The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Losing February
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 Melbourne and lived there for five years before moving to the steelworks town of Whyalla in South Australia. To this day I have a fascination with industrial landscapes and the ocean as we spent most weekends sailing on the 40-foot yacht my dad built in the backyard. I loved school, so much so that I became a primary school teacher. My first job was at a remote Aboriginal school in Central Australia. The Pitjantjatjara people gave me the nickname – Wara meaning Tall One because I am six foot tall. Years later, in my forties I retrained as a journalist because I wanted to earn my living from words.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At 12 – I didn’t want to be anything. I was too busy playing to think about grown -up life. My sister and I created a gang and to join you had to eat ants. I spent my days riding my bike around the block with the other kids in the neighbourhood.
At 18- I wanted to be a teacher (and became one), I was passionate about literacy and my joy was seeing a child’s eyes light up when they could write their name or read for the first time. The power of words and knowledge were something I strongly believed in.
At 30 – I was raising children and running a children’s bookshop and learning centre in London. The children came to Author Workshops, we made books and sold them in the bookshop. I had author visits from Helen Oxenbury, Michael Rosen, it was fabulous. Secretly, I wanted to be an author myself.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At 18 I thought I could change the world by talking about it, by protesting and complaining. Later I learned it takes action to change things. It is too easy to complain. (or sign a Facebook petition)
4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Can I include poetry? On our yacht there was a framed poem, and during some wild storms I recited that poem over and over . . . When you’re lost in the wild and you’re scared as a child and death looks you bang in the eye. (from Robert Service) It was heavy stuff for an 8-year-old.
Books – I devoured books as a child. Loved, loved, loved Magic Faraway Tree, Swallows and Amazons, February Dragon. . . It’s a long list. The joy of bring lost in a story became a powerful escape and of course, I soon began making up my own stories.
I loved music, but the 70s dished up some tacky stuff but I loved it anyway. Yep, you’ d catch me singing If You Leave Me Now by Chicago into my hairbrush. Hardly inspiring words but again, it was my escape into a fantasy world.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I love words. As a teenager I wrote out the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s Blue to see what it looked like on the page. The printed word fascinated me. Or I’d take a sentence from a Shakespeare play to see how it stood on its own.
I’m not a painter or musician and words were a natural place for me to go to express myself. I didn’t really think about too much. I just wanted to tell a story. Looking back , I think the privacy and intimacy of book attracted me. You don’t have to share it, it is something you do alone.
It is the second novel I’ve written but the first to be published. It draws on real life experiences from the best and worse year of my life. I wanted to explore love and sex and how they shape who we are.
(BBGuru: publisher’s synopsis – Bernie, a divorced mother of three, lives in a converted shed – albeit with a great view – in Byron Bay. She works part-time as a journalist for the local paper. Bernie has an amicable relationship with her ex-husband and strong female friendships. Her life is steady, normal, recognisable.
While writing her first novel, she gets in contact with an old friend from university. Jack is married, has two children, and has never forgotten Bernie. A tortuous, intimate, passionate – yet frustratingly sexless – affair follows, fuelled by the exchange of hundreds of confessional text messages and emails.
Jack’s inability to be physically available to support Bernie becomes clear when her father dies and she is threatened by her neighbour. When Jack ends their relationship, Bernie is emotionally destroyed and wracked with guilt. She seeks solace in a string of increasingly dangerous and twisted sexual encounters. What begins as an innocent search for validation on internet dating sites leads – frighteningly quickly – to sexting, pornography, brief liaisons in seedy motels, group sex, and swingers’ parties. She hides her new lifestyle from her family and friends and retreats into nameless, addictive sex.
Losing February describes, in sometimes disturbingly graphic detail, what happens when a strong, energetic, capable woman in her early 40s completely loses her sense of self and mistakes grief for punishment.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I’d like them to believe in the capacity of love to change us. And that life is complicated and were all just finding our way.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Raymond Carver (brilliant short stories that grab you by the throat. The way he drew characters on the page was breathtaking, the narrative is so and clipped and unforgettable).
Helen Garner, (straight-up honest writing with not a word wasted. I carry her phrases around with me like ‘the coin of the moon’ , doesn’t that say so much with so few words?)
Barbara Kingsolver (what a storyteller, stories that move and take me with them)
Margaret Atwood ( what an original and prolific story teller she is and the language is evocative, she is an author I reread)
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I have three more novels in my head. There are themes in life I want to explore like belonging, evil and love. I’d like to write more and give more.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Never, ever give up. Learn from others. Watch how people you admire operate and surround yourself with people who lift you up. And write every day. No excuses, just do it.
Susan, 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.