Today, I’m delighted to bring you a frank and fascinating interview with John Purcell, whose gripping new novel, The Girl on the Page, I read recently with much pleasure.
First of all John, congratulations on the publication of The Girl on the Page–and on writing such a gripping and immersive read! I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I know many other readers have done. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea first came to you?
I didn’t know it but the idea for the novel The Girl on the Page had been with me for years. This idea had been in my preference for reading literature as a young man. It had been in the way I had run my little second-hand bookshop where I had to sell recent commercial fiction to pay my rent, when all I wanted to do was sell people beat up old Penguin Classics. It was in my decision to work for online bookseller, Booktopia after my shop closed. And it was certainly around when I signed a contract to publish the erotic series The Secret Lives of Emma under the pseudonym Natasha Walker. The idea is a simple one, What is the cost of selling out?
What was the road to publication like? And what has reader response been like so far?
The road to publication was long. After publishing The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy in 2012-13, I returned to a novel I had been working on for years called, A Gentleman of Sorts. This novel was set in 1815 in northern England. And although I was very happy with it, no one wanted to publish it. Like a fool, I persisted trying to get it published. I wrote nothing new between 2013 and 2017, I just kept working on the novel no one wanted. The spell was broken when a leading publisher offered me a contract for the book. It was a lukewarm offer. The book would be published, but it would sink like a stone. It was over. I rejected the offer and put A Gentleman of Sorts to bed.
Days later I started writing The Girl on the Page. The words came in a torrent. Over the next six months, writing on weekends only, due to my full time job, I finished the book. My agent sent it out to publishers and we found ourselves in the middle of an auction with three major publishers bidding on the book. HarperCollins were victorious and with the help of my publisher Catherine Milne, and her brilliant team of editors, we knocked the book into the shape it is now. I couldn’t be happier with the end result.
Publishers send out proof copies to reviewers before the final edits of the book are complete. So, with my head still in editing mode, the first reviews came in from booksellers. They didn’t hate the book, which was a relief. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, too. Overall, since publication, the response has been positive. I love that readers love Helen and Malcolm as much as I do. Though I have been punched by some readers for that bit at the end. You’ll know what I mean when you read it.
The story is told in many voices: in Amy’s, Helen’s, Malcolm’s, Daniel’s and a little in Max’s. Quite a lot of juggling, but carried off very successfully! How did you balance the different voices?
The characters of Helen and Malcolm have been loitering around in my imagination for years. They are result of my interactions with all the Helens and Malcolms who used to frequent my second-hand bookshop. The old journalists, retired academics, and quarrelling novelists. I found their voices were already quite defined and easy to write.
The character of Daniel had to be of Helen and Malcolm, but defiantly different, too. He is their son, but estranged. You can’t stop genetics, and so I had to make sure Daniel displayed some of the attributes of his parents, while his resentment and self-loathing coloured nearly everything he said and thought.
Amy strode onto the page. Hers was the loudest and surest of the voices in my head while writing. I had to restrain her. She had a tendency to dominate scenes and conversations. I surround myself with strong women. I wanted Amy to have a truckload of confidence around her work but needed her to be vulnerable in matters of the heart. My time with Amy was spent turning the volume down on her attitude and turning the volume up when she spoke from the heart.
Knowing the characters well helps with balancing the different voices. I sketched out backstories for these characters which don’t all make it into the novel. I knew them well before I let them speak.
You took quite a risk in making two of your main characters–Amy and Malcolm–rather monstrous really (though always human!) They made me think of the ‘monstre sacré’ concept we have in French–a term which describes a person given a free pass on selfishness and outrageously bad behaviour because of their talent and/or personal charisma. And the more ‘likeable’ characters–Helen, Daniel and Max–face a great disadvantage when in the orbit of those ‘sacred monsters’, each in different ways. Do you think that’s a fair take, or do you have a different interpretation of those characters?
The funny thing is, many readers relate to Amy. They cheer for her. I have noticed a generational divide in the response to the novel. Younger readers in general have seen it as an Amy novel. Amy’s ambitions, her needs, her desires are those of her own generation. They align with her from the start and live the novel through her, thus she is absolved of all sins. They certainly don’t see her as a monster. In fact, the question of principles at the heart of the novel is largely overlooked by younger readers. There is no such thing as selling out to them, as of course you always take the cash. Every time. Older readers talk almost exclusively about Helen and Malcolm. The choice Helen makes and the consequences of that choice. The old novelists’ relationship is the central hub of the novel to older readers but the relationship between Helen and Malcolm and their son Daniel also figures in the discussion of the novel.
Daniel is reviled by younger readers. He and Julia, the publishing director, share monster status for them. While for the older readers, they find Malcolm to be the most difficult character to deal with. They understand Daniel, forgive Helen, put up with Amy but they find it hard to forgive Malcolm. I think Daniel would see both his parents as ‘monstre sacré’, while the reader only sees Malcolm.
I hope what I have done here is create characters who are as flawed as we all are. I certainly like how a character can be one reader’s heroine and another’s villain. That a book can be about one subject for a reader and be a completely different book for another. If I have done that, I will think myself extremely lucky.
The book revolves around a conflict between two extremes of the book world: the short-term gain of bestsellers versus the slow burn of ‘serious’ literature..Yet of course many of the writers we think of as great–Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes etc–had large mass followings and were seen primarily as entertainers in their day. Do you think the distinction between ‘downhill’ and ‘uphill’ books (a cogent term employed in your book) is not as simple as someone like Malcolm might see it? And with your own book, which depicts the tension between the two, making the case for more thoughtful books whilst successfully adopting the suspenseful thriller mode–do you see it as part of the conversation around these things?
Even Malcolm doesn’t see it as a simple distinction, it’s just a convenient way for him to explain the differences between certain types of books. We all divide novels up into easy reads and more difficult ones. Some novels just ask us to think from page one, they require concentration, and if you aren’t in the mood, if you’re tired, for example, you will put them down. In that same mood you might pick up a thriller and read late into the night. Malcolm points out that we aren’t talking about a large percentage of the population when we talk about readers. And when we talk exclusively about novels we are talking about a fraction of the small fraction of the population who reads regularly. Most regular readers of novels have the capacity to read ‘uphill’ but prefer ‘downhill’ novels because such reading offers a form of escape that appeals to them.
The Girl on the Page is a ‘downhill’ book about ‘uphill’ books, said one reviewer. Which I found interesting. There is no doubt in my mind that my novel is being labelled ‘commercial fiction’ by some readers and many booksellers – that is, fiction which is easy to read and is expected to have a large readership. And yet, as one reviewer said, the blurb on the back made it sound really boring. The blurb actually described the content pretty well. But it doesn’t give any indication of the way it is written. And this is definitely part of the conversation, as you say. I have written one of those books Helen and Max hate.
I made a conscious decision to open the door to my book as wide as I could to let any kind of reader in. I wanted to involve people in my story from page one. So I wrote short sharp chapters which dropped the reader into the middle of the action. I want readers to become invested in the story and for them to turn the pages quickly. How else was I going to get people into a book where the big question is, should a literary writer publish a commercial book for cash? The result is readers are reading the novel in a few sittings and the end of the novel knocks them sideways and leaves them thinking about some pretty hefty things. Which is cool, right?
I was struck by your (very accurate, in my experience) observation of the ‘book-loving millenials’ who nevertheless don’t read in the same way that people of Helen and Malcolm’s generation might have thought proper. Can you expand a little on that?
The way people consume information today is completely different from any other age. We absorb so much more information in a day, through so many different screens, mostly in small bite-sized chunks. It’s only natural that the way a millennial reader approaches a book would be different. They have grown up in an informational soaked, entertainment overloaded world.
A physical book is an ingenious device which exists separately to the internet. It is its own ecosystem for the time you’re reading it. It has one overall argument, or subject, or story and it is told outside time. This is very attractive to those who are almost always connected and who don’t often enjoy the luxury of concentrating all their attention on one thing.
As a book industry professional–both as an author and bookseller who has frequent dealings with publishers and editors-you have an insight into the publishing world which comes over very strongly in the book, in various amusing–and sometimes depressing!–vignettes. The post-takeover shenanigans at your fictional publishing house and the short-termism it engenders of course strikes many echoes in other book industry insiders/observers of course, including me 🙂 Putting on your prophet’s hat, what do you think might come of such developments within publishing?
Publishing has one great advantage at the moment, they still publish physical books. For a while there it seemed likely that printed books would go the way of video cassette tapes. Thankfully this was averted by the ubiquity of the smartphone which seemed to kill off the ereader and ebooks before they really took hold. And since then something even worse happened. Donald Trump. His cry of fake news has made many people notice just how difficult it is to find answers on the internet. And here’s where publishers of physical books come in. Over hundreds of years they developed a vetting process whereby they force writers to proof, edit, fact check and better their writing before they will publish it. There are checks and balances because publishing physical books is an expensive business. Of course, some publishers are better than others and of course they don’t get it right all of the time. But a vetting process is better than no process, as we are discovering to our shame online. As such, I believe publishing will still have a very important role to play in the coming decades.
Finally, I thought that the title, ‘the Girl on the Page’ mischievously echoes an element of various bestselling titles, as alluded to in an aside in your book–is that the case? And can you expand a little on that?
The Girl on the Page was my working title. The sheer number of novels about women that were being published with ‘girl’ in the title was absurd and many people in the book industry were getting sick of it. So calling the manuscript The Girl on the Page was a bit of joke between me, myself and I. But later, as I wrote the scene at the book signing where the characters discuss books with ‘girl’ in the title, I realised that The Girl on the Page kind of worked for the book. So when I sent it to my agent I left it there. I really didn’t expect HarperCollins to go for it. But they saw the irony of it, and loved it. So, there you have it.
About The Girl on the Page:
Two women, two great betrayals, one path to redemption. A punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature, from industry insider, John Purcell.
Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.
When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.
Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself – questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.
From ultimate book industry insider, John Purcell, comes a literary page-turner, a ferocious and fast-paced novel that cuts to the core of what it means to balance ambition and integrity, and the redemptive power of great literature.
About John Purcell: