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 on a farm outside Yea in country Victoria the 9th of 10 kids and attended a small rural school for the primary years. There were usually only about fifteen or twenty other kids in the school at any one time and we rode our horses there and back. My six years of secondary education were spent in a Convent boarding school in Melbourne where almost all the teachers were nuns. I shared a dormitory with forty, sometimes fifty other girls – privacy issues had yet to be invented! We wore uniforms all week – including on the weekends – and apart from being very cold in winter, I remember happy times as well as sad.
At twelve I wanted to be a hero of some kind. It didn’t matter in what field, except that I needed to save the day (if not the world) in some way!
(I read a lot of Girls Own Annuals!)
At eighteen I wanted to be an artist (painter) even though I had a sneaking suspicion that I didn’t have the talent. But I wanted to live in my heart and mind. Nothing else seemed important.
Apart from that I wanted of course to be desperately in love!
At thirty I wanted to write. But apart from scribbling bits and pieces to myself in the early morning I had no idea how this might happen. I had young children and I suppose I was pretty frustrated.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I believed in Communism. Not that I knew much about it! But I thought that it could be the answer to the world’s problems. Seeing starving children on the television affected me deeply and Communism seemed like a nice neat simple solution! I hadn’t yet learnt that Mao and Stalin were up there with Hitler ie the biggest mass murderers of the 20C.
I remember hearing Bob Dylan singing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall when I was eleven. I was standing in a room by myself next to a scratchy old turntable and … my whole body started trembling. I didn’t understand the words and nor did I know a thing about Dylan but by the end of the song I was crying.
I read The Heart is a lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers when I was about twenty and when I finished I stood up and held the book tightly against my chest and closed my eyes wishing I could hold the story inside me forever. For the next week I walked around in a kind of daze. Nothing in the real world came anywhere near the world she’d created in that book.
The Spanish painters El Greco and Goya affected me deeply when I was a teenager. My older sister brought home art books from university and I remember just starting at those gaunt Madonnas and the terrible war and insurrection paintings in total and absolute fascination.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Probably because of all the arts I loved to read best of all.
My latest novel is The Convent. Based partly on my mother’s early life at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. It’s a four generational story with the ‘now’ voice belonging to nineteen year old Peach who almost against her will finds herself having to learn about her own family’s past. Her mother was a nun at the Convent during the sixties (so was my sister). Her grandmother (based on my mother) had been an orphan there from 1915 to 1927 and Peach’s great grandmother (based on my grandmother Sadie) had been a relinquishing mother in 1915. The four stories intertwine, giving I hope, a strong sense of the Convent’s History through the lives of these women.
(Editor’s note: From the Publisher)
‘I woke up with a feeling about today,’ Stella says dreamily. ‘Something truly amazing is going to happen.’ ‘To us or to the world?’ I say. ‘To you.’ ‘To me?’ I laugh. ‘Nothing ever happens to me, Stella.’ ‘But today it will.’ ‘Will it be good?’ She looks thoughtful and then frowns. ‘I … I don’t know.’
Peach is nineteen and pretty happy with the way things are. She has her university work, two wildly different best friends, her sister, Stella, to look after and a broken heart to mend. But when she takes a summer job at a cafe in the old convent, her idea of who she is takes a sharp turn into the past.
Where once there were nuns, young girls and women who had fallen on hard times, Peach discovers secrets from three generations of her family. As their stories are revealed, Peach is jolted out of her comfort zone. But does she really want to know who she is?
Warm and real, intense and provocative, The Convent shows in vivid detail how fate and the choices we make ripple and reverberate through time.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Firstly I hope they enjoy it. Nothing will happen unless the story works and the characters come alive on the page. Assuming that happens then I hope they take away an appreciation of the past as a ‘different country – not just funny and quaint – but a country as interesting, fraught and complicated as our own. The past I’m writing about is not so long ago and yet social mores, values and attitudes have totally changed. That’s fascinating to me and I hope my readers will find it so too.
I love so many writers that I hardly know where to start. But the Irish writers Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor and Sebastian Barry spring to mind. So do Americans like Joyce Carol Oats, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Monroe, John Irving. Then there is Hilary Mantel, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Hornby, Sarah Dunant. In Australia there is the wonderful Gillian Mears (Foals Bread has to be one of my all time favourites) along with Anna Funder and Tim Winton. And I haven’t even started on all the marvellous young adult writers!
All of these writers are great storytellers as well as wordsmiths. Every one of them is able to take me away from my own life – put me in someone else’s shoes – while paradoxically letting me experience my own life at a deeper more intense level. How they do that? I guess its part art, part craft and part mystery!
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I can only think ahead to the next book. I have a strong idea but … who knows if I’ll be able to write it! I’m never confident when I’m writing. I always feel like I’m back at square one when I begin. I wish it could be other wise but I’m always utterly surprised when the publishers tell me that they love what I do and would like to publish what I write. I wish I could think further ahead. Maybe it’s time to think of a series! Perhaps I should branch out into some different genre? Yet some part of me knows that this isn’t likely. Real events and real people are my heartland. It feels natural and right for me to weave stories from my own life and until it doesn’t feel right, I guess I’ll keep doing it!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
This is a harder question than it sounds. There is no right way to begin writing except of course to write! Even that might not necessarily be true in the short term if you’re young and unsure! Maybe it’s better sometimes to watch and listen, think and read and take notes before you do begin writing in earnest. I suddenly feel the need to contradict myself! Writing isn’t so much a desire as a need. If the need is there then I say, go for it. And try not to get too disheartened with the inevitable set backs.
Maureen, 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.