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 Melbourne but from about two to seven years of age I lived in Wodonga on the NSW/Victorian border with my parents, an older sister and two younger brothers. My dad worked as a paymaster for the Victorian Railways. I have vivid memories of cattle being driven through the dusty, unpaved streets to the stockyards and steam locomotives hauling trains full of post-war immigrants from Europe headed for the Bonegilla migrant camp. We eventually moved back to Melbourne and settled in the northern suburb of Glenroy. My parents lived in the same house until they passed away around five years ago. All the kids went to Glenroy State School and then Oak Park High, which was a brand new school that quickly established a fantastic reputation for sporting and academic excellence. I contributed absolutely nothing to either of these sterling achievements.
At 12 I wanted to be an industrial chemist or mad scientist, at 18 I was already involved in professional photography and at 30 as much as I was enjoying photography and the ability it gave me to travel and live overseas I think I knew I was oh-so-strongly resisting the urge to write. I still have the copy of The Reader Over Your Shoulder by Robert Graves that I bought myself as a thirtieth birthday present while living in Atlantic City, New Jersey way back when. It’s billed as A Handbook for Writers of English Prose so the clues were there.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at 18 that you do not have now?
At 18 and for a whole lot of years afterward I felt that I shouldn’t write because I’d be awful at it and I loved the written word so much I didn’t want to debase it with my pathetic attempts. Of course the question of debasing the written word is interesting given that my first published work was entitled Fat Fifty and F***ed!
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?
I’m one of those people who suck things in and give them a good chew and then swallow and move on to the next experience. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 and the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black still both resonate with me as much as when I first heard them. The classic movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s such as Blow Up, Bullit, Easy Rider, Barry Lyndon, Bonnie and Clyde et al were a great influence, as were photographers like Avedon and Penn. Right now I’m also very much interested in what is being produced by the likes of HBO in the US. I also consider food as art.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I sat down and wrote a novel in the end because I had to see if I could actually do it after all the years of avoiding it. I mean how hard can it be really? You just take 26 letters and spaces and commas and full stops and arrange them in different order until you create a universe that fits your vision. I deluded myself by reading the John le Carré novella Call for the Dead, which seemed a pretty easy read until I re-read it a year later and realised its simple complexity or probably more accurately its complex simplicity.
Blackwattle Creek is my sixth book and catches up with Charlie Berlin in 1957, ten years on from his introduction in The Diggers Rest Hotel. Berlin is still a Melbourne copper, still dealing with the traumas of his wartime service but is now married with kids and a house in the suburbs. He seems to be holding it all together but an apparently simple request from his wife to have a chat with a just-widowed friend leads to his life spiralling out of control as he’s embroiled in events that take him down a very dark path.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
The feeling that they’ve just read a great yarn. And a deeper understanding of Charlie Berlin as he struggles to cope ten years after his war experiences – is he coping, or does he just appear to be? And what is dredged up for him when he’s confronted with a situation that questions the worth of what he fought for and what his comrades lost their lives for. The men and women that survived WW2 were expected to come home and get on with their normal lives. Most of them looked like they did but many of them struggled with what they’d seen and done and a ‘normal’ life wasn’t easy to achieve. It’s a story that’s repeated with every war – in more recent times Vietnam and Iraq – and the damage they do to the people who fight them and the people waiting at home.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
John Updike was someone who got me thinking about the possibilities of the written word and then Vonnegut. Interestingly, both Americans. Also John le Carré, as I noted, and Raymond Carver who does so much so simply in his short stories.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My ambition always is to finish my next book and make it better than the last one.
Fear of failure isn’t a good enough excuse not to try something. This was a lesson I learned when I became a teacher and had to inspire students to have a go. I tell people that babies don’t learn how to walk, they learn how not to fall down. Walking and writing are very similar in that we are always a microsecond away from a tumble. Life’s a bit like that too. Sometimes we stumble and sometimes we fall but that risk is far outweighed by the benefits of getting out of the comfort of a chair and seeing what you can discover on the outside. Just ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? And remember that while a badly written book might not get published, an unwritten one absolutely never will.
Geoffrey, thank you for playing.
If you have to die, Melbourne is a fair enough place to do it and September is one of the better months for a funeral. Still early spring, no hint yet of the desiccating ugliness of summer, still chilly and almost always bleak enough for a suitably sombre air to blanket the proceedings. The downside to a September funeral is if you time your dying wrong you’ll never know who won the Aussie Rules grand final. And in football-mad Melbourne, that can be a fate worse than death.
The sun broke through the overcast for a brief moment, a narrow shaft of bright, winter-cool morning light beaming down through a high window in the Moonee Ponds church. The splash of light illuminated a row of medals that had been placed on top of the coffin along with an army officer’s cap. It also lit up a hand-knitted, navy-blue-and-white-striped woollen scarf, which informed the few in the congregation who didn’t already know that the man inside the coffin had been a fervent Geelong supporter. The grand final was just two days away and the Cats were at the very bottom of the 1957 League table. With your team the Wooden Spooners a man might as well be dead.
There were more medals on show throughout the church. A dozen or so men wore them on the left breast of their nearly identical black suits or dark overcoats, with others displaying more subtle rows of coloured ribbons. The medals clanked together as the congregation rose and sat, and rose and sat again for hymns and homilies and the eulogy. The women in the congregation were in a uniform of sorts too, hats and gloves, scarfs and handbags, heavy overcoats and heavy shoes. It was a good turnout, the minister had noted, his little red-brick church nearly full to capacity.
Pulled from the backs of wardrobes for the occasion, the funeral outfits had been dusted off, mothballs dumped out of the pockets, camphor bags set aside. A musty, vaguely chemical odour hung over the mourners, giving the flowers at the altar and the 4711 Eau de Cologne with which the women had dabbed their handkerchiefs a run for their money. Apart from the medal ribbons, the only competition the flowers had in the colour stakes was from a woman in a red overcoat sitting in the front row.
She was a looker, that was for sure. Thirtyish, but only just, and tall. Slim too, with dark, lustrous hair washing over the collar of her coat. Outside the church, before the service, that red overcoat had drawn pursed lips and tut-tutting from a number of the women. The coat was cut well and showed she had hips under it as well as a respectable chest. Several of the men managed to pull their eyes away from her chest and check out her left hand. Under the tight, elegant black-leather glove a bulge on the third finger indicated a wedding ring. The unmarried men were disappointed, as were a number who were attending the funeral with their wives.
Inside the church the woman took off her gloves. She was seated next to the widow, holding her hand. Skin to skin, warmth, a touch that says you are still alive and that somebody cares. The widow stared straight ahead, head tilted to one side. She seemed numb, distant, and had to be gently coaxed into rising for the prayers and hymns. Once up on her feet she stared blankly at the hymnal her companion held open for her.
At the end of the service the undertaker quietly marshalled the six men, all medal wearers, who would carry the coffin out to the hearse. He took the officer’s cap from the top of the coffin, turned it over and placed the medals inside, with the football scarf folded neatly on top. Crossing the church to the front row of pews he bowed slightly and handed the cap to the widow. She stared up at him, confused, and then recognition slowly showed in her face. And anger. She stood up.
‘It’s not right, you bastard, it’s not right.’
The organist had momentarily stopped playing, flipping pages to find the recessional, and in that brief period of respectful silence the widow’s words echoed round the church walls, followed by shocked gasps from the congregation. The startled undertaker flinched, stepped back, hands out as if to protect himself from physical attack. He turned around, jaw clenched, and walked stiffly back to the coffin and the waiting pallbearers.
The widow slumped down onto the pew, dropping her head on the shoulder of the woman in the red overcoat. She started to cry and the woman stroked her hair. The widow leaned closer, whispering in the woman’s ear, telling her the awful secret.
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.