- The Girl on the Page is set in the publishing world. Jane Curtis, one of the main characters in your new book The Lessons, is a novelist. What draws you to writers in your fiction?
I recently unpacked over a hundred boxes of books. Putting them up on the shelves in our new house, it became clear that my main obsession was fiction. But a close second was the lives of writers. I have more biographies of novelists than any other subject. And memoirs and diaries, too. When I first started to write, when I was eighteen or nineteen, I bought such books because I was devouring fiction and always wondering – how did they do that? But you learn fairly quickly there is no easy answer to that. Biographies ceased to be learning tools and became a source of consolation and encouragement. All novelists are fascinating to me - whether literary or commercial, hugely successful or loved by a select few. No writing life is like another. I write about writers because writers can be anything, they can know anything, and their histories can be whatever I want them to be because a writer can emerge from any environment. This brings me a great freedom when writing about writers. But the main thing, the reason I am endlessly fascinated by writers, is they often exist in moral void, they are both in life and outside of it at the same time. Any kind of odd behavior can be explained away by the designation, writer. You can’t entirely trust them because you never quite know what they believe, what they know, or what they are capable of doing. And that makes for great fiction.
- At heart, The Lessons is a love story, but you don’t strike me as a romantic, how did the story of Harry and Daisy relationship come about?
I have always loved a good romance. One of my favourite novels is Austen’s Persuasion, another is Forster’s A Room with a View, a novel I have read more times than any other. In both of these books the heroine is convinced by well-meaning friends that her love for the hero is a passing fancy, something to be outgrown. Anne Elliot from Persuasion renounces all hope of love and devotes herself to others. Lucy Honeychurch from A Room with a View gets engaged to a man who can’t love. They don’t know it yet, but their rejection of love has made their lives meaningless. Sometimes we are too young to appreciate how rare love is. So when I brought Harry and Daisy together in The Lessons, I knew I would tear them apart as Austen and Forster had done. I wanted them to learn what a life without love was like. I wanted them to learn how lucky they were to find love at all.
- There are four first person narrators in The Lessons, three narrating events in the sixties and one in the early eighties. Tell my why you decided to write the story in this manner.
Harry came first. I once wrote a story about an old man with a secret returning to the village of his birth in the hope of finding peace, redemption or revenge? I don’t know which, I never finished the story. When I moved to the UK and found myself living in the gorgeous countryside of the Kent Downs, the old man returned, but he was no longer old, he was young and he had a story to tell me. The secret he hadn’t been able to share. That’s when he first told me about Daisy. Then came Simon. He wasn’t that interested in Harry, but he had a story to tell, and that story also involved Daisy. Of course, Daisy wasn’t going to let two men tell her story. Besides, what could a man ever know about the heart of a woman? So Daisy started to tell the story from the beginning, setting things straight. Trouble was, Daisy’s aunt Jane Curtis was not very happy about how she was being portrayed in all of these narratives, so she turned up when I thought the whole story had been told and began telling it her way. So that’s how things happened. I wrote each narrative separately. I gave them each free reign then plaited the book together with the separate strands. The hope was that by giving them each space, the truth of the matter would emerge whether they liked it or not.
- Jane Curtis is a character readers will love to hate, or hate to love, was she based on real life writer? Edna O’Brien, perhaps?
Jane Curtis isn’t based on any writer. Or more to correctly, Jane Curtis is based on dozens of writers. Like many writers she is an uneasy mix of raw talent and self-doubt, of daring and cowardice, of honesty and deception. Having long been a fan of women writers of the period, I found researching women and women writers of the sixties fascinating. As a woman Jane’s wins are belittled and her mistakes are judged more harshly. But she manages to produce work that is admired in the face of unwavering opposition. In this respect, she is like Edna O’Brien, but also a dozen other writers of that period. As women they had to forge a place in the literary world that did not want to admit them with nothing more than bloody-mindedness. All while living in an era of great social change, in which the role of women seemed to change day by day. As to whether one should love or hate her, I hope I’ve shown her to be human, which is to say we should try to love her as we would hope to be ourselves regardless of our flaws.
- You recently left Australia to live in the UK and were writing The Lessons throughout the pandemic, what influence did the tragic loss of life in the UK and the various lockdowns have upon your writing?
I know some writers found the restrictions of lockdowns left them barren. That the horrid state of the world left them too anxious to write. A fate I might so easily have shared. The state of the world makes me very anxious but I was contracted to write another book and I was already late by the time Covid struck. So lockdown actually worked in my favour. I know how horrible that sounds. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t do anything. I had no excuse not to write. And thank god I did, I don’t think I would have made it through these awful months, now years, if I didn’t have my writing to disappear into.
Order your copy of The Lessons here.
Short Interview for HarperCollins
I’ve been reading a lot of biographies and memoirs of novelists. They don’t make for uplifting reading. I mean honestly, what a miserable bunch writers are. Moan moan, drink drink, write write. Never satisfied. Always seeking out greener pastures. Boring everyone to death with their thoughts, boring them even deader with their silence. Their interminable reading. And that tap, tap, tap, or scribble, scribble, scribble and shouts for silence echoing down the hall. All the while torn between incompatible futures – that of austere artistic merit and the esteem of the few or the abuse of talent and shameless wealth and lonely fame. Both futures lined with the same milestones – divorce, financial disaster, anxiety over legacy, obscurity, addiction, illness, despair – leading to the same place, the grave.
Of course it isn’t all doom and gloom. Some get cut down in their prime. Like that newly published writer who was killed by a falling branch while walking down the Champs Elysees. I don’t recall his name.
No, you’re right, maybe I am choosing the wrong writers. I am a miserable bastard myself. It’s probably just unconscious bias. I’m drawn to the worst of them. There are probably hundreds of happy writers and as many biographies of them. Case in point, there’s a biography of Henry Miller on my shelf called The Happiest Man Alive. He’s dead now, too.
Even though I know how it always goes, I can’t help reading about them. There is just something fascinating about writers. At least to me. They are such odd bods. Walking contradictions. Brilliant and stupid. Exciting and dull. Observant and yet so blind. Especially to their own faults and their own talents.
I am talking of a certain subset of novelists. I can admit it. Not all writers wrestle with their own devils. Not all are artists. Some start out with no integrity so don’t live in fear of losing it. In fact the vast majority do their best, succeed or fail, potter about, develop a small following, get bored of financial insecurity and go back to the work they did before. Those few who succeed beyond their own expectations and actually make some money from their work try very hard not to disappoint their readership and present them each year with the same novel in different guises.
My 2018 novel, The Girl on the Page, dealt with all this – miserable writers, artistic integrity, the lure of commercial success, the publishing machine and literary prizes. So you would expect I was done with writers in my novels. But you’d be wrong.
Just as I can’t stop reading about writers, I can’t stop writing about them either.
When I wasn’t looking, a novelist snuck in the back door of my new novel The Lessons and proceeded to take over. Her name is Jane Curtis and she is a piece of work. But I kind of like her. The novel centres on the love affair of two young people, Daisy and Harry. It was almost a romance novel before Jane Curtis turned up and did what all novelists do, stuck her nose where it didn’t belong and brought pain and misery to everyone she claimed to love. But she does all this with such flair that we can almost forgive her.
The truth is, the novel just didn’t work until Jane turned up.
I have always been fascinated by stories that seem to be aware they are stories. The multiple endings to John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman, Kurt Vonnegut inserting himself into the narrative of Breakfast of Champions so he can be there when his two main characters finally meet, that sort of thing. Jane gave me the opportunity to play in my own small way.
The bulk of The Lessons is set in the 1960s, Jane’s first person narrative is set in the 1980s and interrupts the main narrative from time to time. A novelist in a novel will always bring an element of self-consciousness to a narrative. Throughout the 1960s storyline Jane is writing novels based on the events we are reading about. The reader is invited to reflect on what they are being told in light of this.
I feel I must have been influenced by E.M. Forster’s use of novelist Eleanor Lavish in A Room with View. As witness to events in the first half of the novel, Lavish is able to effect change, albeit unwittingly, in the second half of the novel, even though she herself doesn’t appear, because her much disparaged novel is read aloud to the main characters, and that novel contains a description of a kiss everyone has been trying very hard to pretend never happened.
The reading aloud of Lavish’s novel forces Forster’s characters to interrogate the stories they have been telling themselves. Stories within stories. We are all novelists. Some are just better than others.
Throughout The Lessons, with each of Jane’s interruptions, I hope the reader will become more and more conscious of her attempts to control the narrative. I found her voice irresistible. I gave way to her more times than I’m ready to admit. I ask the reader to keep their wits about them. But then, to my mind, there is no better narrator than a novelist. Who better to tell us the whole truth than a professional liar?
--The Lessons by John Purcell (HarperCollins Australia) is out now.
My Life in Books
On Writing Women
I find it funny when someone asks me how I write female characters. As though women were some foreign entity only ever glimpsed by the fortunate. Rare and unknowable. But they aren’t rare, are they? Women are everywhere. My mother is a woman. So are my sisters. Come to think of it, so is my wife. And my step-daughter. My publisher is a woman, too.
The question isn’t as simple as it seems either. How do you, a man, write female characters? It’s a bit of a trap. It kind of implies that not only would it be too difficult, if not impossible, for a man to write a female character, convincing or not, but that a man really shouldn’t be writing women period. On the other hand, I may be over analysing it. Sometimes we ask a question because we don’t know the answer. I’m sure there are men out there who see women as completely alien and can’t imagine what they’re thinking at any given moment. I think the accepted collective noun for such a group of men is a Morrison. A murder of crows. A Morrison of unimaginative men.
Both my recent books, The Girl on the Page and my new book, The Lessons, centre on the lives of female characters. This wasn’t my plan. I didn’t set out to write about women. I wish I had that much say in what I write. I write what bubbles up from within me. One of the narrators of The Lessons, Jane Curtis, a novelist, wasn’t part of the original concept of the novel. Her character’s role expanded as I wrote. Her voice was the clearest in my head. It was like meeting an interesting person at a party and getting to know them over subsequent accidental meetings, until a friendship develops and you find you’re arranging to meet up regularly. I came to know Jane Curtis over time.
But she isn’t real, you made her up, shouts a heckler from the back.
As I said, my mother is a woman. A very intelligent, strong willed woman with feminist principles. And I mentioned my sisters – both a little bit older than me, both big influences on me as a teen. The eldest was heavily involved with politics as a young woman, the other sister was very interested in having a lot of fun. Each liked dragging their younger but taller brother here and there, as protection. I was jammed into the backseat of cars full of young women and taken to parties, nightclubs and bars. I listened to their stories. I was trained to see the world through their eyes. My sisters told me what music to listen to, what books to read, what films to watch and, somewhat disastrously, what to wear. And all the while their friends taught me other memorable lessons.
As a result I was never one of the boys. I sought out the company of women. Still do. The better question to ask me would be, how do I write men?
I’ll admit, writing female characters does hold certain advantages for the novelist. The inequalities in society means there is conflict in every aspect of their lives. A necessary element of drama. In this life there is still so much for women to overcome, from the mundane to the monumental. In my first few novels, my protagonist Emma Benson battles against the suffocating sexual mores of modern suburban life. In The Girl on the Page, Helen Owen hits out against ageism in the arts, while editor Amy tries to find something to value in herself. In my new novel, The Lessons, Daisy Richmond is told she doesn’t know her own heart and is forced by her mother and aunt to give up on her first love.
An early draft of The Lessons was in the voice of a male character. But it was too like being in my own head. Artistically, I prefer to see life through the eyes of women. In The Lessons the reader gets to do both.
But that damnable question won’t go away. How do I write female characters? I don’t know. My wife is my muse. I read novels by women. Memoirs and histories, too. Writing The Lessons I discovered Cat Power and obsessed over her music. I have many female friends, I take an interest in their lives, and I listen to them.
How do I write female characters? Women are half of all life. How could I not?
Learn more about The Lessons here.
The Lessons by John Purcell
What if your first love was your one and only chance of happiness? In our lives, some promises are easily forgotten, while others come to haunt us with tragic results. From the bestselling author of The Girl on the Page comes The Lessons, a compelling novel about love and betrayal.
1961: When teens Daisy and Harry meet, it feels so right they promise to love each other forever, but in 1960s England everything is stacked against them: class, education, expectations. When Daisy is sent by her parents to live with her glamorous, bohemian Aunt Jane, a novelist working on her second book, she is confronted by adult truths and suffers a loss of innocence that flings her far from the one good thing in her life, Harry.
1983: Jane Curtis, now a famous novelist, is at a prestigious book event in New York, being interviewed about her life and work, including a novel about the traumatic coming of age of a young woman. But she won’t answer the interviewer’s probing questions. What is she trying to hide?
This is a novel about the painful lessons life has to teach us, about ourselves, about love, honesty and morality. Echoing novels such as Persuasion and A Room with a View and the memoir An Education, The Lessons is a striking and powerful story about the loss of innocence and betrayal and how much we can forgive – if we forgive.
John Purcell is a bookseller, writer and interviewer.