author of Tampa
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 a tiny rural town in Michigan. Super small. When I was in seventh grade, the town got a McDonald’s, and I remember that made me feel exceptionally worldly—I now live within fifteen miles of a drive-thru! It seemed like the opening of an international airport, this golden-arched umbilical cord that connected us to outside civilization. That same year my father fell off of a telephone pole during his job as a cable repairman and shattered his ankle. After that, the Michigan winters made all the bolts and screws in his reconstructed foot hurt, so we moved to a large suburban area in Florida. Starting junior high there was a bit rocky. Coming from the north, I was so pale I had a near-phosphorescent glow, and I accidentally stepped into a fire ant nest a few days before school started, so my legs had all these welts that looked like calf acne. Popularity did not rush at me on all cylinders.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
X-Files was in full swing when I was twelve, so I wanted to fill some type of hybrid astronaut/government agent position that has never existed (I’d also eaten freeze-dried astronaut ice cream on a field trip to a science center and loved it; this factored heavily into my career goals at the time). When I was eighteen I secretly wanted to be a writer, but I was pretty scared of the uncertainty surrounding the profession, so I declared a pre-law major starting college. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that writing and literature—weird writing and weird literature, specifically—were all I could force myself to care about. By thirty I was a writer.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I thought the top-ten bands on the Billboard chart were the most talented musicians in the world. I didn’t know any better. I think the only music my parents owned was a cassette tape of religious chants that heavily featured choral bells, so even the most innocent, bubble-gum pop songs on the radio seemed like a heady revolution to me. I’d hear a tween dance beat and get all worked up—racing pulse, the urge to go set a car on fire, etc.
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?
Books were the ultimate form of magic in my childhood. Despite growing up in the 80’s, I had a relatively old-fashioned upbringing: Our TV played nothing but the nightly news. All my toys were inanimate. So books were the only place where things that couldn’t actually happen happened. Two of my favourites were Strega Nona, where a town overflows with noodles, and The Wartville Wizard, where anything you litter—even a toilet seat—will come back to find you and stick to your body. Looking back, I think it was probably James and the Giant Peach that made me decide to devote my life to reading and writing. What happens in that book is so incredible. Discovering that text, this earnest knowledge came to me that the world of books is indefinitely better than the actual world. I realized, therefore, that the more time I could spend reading and writing, the better my life would be.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
When it comes to producing art, words are what I’m really good at. I’m terrible at drawing. All I can draw are boobs and donuts, which are kind of the same thing, on paper. I married an artist to compensate for this deficiency. And as a writer, the novel form allows you enough space for your work to truly be transportative. If a short story is a nap, a novel is sleeping all night—the deep REM sleep that lets your body repair itself and brings you dreams with intuitive messages. Finishing a good novel, I have that same disorienting feeling I have upon waking up in the morning—I have to resituate myself to the real world. There’s a bit of wizardry to writing, which is why I think most writers begin with writing stories. You start casting short spells, then work up to writing extended, novel-length ones.
It’s a satirical reverse Lolita. Celeste Price is an attractive twenty-six-year-old eighth grade English teacher; she’s also a sociopath who is driven exclusively by her sexual lust for fourteen-year-old boys. The book follows her as she attempts to pursue her illegal desires. And yes, it’s a bit graphic.
From the Publisher: Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She is attractive. She drives a red Corvette. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed and devoted to her. But Celeste has a secret. She has a singular sexual obsession – fourteen-year-old boys. It is a craving she pursues with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought. Within weeks of her first term at a new school, Celeste has lured the charmingly modest Jack Patrick into her web – car rides after dark, rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works the late shift, and body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods. It is bliss.
Celeste must constantly confront the forces threatening their affair – the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind. But the insatiable Celeste is remorseless. She deceives everyone, is close to no one and cares little for anything but her pleasure.
With crackling, stampeding, rampantly sexualized prose, Tampa is a grand, satirical, serio-comic examination of desire and a scorching literary debut.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Our culture tends to fetishize sexual encounters between a female teacher and an underage male, even as it sees the same encounter between a male teacher and an underage female student as predatory. We’re not conditioned to view males as the victims of sexual violence at the hands of females. This book and Celeste’s character is meant to challenge that. I feel like our culture also promotes the social message that the most important thing for a woman to do is look young and beautiful—this is even more important than who she is or what she does. I want readers to think about that message in terms of Celeste’s character and what she’s able to get away with.
I have a special respect for any author who has had to weather immense criticism—authors who have been shunned, ostracized, exiled. I really admire anyone who is writing to push boundaries and explore the margins. I’ve always felt it very necessary to be continually shocked by art; it keeps me feeling awake. Reading a scandalous book is like letting my sense of curiosity drink an espresso.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’m a new mom, so finding the time to take a shower and put on a pair of matching socks has been too ambitious a goal this week. But in addition to novels, I’d love to write for TV & film. I’m working on a scary novel right now, and my goal each day during my writing time is to creep myself out until I can’t help but look at the open doorway in my office with horror, paranoid that something is about to enter.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
You know, I’ve never read a book that didn’t help me as an author in some way. I tell my students this all the time. There are these divides in the writing community—literary vs. genre, realism vs. fantasy, YA vs. adult—maybe they’re useful for helping you find a book in a store, but beyond that I see little need for them. Every book has something to teach. Read widely and read actively; always be on the lookout for tricks to steal.
Alissa, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.