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, raised and schooled in Melbourne. I have lived in the city for 45 of my 51 years. The writer David Malouf said that Brisbane, where he grew up, was the city he felt from the body outwards. Melbourne is like that for me. I would like to write about it one day.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
A writer, a writer, a writer. I’ve dabbled with the idea of doing a few other things (politics, teaching…) but writing is the only job I think about doing every day. I’ve been a particular kind of writer — a journalist — for 23 years, but I would like to try other forms, too. It’s also the only skill I have. If reading is banned tomorrow, I’ll be sweeping the streets.
A belief that I could do anything. At 18 I thought I would write Ulysses. Now I reckon I’ll be lucky if I get to read Ulysses.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
In Grade Three a teacher read my creative writing essay to the class, and I thought: I can do this.
Reading Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, at the age of 20, thrilled me, because it was about the inner suburbs I lived in, and it showed me that you could write about the places and lives you knew, however ordinary they might seem on the surface.
At the age of 24 I became a journalist for a city newspaper and for my first job was sent to a faraway northern suburb to interview a 14-year old pool playing prodigy. I was astounded by the roaming freedom journalism gave you, the discovery that everyone had a story to tell, and would tell, if you opened your notebook and said you were from the daily newspaper.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?
Not at all. For the amount of work and thought that goes into it, for its potential impact, and for its simple usefulness and beauty, there is still nothing like a book.
6. Please tell us about your new book, Speechless : A Year In My Father’s Business…
It is an account of a year I spent in Canberra, writing speeches for a Prime Minister, failing for complex reasons largely out of my control, learning a little of how government works, and reflecting through this experience on the life of my father, a former Federal Government minister, and how his life shaped mine. It is a memoir of how life often doesn’t quite turn out the way you think but is fascinating all the same.
(BBGuru: here is the publisher’s blurb – An absorbing story of what happens behind Canberra’s closed doors by leading speechwriter James Button.
James Button spent a year writing speeches for Kevin Rudd. Before that, he reported on politics as a highly regarded journalist for Fairfax. But James also has politics in the blood: his father was the diminutive but larger-than-life Senator John Button, who was a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments.
Growing up, James watched a roll-call of political luminaries debating the fate of the Labor Party. He saw great victories and defeats at close hand. He believes both his father and his family paid a heavy price for politics.
Speechless is James’ highly personal account of a year working in Canberra, seen from both the inside and the outside. It’s told through his experience of Kevin Rudd’s failure to tell his story, and how this helped destroy his prime ministership. It also reflects on how far the Labor Party has moved from the idealism and pragmatism of his father’s generation. He ends on a note of hope for the Party’s revival.)
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
People who move from hardline positions to the middle, who come to understand complexity while not losing sight of their goal. Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela come to mind.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I still hope to write a novel, even if it’s not Ulysses.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Follow good people. Keep a notebook. Remember that stories are everywhere — if you go deep enough, nothing is boring. Write and read all the time.
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.