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, the second eldest of three girls and one boy, and began my education at a little school in Enmore that sadly no longer exists. My father went off to war when I was a toddler and my earliest memory is of a strange man with the bluest of eyes picking me up and whirling me around while I cried in terror. Of course I didn’t know him. My father should have been all grey like his photos. He moved the family to Aberdare for two years, then to what I felt sure was a magical place – Princes Highway, Fairy Meadow. I’ve lived in and around Wollongong ever since, and I love it. I left school at 14 to work in a succession of jobs, beginning Creative Arts, writing major at Wollongong University in my fiftieth year.
When I was 12 I was torn between wanting to be a French teacher like Mrs Riley – who was kind, softly spoken, and constantly assured me and all my class that we were destined for great things – or a herbalist like my great grandmother, who made sick kids better, handed out sage advice to adults and helped women in need to escape abusive husbands. If either of those weren’t possible, then I’d just spend the rest of my life travelling around the world. Oh, and reading a lot. When I was 18 I wanted to be anybody other than myself. At 30 I was mother, wife, daughter, worker, and I don’t recall what I wanted to be then. It’s all a bit of a blur.
At eighteen I was pregnant, married, and believed that to be the destiny of daughters of the unskilled working class. Three sons, a divorce and a second marriage later, I now know how idiotic that belief is, and I know that the sky is the limit. Make that the stratosphere. Now I wonder, with role models like Mrs Riley and my great grandmother, why I thought the way I did.
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 was fascinated with the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. Besides recognising and recording the beauty in everyday people, land and sky and things, he never gave up doing what he loved to do. The first novel I remember reading was Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians. I loved it then but didn’t understand why. I rediscovered it in my 40’s and realised that insight, empathy and recording without judging is essential in a story that stays. Shakespeare showed me that truth of character is the dominant part of a story. If you don’t have the characters right, nothing else is.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
My first success was a one act play performed by an amateur group in Noosa, Queensland. I’ve never forgotten the delight of it. Nor of my first published short story, children’s novel, novel for adults. Each following play, short story, novel for children or adults is a joy – the writing and the acceptance. I don’t know that I choose to write novels. I think the story dictates in what form and genre it needs to be written.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel, Waratah House…
The year is 1880. Eleven year old Marina and her parents are travelling to a new life in Australia. Marina falls ill before the ship leaves port and when the illness spreads throughout the lower decks, the immigrants on board blame her for the many deaths and vow she is accursed. Her parents fall victim to the disease, so James and Sarah Smithson, a couple with work waiting for them in the colony as butler and housekeeper, promise to take care of her – James voluntarily, Sarah because he insists, though their only son has died and like the others, Sarah blames Marina.
So begins the story of a bitterness affecting the lives of three generations. But there’s also joy and sorrow, love and hatred, and friendships both true and false that change the course of lives. It’s the story of Marina’s naivety, her daughter Emily’s strength and belief in self; but also the how and why of Sarah.
I hope that what readers take away from this book is the understanding that very few of us are as we seem – we often keep ourselves hidden from others – and how important it is to take control of our own lives. And to think about the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – ‘If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.’ I believe we’re born with much of our personality, but as children we’re influenced by surroundings and culture, by the actions and creed of those closest to us. But as adults, we make and are responsible for our own choices.
I admire so many writers that it’s difficult to choose just a few. Certainly Ethel Turner and Shakespeare for the reasons already stated. David Malouf, Rodney Hall and Annie Prouix (among so many others) for the beauty in their writing. Karin Slaughter, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and etc. for plotting (I love a good crime fiction) Tim Winton and Thomas Keneally for the way they tell a story, ditto Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Jolley. I could go on and on and on . . .
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My goal is to keep writing. Unlike so many writers, my head isn’t always full of stories. I have to wait for them to come to me.
If writing is truly what you want to do, what you need to do, what makes you happy, don’t allow rejections to turn you aside. Even the very best have those. If you have the story, the characters, and a way of putting those elements together to make others want to read, you will succeed. If not, there’s still the joy of doing it so you lose nothing.
Ann, 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.