Art, family, and home have been the recurring themes of her three works of fiction, writes Janet Purcell at the start of her new book, “The Long Way Home.”
Purcell — known for her visual arts reporting for the Times of Trenton and her work in area galleries — and the book are part of the attractions of this year’s Princeton Public Library’s Local Author Book Day. That day — Saturday, October 24 — provides an occasion for the public to meet more than 30 regional writers, participate in workshops, and attend readings.
But for now Purcell is in her Hopewell home and talks about those same themes — the ones that connect a long road from her early days at home on Genesee Street in Trenton to regionally known artist, journalist, and fiction writer.
“My father had a day job, working at Eastern Aircraft and then other places (later as a lab assistant at the Plasma Physics Lab at Forrestal Center), but he was also a pen and ink artist,” she says on the screened back porch where she writes and reads. “He won the Best in Show award for one of his pieces at the New Jersey State Fair. It was always displayed at our house. He used to do his drawing, painting, and draft work at the kitchen table late at night, and I would sit and watch him. That’s how it started.”
Purcell then shows her father, William Knock’s, circa 1930 ink drawing of a couple and a child framed by tall city buildings. She points to the pained expression of the child and says it reflects an early part of her parents’ relationship: her mother, Lois, called off the engagement while her father was creating the work. When the relationship resumed, the pain remained in the art.
Purcell says her mother — who ran a children’s apparel shop called Tiny Towne — also had an artistic bent. “She sewed and made costumes for the Trenton High sports night. She did some painting. She was not very good at it, but she liked to do it.” Art also brought her parents together: her father first spotted her mother while she was working at her father’s Trenton music store on South Broad Street.
The future artist and writer says that when she graduated from Trenton Central High School she had no thought of a life in art. “I trained as a legal secretary and right after high school went to work in Trenton for some well known attorneys. My mother always said, ‘Learn shorthand and typing and you’ll always be in demand.’ Both play in my life as a journalist. I’m so glad I took shorthand and kept it up,” she says, seemingly bemused by the twists of fate.
Another twist involves a “boy next door.” “My sister, who got married and moved to Hopewell, said I had to come up and meet her next door neighbor,” Johnny Piggott, who came from an old family in town and eventually served as the associate director of what was then the Princeton University Computer Center.
While the couple settled in Hopewell, Purcell says she continued to work in Trenton, then at RCA in Princeton, where she worked with attorneys and foreign patents until she had the first of her three children.
Then in 1969 something unplanned happened. Her husband exhibited symptoms of the disease that would end his life 20 years later: multiple sclerosis. “He had to retire on disability, and that’s when it became a fulltime job here,” she says looking about the house where she has lived for decades.
“During the time I was raising the children and taking care of him, I ran my own secretarial service from home, and I would have several clients and go and take dictation and come home and type it up. I met some interesting people doing this.”
She also encountered something from the past. “My mother bought me oil paints one year for Christmas, and I started playing with art. I was busy raising kids, but at home I did some paintings and drawings. Then I went to the Princeton Art Association and studied with Elizabeth Ruggles and others. But I stayed with Liz until she died two years ago. She was tough. Sometimes I’d come home and was crying, but I began to realize that I was learning. A week before she died I was still taking my paintings to her for critiques. She was in a nursing home.
“Painting really helped. I could lose myself in it. It was like I didn’t have to give up my whole life. I was developing. I wasn’t just on hold. I would set myself up at the kitchen table and, after the kids were in bed, do paintings. My husband was extremely supportive. My family and my painting became my life.” Her life, in turn, became part of the new novel, one that deals with an artist, an arts writer, and a character with MS.
“I remember taking a painting course with Barbara Osterman. She pointed out that ‘black holes’ showed up in my art. It seemed significant to her. She said I was working through the intense caretaking through my art. And she called my work moody.”
As evidence Purcell refers to two paintings that “will never leave this house.” One hangs in the front room: a large image of stem-less pearl-white rose against a dark sea of green. Purcell says she was surprised what she realized that she had created “Peace Rose” and how it connected her to her past. “My mother was so good at growing flowers. We had a tiny yard in Trenton, and there were 42 rose bushes in the yard. I love to paint roses.” The other, “Song of Myself,” can be seen from the porch. Named after the poem by Walt Whitman, it shows a large rose with three smaller ones grouped below. It was painted the year her husband died and captures her life: a widow with three children.
Art is connected to another moment in her life. “Right before my father died I had a little show at the Ewing library, and I had some of his art in it and took him to see it,” she says, with her art reviewer side surfacing and her reflecting aloud that she may had been too hasty to exhibit work that was not yet complete. “But,” she says, “you do these things and don’t think about doing it,” adding she was happy to have that experience with her father and glad that she kept developing and got accepted into exhibitions on the strength of her work.
The next chapter of Purcell’s life started when her daughter — who knew her mother was a lover of historical novels — reminded her that she had said that she wanted to write. “She said go take a class at Mercer County College. I thought about writing as a caretaker. So I signed up, but I got in the wrong class and ended up in a journalism class. I stayed and loved it. That’s how I got started.”
Then a newspaper career seemed to unfold on its own. “My son did something at his high school, and I took a photo to the Hopewell Valley News. When I was there I said, ‘If you have anything to write, I’d be happy to do it.’ (Editor) Ruth Luse said she wanted an article written about an artist and gave it me. I worked a couple of days on a manual typewriter and got paid $15. I was thrilled. And I have never been without an assignment since the mid 1980s.”
It was also during that time that she made a name change. “My maiden name was Janet Knock. Purcell was my mother’s maiden name. When my husband was living I took his last name and Purcell was my middle name. I was Janet Purcell Piggott. I just never liked the sound of the name Piggott and several years after he died I legally dropped it and became, by court order, Janet Purcell,” she says.
Although Purcell has contributed to Art Matters, DesignNJ, New York Post, and other publications, the core of her writing is for the Times of Trenton. It’s a relationship that began when she “sent a letter to the Trenton Times and asked if they needed someone to write. I got a call that said we need someone because our arts writer is ill. I’ve been doing a Friday deadline for 22 years. I’m up to 1,595.”
Purcell says her development as a fiction writer came from both her love of historic novels and a willingness to explore both technique and self. “I thought I couldn’t write fiction, but I started playing with it and found I enjoyed doing it. But it is revealing. You write about what you care about. You show up in one way or another, through what the characters are saying. I’m less afraid now (of being revealing). It’s one of the advantages of age: I’m more confident.”
Her approach to writing fiction is simple. Gesturing to a wicker settee and a coffee table topped with pads and books, she says, “I usually sit with a lap desk and legal pad and write by hand. Then I type it in at night and edit. I sculpt and create characters and situations. It’s free writing. Then I put it into the computer and edit.”
Purcell’s two novels, “Singer Lane” and “The Long Way Home,” are printed by the Sunpenny Publishing Company in Europe. “Rooster Street” is set for publication in spring, 2016, and a fourth is in the early stages of being written. “Three are definitely connected, in that they’re generally about Cape Cod. Some of the characters from the first book come into ‘The Long Way Home’ and some come in ‘Rooster Street.’ Then new characters are introduced, and some go. That’s the story of my life.”
It is an accurate assessment, exemplified by Purcell’s connection to Cape Cod through the re-introduction of an old character in her life. “My partner, Bob Cary, lives in Cape Cod. Bob and I went steady in high school for two years. We broke up after I got my driving license, and we went our separate ways. I was already 10 years a widow when I had a group of women over for a night and told them to bring junk food and a picture of their first boyfriends. I looked at mine. He was pretty cute, and I looked up on the internet and found him. He was in Cape Cod and divorced. We got together. Cape Cod was new to me, but he had lived there for so many years and took me around like a local. I got caught up with the magic of Cape Cod.”
Perhaps, but with the Princeton Library event, her weekly appearance in the Times of Trenton, and exhibition of her works at the Ewing Library, Purcell continues to stay close to home — where the unexpected can happen. “Almost everything has fallen into my lap,” she says “but you have to be out there and have the lap for it to fall into.”
Local Author Book Day, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, October 24, 1 to 4 p.m. Purcell reads at 3:40 p.m. Free. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.
Purcell also reads Saturday, November 14, 1 p.m. at the Hamilton Public Library, 1 Justice Samuel A Alito Jr. Way, Hamilton.
Paintings by Janet Purcell, Ewing Library, 61 Scotch Road, Ewing. Through Saturday, October 31, Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 12:30 to 5 p.m. 609-882-3148.