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, raised and schooled in Britain.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve in the 1950s, I don’t think I had an idea of ‘being’ anything, except perhaps a ballerina, which was an acceptable fantasy. My father was advanced for the time and when I went to secondary school, he told me there were changes coming in the lives of girls and women and we would be needed in the professions. He sent me to an academic school, which I hated. At eighteen, my greatest wish was never to write another essay.
I’m not sure that I could be said to have had beliefs at eighteen. Perhaps, though, I wanted something to believe in, or some other way of seeing, for at the age of twenty I married an American anthropologist, and together we went to Papua New Guinea. We arrived there in 1968, and everything about my life changed.
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?
At the age I am now, it’s impossible to choose three books from the rich tapestry of a reading life. Instead I will give three from each adult decade. In my twenties it was, perhaps, Franz Fanon, Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin. In my thirties, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing. For my forties, titles spring to mind: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, Rilke’s The Duino Elegies. In my fifties it was Henry James, André Makine and Elizabeth Bowen. And now, in this decade, Philip Roth’s late novels, Javier Marías and Imre Kertész.
It was the art form that was in me as a story-teller child. Besides, I can’t think without a pen in my hand.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Mountain is set in Papua New Guinea. It is a novel that follows two generations of characters, some expatriate, others Papuan, from the idealism of the years before Independence through to the complex realities of today. It begins with the arrival in Port Moresby of Leonard, an ethnographic film-maker from Oxford, with his Dutch wife Rika.
At the new university, Rika, who is just twenty, meets Martha and Laedi, the young wives of Leonard’s colleagues, with whom she becomes close friends. She also meets Papuan student Jacob, who takes her for an early morning walk to the swamp, his room mate Milton who asks her to bring her camera to rehearsals of his play, and Jacob’s clan brother Aaron, who returns from Europe with an MA, the first Papuan to teach at the university. When Laedi’s husband Don insists on going with Leonard to the mountain where he is to film the bark cloth artists, Rika stays behind at the university. The consequences, both on the mountain and at the university, will change all their lives. Independence, five years later, brings them a birth and a death.
In 2005, Jericho takes leave from the gallery in London where he works and returns to the mountain where he was born – and to Laedi and Don’s daughter Bili, who is still in Port Moresby working as an environmental lawyer. The question facing him is whether he can bridge the distance between his life in London and the place of his birth? Or should he persuade Bili to return with him to London? Can he satisfy the expectations of his kin on the mountain? Can their barkcloth art survive another generation? Will he discover the truth about his birth, and about the events of independence that have been shrouded in silence for thirty years?
That’s the story, or the outline of it without giving away what happens. For me it has been a huge journey into fiction, and its demanded of me everything that I have become, everything I have learned after four decades of writing and reading.
I hope they will take away some understanding of Papua New Guinea, the complex country to our north. And that perhaps they may reflect on what independence means, not only for a nation but for individuals and groups.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire many writers, and I admire the courage of those who write along the fault-lines – of our histories and our lives, personal or collective. I admire writers who make us think, and re-think, and think again.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I no longer have much in the way of ambition, other that to write and live and well as I can.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
A young writer – any writer – needs courage, and also patience. Courage to write from the heart, patience to return to draft after draft.
Drusilla, 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.