author of This Red Earth
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 Sydney, raised there at Little Bay, and schooled at La Perouse and Maroubra. A very suburban childhood, plenty of good old fashioned boredom and grist for dreaming along the windswept beaches of eastern Sydney. My father was the kind of bloke who could weep for joy at a perfect sentence, while my mother ate airport thrillers and sagas for breakfast. I’m very much a child of them both. My brother and I were raised to think, to be conscious of the privileges that come with having a decent brain and a nice, safe place to live, and to be grateful for it.
I’ve never had any firm idea of what I wanted to be but I’ve always written, just as I’ve always doodled and painted and otherwise made all sorts of weird things out of whatever junk I might find around me.
At twelve I discovered I could make pictures from words when I had to write a poem for school. Funnily enough for this suburban girl, it was a poem about the rain soaking into dry, cracked ground with the breaking of a drought. This discovery was hugely exciting for me at the time – the memory of it still makes me smile.
By eighteen, I’d lost my confidence in my creativity. This had a lot to do with going to university and coming up against the idea that art can only be created by especially special geniuses approved by the academy – and I was clearly not one of them. That year, I confided in a friend that I wanted to write a novel one day. She laughed her head off. That didn’t help.
By thirty, I was a frantic mother to two small boys and via an odd run of events and some financial desperation I fell into work as a book editor. It turned out to be the happiest accident ever: I discovered that writers and books are a most fabulous, bottomless packet of all sorts, and I began to wonder again if maybe I could write a novel one day, too. It took another six years to find the space and courage to really have a go at it, but when I did, the first draft of my first novel, Black Diamonds, roared out of me like an express train.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen, I didn’t think I had much to offer and I thought my uncertainty proved it. Now, I know everyone is their own trove of possibility. Never write anyone off – especially not yourself.
I collect influences like a bowerbird collects random bits of blue stuff, and my head is always filled with others’ narratives playing around the edges of my own. But recently, when The First Tuesday Bookclub ran a poll for our favourite Australian novels, I found myself choosing three books I’d read in my teens – Picnic At Hanging Rock, Power Without Glory and The Harp in the South – and I had to laugh with the realisation that these three novels pretty much perfectly represent what I am trying to achieve in my own writing: Lindsay’s mischief, Hardy’s politics and Park’s depth of love.
The most profound influence on me, though, is always the landscape: the swirling caramels of the sandstone coast; the cracked-up, lonely escarpments of the Blue Mountains; the picture-book foothills of Lithgow folding into the tablelands that fold then into the western plains; the changing colours of the grasses; the flowering of gums; a pair of black cockatoos sailing above… Nothing gets my imagination going more wildly.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
For me, writing a poem is a window view into the hugeness of something; painting a picture, one blinking frame of a vastly larger scene. But a novel is an exploration of a whole world, with great pumping threads of life running through it and through the hearts of whole characters. I love the challenge, the attempt to harness and ride the bigness, the puzzling over plot, the excitement of never quite knowing what will happen next, and, of course, spending time with my imaginary friends, who rarely do as they’re told but never mind me hanging round with them. They also don’t laugh at the idea of me wanting to write novels. Well, not to my face anyway.
This Red Earth is the story of Bernie and Gordon, the girl and the boy nextdoor, whose love is torn apart by the events of the World War Two. Gordon is a young geologist, fresh out of uni, who gets very unwillingly caught up in the brutal Japanese invasion of New Britain, and Bernie, who’s very much a city girl, ends up in the outback amid the devastating drought that gripped the country during these war years.
It’s a civilian view of the times, one that shows it’s not only soldiers who are called on to be brave in battle. It’s about grief and resilience, and the triumph of hope over grim realities. It also explores the appalling way Australia treated certain migrants during the war – particularly Italian Australians – and at the same time how perennially generous fair-minded Australians are to those in need. As much as it’s the love story of Bernie and Gordon, it’s a love letter to my country, with all its contradictions, a twinkle of a smile shining a light on some dark corners of our history.
I take our national clichés and stereotypes, and give them a good shake, to try to show the kaleidoscope of one-off originals we really are.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope my stories inspire love and curiosity. Without love, nothing good happens in life – and there’s nothing fictional about that. Without curiosity, we don’t learn anything new. At the end of This Red Earth, I hope that readers want to kiss their own beloveds and clink glasses in a toast to generosity and togetherness. I hope readers are inspired to want to find out more about this place we are privileged to call home. Go out an explore some of it for yourself, and write your own love letters home.
I admire just about every writer who makes it to the end and my favourite is always the one I’m enjoying right now. I’ve just begun M.L. Stedman’s Light Between Oceans, and I’m captivated. Wendy James’ Out of the Silence is my present re-read – it’s a beautifully crafted novel. And I’m looking forward to Poppy Gee’s Bay of Fires, and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’m going to continue to explore Australian history through fiction for as long as I can. That’s that, really. See where it takes me next – and hope you’ll want to join me there.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
All good stories are created by some kind of crazy faith taking a leap over the sheer cliff of reality. If it doesn’t hurt sometimes, you’re not doing it right. Tell stories first and foremost because you have to tell them, rather than because you think others might want to hear them. Study the stories you love, then shamelessly plunder them. And no matter where you are in your writing experience, never stop learning, never stop taking risks and testing your wings – you need to be ready fly.
Kim, 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.