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 and brought up in Northampton in the English Midlands. The joke about Northampton was that it was always used for surveys as it was absolutely average in every way. I don’t know that that’s really true, but my childhood was quite rich and strange, because I have a large and interesting family and grew up in a wonderful old house.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I wanted to be an interior designer, and still love a beautiful room. I have no idea why or where it comes from, but I don’t think it’s unusual among writers to dream of quiet spaces with big windows and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. At eighteen I was coming round to wanting to be a writer and also to wanting to work in publishing, which I have done for a long time now. My grandmother always told me I would be a writer and I think as a teenager I had been resisting being bossed. At thirty I had just published my first novel and was wrestling with another one, which I never finished. I have since discovered that for me, a one out of two strike rate is reasonable.
I’ve often wondered why I wanted to be a writer. Lots of people love books, particularly in childhood. Why does that mean you need to write one? It may be a sense of taking something you love as far as you can. That and a very strong desire to make new things, something that would not have been in the world but for you. If that thing is something that happens in other people’s internal worlds, then that is a delicious secret thing I’ve helped to make. I do love that.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I read an article not long ago: (click here), which was about, among other things, the difference between people who believe that talent is innate, or fixed, and those who believe it comes through challenge and hard work. The trouble with the fixed point of view, which I had quite strongly at eighteen, is that when you are tested, you see it as an opportunity to display your talent. If you fail, you’re not what you thought you were. So failure is a horrifying experience that really knocks you around. I’ve failed a million times since then. Failure, in another way of thinking about it, shows you are operating at the edge of your capabilities and is the only way to get any better. Writing a book under those circumstances – working at the outer edge of what you can do – is an exhilarating experience.
The Great Gatsby. There was a family holiday in France on which my stepfather had taken several old paperbacks (it’s possible I’ve condensed a few holidays into one miraculous readathon). My memory is that this is how I encountered The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye and several other books I would never have picked up myself – mostly American books. It was that wonderful holiday reading you do when you just read whatever comes to hand and it turns out to be magical. For many years The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye were my favourite books, but in recent years GG has pulled ahead. Perhaps because what I took from it is still valuable to me: the lovely melancholy of a single sentence.
I like that in music too – melancholy, nostalgia, yearning. When I wait for my daughter after music classes and you can hear children in the classrooms playing their instruments there is this sense of wistfulness, of another time. Where do these things come from? Who knows? It’s not an influence because it is fairly recent – but Sophie Hutchings’ Becalmed has that feeling for me. It stops you in your tracks.
These things make it sound like I spend all my time gazing out of windows, nurturing my regrets. It’s not true – I write funny emails apparently. And I like bursts of joy in writing, art and music. It’s very moving when someone represents a convincing experience of happiness. Brooklyn by Cólm Toibín is an example. I heard him say at a festival that he thinks of writing as like music that is restrained but with something building that has a greater effect for the wait. Eilis’s life in Brooklyn is ordinary but significant and beautiful. I took great pleasure as a reader in her achievements – making a life in Brooklyn – and loved the quietness of the writing. It seems to allow you to think your own thoughts about what you are reading, to respond to the mystery of other people’s lives, which I think is what writing and reading fiction is about. I think I’ll go away and read it again – it’s a wonderful book.
I’m going to sneak in a number four while we’re talking about quietness. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. It’s set in a quiet, beautiful landscape in which the drama is very human and often hidden, and plays out over time. It’s miraculous.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
It’s been the only thing I’ve ever known how to make, or at least been interested and patient enough about the process to learn how to make. I love stories. I love the silent transmission of them into your head. I do love films too, but they’re different. Seeing the faces of the characters leaves you less space to imagine. I also like the fact that you can make novels alone. You get a lot of help in the later stages but essentially, it costs nothing but time, and you can do it how you want to do it.
Hannah & Emil is something I’ve always wanted to write in some form or another. It’s a fictionalised version of the lives of my grandparents, Heinz and Fay. I’ve tried to stick to the basic facts and imagine around them. Heinz, or Emil, was a German veteran of the First World War who became an anti-Nazi refugee. He met my grandmother in Brussels, where she worked as a translator for the unions. Heinz had escaped Germany under appalling circumstances, leaving behind a wife and young son. Having settled with Fay in Britain, he was arrested as an enemy alien in 1940 and sent to an internment camp in Australia. That son, left behind in Germany, intrigued me. At the beginning of this process some photographs of him came to light. My father did not know of his existence until Heinz died and the story of what happened to him is wrenching. So much of their story is quite heartbreaking, and yet it’s a story of survival too. I feel enriched for having found out so much about these people forced by their times to do extraordinary things. I think too that they were quite extraordinary people. The choices they made were never the easiest ones and not many people would have made them.
I hope that Hannah and Emil gives a sense of two lives that were unique and yet part of a much larger story about the things that happened to people in those times. History tells us of all the losses, the big picture, cause and effect. A novel can lead us to imagine what even one of those losses might have meant. I suppose a novel brings love into the equation. Also I hope that in some way those times that have passed live again for a little while with the people who read this book. Hannah asks Emil in the novel whether he feels that it isn’t just too much to lose, to let their story slip away. I felt that, that I wanted to keep it, to make it live so that it does not disappear.
Lately I am most consistently amazed by Alice Munro. I think it’s Stephen King that says that the only rule for writing is to tell the truth. We will all have our different ideas of what that is and how we know it when we see it, but Munro’s way of describing girls’ and womens’ lives is real and compelling to me. Drama is present in daily life. People make decisions that are ordinary and yet life changing. The language is clear and direct. No doubt hours and hours of craft go into these beautiful, natural-seeming stories, that just seem to tell the truth.
To write completely gripping, emotionally engaging stories that you don’t notice are well written unless you stop to think about it.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Don’t worry about being awful. You have to do it wrong a few times to be able to start fixing it. Best to get on and do it wrong now, so you can get to the good stuff.
Belinda, 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.