The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Wool
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 North Carolina. My father was a farmer and my mother a schoolteacher. I’ve bounced around a lot of places and worked in a lot of careers, most notably as a yacht captain. This ended up being a great way to see the world while getting paid (and doing it on someone else’s boat!).
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I wanted to be a writer. I started my first novel on the family computer, but I didn’t get past the third chapter. I was easily distractible and prone to giving up at that age.
By the time I turned eighteen, I had read about Joshua Slocum’s sailing adventures, and I wanted to circumnavigate the world on a small boat. I went as far as buying a sailboat to live on while in college, and spent five years on the thing. I made it as far as the Caribbean, but never got any further. I was beginning to sense a trend in my inability to reach as far as I could dream.
At thirty, I was back to wishing I was a writer. This time, whether it was due to experience or just plain stubbornness, I pushed through to the end of my first manuscript. Now, I’m writing full-time, which is the culmination of that twelve-year-old dream. I’m also eyeing the ocean once again and gearing up for another goal that I left unfinished…
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Tons! Man, I was wrong about everything back when I thought I knew it all. The main thing I’ve learned is a sense of inclusiveness. I used to judge people based on the quickest of impressions. If someone didn’t agree with me, I assumed they were wrong. Now, after having been incorrect more often than not, I’ve learned to pause and reconsider my own stance. And I’ve learned to Google a lot. You learn so much more when you’re wrong than when you’re right.
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?
As much as I love and appreciate art and music, all three would have to be texts. Nothing has shaped me like the books I’ve read. I was one of those kids who always had a paperback in his back pocket, read under his desk in class, and bumped into streetlamps trying to read while walking down the sidewalk. When I went out to bars with friends in college, I would usually find a booth and sit and read. I was a complete dork like that. Three works:
ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card. This book caused me to dream of being a writer. It’s the book I read at age twelve that ignited this passion. When I learned that Card grew up in North Carolina just like me, it made that dream seem possible.
SONNET 23 by William Shakespeare. All of the sonnets had some impact on me. I learned the rhythm of prose from memorizing them in college. But number 23 spoke to my shyness, the hesitation I had in revealing my emotions to those I cared about. I found strength and gained confidence by reciting it to myself.
THE BLANK SLATE by Steven Pinker. This should be a mandatory read for all humans. I learned more about how I tick and why I am the way I am through this book than any other single source. Removing the mystery of my behaviours allowed me to then begin to work on improving them.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Because I’m tone deaf! But I did dabble in other arts over the years. I used to paint, draw, do calligraphy, origami, but none of these ignited my wonder like dreaming up entire worlds and having conversations with fictional characters. Books are amazing in that the scenes you paint might be different in someone else’s mind. The relationship between writer and reader is collaborative. I give the germ of a thought, and the reader makes it grow. Perhaps I chose writing because I needed a little bit of help in creating my art?
WOOL began as a short story. It quickly gained a following, and readers begged for more. So I fleshed it out with a series of works that have now been combined into a single novel from Random House.
The story is about a group of people living in an underground silo. The world they glimpse outside looks harsh and cruel. There are strict rules in place to maintain order. Every birth requires a death, and no one is allowed to speak of going outside. If you do . . . you are given what you asked for. And nobody ever comes back.
(BBGuru: publisher’s blurb – An epic story of survival at all odds and one of the most anticipated books of the year.
In a ruined and hostile landscape, in a future few have been unlucky enough to survive, a community exists in a giant underground silo.
Inside, men and women live an enclosed life full of rules and regulations, of secrets and lies.
To live, you must follow the rules. But some don’t. These are the dangerous ones; these are the people who dare to hope and dream, and who infect others with their optimism.
Their punishment is simple and deadly. They are allowed outside.
Jules is one of these people. She may well be the last. )
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope the characters continue to live in their minds for a while. And I hope that readers think about what it means to be human, what our experience on Earth is all about. I know that sounds ambitious, but the feedback I get from readers indicates that my stories quite often arouse this curiosity and introspection. It’s incredibly rewarding to hear.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Stephen King. Not only is his prose remarkable, I think he’s one of the best at painting a scene with just a few light brushstrokes. He has explored a wide variety of genres and lengths of work, has remained in top form for decades, and has been generous with readers and his fellow writers. Also, his book, ON WRITING, is a fantastic guide for those wishing to follow in his footsteps.
I’m the opposite. I feel like I’ve already achieved more than I ever dreamed possible. My goals are now quite humble. I just want to continue being able to complete the works that I begin. I’ve been writing at a blistering pace (four novels this year!), but I’d be happy writing two novels a year for the next five or six years. That would get most of the stories out of my head and leave behind a body of work that I could be proud of.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Stop thinking about writing. Stop dreaming of becoming a writer. Stop talking about writing. And just write. Do it every single day. Shut off the noise in your life and create a world, a character, a scene, a bit of drama. If you do it because you love it, you can’t go wrong. Just write.
Hugh, 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.