Six Sharp Questions
1. Congratulations, you have a new book. What is it about and what does it mean to you?
Welcome to Normal started when I tried to persuade my publisher to take most of the stories from my last collection, Headgames, which came out in 1999, and repackage them with stories I’d written for anthologies and journals since then. Then I realised I had the prospect of something much more exciting if I used none of the stories from Headgames, took only two of the newest stories and built the book from there, ie, wrote another 60,000 words. It meant an extra 18 months work (as opposed to no work, which is always nice if you can pull it off), but it let me shape the book with an overall concept in mind and a clear sense of what I was aiming at any time I sat down to write.
I knew there was a town in the US called Normal, and I liked the idea of writing something called Welcome to Normal, in which a couple of outsiders visited the town. I happened to have an email exchange at the time with Kate Miller-Heidke, who was touring the US Midwest with Ben Folds, and I mentioned a few things about a trip I made to Bloomington Indiana in 1990. She dared me to write about it, which didn’t actually happen, but just thinking of that trip triggered something, and Welcome to Normal became a young graduate and his boss – not the young couple I’d first thought of – on a road trip through the Midwest in 1990. By coincidence, Normal is part of a conurbation with a different Bloomington, in Illinois. By further coincidence, it’s mentioned in a Ben Folds song. It’s a story that had to be, really.
As I was planning that story and thinking beyond it, I gave some thought to what ‘normal’ was and what it would mean for the book. For each story, I wanted to find people who felt real, and then I often sent them somewhere – I gave them a physical journey and maybe took them out of their comfort zones, while also putting thought into the journeys they were really on. I think that’s part of normal – we send ourselves across town or across the world, and sometimes the real business is going on parallel to that and beneath the surface, and it’s often not spoken about. I wanted to leave a lot unsaid in these stories, but give readers all the pieces they needed to put it together. I love reading things like that, if they’re done well, so that’s what I tried to do. You can tell how happy these people are, or not, and sense their fears and frustrations, without me as the writer having to spell it out in block capitals.
I realise I’m not often known for my subtlety. I think I can be subtle, but sometimes I’ve been too subtle about it, or created other story elements that draw attention. Anyway, subtlety was on my mind with this one. Not only subtlety, but it was part of the mix.
Also, I realised at the start how much I loved writing shorter fiction, and somehow I’d forgotten that. Some stories shouldn’t be 80,000 words – they should be 3000 or 25,000. My favourite bit of the writing process is discovering the story in the first place. This book gave me the luxury of going through that eight times, rather than one.
2. Time passes. Things change. What are the best and worst moments that you have experienced in the past year or so?
Worst – maybe the fatigue during those months when my son didn’t know how to sleep
Best – being there while he develops language, learns what he can do with it and lets us into what’s going on in his head (stop me now or this will segue into pages of gushy parent stuff …)
For this book there was one in particular I kept in mind:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Any time a book comes out I try to remind myself of this one:
For every person who thinks I look like the new Audrey Hepburn, someone else thinks I look like an alien.
Sophie Ellis Bextor
Some people get you, some people don’t, and trying to please everyone as a writer is a ceaseless, useless chase for your own stumpy tail.
Conform. Life is a bit different now that my son is in here – I used to be able to give uncountable hours to work. My work days have fewer work hours in them, and more childcare drop-offs, etc. The ultimate superhero power would surely be one that adds more hours to the day. But if I had that, would I use them all for work? No, not now. I’d also want to kick balls, etc.
I am difficult to live with because every year my attempt to achieve perfect separation between my work life and my life life fails. Each year I correct half the mistakes of the previous year, and then learn ways to make new ones. I make as much of the job nine to five (nine-thirty to four) as I can, but a writer’s brain is a writer’s brain, and it’s clueless about office hours. Ideas come, and need writing down. My mind wanders, because my job calls for it even if my life doesn’t. And I need to do business in several time zones.
I try to make up for all that with flair in the kitchen (hah), great bedtime stories, park time, etc. My life can’t be all about creating the perfect environment in which the artist can then create something. It has to be about having the best life possible, and making sure there are at least some hours in it for writing.
5. Some writers claim not to be influenced by the needs of the marketplace, while others seem obsessed by it. Would you please describe how the marketplace affects your writing (come on, tell the truth!).
This book is a collection of short fiction. I can’t believe you’d even suggest such a thing would be motivated by the marketplace. I wish. I wish I was sitting here with all my friends going, ‘He’s totally sold out. He’s just written this collection of short stories and novellas. It’ll probably sell millions’.
I can’t say I never think about the marketplace, but in the end, there’s no point in me setting out to write something I’m not desperate to write, since I won’t do a good job of it. Sometimes though, of all the things I might write, I think ‘which ones of these might people actually want to buy?’ If you want to keep your job, it’s not a bad question to ask.
So how am I thinking of the marketplace right now? This is a crazy unpredictable time to be in the book industry, and I’ve decided on a policy of diversification, while aiming to always turn out the best work I can. So, I’ve got involved in a film project, I’m writing a kids’ trilogy and I’m publishing ebooks in the US, as well as keeping the adult fiction coming. It seems smart to have irons in a few fires. Fortunately, every project is something I really want to do.
6. Unlikely Scenario: You’ve been charged with civilising twenty ill-educated adolescents but you may take only five books with you. What do you take and why?
I’d take just two: Lord of the Flies and the Igguldens’ Dangerous Book for Boys. I’d give them those, then I’d let them loose in the wilderness, film the whole thing and market it as a reality TV version of The Hunger Games. Then, wracked with guilt, I’d donate half if not all of my resulting awesome wealth to set up an organisation for civilising rogue adolescents, using an evidence-based approach devised by experts. That would include me buying whichever five books those experts recommended, and probably quite a few more.
Fortunately in real life I’m responsible for only one toddler.
Nick, 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.