarns and a joy to look at. The boys work really hard, never stop smiling, and never stop believing in what they do. They’re heroes.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I find my goals are forever shifting. Once, it was just to finish writing a novel. Then to find an agent. Then a publisher. In the run-up to my publication day all I know is that I love this writing life and I don’t want it to ever stop. If I could grow old and grey and still be writing novels that people want to read then I’ll feel like I’ve had it all.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Understand why you want to write. And once you’ve worked that out, look at your life and see if it needs re-ordering, so that you can do it in the manner that suits both you and your ambition.
Emylia, 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.