Ep 255 How to rock an author reading. And meet John Purcell, author of ‘The Girl on the Page’.

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In Episode 255 of So you want to be a writer: Meet John Purcell, author of The Girl on the Page. Discover how to rock an author reading. Val and Al chat about the upcoming film Can You Ever Forgive Me? based on the true story of celebrity biographer Lee Israel. And you can impress your friends by dropping the word ‘encomium’ in casual conversation. Plus, we have 10x double passes to Beautiful Boy starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet to give away.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

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Readings That Work for You and Your Listeners

Read Along With… | A.L. Tait, author of THE BOOK OF SECRETS

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? | Official Trailer [HD] | FOX Searchlight

Writer in Residence

John Purcell

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 goldfish and his overlarge book collection.

His latest novel is The Girl on the Page, a punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature.

Follow John on Twitter

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(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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Interview transcript

Allison

Way back in Episode 5, we spoke to John Purcell, AKA the Book Guru, Chief Book Buyer and Head of Marketing at Booktopia, who was writing novels under the name Natasha Walker. These days, John Purcell is the Director of Books at Booktopia, and he has come out from behind his alter ego to release his first novel, The Girl on the Page, with Harper Collins, which he admits brings together everything he has learned about books and publishing. So well worth a read.

Welcome to the program, John.

John

Thank you for having me. It’s been a while.

Allison

It has, I know. It’s been a while on the podcast, but of course we do run into each other frequently. Well, semi-regularly, which is fun, isn’t it? I guess that’s one of the things about your job, you spend an awful lot of time with authors, right?

John

That’s the great benefit of my job. That’s the bonus of my job.

Allison

All right. Now, we’re going to start with your writing, and then we might get a bit into the everything you’ve learned about books and publishing later in the program. Given it’s been 250 or so episodes since we last spoke, perhaps you could remind us how your first book, written as Natasha Walker, came to be published.

John

Well, way back then I was trying to get a historical novel that I’d written published. And I’d been lucky enough to get an agent so the agent was busy out there trying to sell my book, but having absolutely no luck.

And she was getting to the end of the list of publishers that she had on her target zone, and asked me if I had anything else that I was working on, or I had anything else that she could look at. And I did, but I wasn’t really that eager to show her and I said, “look, I’ve got this other manuscript that I wrote quite a while ago. It’s filthy. It’s an absolute filthy manuscript. And it’s big. It goes nowhere. It’s just naughty.”

And she said, “look, I’ll take a look. Doesn’t sound that great, but I’ll take a look.” And she read it from cover to cover and got back to me and said, “it’s absolutely filthy. I don’t know why you’re not in jail. It’s disgusting. No one is going to publish this, John. Well, thanks for letting me read it because I really enjoyed it, but no one’s going to publish this.”

And then about a day later after that exchange, David Marr wrote a piece about a book called Fifty Shades of Grey that Random House had just paid a million dollars or something for. And it had been a self-published book, or a small publisher had published it and it was going gangbusters. And so Random House has stepped in and bought the rights to it. And so there was a big noise and on the front of the Herald was this article by David Marr.

Anyway, so my agent had this big pile of filthy pages in her hand, and the new front of the newspaper that erotica, erotic fiction was the new big thing. And so she ran off to the publishers and she got a couple of offers and took the Random House offer straight away. It was within days.

It was like March of 2012, I had just been promoted at Booktopia, so I was in the busiest period of my career thus far. And I’m having to leave and talk to her over the phone about these offers that were coming in for this… It was a terrible manuscript. It wasn’t in great shape. And it was just utterly filthy. But it was just that moment. It was a lucky moment for me.

And we quickly signed this eBook only deal with Random House. Because they didn’t know what was going on. No one knew what was going on. It was before Fifty Shades had really taken hold. It was still just an industry buzz thing. But then the orders started coming through for Fifty Shades, and the print run started to get bigger and bigger for Fifty Shades, and so Random House started to get an understanding of just how big this thing might be.

And it went worldwide, of course. Everyone knows about the Fifty Shades thing. And so suddenly, erotic fiction was the hottest property and all publishers were signing up new writers or digging out old writers from their backlists and publishing them on to the market. And mine was one of these. And it was all done so quickly. It was March when I got signed up and I think July when it went into the shops.

Allison

Wow.

John

So this massive pile of papers which had no real story, I worked very closely with Beverley at Random House, and we found a story within the pages, and we knocked it out. And then we saw that there could be a second book out of it, because it was such a big manuscript. And so they signed me up for another book, because it was just going nuts, and they wanted to get it out as fast as possible. So even before I’d really finished editing the first book, I was told to start working with the manuscript to get a second book going.

And at the same time they sort of questioned about whether or not I wanted to go under my own name. And I was very reluctant to go under my own name, largely because I had small kids and it was porn, and the world hadn’t changed yet. It was still the pre-Fifty Shades world and everyone was still as conservative as they’ve now returned to be. And it was frightening.

And they suggested I write under a woman’s name. So I took their suggestion and we came up with the most boring name we could find so that the title stood out and the name wasn’t going to be Pussy Galore or something stupid. So I just chose a normal name, Natasha Walker, and we ran with it.

And no one in the industry knew it was me. The secret was very well kept. There were a couple of small leaks, but no one believed it, which was good. And it went. And it became a bestseller. It was a crazy way to get published.

Allison

That is extraordinary. What do you think you learned from… Because you wrote three. It was the Secret Lives of Emma, it became a trilogy. What do you think you learned from writing that, particularly with that methodology? You’ve got this pile of papers of filth, as you say, and then you have to work to create three actual manuscripts, actual stories out of this thing. What do you think the process of that taught you as an author, as a writer?

John

It was the best experience as a writer I’ve had. It was kill your darlings time. So I was hopeless. I was absolutely hopeless with being so precious about manuscripts and about the paragraphs and about the sentences that I loved and about the characters and the plot that I just was hopeless. My editing process, which I thought was brilliant and stringent, was non-existent, I learned through that process.

So being able to work with Beverley Cousins was brilliant. She was the editor and publisher of Caroline Overington and a lot of other really commercial hits, and Random House in the day. And she was brutal. And she was very clear about her directions and made so much sense.

So I had a crash course in writing, in publishing, in editing in those first two books, to the point where when they said, “we need a third book.” And I said to them, “there is no third book. There’s no manuscript left, we used it all up.” And they said, “look, you better knock one out, you gotta write one.” That I wrote it. I wrote it with all the things that I’d learned from working with Beverley and working with the manuscript.

And so I had a crash course, six month lesson in turning things around, to the point where I was comfortable enough with writing a whole 50,000 plus novel over the Christmas holidays, largely. It was really smashed out.

So that was, you can’t buy that. That was working with one of the best editors and learning the trade on the job. An apprenticeship that really worked well for me. And so many little tips in there. Largely, it was get over yourself.

Allison

It really is, isn’t it? It’s all about getting over yourself. It really is.

So speaking of getting over yourself, last time we spoke, which was about 2014 I think, from memory, you were coming out. You’d come out as Natasha Walker, because we discussed the whole process of that, in the sense of you were happy to admit that that’s who you were. So what had happened in the interim that made you happy to say, yes, I am John Purcell and I also write as Natasha Walker? What was the change?

John

Well, there was one big thing. I’ve been wanting to be a writer since I was about 18. And I was a writer and no one knew. It drove me insane. I was the third highest selling debut author in 2012. I was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist of that year. And I couldn’t tell a soul. It was one of the hardest things to keep. Because I’ve been boring everyone with my desire to be a published author, and suddenly I’ve gone quiet with my moans. And it had happened. And my mother couldn’t tell her reading group friends. There’s a whole lot of pressures. There’s a whole lot of pressures involved.

And I was just bursting with pride that this had happened and that I had been involved and I had done this thing.

So when book three came out and it had its month in the sun and was starting to stop selling at the same rate, and the Fifty Shades thing was starting to decline and the market was sort of slowing down, I could see that the end of the run was coming. I know how books work and I know how they have their moment and then they go away. And so I thought there was really nothing to lose by coming out and getting a bit more publicity around it and giving the books another lease on life.

Allison

Very strategic. Look at you go. Okay, so now you’re releasing your first novel under your own name.

John

Yes. This has been a long waited event, and I’m so excited. I’m doing all the author things. I couldn’t do it before cos I’d have to dress up in drag.

Allison

Which would have been quite a spectacular look on you, I would imagine.

John

I would have been enormous. Me in high heels would be just funny.

Allison

You would be so tall.

John

So tall.

Allison

Does it feel like you’re releasing your first novel? Is that what it feels like to you? Even though this is actually your fourth book, does it feel like you’re releasing your first novel?

John

It does, in so many ways. The way people are talking to me about it. And of course, to them, it is. For a lot of people it actually is the first novel. They’re not really connecting the two things.

But also the fact that I can do those visits to bookshops, which I’ve never done before, meet the booksellers. And also just the freedom on social media that I can do, and because no one’s heard the name before they’re treating me on there as a new author.

So, yes, it definitely does. The only thing I’m just a bit more jaded than your general debut author. One of the funniest meetings that I had was when, because this book went into a sort of an auction between different publishers, so as an author you go to the publishing house and they tell you all these wonderful things they’re going to do for you if you choose them to publish. The problem is they’re normally dealing with people who have never been involved in the industry. They’re new to it. They don’t know what’s going on.

And then they find themselves sitting across from me. And oh no. I knew everyone at the table. And so it was very awkward. Both the meetings that I went to for this, that went forward, were kind of embarrassing because I knew all their tricks. I knew all the things that they were going to tell me before they said it. And they were kind of deflated. They’re like, we can’t tell you these things because you know it all.

So that part, in the actual first signing up, was very different to, I think, a debut author would expect.

Allison

So just out of interest with that, let’s imagine for a second that I am a debut author and I’m in this situation, I’ve got two publishing houses that are vying for my attention. What should I be looking for? You’re the man, you know. What should I be listening out for? Let’s imagine we’ve got smoke and mirrors and all sorts of things going on. What are the key things that I should be listening to in the pitch for why they want my book?

John

One big thing is when they’re going to put the book out. So that gives you a great indication of how big they think the book will be. So if you’re getting pushed out in Christmas, they think that it’s going to be able to play with the big guys. If you’re being pulled into January or February, they’re hoping for a slow burn. There’s a whole range of meanings behind where they plonk you. That’s one thing.

There’s also the marketing. If they’re up front and they’re committed to doing particular kinds of marketing strategies, then you also know how their approach will be. So if they’re promising… If you’re one of the lucky few to get the bells and whistles and you’re in that position, you’ve got two big players after you and they’re offering lots of money, then it’s time to look at what they’re promising with marketing. And you will examine – is it a big bus thing, are they going to rely on grass roots marketing, are they going to have dinners with booksellers?

On the other hand if you’re just getting published, they’re just taking a bit of a shot with you and you know that you’re not going to be the next Fifty Shades, say, but you’re going to be someone that they look after, like Liane Moriarty was looked after by Pan MacMillan for years before this enormous success hit her. Then you look at the small things. What sort of commitment have they got to you? Have they signed you up for two books? Are they thinking about a long term strategy? Are they really going to back you as an author, as a person who’s a brand they’re going to build? Those things are really important to look out for in those early bits.

Allison

Okay. So speaking of brand, why did you decide to do this one as John Purcell, and not build on the readership that you had with Natasha Walker? Was it because they were just too different?

John

They were too different. And I felt that… And definitely there is a stigma to having written erotic fiction. Publishers like to put you in boxes. And so do booksellers. They want to be able to say to the person, “this is just like the last one.” It makes it easier to sell.

So if I put that on there, there’d be more focus probably on the sexual side of the book and it may have been put in a different spot in the bookshop to align with the past. And I thought it was a very different book. It was going for a different audience, so I decided to go under my own name.

Allison

Okay. All right, so tell us about the book. What can I expect from The Girl on the Page?

John

Well, what I’m finding is that there are more books than I thought in the book. Because the reactions from a whole lot of younger readers is that it’s a book about Amy Winston, who was inspired by Amy Winehouse. So this girl who has a big love and she screws it up by deceitful behaviour, and loses this great love.

And in her professional life she’s brilliant. She’s doing really well. She’s an editor. She’s helping, she helped a dodgy crime thriller writer become a bestselling Lee Childs kind of writer. And she’s made a fortune doing it, but she still likes to do her editing work. But in her private life, it’s a complete mess, and she’s on a sort of a downward spiral.

They see that story. Younger people see that story. And Amy goes right through the book and they think of it as an Amy story.

The older readers are seeing it as a Helen and Malcolm story. Helen and Malcolm are these literary greats who are in their late 70s who are sort of like A S Byatt and, I don’t know, John Banville being married, Julian Barnes being married. And they’ve got all the plot in the world but they’ve never made the big bucks. They’ve got great reviews, they’re literary, they’re constantly talked about as icons and they’re up for things like the Booker Prize, but they’ve never actually made any money out of it.

So a lot of the older ones, looking at that and the story around that relationship, they don’t really like the Amy side of things, and they don’t really see the Amy side of things as much. So I’m sort of getting these two books coming back at me.

There’s also people who don’t have much sex, or haven’t had great sex in their life, all they ever want to do is talk about the sex in it. I don’t think there’s much sex in this book compared to the other books I’ve written.

Allison

All right, we’re going to talk about that in a moment. But I want to ask you first about, I saw in a blog post that you wrote for the Booktopia blog that you felt like this book fell on the page. That it just came out fully formed. So what was the process for writing it? Where did you first get that spark of an idea? And then how did the process go? Do you plan your stuff? Or do you just write as it comes out?

John

I have a tiny little plan and I don’t normally hit the marks in the plan. I change things as I go along.

The historical novel that was at the beginning of the story, where I was trying to get it published, after I published Secret Lives of Emma, I returned to my historical novel, just to drive myself mad. And then worked and reworked it over four or five years, not publishing anything else, not getting anything else finished. To the point where I actually got Catherine Milne from Harper Collins to take it to acquisitions, but she couldn’t get it through. And then Penguin were interested in it, but I sort of lost faith in the book at that point. And so I put it in a drawer.

And thank god I did. Because it had been a massive stop on my imagination and my creativity. So I threw it in a drawer, and the character that I’d been thinking about for years, Amy, I never had a plot for her, I never had a story for her, I just had this character. And these two older characters, Helen and Malcolm, had been sitting in the waiting room of my imagination for years as well, they met. They met in my imagination. And the story just boomed. It just – bang! And it just came.

And so I jotted down as fast as I could this story. And it was probably a two-pager, where I just sort of knocked it down. And I couldn’t stop writing about my characters. So I’ve got these documents which there are two pages on Amy about her past, there are two pages on Helen and Malcolm, and then Max comes into it and then Liam’s in too and I started building these little characters.

And I showed Catherine from Harper Collins and she said, “what are you wasting your time on this historical thing? This is where your story is. This is you. You’ve got to put this down.”

And so with that encouragement, I spent the next… I started January 2017 and every weekend from that point until July, I found time on the weekend to write. And I wrote this novel on weekends between that period. So between January and July. But it all came so fast, it all came flooding out.

That’s why I said it sort of came fully formed. It just felt like, it felt like it wrote itself in so many ways. The drama of it, the questions that it raises, just seemed I had a lot of questions and these characters had a lot of opinions about the answers to those questions, and so the pages filled up.

Allison

Fantastic. Now, it’s been described as a literary page turner, which is pretty much what you want, but you also haven’t quite left Natasha Walker behind. Because as we discussed, there’s a bit of sex going on. As Dervla McTiernan says, “there’s quite a bit of sex.” So this book is not erotica. But did you have a sense of having to find a line of how much sex is too much sex for this particular book? Or was it more of a natural thing of this is what I’m writing, and so this is what’s appropriate, or whatever?

John

I don’t know. There’s kind of a rebellious part of me which, I don’t like: you better do this and you shouldn’t have that much of that. That kept me, keeping this much sex in the book. And then when you look at the book as a whole, it’s a small proportion. And the sex scenes are quite short. When you consider that the first book of Secret Lives of Emma, a sex scene went for 100 pages. These sex scenes are two pages long, at max.

Allison

I can see why you think there’s not much sex in it.

John

Yeah. So if you’re not living in this way, and your life isn’t filled with sex then it may seem like a lot of sex in it. But Amy is a very sexual person. There are people out there who just say, she wouldn’t exist, there’s no one like her, that has a sex life like that. It’s just garbage. People have sex lives like that. People are already telling me, isn’t it wonderful to have a character like this who represents me.

Allison

So it’s all the people who aren’t, who say that people don’t, is that right?

John

I believe so. It must be. I mean, people are being naughty everywhere around you, you just don’t know it’s happening. You’re not engaged in it. There’s naughty stuff going on everywhere.

And so I felt it was important for her character to have this and to have it depicted. Because it kind of describes who she is and how she thinks about things. And also it’s her refuge in this time of trouble for her. And in certain cases, it’s a whipping, she whips herself with it. It’s not all great, her sex life. And some of her choices are just idiotic and stupid. And self-defeating. But I needed to have her be that complicated. I needed her to have that thing.

And my oldies, they do reference their earlier life. And they are writers and if you’re doing it right and you’re having lots of sex as a writer, you’re having enough passionate arguments and you’re involved in this world and you want more out of it, you want to squeeze more out of it. And Helen and Malcolm are in their late 70s when we meet them. It doesn’t mean that they were like, the way they behave as 70 year olds the whole way through their life. I wanted to kind of, it’s not very explicit in it, but I just wanted to make sure that people felt that these guys were not completely ignorant of that other side of life.

Allison

Okay, so let’s talk about the girl in the title. Which is kind of like a publishing thing that we’ve seen a lot of in the last year. We’ve had The Girl on the Train, and The Girl in the Window, and the girl doing all of the various things. And it’s also, I believe, within the title of the book within the book, is that correct? That there’s a girl in there as well? Is that like an inside joke for you, John? Is that just you referencing the publishing industry with the girls all over the place?

John

The title was a joke title that I had on my manuscript. And I did not think they were going to go with it. I mean, there’s a joke within the book, where they discuss all the different girl titles. She refers to one of her, the manuscript she’s writing with Liam as girl on girl, just as a joke about all the girl titles. And then they list all of the girl titles in the conversation.

So I do make reference to the fact that this is just another girl book with The Girl on the Page. But I just didn’t think they were going to run with it. But it makes a lot of sense. Because this book is a satire of publishing in some aspects of it. And so why not poke fun at it?

And they do reference that every single girl book is about a woman.

Allison

So you are incredibly well known in the Australian publishing industry. If people are involved in the industry on any level, they have probably come across you at some point. Do you think that in this case, of putting out your first book under your own name and stuff, is it a help or a hindrance?

John

I’d say it’s a hindrance.

Allison

I was going to say, does it come with some anxiety for you?

John

Yeah. There’s anxiety. It’s a bit of a hindrance because I’m also associated with Booktopia, which is a bookshop. And it’s a big bookshop and it’s Australia wide. So there’s associations there with anxieties among other bookshops or competition, that sort of side of things.

But there’s also, being so well known, there’s no story in the mind of the publishers around me. They know me back to front. Because of the way in which I deal with them, through the shop and through our publisher events and the like, they get to see a certain version of me day in, day out. And that may not be interesting to them because of the confines of our circumstance we find ourselves in. And also business means you have to be boring in many ways.

And so I think that might make them go, as if that boring guy could write a book that’s interesting. So there’s that side of it as well.

And publishing, the debut story is so important. And so many debuts who then go to write their second novel find it very difficult, because for a lot of people in the media there’s no story about a second novel. There’s a great story about a debut novelist coming from nowhere and selling copies. So there’s an endless line of debuts coming and being sacrificed to the market. And then when they come around to the second time, they’re not as interesting.

So I felt like I was a bit like that, in the not interesting end of things. Even though I was a debut under this name, I wasn’t really a debut under the other name. And I was so well known, it was a bit blah. Yeah, this John, he can write, but you know…

So I was really worried about that aspect of it. But thankfully the book talked to them and I didn’t have to.

Allison

I was going to say, if you’re in that situation, what do you do to overcome it? And that’s obviously just write a great book that talks to them so you don’t have to. Is that how it works?

John

Yeah. And keeping an eye on… If you’ve spoken to me as second-hand book dealer John, I would have never spoken to you about marketing or keeping an eye on the market or trying to work out how readers interested in turning pages, do all of those sort of things. I would have vomited.

So one of the things that I learned from doing this job was, because I get to interview, just like you do, I get to interview all the commercial writers, the most successful writers in Australia, and they all have different approaches to fiction and to keeping people on the page. So when I’m thinking about constructing a novel, I’ve now got all their voices in my head and about certain techniques on how to do that.

And because my novel was a discussion about commercial versus literary, and about that divide within the publishing world, I thought it would be interesting to use the commercial model to talk about literature.

So I made a very open door, a big wide open door to my novel to allow everyone in. So I open it with a sort of a saucy scene that either will depress somebody or make them want to read more. And if they’re depressed, then it’s only one page and then they go straight on to the Helen and Malcolm side. So I get them in. Because of the different kind of storytelling.

And so I use those techniques, those commercial fiction writer techniques to get as many readers into it. But as the book goes forward, I tighten the screws a little bit in the way the book is told. I don’t move away from the fast page turning style, but I do lift the level of big ideas that are brought into it. And the emotional conflicts and the drama gets more. It gets more literary as the book goes on. But I do want to try and keep that pace.

Allison

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, because you writing a book, you can never really… I can’t imagine that you could write something and disassociate yourself from the market entirely. Like, you bring that background with you everywhere you go, don’t you? In the sense that you can’t help but think, even I guess as you’re writing something, where it’s going to go on the bookshop shelf. I’d imagine it would be impossible for you to disassociate those two things.

John

Yeah. I mean, and for writers who are not even in the industry these days it’s hard not to have feedback continually via social media about where you sit and where they’re placing you and their assumptions about what you are doing. So you get tonnes of feedback. So then your next book, you’ve got that in your head.

I have all the bookseller knowledge coming into it, I’ve got the interviews with successful authors that are coming into it. So I feel now that I’d have to go onto a monastery or something to really write one of those books that no one can read that get put spine outwards at the back of a bookshop. Because it’s very difficult for me to override all of these great pieces of advice and the information that I’ve been gathering over the years. But it would be nice to try one day. I’d like to write a book that doesn’t sell.

Allison

I was going to say that to you. Do you think in some ways that’s actually restrictive? In the sense that you don’t really know what you would ever write without all of that market knowledge. And what you wrote without that market knowledge might actually be quite extraordinary.

John

Yeah. That’s why in the book the main character, Helen, or one of the main characters, Helen, has written this great commercial novel, even though she’s written literary novels her whole career, great reviews, no money, she’s written this great commercial novel which she hasn’t handed in. She’s taken the money, but she hasn’t handed it in. And in the time between taking the money, she’s written two other versions of it. They’re very different novels, each of the versions. And the final one is this literary masterpiece. And that is, the language she describes how she wrote that final book is me yearning to write that kind of book.

Allison

That’s interesting.

John

It’s all down on the page. My anxieties around that.

Allison

Fantastic. I’m going to study it just so that next time we meet we can discuss.

Now, you have a very big fulltime job. You have a family. You have an extraordinary number of pets, from what I can see on your bio. You said that you wrote The Girl on the Page on weekends between January and July. Is that a case of you prioritising? Is that a case of you going, well, I’m going to write from four til six on Sunday? How do you fit that writing into your schedule?

John

It’s difficult. We’ve had some wonderful family dramas. This is my stepdaughter’s HSC year, which was awesome. So she was in Year 11 last year when I was writing it, a lot of stress. I’ve got a teenage son out there in the world. So family just doesn’t go away. There’s no way of doing that. So you’ve just got to be able to work around those. So you might lose two weekends in a row because of family dramas that might pop up.

My technique was, my wife likes a lie-in on Saturday and Sunday. So my technique was if I got up early, and I’m an early riser, if I got up early on Saturday and Sunday, I could kind of do writing time, which is very antisocial, before anyone really woke. And that’s where I got a lot done. Because the rest of the time, there’s either housework to do, there’s people to see, there’s dramas to be involved in. There’s trying to have some time with the family in all that.

So if I could get it done early, then great. But sometimes I’d be on a run and my whole day would be gone. And they wouldn’t see me. And my wife would introduce herself at the end of the day, say, “hello, I’m Tamsin. I’m your wife. It’s lovely to know you.”

Allison

Have we met?

John

Yeah. Exactly. Because it is an idiotic thing to do. This writing thing is mad. You sit by yourself in this room and you have your little arguments with yourself and you write them down. And it’s isolating. Because even when you’re with someone in that mode, you’re often not with them. Your brain is going off.

So it’s difficult to try and balance a relationship just with one person. But with the rest of the family and then friends and family are outside of that. I didn’t see anyone, friends and family, for months. For most of 2017, because there was then editing and stuff that happened afterwards, I didn’t see anyone. I was just completely gone.

Allison

And are you working on anything at the moment? This book has obviously just recently come out. But are you on to the next one? Are you now in antisocial mode again, so to speak?

John

No. You nailed it with that comment about being trapped in the marketing ideas and speak. So at the moment, I’m waiting to see how people react to this book. So if this book has a bad reaction, or if this book doesn’t do what I thought it was going to do, then there’s no point in trying to reproduce or write in a similar manner again.

Allison

Right. Okay.

John

Because what I want to do is I want to be able to get to a position where I can just write. Where I don’t have to do a day job. And to do it, you have to sell copies. And to sell copies, you’ve got to be able to hit a market and hit a certain readership and be able to give them what they want.

But I also want to deliver what I want to deliver to them within that framework. So at the moment, I’m sort of sitting and watching.

Allison

To see what happens.

John

Yeah, and see what happens. It feels awful talking like this, and as I said the old John would not be very happy with me. But to get a writing career going where you can do the thing you love day in, day out, you kind of have to look at these kind of abhorrent things. And try to work out how to do it best.

Allison

All right. So since we spoke, in the last three or four years, what do you think is the major, most major change. Most major? There’s some grammar for you. Majorist? What is the majorist change that you have noticed in the publishing industry? From your perspective, as an author and a bookseller?

John

Um… Well the book has come back. The physical thing is back. Which was a big change at that time. So there was a lot of anxiety about eBooks and the like, and that just didn’t eventuate. And the younger audience is now embracing the book. And, great for authors, embracing the more expensive version of the book, the hardcover. So there’s a strange change there.

Right now, it’s not that great for fiction, though. I think since 2016, when Trump got in power, and then the whole Trump 2017, people are starting to doubt information and are trying to find truth. And they’re looking to books as the place where considered thought and truth resides.

And so we’re seeing this enormous increase in trade nonfiction. Which is not academic nonfiction. So, easy to access, easy to understand, readable nonfiction about history, about science, about finance with Barefoot, about how to get on in life with The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. There’s a whole range of books that have just killed it. But that’s also led people to a whole lot of diverse topics in the nonfiction world. And that is really the hotspot right now, is nonfiction.

And I think there will be a rollover benefit for literary fiction at the end of this. Because literary fiction is really hard to sell right now. And it’s been difficult. And the awards aren’t doing it. So if you win the Miles, you’re not destined to sell 100,000 copies. It doesn’t work that way anymore. If you win the Booker, it doesn’t always turn out that you’ve sold, that you can retire.

These are troubling times for fiction, and especially literary fiction at the moment.

Crime is back, which is great. You’ve probably interviewed Jane Harper, who sort of turned around the crime readership within Australia.

Allison

Do you know what? We haven’t as yet. She’s on our list, but I don’t think we’ve actually… No. But thanks for reminding me. I’m making a note.

John

Yeah. Definitely get Jane Harper. She’s got a great story as well. So people like that who suddenly get worldwide success and remind people, I used to like reading crime! So then crime comes around again.

So there have been those kind of shifts. There’s less of the romance being sold, and loads of crime. The uplit thing right now, Frankfurt just happened, Frankfurt’s book fair was done, and the biggest titles being sold were all uplit. The Oliphant style book.

Allison

Oh, yes.

John

So people want in their fiction to be reassured and to see hope, is what they’re saying. So there are trends. They don’t always work. And they don’t always last. The erotic fiction one was twelve months at most. The Gone Girl and Girl on the Train psychological thriller was a couple of years, and now has led on to, in the Australian market, at least, the outback crime. And homegrown crime is really quite strong at the moment.

Allison

Interesting. Again, as an author and a bookseller, you’ve obviously seen, you see what comes and goes in the market, you see all of the things, you see the trends, you see everything. What have you taken on board from things that you’ve seen other authors doing that you think works in terms of helping to get the word out about their own books?

John

Grassroots visits. So if you’ve got a publisher who backs you but doesn’t have a great marketing budget, things you can do that can be arranged through the publisher but then you can actually do by yourself, without any cost, or you can pay for it, is the bookshop visits. Organised ones. Not just you popping in and rearranging the titles. But you know that you need to be at Dymocks in Carindale at two o’clock to sign the small pile they’ve got there. Anything to get in there and have a 15 minute chat with a bookseller.

That for me, when we looked at… The great examples this year, two big ones stand out for me, and both Harper Collins. Boy Swallows Universe and Holly Ringland’s book. Now, Holly went up and down the east coast largely – she did have a publicist at certain times – but largely by herself. Sold her book into booksellers right up and down the coast. And that did great things for her sales. Enormous things.

And Scrublands, Allen and Unwin looked at that model, and went, we’re doing that. So Chris Hammer has been all over Australia, or at least all the places he could reach. And I’m not really sure what kind of arrangement they had and how much was paid by the publisher and how much was author paid. But I’d say most of it was arranged and organised by the publisher.

And those sorts of things are absolutely brilliant. And getting to meet the booksellers themselves, the ones on the ground. It does make them think, oh I better give that a read, if they haven’t read it. And pull out the old proof to have a look at. But also sometimes if you’re winning enough in person, and they just like you and think, well, I’m going to support you. It worked for Matt Reilly.

Allison

Fantastic. So be winning. Yeah, it did. You’re right. It really did.

John

Matt Reilly still visits those shops that supported him early in the day.

Allison

Yes. His name comes up a lot with regard to book club visits, book shop visits, library talks, all of that kind of stuff, his name comes up regularly as someone who a) did a lot of that when he first started out but b) still does it. Which I think is really interesting.

All right, we are going to finish off our incredibly interesting interview today with John Purcell’s top three tips for writers.

John

Well, one of them would be make sure, before you even show it to anyone, that you have rewrote this thing realistically and not let yourself get away with yourself. It’s difficult. But if you can get outside of yourself for a bit and try to see this book from another person’s position, just like you do with characters, then you’ll have a better chance. Because a book really needs to be looked at in that way.

The grassroots campaign is a must, whether you’re a first time or you’re Matt Reilly.

And also believe in what you do. There’s a lot of people out there who are just trying to get somewhere in publishing and in writing but they don’t actually believe in the thing they’re doing. They’re just using it as a way to get somewhere. And I think it shows. Matt Reilly believes in every book he does and it shows and that’s why he’s got the massive readership he has.

Allison

Yeah. Okay. Well, thank you so much for your time today, John. Best of luck with the book. I hope it goes gangbusters, as your debut John Purcell novel. And we will look forward to seeing it on the bestseller lists, clearly.

John

Thank you very much.

 


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