Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
When I was in utero, my mother was at university. It was 1975. Her morning sickness coincided with Peter Singer’s philosophy lectures. Several bouts of logic and nausea later, she gave birth ten weeks early at the Jessie McPherson hospital on Lonsdale Street, Melbourne—over the road from the Greek cake shops.
Once my heart healed, I grew up in various rented houses in the eastern suburbs, then my parents bought a home on the Mornington Peninsula, because it was out of range of a nuclear blast in Melbourne. The walls had been decorated with blue floral contact instead of wallpaper. I was schooled—to use the word very loosely—at Mount Eliza Secondary College.
I took a year off to learn photography, film and video, then did my BA (Hons.) in philosophy and literature and PhD in philosophy.
When I was twelve I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes. I dug his brutal mind and cool superiority.
At eighteen, I just wanted to escape high school. I did, and discovered philosophy at university.
At thirty, I wanted to be a philosopher—and I was one, officially. But I also wanted to broaden the intellectual conversation: talking only to academics seemed to miss the point of all those liberating ideas (more on this here).
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I was naïvely (perhaps maniacally) in love with argument. I now know Nietzsche was right: “It is not enough to prove something, one has also to seduce or elevate people to it.”
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?
My parents, a social psychologist and teacher/musician, provided positive and negative examples.
Positive: they introduced me to unusual ideas and art, and backed me in spats with teachers, and fights with kids. They were not horrified of being ‘different’. They also nudged me into Karate classes, which was instructive. (I’ve explained how and why here.)
Nietzsche is perhaps the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. He lambasted glib morality, and diagnosed the most modern of illnesses: nihilism. He also wrote brilliantly: lyrically, and with punch. He was, as a thinker and a stylist, very brave.
Kazantzakis was a Nietzschean of sorts, who studied philosophy under Henry Bergson in Paris. But he is best known for his novels, including Zorba the Greek. He also wrote plays and poetry. His autobiography, Report to Greco, is partly fiction, but remains a brilliant portrait of a life lived in agonising pursuit of higher truths.
It is a cliché. But becoming a father was an existential and literary transformation. I wrote about it here.
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?
Nah. There have always been, and always will be, Things That Aren’t Books. Greek tragedy, the jitterbug, gossip, cage fighting, masturbation—tastes vary. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
But the book remains. Whether it’s a scroll, codex or digital file, the book is a rare chance to converse, patiently and carefully, with another psyche. Our civilisation’s wonky table is propped up on books written over two millennia ago.
And books are beautiful. (I mean paper, glue and ink books. But e-readers can also be well designed, with artful layout and cover.) Writers, editors, illustrators, designers, printers: they collaborate to make these sexy things. They really do furnish a room. Several rooms.
Philosophy in the Garden is like a philosophical and horticultural detective story. Marcel Proust is in a dingy room, with the curtains drawn, and a bonsai next to his bed. Why? What is the value of these “miserable hideous…trees,” as he put it? Likewise for Jane Austen, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell, and others. What can these great authors, and the gardens they loved (or loathed), teach us?
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
To help readers become more courageous in thought, tender in feeling, and patient in confrontation.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To write well, earn a decent living and be a good husband and father. This is absurdly ambitious.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read widely, carefully and generously. Write likewise. Repeat.
Damon, 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.