author of Rescue at 2100 Hours
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 and raised in Melbourne. I went to school at Melbourne Grammar and studied at Melbourne University.
2. What did you want to be when you were 12, 18 and 30? And why?
At 12 I wanted to play cricket for Australia, at 18 I wanted to be a musician, and at 30 I wanted to be an author (and I was).
3. What strongly held belief did you have at 18 that you do not have now?
I strongly believed the Melbourne Football Club would win a premiership within five years. At the moment, I seriously doubt they will win a premiership in the next fifty.
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?
I love art and music, but neither art nor music inspire me to write. Books are a different matter and there are so many that have inspired. But if I had to name three…
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a book?
I’m not sure if there are too many “artistic avenues” open to me. I’ve barely played my saxophone in years and the last time I picked up a paintbrush was in prep. But I am and always have been passionate about stories, and anyone who can read can write a book.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Rescue at 2100 Hours is the true story of a group of Australian airmen stranded in the jungle of Japanese-occupied Timor during the darkest days of World War II. With the aid of a 200kg portable radio transceiver, they managed to make contact with Darwin and arranged a rescue by flying boat on Timor’s remote northwest coast. The rescue attempt failed. Malaria-ravaged and starving, the men were taken to the limits of their endurance for 58 days. When a 300-strong Japanese patrol was sent to hunt them down all hope seemed lost, until they received a strange signal from sea – an American submarine had been dispatched to their position. With the Japanese closing in, only courage and luck would keep them alive. I have a personal connection to the story. The leader of the group, Flight Lieutenant Bryan Rofe, was my grandfather.
This is a character-driven history. I wanted to write a book where the reader gets a sense of what it’s like being caught up in warfare through the experiences of the characters in this story. When they finish the book, I want the reader to have got an idea of what it’s like to be strafed by a Japanese fighter; what it’s like to be caught in the middle of the drop zone during an enemy paratroop drop; what’s it’s like to be bombed from the air and shelled from the sea; what it’s like to jump from a plane from 300 feet while being shot at from the ground; what it’s like to suffer malaria, beriberi, dysentery and jungle rot and watch your best friend die and be forced to take his shoes before you bury him because your shoes have fallen to bits; what it’s like to swim through shark-infested waters in the dead of night towards a tropical island crawling with Japanese soldiers; and, ultimately, what it’s like to be rescued when you’ve given up all hope of survival.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
There are so many from writers which to choose. But, having just finished a work of narrative non-fiction, I have a new admiration for authors that have written books in this field. People like Stephen Ambrose, Laura Hillenbrand, Michael Lewis, Anna Funder, Alex Kershaw and Chloe Hooper.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I set myself the goal to have five books published by the time I was 35. I’ve got two books published and I’m 32. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read and write. Repeat these activities every day.
Tom, 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.