author of The Cleansing of Mahommed
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, in Lakemba, which was a very different, very white bread Lakemba back in those days. When I was eighteen months old the family went to live in Tokyo for seven years due to my father’s work as a customs agent, and when we came back we lived in Lindfield. It was a very safe, very leafy, suburban childhood, and I went to a very safe and leafy north shore school.
When I was twelve, I wanted to be a vet. I loved animals and I was always rather partial to blood and guts and gore. I must have been the only child in Australia who was given a dissecting kit for Xmas, complete with mini scalpel and formaldehyde. I was thrilled beyond belief. I used it to dissect the mice that were unlucky enough to stray into the household mouse traps.
When I was eighteen I wanted to be an actor. I had pushed my way into the lead roles of school plays and I saw NIDA as a way of escaping both the perceived drudgery of university and the boredom of the north shore.
When I was thirty I was a scriptwriter, which I was happy to be. If I had been better at science, I might have become a vet, which I think I would have enjoyed, and if I’d had any real talent (sadly, I didn’t), I might have remained an actor. But I don’t think I would have enjoyed the life of an actor, so all things considered, things have worked out well.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I knew everything and my parents and their generation knew nothing. The truth was that I knew nothing, and they at least knew something.
Enid Blyton, Enid Blyton, and Enid Blyton. I didn’t know her books were racist and class bound. All I knew was that The Magic Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair, and The Famous Five series set my imagination going in a million ways. I would lie in bed at night and imagine new lands for the faraway tree, and new adventures for George (always George of course, never boring old Anne) to have. Once I was through with picture books I started on Enid Blyton, and from then on I never stopped. (Reading, that is…I did eventually grow out of Enid Blyton, but I credit her with giving me the reading bug)
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I originally thought about the story as a film script, but given the cast of thousands, the budget would probably have been too high for an Australian film. I also thought a novel would be the best way to really get into the main character’s head, to rattle around inside it and see what makes him tick. And after years of writing for television drama, where writers have very little control over the finished product, I thought it was about time.
6. Please tell us about your novel The Cleansing of Mahommed…
It’s about Mahommed, a naïve young Afghani who comes to Australia a little before the outbreak of WW1. He arrives in Broken Hill with all sorts of dreams and a desperate desire to fit into the Australian/English way of life. Despite his best intentions, his dreams are soon shattered, and with Abdullah, who is both the local mullah, and his friend and mentor, he plots revenge for the many injustices that they both have suffered. The climax of the novel is very loosely based on the Battle of Broken Hill, a little known event in Australia’s history.
The novel is also a love story, which I hope will make readers cry.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
When I did the initial research, Mahommed and Abdullah were described in the newspaper reports as ‘drug crazed fiends’. The same is true today…whenever something bad is done, the perpetrators are described in terms designed to obscure the fact that they are real people with real reasons (not necessarily good or sympathetic ones) for doing what they have done. I hope my story encourages people to look a little deeper.
I also hope they take away with them a feeling that they have shared some time with people who are no longer strangers to them, people who have both entertained them and moved them. “Make ‘em laugh, make’em cry”…if I have achieved that, I’ll be happy.
It changes depending on what I’ve been reading. So recently it’s Michael Ondaatje for The Cat’s Table and Julian Barnes for The Sense of an Ending. And a book of E.L. Doctorow’s short stories All the Time in the World, some of which I’ve read before and all of which blow me away. And last year I loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. But the list goes on…there are so many writers I admire. All of them write beautiful prose, have engaging characters, and know how to tell a good story well.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Mine are simple. To write better, to write well. To be able to touch people through my work, that would be wonderful.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Speak with your own voice, because it’s the only thing you have to offer a reader which is yours alone. Be true to your characters, don’t manipulate them for the sake of a clever plot twist. Beautiful prose is not enough…you need a story. Write for a reader…if you’re writing for therapy, then write a diary. Don’t listen to flattery…seek objective opinions on your work because your friends and your mother will always lie. Don’t write drunk…what looks like a work of genius when it’s swimming in front of your eyes at 3AM will not look so good in the cold light of day. And lastly, don’t give up…practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but it does make better.
Chris, 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.