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 Canberra but grew up in Hobart, Melbourne and then Albury-Wodonga. I went to Mount Stuart then Canterbury primary schools, followed by Wodonga High – though I believe it’s called something else now. We had very good teachers there. After that, I went to Melbourne for university.
At twelve, I wanted only to be in the school’s chess club, which was full. I was forced to join the dominoes club instead, which seemed terribly second rate. At eighteen, I wanted to work in computers – I was a guru with Windows 95. At thirty, I wanted to be a novelist. It’s the hardest thing I know how to do and something I very much enjoy.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I believed that logic and scientific argument could change people’s minds.
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 going to start with The Lord of the Rings. I was a reader before that book, but, when I read it at thirteen, I found its characters, landscapes and stories to be all-encompassing. It felt like a book that no matter how much you read, it would be impossible to finish. I think it taught me that what we really want in books is the journey.
Next, I’ll say Radiohead’s OK Computer, but really I could say anything by Thom Yorke. For a long time, I’d listen to music if I wanted the inspiration to write, and Radiohead were on high rotation. I cannot write and listen to music at the same time now. I wish I could, but these days I find it too distracting.
Finally, I’ll say Don DeLillo’s novel about the Kennedy assassination, Libra. This book really showed me what literature can do with the raw materials of history. It demonstrates how nostalgia and longing can be used in positive and enlightening ways.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Writing was always what I was best at. When it comes to rendering the experience of another consciousness and telling a story over time, novels also seem to me to be the best available form. The right word in the right place can evoke an entire epoch. There is also the fact that my sister was gifted the lion’s share of our family’s musical talent.
Midnight Empire is a literary thriller about unmanned aerial drones and poker. The spark for the book was the remarkable fact that America would choose to pilot its drone aircraft from Las Vegas – a city 3,000 miles away from Afghanistan that already has a slippery approach to geography and reality. Its central character is Daniel, a young Australian who goes to Las Vegas to work with the CIA’s drone program. American pilots start to die in the city after he arrives, and he realises that he’s far deeper into the war than he’d thought. He gets himself into a lot of trouble – though how much he, or the situation he finds himself in, is to blame remains an open question.
(BBGuru: publisher’s blurb – A tight, tense, heartstopping novel of modern warfare, where the stakes are high and the price is life in the tradition of le Carre’s Absolute Friends
Las Vegas, Nevada. Young Australian computer programmer Daniel Carter has arrived at the heart of the American war machine – the drone program at Creech Air Force Base, Indian Springs.
Naive, untested, but keen to make a difference, he is plunged headlong into America’s surreal battle against its enemies in the Middle East – a battle fought at a distance of 7,000 miles from a city where nothing is real.
As geographic and political boundaries blur, Daniel enters into an unlikely romance with a professional poker player, Ania. But when the hunt for an Al Qaeda master-mind ramps up in the skies over Peshawar, and American pilots begin to die in the suburbs of Las Vegas, events take a devastating turn.
A novel of a new kind of war, of love and connection in the modern age, Midnight Empire is a powerful thriller that takes us to the troubling epicentre of a foreshortening world. It is a taut and at times terrifying vision of a world without frontiers, a novel about dangerous new realities and how they threaten to transform us. )
I think, firstly, that I am trying to write well, and so I hope that people can take away all of the pleasures that good writing can give. In Midnight Empire in particular, one of the points I’m hoping to make is that far from their promise of safer and more remote warfare, drones in fact bring the battle home, putting those who wage it amongst us.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I most admire those writers whose work is so original and essential that it almost constitutes a genre on its own. Cormac McCarthy and J M Coetzee spring to mind. It’s so hard to choose just one.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I think novels are ambitions in themselves. I’d like to keep writing them.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write the next thing. When developing a craft, it’s almost always better to go on to the next story, the next challenge, rather than spending an eon redrafting what might never be as good as the next thing you write. Practice and discipline are two things that set writers apart, so use short story competitions and even competitions like the Vogel as motivation. Doubt every sentence, and never occupy or underestimate the space that you should be giving over to the reader.
Andrew, 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.