author of The Beloved
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Arrived on a cold and murky Melbourne morning, many years ago. . . At the age of five, I moved with our family to post-colonial Port Moresby. What-ho, pith helmets and white clothes for men, sun dresses and cigarettes for women and gin-slings for all. Except for me, that came later – after boarding school in Sydney. A child of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, nostalgic for Janice Joplin and Joe Cocker until I discovered Traditional Chinese Medicine. I studied for four years to became a practitioner, specialising in acupuncture. Loved it, but a lifelong desire to make funny marks on paper and computer screens overcame me and I finally succumbed to being a penurious writer.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Twelve: A writer. Too young to know better. Wrote bad poetry.
Eighteen: A writer. Slow learner. Wrote bad short stories.
Thirties: A writer. Stubborn and single-minded. Wrote a book on acupuncture.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That just about everyone else in the world was smarter, more intelligent and more capable than I.
4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
The books of Somerset Maugham which I read in my teens – all of them – inspired me to ask the eternal philosophical questions – who we are and why we’re here. He wrote great stories with an elegant style that I found immensely satisfying but which left me still craving for more.
My music hero is Beethoven. His piano concertos and symphonies invite me to question life’s big themes and his quartets inspire stories. He fuses passion with restraint and genius with craft. His surrender and complete commitment to his art is humbling.
The art of Chagall and Miro inspires the character in my novel but Aboriginal art inspires me. I can contemplate it for hours, imagining the stories the artists might be telling and allowing them to give rise to stories of my own. The form, voice and earthy beauty of aboriginal paintings rattle my imagination and challenge me to make sense of our place in the world.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Choose to write a novel? I didn’t choose: it happened. Too short for ballet, too self-conscious for theatre, too thick to read music and too late for art, it snuck up on me, which is just as well because otherwise I’d still be chewing my pencil. The Beloved was going to be a memoir but I couldn’t stop telling lies.
The Beloved is a family drama set in post-colonial Port Moresby during the fifties and sixties. It tells the story of Roberta “Bertie” Lightfoot, the daughter of a Canadian war bride and an Aussie ex air force pilot. At six Bertie is stricken with polio. Thanks to her mother’s dedication and determination Bertie walks again but is left with a crippled leg. Schoolyard bullying convinces her she’s ugly and she takes refuge in the world of art. An ability to see auras and a passion for drawing give form and voice to the reality of people and the world around her. However, her insight into people’s motivations and the capacity to reveal them on paper unsettle her mother and create an increasing divide between them. In the lush New Guinea landscape, Bertie’s art flourishes under the secret tutelage of her mother’s arch rival but she is not the only one deceiving her family. As secrets come to light the domestic varnish cracks and jealousy, passion and violence threaten to destroy forever the relationship between mother and daughter.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Trust yourself. Stay true to who you are. Be courageous in love. Recognise it is not easy, passive or cheap but our greatest opportunity and ultimate gift.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To write till I stop. To stop when I no longer enjoy it. To recognise when that happens, if it happens. With luck, it won’t.
Don’t write to be published. Write because it’s what you want to do. Write with your heart, learn the craft of writing and never stop improving your work. Read books. If you’re patient, persistent and utterly dogged, you will get where you want to go.
Annah, 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.