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 western NSW, but when I was ten months old my parents accepted a missionary placement in Papua New Guinea. We lived there for almost six years, and I also lived for a number of years in Fiji. I was home schooled for part of my schooling, attended regular schools and ex-pat schools at times, and even did a couple of years of correspondence school.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Twelve? An around-the-world sailor.
Eighteen? I was studying to be a registered nurse, but I’m not sure that that’s what I wanted to be. A professional musician, perhaps, despite not having the musical ability to pull it off.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I had a few interesting political views. Nowadays I’m pretty left-wing, but back then… look, is it okay if we don’t talk about it anymore?
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 can name three books: The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban, is a children’s fable that is also a work of philosophy. It showed me that a story can work on several layers if it’s done well. The second was actually a series – the Narnia books, by CS Lewis, which I think are some of the finest fantasy books ever written. And the third was Josh, by Ivan Southall, which really spoke to me as a young boy who was feeling a bit disconnected from the world. That book also taught me that if you are bold, you can break many of the rules of writing and use those broken rules to create a powerful and unique voice.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Because it was the main artistic avenue open to me – you can write a story with a bit of broken pencil and a scrap of cardboard, but photography/visual arts/music are to some extent dependent upon equipment. But really, at its core, the reason is that I am better at writing than I am at any of those other artforms. Plus I grew up surrounded by great books, so it seemed like the logical thing to do.
Sure, I’d love to! It’s called Miss Understood, and it’s about Lizzie, who lives in a house that used to be a display home. The house next door still is, so people are constantly wandering into Lizzie’s house thinking that it’s an open house. Her mum is a stay-at-home mum, and her dad is a food reviewer who often makes the mistake of reviewing the meals his wife makes. But he’s starting to behave quite erratically, and Lizzie wants to find out why.
This book is, at first glance, about a girl who is constantly misunderstood. She doesn’t mean to wreak havoc wherever she goes, but it happens so often that people now assume that the trouble that follows her is all her fault. It’s also a book about misunderstanding people’s motivations. But it’s also about depression, which is something I’ve struggled with from time to time over the years, so it’s quite a personal story.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
First and foremost, the feeling that they’ve just enjoyed a good story. We overcomplicate things a lot, and deconstruct, and look for deeper meanings, but at the end of the day, if the story doesn’t work, the rest of it is pointless. And I’d also like them to go away feeling that the characters in the story were real. And finally, of course I’d love them to go away thinking, “Now, where can I find another book by James Roy?”
Roald Dahl. He wrote so many books, and they are all brilliant, and seamlessly combine bizarre, surreal, absurd, gross and emotionally engaging. If you ask a group of people to name their favourite Roald Dahl book, it’s pretty much an even spread. Some love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, some love The BFG, some have a soft spot for Matilda… and the fact that you’re now running through his books in your head wondering which is your own favourite simply helps make my point. (For what it’s worth, my favourite is Danny the Champion of the World.)
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Make my next book better. I look at it a little like being a test batsman. If you average 40, you’re a good batsman, but you keep working on your game. When you get to 50, you keep going. You are satisfied with what you’ve achieved, but at the same time you can see few flaws in your game, so you work on those. Even if you get to an average of 60, you don’t stop working on your game. Oh, and of course I want to sell millions of copies and be insanely wealthy. But for now, writing a better book that people actually read.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read until your head hurts, write until your fingers bleed.
James, 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.