“What’s the muck?”: An interview with James Purtill

via Animalarium

I met James on a creative writing course at Victoria University in 2009. At our first workshop I was struck by his swarthy tan and his faraway squint, and his long pauses between words, as if he’d just come in from the desert. James was writing a long prose work that ranged from South Africa to Perth to New York, places where he had lived. At that time he was flatting on “the far-away side of Aro Valley, in a house without a door.”

James is a very good writer. He makes the kinds of perfectly sideways observations that drive you crazy because you want to get further inside the head that sees things in such a way. Of his writing habits he has said:

“There is the room, then there is the writing on the page, and somewhere in between are these alleged trout that you are always reading about in association with writing. I have never gone trout fishing, probably never will, but I like the thought of gathering grasshoppers when the dew is on the grass and they cannot get away and then going and catching trout. I have never done this but I like the thought, just like I would like to live by the sea and have a horde of vengeful kids and dogs. In line with the trout doctrine, I start work in the mornings.”

Here’s a poem of his entitled ‘Ms K’.

I’ve heard James described as enigmatic, quite a few times, and funnily enough he is now working, in Cairo, at a magazine called Enigma.

So I thought I’d get in before everyone else and interview him. This is Part One of Two.


Ashleigh: Good day, James. Can I interview you now, or are you busy on things?

Cos I can come back later.

James: Hey.

I have an hour now.

I trust that will be enough.

Ashleigh: That will be ample for our needs.

So I haven’t properly prepared any questions, which I guess isn’t very professional of me.

James: Dear god.

Ashleigh: But I thought that doing the interview as an online chat would be a bit more interesting and spontaneous, and more true to life. Also sometimes you get the interesting lag effect, when two or even three or four strands of the conversation overlap.

James: OK.

One question.

Ashleigh: But that doesn’t have to happen.


James: Have we started?

Ashleigh: I don’t know.

Yes, we have now.

We have started.

James: And will you edit the interview, or will you put it all in?

Ashleigh: Well I thought I could leave everything in, unless there’s anything that we decide shouldn’t be in there.

I’m not sure why there would be, though. It’s just people talking.

James: True.

So there you have it, readers.

Ashleigh: So the interview will be like eavesdropping on two people on a bus or something.

James: Yes.

But they’re aware they’re being eavesropped on.

Ashleigh: So we’re now officially in the invisible fourth wall situation.

James: They’ve got the drop on the eavesdrop.

Uh huh.

Ashleigh: That’s really good.

James: Not sure about the fourth wall? What’s that?

Ashleigh: In theatre …

James: oh.

Ashleigh: All the actors are seemingly unaware that there is no fourth wall there and that everyone can see them.

But they know very well that there isn’t a wall there.

It’s all part of the illusion. The spectacle.

James: Uh huh.

Ashleigh: You’re in Cairo right now. Before that, you were briefly in London. Can you say something about how that turn of events came about?

James: I guess this is more Shakespearean then.


I was doing temping work in London when I answered an ad for a staff writer position at a magazine in Egypt. At the time I was reading a lot of the New Yorker / reportage stuff. And I was finding it difficult to: a) find a job b) find the sun.

This seemed like a good way to get into the thick of an interesting place.

Can’t say I ever had much interest in visiting Egypt – unlike a lot of other ex-pats in Cairo, who are studying Arabic and hoping to get US state department jobs. CIA, Homeland security, etc.

There’s a real language boom happening.

I’m not a part of that boom.


Ashleigh: Do you feel pressure to be a part of that boom?

Or are you happy to be a free agent?

James: I mean, I am not part of the boom in that my Arabic is still largely trapped inside of me. It has not yet seen the light of day. But to get at your question – no, I would not like to work for a state department.

I would like to be a free agent.

Ashleigh: Yes, I feel that.

A reporter at large.

James: A rogue agent.

Ashleigh: I think you’d do that very well – being a rogue reporter – because you seem pretty fearless to me. I may be overreading things here. But when it comes to throwing yourself into new situations, you seem to spend very little time mulling it over.

Next thing, you’re having a photo taken with the mayor of Cairo.

And things of that nature.


Or, to be more specific: what are your fears?

James: Cripes.

This is my fear.

Ashleigh: HA.

Sorry, that’s a bit much isn’t it.

James: No. I am mulling it over, actually.

It’s a good question.

Ashleigh: I’m not doing too well at this interviewing business.

James: Stop it.

Ashleigh: Oh good, good. Mull.

3:28 Jesus, how many fears do you have?

3:29 * twiddles thumbs *

James: Well – I guess everyone fears being trapped. I’m silly enough to equate travelling with some kind of freedom. It’s not courageous at all – it would be much more courageous for me to buy a brick duplex. It’s a funny thing. People I’ve met who have this desire to travel also tend to be homebodies – that is, you travel in order to stay home, in a funny way. They’re not typically very outgoing.

Ashleigh: * drinks *

James: I’m still going.

You asked for it.

And one more thing.

Ashleigh: You’re the least home-ish-body (the unhomeliest body?) I’ve ever met, though.

James: Not true, Ash.

Ashleigh: But … I think I see what you mean.

Is it that as you travel, you must seek out shelter, food, water, comforts … the basics of human existence?

James: ?

Ashleigh: And those are your sole concerns, so you’re constantly plotting about how to make a home as you go.

James: Don’t quite follow.


Ashleigh: Oh, never mind. I’m not sure I do either.

I’m just trying to marry up the homebody tendency with the travel tendency.

James: Yes.


I’d say the connection is with solitude.

Ashleigh: I see.

James: Travel is solitary.

It’s a flight of the imagination as much as it is a flight of the Boeing.

I do it because it stirs a part of me that is just dormant the rest of the time.

Ashleigh: What is this dormant beast?

James: Um . . . well, it’s excitement. A sense of the breadth of the world. It’s curvature.

It’s so easy to forget. And then you go for a trip and it floods back over the horizon.

It’s also a sense of resourcefulness and urgency.

Ashleigh: Yes, that’s all true. I myself am guilty of staying put in one place for too long, and forgetting about the curvature.

Then when I go for a trip, I get really excited and think, “My god, I’ve wasted all this time.”

James: That’s how I feel too.

But I don’t think you can be guilty of staying in a place too long.

Ashleigh: Have you been affected by the revolution in Cairo very much?

(Which is sort of an absurd question, “have you noticed the revolution?”)

James: Well, I arrived about 7 months after the revolution started.

So I don’t know an Egypt that hasn’t been in revolution.

Of course, it’s everything.

Apart from the demonstrations, which are quite localised to Tahrir Square, there’s the changed mood, the changed relationship with the military and the police, the fewer tourists, fewer foreigners living here.

Ashleigh: It must be pretty exhausting at times. I mean, Cairo on an ordinary, unrevolving basis sounds hard-going in itself.

You still see buses going round London with ads for Cairo on them.

James: Yeah? Tourism ads?

Ashleigh: Yeah! Still at large.

James: And what do they say?

Ashleigh: Oh, you know – they play the exoticism card.

The ancient history, the mystery of it.

James: The kidnappings.

Well, I suppose that’s the thing you notice most.

There’s all these people out of work, coz not enough Londoners are visiting Cairo.

Ashleigh: Bloody Londoners.

Londoners must be the most well-travelled people in the world, I think.

I guess, though, eventually the tide will turn, and they’ll all come flooding back.

James: To say this is a bit hackneyed – but Cairo was a big city when London was a swamp.

Bloody old.

Ashleigh: That’s exactly right.

James: And now Londoners come and sightsee the remains of this old big city.

Ashleigh: Cairo started as a garrison town in the seventh century, I believe.

James: Oh, did it now?

Ashleigh: During the conquests, after Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam.

James: But that’s a bit misleading. Because where Cairo sprawls, there have been temples for thousands of years, e.g. the pyramids.

Ashleigh: In my job, these bits of information come up that are often so overwhelming – in terms of how long ago things happened – that I have to find ways to slot them into conversation.

James: This is going to be an incredibly boring blog. Sorry.

Ashleigh: Byzantine Empire, Sasanian Empire … my god.

Ah well.

What if I asked you about your writing?

Because you did an MA in Creative Writing some time ago, 2009 it was.

James: You can ask what you want.

Ashleigh: Oh, right. Well, I bloody well will.

James: Well go on, ask goddammit.

Ashleigh: What has happened to the memoir/novel you wrote then? Back in 2009?

Was it a memoir/novel? What the hell was it? Martin Edmond still wants to know. [The essayist Martin Edmond was the external examiner for James’s MA project.]

James: Ha ha.

No doubt, no doubt.

And a big shout-out to you, Martin Edmond, reading this no doubt.

Well, I put it on the backburner. And it burned.

No, it’s still out there.

Ashleigh: I love the backburner.

That big old machine, grinding away, with all our hopes and dreams.

James: I think it fell down behind the backburner, with the cockroach traps.

Ashleigh: Cockroaches are the hardiest insects in the world.

They will find your manuscript, and resurrect it somehow.

It will become their bible.

James: Well, my memoir novel scared them off.

It’s a good question, Ash.

Ashleigh: Do you think there are parts of it that could metamorphose into something else?

James: I dunno what happened to my memoir novel. It was very juvenile and pompous.

Full of angst.

Ashleigh: I thought it was a great read. A great, bewildering, dazzling thing.

James: Ha ha.

Ashleigh: The angst was well wrought, though. It was put to very good use.

It didn’t just sit there like pond scunge on the surface, y’know.

James: It was like carp, huh?

Ashleigh: Carp in the pipes.

James: Or pike.

Ashleigh: OK, well, let’s assume that the memoir novel has become a home for the cockroaches. Are you working on, or are you planning to work on, a new project?

James: I am, although who isn’t?

Ashleigh: True.

Again, an absurd question.

James: No. Well, I’m not being forthcoming.

Ashleigh: I think writers live through their future projects. We’re stuck in the future.

James: I guess, every time you read something you like, it goes into your brain and breeds novels, ideas for novels.

Ashleigh: Idea sex.

James: And right now the books I like are:

Open City by Teju Cole, all of Kazuo Ishiguro, and even E.M. Forster! I’m reading The Longest Journey – the first of his I’ve read – and it’s wonderful.

It’s surprising, because I’d always looked at his name and thought he must be a pompous prig. A stuffed shirt.

Ashleigh: It’s the intitals.

James: Yes. V.S. Pritchett.

Ashleigh: V.S. Naipaul, too.

When I see a relatively contemporary writer who has adopted initials, it throws my back out.

Well, it makes me suspicious.

James: It’s either a sign of insecurity, disdain, or comedy.

Ashleigh: It’s a riddle.

James: Yes.

Well, I like Teju Cole’s memoir novel.

Ashleigh: You seem to often stumble upon great authors, which I then look up, vow to read, and rarely return to again. Whereas when I tell you to read something, you always read it. I’m weirdly grateful for that. It’s really nice when you recommend something to someone and they go to the trouble to read it and want to talk about it. You feel sort of flattered. Which is ridiculous really.

James: Oh, thanks.

I feel you’re like my insider in the world of culture, my source in the ministry.

And you give pretty good recommendations.

Gary Shteyngart.

Ashleigh: That’s interesting. I feel very much an outsider. Clinging to the walls.

James: But I was saying about Teju Cole. He wrote this article for the Guardian about the books he liked – and it was wonderful, because I liked all the same books!

Ashleigh: Oh my god. Well, there you go. That’s amazing.

I’m going to look up that article now.

James: Are you like the Spiderman of culture?

The gecko of culture?

Ashleigh: No, I’m just an ant. They too can climb walls.

I’m probably on the wrong goddamn building.

But it’s too late. I’m an ant. I’ll never live to get to the right building.

So I wanted to ask you about reportage.

What makes a good reporter?

James: Oh, I dunno.

I’m not a good reporter.

Well, actually i know what makes a good reporter.

They have this look in their eyes. It’s almost like they have a different physiology.

Like crocodiles have an extra set of eyelids.

Ashleigh: Oh, yes – also cats.

James: Some good reporters I’ve met just seem to live closer to the surface. They’re perceptive. They have less separating them from you. It’s unnverving.

But I guess this is all horseshit.

Ashleigh: No, no, that makes sense.

They have a special antennae, eternally quivering.

James: I mean, you also have to believe that you can get at some kind of truth.

That you can dig, and dig, and hit something solid.

Ashleigh: Or not find anything, and panic, and plant something there.

That’s a bit cynical, isn’t it.

James: Yes.

Ashleigh: I guess the good reporters will always find something.

James: I have a lot of respect for reporters. They’re society’s dungbeetles.

Society needs people to gather the news, roll it into balls, process and remove it, otherwise it just backs up.

And there’s no resolution.

Ashleigh: “roll it into balls”.

James: That’s a good name for a paper. The Daily Resolution.

Ashleigh: The Dungbeetle?

The Daily Resolution is a good name. Let’s start a paper.

This is happening.

James: And of course the reporter is tarnished by this, having to rake through the muck.

Reporters are like a caste.

Ashleigh: But that tarnish, that’s what makes them stronger? Maybe every good writer has that also.

James: What’s the muck?

Ashleigh: Constantly raking through the muck of their own brains. It’s the stuff that becomes gold when you let it fertilise.

Remember all the talk about fertiliser?

James: Sometimes creative writing classes resemble agriculture school. So much talk about fertilising.

Ashleigh: In creative writing circles, there’s this thing about letting the material ferment.

James: Yes.

Ashleigh: Yes.

We are agreed.

James: I dunno. It’s a bit hokey.

Ashleigh: I tried to write about this at one point, that metaphor, but became bogged down.

I sense that there’s some ultimate truth in it.

James: OK.

Ashleigh: But it’s nothing revolutionary. “Take your time. Let ideas seethe and settle.”

James: I love the metaphors that draw on farming. The Seamus Heaney thing. But I haven’t been on a farm for yonks.

Ashleigh: Another writer in our year, Pat White, engaged intensely with the farming metaphors.

James: Yes, but he is a farmer.

Ashleigh: So if I might take a slightly different tack here, and ask you about something that might be a little bit sensitive …

James: OK.

Ashleigh: You arrived on Twitter briefly this year, but you have now vanished.

Is this a definitive departure from Twitter?

Your last tweet was back in December sometime, I believe.

James: Yes. Twitter.

Ashleigh: Oh wait, no it wasn’t. I’ve just checked.

You tweeted just the other day.

James: Clearly it didn’t go viral.

Ashleigh: There was one on 1 Jan, then 28 Feb, then 29 Feb.

James: I get these horrible existential pangs every time I tweet.

I just feel like another tweeter. One of millions.

Ashleigh: See, some people would say to themselves, “That would make a good tweet.”

They would then tweet it.

James: Yes.

Ashleigh: That’s the human condition.

James: No.

Ashleigh: We’re one voice.

James: The human condition is also what you do with your time.

One voice?

What is this “we are the world” crap?

Ashleigh: I mean, you only have one voice. There will always be billions of others.

I didn’t mean it how it sounded.

James: OK. Yes, there will be.

Ashleigh: I was sailing close to the wind just then.

James: I mean, Twitter cracks me up. It’s funny.

Ashleigh: I know a lot of people on Twitter who use it solely to document their lives. But they do so in a weirdly compelling way.

Things that shouldn’t be amusing suddenly are.

James: I like the idea of reporting the minutiae of life.

It’s a whole realm of experience.

I like Twitter.

I just don’t like tweeting.

Ashleigh: So apart from the existential feeling, what is it that you don’t like about tweeting?

James: It might be different if i was tweeting under a pseydonym. Or if it was a parody account.

Ashleigh: The feeling that you are giving too much away?

James: Yes.

Ashleigh: Someone else’s voice …

James: The feeling of being exposed to the world.

Dangling in the wind, so to speak.

Ashleigh: But you choose how much to expose.

You don’t have to dangle if you don’t want to. Just put a hand out the window.

James: I feel that good tweets dangle.

Ashleigh: Well, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner here.

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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10 Responses to “What’s the muck?”: An interview with James Purtill

  1. Bill says:

    Well done getting James to talk for so long and even reveal something about enigma behind the enigma.


  2. Tim says:

    That’s a terrific poem from Turbine. A bit like Frank O’Hara in his lunch-hour.


  3. jamespurtill says:

    Cripes Ash. It’s gone up so soon! But my pleasure to get the full eyelash treatment


  4. willow says:

    This was a more satisfying lunchtime treat than my rice salad. Eagerly awaiting part two…


  5. Helen says:

    You two are hilarious, it’s good to hear from James – Hellooo!


  6. elizziebeth says:

    Oh, you guys!!! That was adorably James-ish and Ash-ish all at once! Hope you’re both really well!


  7. Pingback: Incorporeal estate | eyelashroaming

  8. Wandered into your blog territory, and love your writing, and underneath your writing I discern a real, breathing human being, – nice!!! Your quote ‘That’s interesting. I feel very much an outsider. Clinging to the walls.’ That’s the feeling that resonates with me. I think it s that feeling that drives the desire to discover. Anything. Just to keep looking.


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