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 Darlinghurst, Sydney, in 1978, the second of three daughters although my younger sister didn’t arrive until I was twelve. I globetrotted with my parents and older sister quite a bit as a baby. My father was one of Australia’s leading playwrights and we travelled to America, England, and through Europe for his work. I grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, attending Double Bay Primary School where I totally failed to appreciate the beautiful waterside setting, until I got to high school at Sydney Girls High, which was sandwiched between twelve lanes of traffic. I took two Bachelor’s degrees at the University of Sydney, in history and social work, and was unable to avoid the real world any longer.
At twelve I wanted to do well in school, get good marks, and have fun friends. I knew that English was my best subject by a mile, and I loved – LOVED – creative writing assignments. I was also an avid – almost obsessive – reader. At the end of primary school I won the school literature prize but had struggles in maths – a pattern that was set to continue. I loved horses and horse-riding desperately too, and told my father I wanted to leave school early, study horse-husbandry at technical college, and work in a stable or stud farm. He said no to that.
At eighteen I was just entering university. I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted career-wise, but I thirsted to study English literature and history. When I was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen I wrote my first short stories for their own sake – not for assignments – which have thankfully been lost. I also kept a journal. I threw out the ones from age sixteen and seventeen – just too painful – but I still have everything from eighteen onwards. I flirted with the idea of taking off a semester to ‘write’ but never did it. I wanted to be a good person, bless me, although I was all a bit confoozed about how to go about that. Eighteen was all a bit emotional.
At thirty my first novel Good Oil was accepted for publication and I wanted to be a writer. Concurrently at thirty I was catapulted very rudely into the gig of being a single mother of my one-year-old, something I had never dreamed would happen to me, at twelve, eighteen or any age whatsoever.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen things were very black and white for me. Good guys and bad guys, oppressors and oppressed, fundamental truths of existence. I think perhaps I had an unfailing belief in the value of loyalty and quite rigid ideas of how this should be played out. Ultimately this led to disappointment for me and now I am not as quick to lay myself down in traffic for ‘friends’, and my expectations of others have been cut well down to size.
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?
This is an incredibly hard question. Hard to keep it to three specific works.
I have only kept one of my old school reports, it contains a comment from my senior English teacher. “Laura enjoys her work and has a genuine feel for literature”. I loved senior English, loved the poetry, fiction and drama we studied, loved even staying back after school for the extension classes, loved to hear my teacher talk, loved how literature challenged and expanded my ideas. Of all my subjects, I cared the most about getting high marks in English.
There were several novels that I read as a young adult that held me fast in their grasp. For the sake of this question, I will mention Jessica Anderson’s novel Tirra Lirra By the River (What a great title, just for starters!). The narrative device of shifting back and forth through time has become a favourite of mine – she uses it so well – almost menacingly at times – in this book. Her concept of the ‘globe of memory’ continues to fascinate me, I like it much better that Freud’s ‘iceberg’ style split of the conscious and unconscious mind. And the span of settings, and particular incarnation of that era’s brutality to women, the heat of Queensland, the strange, heart-pulling beauty of Sydney Harbour, her ‘less is more’ approach conveying drama and pathos… all so much for any writer to aspire to. Certainly for this writer.
Modern drama has also influenced me quite a bit, the power that playwrights can wield over all of us sitting side by side in the dark. My father – Alex Buzo -wrote many plays. One of them – Coralie Lansdowne Says No – is almost a sacred text to me. It is about compromise, about what people aspire to in life, and what they settle for, about what happens to one’s expectations in adulthood. In addition to the visceral wit of the dialogue, he makes excellent use of supporting characters and I believe that supporting characters can make an enormous contribution to message of the play. The ending of the play is hard – it’s not neat, it’s not happy, it’s going to MAKE you think, it’s going to confront you. What a magician.
American screen writer and director Wes Anderson has made many films, but his 1998 coming of age masterpiece Rushmore remains my favourite. Excellent dialogue, the juxtaposition of comedy and drama, and clever positioning of the three main characters and their personal struggles. Readers of my first novel Good Oil may recognize a kindred preoccupation with the hopelessness of a fifteen year old falling in love with a much older someone that they quite plainly cannot have and their attempts to make sense of that situation, initially flailing, but with more and more dignity.
Well, I did it, I kept it to three!
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I don’t think you choose to write a novel as such, I think it chooses you.
And there are not innumerable avenues open to me. I can’t really conceptualise poetry, I have no drive to create visual art, I lack the spatial awareness and chronological discipline to be a dramatist…. I’m just bookish. Always have been.
My latest, and second, novel is called Holier Than Thou. It’s completely unrelated to my first novel, worth mentioning because many people have asked me whether it is a sequel. Obviously I left my readers wanting more! I am a fan of a WIDE open ending.
Holier Than Thou is more plot driven that my first novel but still probably remains a character novel and relies heavily on dialogue to drive the action.
It follows the main character, Holly, back and forth through time in a circular manner which, upon reflection, takes a lot from Jessica Anderson’s novel Tirra Lirra By the River, as above! It is about the trajectory of grief, and of friendship, family, loss, loyalty, work and the nuts and bolts of morphing into adulthood. It is sad and I don’t pull punches, but I never forget to bring the funny as well. I hope.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they were gripped and ‘sucked in’ by the characters’ journeys, I hope they were entertained by the language and saw a reflection of their own society, I hope they were able to reflect on Holly’s grief and be touched by her vulnerabilities, I hope they will identify with her longings, failings, comings-and-goings, and wonder how they themselves would cope in her position. I hope that is raises questions and stays with the reader after it finishes. Such as… what will Holly find when she gets to the top of those stairs?
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Again, tough question, see question 4 above of course.
I admire Kate Jennings because she tells it how it is, she’s damn talented and she seems really brave. I admire writers in general, particularly writers of fiction, because it is so hard and as Roald Dahl once said, “If you don’t go to your desk and work, nobody is going to scold you.”
Over the years I have had literary crushes on Eleanor Dark, Drusilla Modjeska, Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, Delia Falconer, J.M. Coetzee, because they have gripped me and touched me with their words. I dig that.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Ha! Absolutely no pressure to have an ambitious goal…. I’d like to write the great Australian novel. But the chances of a chick sewing up that accolade are slim.
No seriously. My goal is to keep writing novels of a high standard, to maintain and grow in my commitment to writing despite the obstacles that I’ll not name here. To show you something of yourself and world you live in, to lead you to water and make you think.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Invest in quality equipment, technologically, ergonomically. Make you have one of those pull-out keyboard drawers so you can write with your elbows at a nice right-angle, use a back support and foot rest where appropriate, pump up the text to 150% so you’re not squinting at the screen. Use exercise as a reward. Try to marry well if you can.
Other than that, you’re on your own.
Laura, 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.