Interviews

Peter Carey, The Art of Fiction No. 188

Interviewed by Radhika Jones

When I arrived at Peter Carey’s apartment on a chilly March morning for the first of the two conversations that make up this interview, Carey took my coat and hung it up. When we met again ten days later, he gestured toward the closet and said, “You know where the hangers are.” He is a casual man, usually found in jeans and sneakers, and given to genial profanity. For much of our four hours of conversation he reclined in his chair, his feet up on the kitchen table. But if his posture was laid-back, his expression was lively, and he laughed frequently. When talk turned to his childhood in Australia, he hopped up to show me family photographs—of his grandfather, Robert Graham Carey, an aviator, posing in a monoplane in Adelaide in 1917; and of Carey Motors, the car dealership Carey’s parents ran in Ballarat, near the small town of Bacchus Marsh, where he was born in 1943. From a kitchen drawer Carey produced a fistful of comment slips from his boarding-school days, which he displayed with self-deprecatory glee. “Very hard-working,” wrote his house master at Geelong Grammar School, in 1960. “Very intense and serious-minded. He needs to have his leg pulled and learn to laugh at himself. It may be better to concentrate on the Pure Maths next term.” 

Carey has instead concentrated on fiction, with prodigious results. Since 1974 he has published two collections of stories, nine novels, a children’s book, and several short works of nonfiction, and he is one of only two novelists to have been awarded the Booker Prize twice: first for Oscar and Lucinda (1988), the story of two Victorian-era misfits for whom gambling becomes a bond of love; and then for True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)—which sold two million copies worldwide—a novel in the form of a letter from Australia’s outlaw-hero Ned Kelly, horse thief and bank robber, who was hanged at the age of twenty-six. In his recent novels Carey has explored the intersection of creativity and deception. My Life as a Fake (2003) was inspired by a notorious Australian poetry hoax. And in Theft: A Love Story, which was published this May, Carey intertwines the voices of an Australian painter, Michael “Butcher” Boone, and his mentally disabled brother, Hugh, as they navigate an international art world marked by forgery and fraud.

In 1990 Carey moved to New York, where he has lived since. For his last few novels, he has had drafts bound into what he calls “working notebooks.” The first one, made for The Kelly Gang, was “huge, heavy, and annoying to carry through the bush”; the more recent ones use lighter paper with wide margins for notes. The pages are rough (“I type so badly, it’s appalling,” he said), with passages highlighted to indicate where further research is necessary; the margins hold chapter plans and plot points, calendars and timelines, and occasionally pasted-in postcards—anything relevant to the story in progress. Though the notebooks speak to Carey's talent for weaving history and legend into his own richly invented worlds, they also illustrate his editorial rigor. “For a writer,” he says, “the greatest thing is to be able to pare away.”


INTERVIEWER

You were raised in small-town Australia—your parents ran an automobile dealership and sent you to Geelong Grammar, the country’s most prestigious prep school. What did they think when you told them you were a writer?

PETER CAREY

I didn’t tell them. I got a job in advertising. So even though I was writing,
I was always supporting myself. That’s the thing that would matter for my father, who was absolutely a creature of the Great Depression. He would worry every time I got a raise. He’d think, Well, Peter can’t be worth all that money, he’ll be the first to be fired. When I finally began to publish, my father never read my work. He’d say, Oh, that’s your mother’s sort of thing. But my mother found the books rather upsetting. I figure she read just enough to know that she didn’t want to go there. I don’t think my brother read my books, but he may have started recently. My sister was the only one who read me. 

None of it had to do with disapproval. My mother and father were very proud of my success. Mind you, by the time I won the Booker Prize my mother’s mind had started to wander a little. I’d gone to London, and I called her and said, Mum, you remember that prize? Oh yes, dear, she said. I said, I’ve won it! Oh, that’s good, dear. There were some people here from your work. I said, What work? I don’t know, she said—they had cameras. 

A tabloid television crew had arrived at her doorstep. It was some crappy TV show. They said to her, Mrs. CAREY, you must be really pleased! Oh yes, she said, Peter always was special. They said, Did he ring you? And my mother said, Ring me? Why would he ring me? He never rings me.

INTERVIEWER

They sound like regular parents. How did they come to send you to this fancy boarding school?

CAREY

My father left school at the age of fourteen, so this was a man with no deep experience of formal education. My mother was the daughter of a poor schoolteacher—well, that’s a tautology—a country schoolteacher. I think she might have gone one year to a sort of posh school, but she would have been noticeably not well off. So you have to imagine these two people, my parents, in this little town, working obsessively hard in this small-time car business. The local high school was not particularly distinguished—I think it stopped at a certain level—and my mother was a working mother. Geelong Grammar? Because it was the best. It cost six hundred pounds a year in 1954, which was an unbelievable amount of money—and they really weren’t that well off—and they did it. So I think she thought they were doing the very best thing they could do. I suppose it did solve a few child-care problems. I never felt I was being exiled or sent away, but I was only eleven years old. No one could have guessed that the experience would finally produce an endless string of orphan characters in my books. 

INTERVIEWER

Is that where they come from—your boarding-school experience?

CAREY

Well, it took me ages to figure that out. I thought the orphans were there because it’s just easier—you don’t have to invent a complicated family history. But I think in retrospect that it’s not a failure of imagination. I’m writing a book now about an orphan. But it’s also the story of Australia, which is a country of orphans. I have the good fortune that my own personal trauma matches my country’s great historical trauma. Our first fleet was cast out from “home.” Nobody really wanted to be there. Convicts, soldiers were all going to starve or survive together. Later, the state created orphans among the aboriginal population through racial policies, stealing indigenous kids from their communities and trying to breed out their blackness. Then there were all these kids sent from England to Dr. Barnardo’s Homes, which were institutions for homeless and destitute children, some of them run in the most abusive, horrible circumstances. There was one near us in Bacchus Marsh called Northcote Farm. This continued until almost 1970. 

INTERVIEWER

Was that experience—of being sent off to school, of being orphaned in that way—what made you think of becoming a writer? 

CAREY

Good God, no. I thought I would be an organic chemist. I went off to university, and when I couldn’t understand the chemistry lectures I decided that I would be a zoologist, because zoologists seemed like life-loving people. They looked at art, they read poetry. But I was faking my physics experiments, which is very exhausting. You’d think it’s easy enough to start with the answer and work backwards, but my experimental method was terrible. Then I fell in love and everything went to hell. Then I had a very bad car accident, which I thought was a gift from God—because it was just before final exams. I remember waking up in the wreck, my scalp peeled back, blood pouring down my face, and thinking, Fantastic, I’ve got an excuse to fail. 

INTERVIEWER

What happened?

CAREY

The bastards gave me supplementary examinations. So there was no escape. But I failed all of those as well, and then I had to get a job. I finally found a job at an advertising agency. It was a strange agency, as it turns out—full of writers and artists and run by a former member of the Communist Party. It sounds ridiculous, but I worked at three different agencies all run by former Communists. If you think about it, it’s not so strange. It was Australia, not the U.S. It was after the war, and they were young intellectuals of the left. In my first job I worked alongside a man named Barry Oakley, an English teacher in his thirties who had come into advertising to support his wife and six children. He was certainly startled to find himself where he was. But he was writing every day, and he ended up being the literary editor of an Australian newspaper and also a distinguished playwright and novelist. There were also some good painters. None of us were real copywriters. I don’t think I got a single piece of copy accepted all the time I worked there. We used to write copy all day, but then our boss would come down from meetings and put on his cardigan, which was a sign that he was going to be creative, and he would rewrite everything we’d done. So Barry and I were a little hysterical because we couldn’t imagine why we were not being fired.

INTERVIEWER

What did you get out of the experience?

CAREY

I was put into an environment where people were writing and talking about books. Geelong Grammar was known as a “good school,” but this reputation turned out to be more about class than anything else. My education really began at this little advertising agency. I started to read. I read all sorts of things in a great huge rush. James Joyce and Graham Greene and Jack Kerouac and William Faulkner, week after week. No nineteenth-century authors at all. No Australian authors, because I thought they were worthless, of course—that’s good colonial self-hatred. I read haphazardly but with great passion. I would sit there earnestly annotating Pound’s Cantos, for instance, almost building a wall between myself and the possibility of reading them. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you make the shift from reading voraciously to thinking that you could do this yourself?

CAREY

If you don’t know anything, you don’t know how difficult it is. I looked at Barry and the others tapping away and thought, If they can do it, I can do it. Also, all of my friends were still at university. They weren’t exactly Marxists, but they did have a good old-style repugnance for trade, advertising in particular. So my choice of employment was subjected to some intensely moral weather. I would go to parties and people would ask what I was doing and I would say, I work in advertising, but I am also writing a novel. There was a redemptive aspect to it. I went to work in 1962, and by ’64 I was writing all the time, every night and every weekend. It didn’t occur to me that, having read nothing and knowing nothing, I was in no position to write a book. I wish I could say I was the last person to suffer from this misunderstanding.

INTERVIEWER

Were you starting to publish your work?

CAREY

Not right away. I wrote a novel between ’64 and ’65. The next year I wrote another novel. Then I wrote a story that got published around that time. I was married for the first time, very young, at twenty-one. We traveled to a few places and then went to London and stayed there and worked, and I wrote another novel in London. I had small successes with all of those books. A portion of my first novel was published in an anthology. The second novel was accepted by Geoffrey Dutton, who had a publishing house, Sun Books, in Australia. He wrote me a letter saying, This is fantastic, we love the character, we’d love to publish it. Imagine, I was twenty-four years old. I was about to leave Australia for the first time, so on my passport application, in the space where they ask your profession, I wrote author. Then I went to a meeting in Melbourne with Dutton and his partner. The partner spent all of the meeting looking for a spelling mistake he’d discovered on page three or four. And I slowly realized that they weren’t going to publish it. They told me that the English publisher André Deutsch was in Australia looking for Australian novels, and that they’d given my novel to him. 

I went to Europe, traveled for three months, arrived in London, found out where André Deutsch’s offices were, presented myself at reception. Can I see Mr. Deutsch, please—he brought my manuscript back from Australia, I believe. The receptionist said, Wait a second. She came back in fifteen minutes and gave me my manuscript and said, Thank you very much. 

INTERVIEWER

That was the end of that novel? 

CAREY

Yes, but I was already writing something else. When I reread the novel André Deutsch didn’t like, I didn’t like it either. I went on to finish the new novel in London, a wildly difficult, odd book about a bureaucratic investigation into a man’s life. It was rather loveless—like dragging your tongue over a gray blanket—with reproductions of sixty-five newspaper photographs of car accidents, people in hoods, notes on cornflakes packets, mad graffiti beside Melbourne railway lines. I was a little crazy. I was about twenty-five. I saw Fellini’s 8 1/2 and was convinced that I was the only person in the whole cinema who understood it and that my book was sort of like that. No one would ever publish it because it was so good. 

I finally decided that the only person who would really understand it was Kenneth Tynan. I don’t know why I thought this. Tynan was staging Oh! Calcutta! in London, and he would understand my book. So I sent it to him and went back to Australia. Of course I didn’t know Tynan and I now think him a very peculiar choice but the idea of him kept me going for a while. By the time I realized he was never going to write to me, I no longer needed him. But I was so exhausted—I had been writing all of these novels with such high hopes. Each one, by the time I had finished it, I knew what was wrong with it. I knew there was something mistaken, misshapen, wrong in their DNA.

INTERVIEWER

Did you think about giving up?

CAREY

No, I got a job with another Melbourne Communist’s ad agency and started to write short stories. I wrote one story one week, and the next week I wrote another one, and then two weeks later I wrote one more. I didn’t really understand that something had changed, but something had. I was finally a writer.

INTERVIEWER

What was it that was clicking?

CAREY

Age, experience, a simpler form, practice, reading, influence, getting beyond influence. Somewhere along the way I read Borges, who taught me, at the very least, that it might be possible to reinvent the world in just a few pages. Until then I’d imagined that the only really serious form was the novel, but when I returned to Australia I began to write a whole lot of what-if stories. 

INTERVIEWER

What was appealing about that for you?

CAREY

I had been trying to build grand palaces, and now I was building little sheds and huts. If they fell down and rotted it didn’t matter. In the end I had a collection of them published in Australia. It was praised, so then immediately—a totally Pavlovian response—I wrote another book of short stories. Later, the best of them went into one book in Britain and the U.S. That felt a lot better than being rejected. At the start my agent told me that it would be easier to sell the stories if I said I was writing a novel. So I said, Sure. But of course I just wanted to sell the stories. I had no intention of writing a novel. 

INTERVIEWER

It wasn’t at all tempting to say, Yes, I have three novels?

CAREY

They were no good to start with, and they hadn’t gotten any better. But the point is, my lie came true. When I said I’d write a novel, I had no intention of doing so. Then I started to worry about it, and I thought about this failed short story about this complacent bourgeois who thinks he’s died and gone to hell and hasn’t. I started to write it as a novel, Bliss, and that was published and was, in its own small way, successful. 

INTERVIEWER

Have you written any short stories since?

CAREY

No. Bill Buford came to New York in 1995 to be fiction editor of The New Yorker. He had published me before, and he felt that something new had to happen with the short stories in The New Yorker. So we had lunch at Da Silvano and he offered me a shitpile of money to write a short story for The New Yorker, a commission. I couldn’t do it. I did a little memoir piece instead. It was at that lunch, with all that money on the table, that I realized I had no interest in doing short fiction anymore. I had become addicted to the dangers and pleasures of the novel. A novel is a lot more fun. It’s so much more interesting. You go so far beyond what you know and what you think. 

INTERVIEWER

Now that you’ve published nine novels, do you have a routine? How do you start writing every day? 

CAREY

It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff. This is especially true of the first draft. Every day you’re making up the earth you’re going to stand on. Normally I know what I want to achieve in a chapter, and I have an idea about where events should take place and I’ll have some rough idea of the characters involved. But I might not have fully invented the place. And I certainly won’t fully know the characters. So in the first draft, I’m inventing people and place with a broad schematic idea of what’s going to happen. In the process, of course, I discover all sorts of bigger and more substantial things. Within those successive drafts, my characters keep on doing the same things over and over; it’s like some hellish repetition of events. But the reasons they do them gradually become more complex and layered and deeply rooted in the characters. Every day’s a miracle: Wow, I did that, I didn’t know any of that yesterday. 

INTERVIEWER

So you’re discovering your characters as you go?

CAREY

Always. The big question for me is, What sort of person would do that thing—not just because it suits a story or suits something symbolically, but who would really, really do that? When I continue to ask myself that question and I don’t take the easy answer, complicated characters are born. There’s a scene near the beginning of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith where I wanted one of the characters, Wally, to jump off a very high platform onto the stage, right in the middle of a performance. I couldn’t even rationally explain to myself why I wanted him to do it, but I did. So I wrote it and wrote it and wrote it until it worked. There’s some stubbornness and some belief in the action, and that’s what the characters are born from.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise as you go?

CAREY

I can’t leave a chapter alone until I think it’s as good as I can make it at that time. Often I will reach a stage, say, a third of the way into the book, where I realize there’s something very wrong. Everything starts to feel shallow and false and unsatisfactory. At that stage I’ll go back to the beginning. I might have written only fifty pages, but it’s like a cantilever and the whole thing is getting very shaky because I haven’t thought things through properly. So I’ll start again and I’ll write all the way through and then just keep going until it starts to get shaky again, and then I’ll go back because I’ll know that there’s something really considerable, something deeply necessary waiting to be discovered or made. Often these are unbelievably big things. Sometimes they are things that readers will ultimately think the book is about.

For example, in Illywhacker I wanted to tell the story of a family over three generations, its descent from naïve nationalism—Australian nationalism, which is so much more fragile than, say, German nationalism—to a sort of mercantile opportunism. The first generation was this character Herbert Badgery, and in the original plan he was going to die off or recede from the story. But I loved him so much that after I had written the first section I didn’t want to let go of him. I remember I had bronchitis at the time, I was sitting in a doctor’s office in Sydney with a notebook, and I said, Oh I know what I’m going to do, he’s going to be there all the time and he’s going to be a liar. And I wrote in the doctor’s office, “My name is Herbert Badgery. I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity” . . . dah dah dah dah dah. I realized, This is my book. But I had been working for a year before I got to that point. 

A lying first-person narrator allowed me to use the immediacy of first person, but also the third person, because he’s a liar—he will tell you everything. He didn’t have to be there. There’s a great thing to be had from the energy of first person. There’s also something precious about third person, that godlike view and the wisdom that comes from it. With Badgery, I could have them both.

INTERVIEWER

Do you prepare for a book before you begin writing it—or do you just plunge in?

CAREY

I recently found a photograph that was taken in the seventies when I was working on some failed movie script that gives an idea of what I do. In the picture I’m using index cards and dividing up chapters and asking myself, What will happen in that chapter? I’ll often look at those chapters as little boxes or rooms, and I’ll start to ask myself what happens within each room. But I’ll also be faking it by making notes and just wandering off into sentences to see where I end up.

INTERVIEWER

Is that how it tends to go for you with a novel? You don’t know where you’re going to end up?

CAREY

It wasn’t always like that. I used to begin with an image—a strong, symbolic picture—and then ask myself, What do you have to do to arrive at this point? It’s like one of those houses of cards where everything underneath has to hold up the top two cards. In the case of Illywhacker, I knew that the family was going to end up as pets in their own pet shop. The pet shop seemed to me pretty much what Australia had become, for all its blustering. With Oscar and Lucinda it started with the image of the glass church floating down the river, which is the end. And I knew from the very beginning that Oscar was going to drown. Readers used to say to me, How could you do that to him? They’d say, I threw the book across the room! Well, if I’d known who Oscar was I couldn’t have done it to him. But at the beginning, when I was deciding his fate, I didn’t know who he was. At that stage I’m like a bomber pilot, causing pain a long way beneath me because I’m dealing with something abstract.

INTERVIEWER

If there’s no strong visual image, where do you begin?  

CAREY

Recently I’ve been inhabiting voices. When I got to True History of the Kelly Gang, I let myself do something that goes back to the beginning of my reading. I was nineteen and just discovering literature. I was reading Joyce, and at the same time I read the Jerilderie Letter, a letter written by Ned Kelly in a town where he was robbing a bank. It’s a very Irish voice. I know it’s not Joyce, but it does suggest even to a nineteen-year-old the possibility of creating a poetic voice that grows out of Australian soil, that is true to its place and hasn’t existed before. I had that in my mind from very, very early. It was astonishing to me that I could finally do it. In the next book, My Life as a Fake, I found myself doing something similar. At the time it never occurred to me that there was any similarity, but it was a continuation of the same practice, a book about voices telling stories. 

In Theft, Butcher’s voice is a very Australian voice—full of high and low, very profane but also grappling with quite substantial intellectual and artistic issues. What you have with Butcher is a lot of resentment, a lot of rage, a quality that the English would call chippy. I liked that. Here is an artist talking like a plumber, but he’s discussing Clement Greenberg, or even his own art. That results in a particular language mix that gives you the ability to produce interesting sentences. I thought, This really is how we talk. This is so common. And yet I’d never read sentences like these in Australian literature. But I also realized that Butcher is quite well armored. He’s not going to tell you a whole lot of things. So I wanted another view, another angle. That’s where Hugh, his brother, comes from. As it developed I saw that Hugh’s voice was going to be one of the really strong cables that runs through the book. 

The book I’m writing now also has a particular voice. It’s the voice of an American man recalling himself as a runaway child in Australia in the early seventies. He’s put in situations and in a landscape that he doesn’t understand at all. That produces very particular sorts of sentences. The actual narrator is thirty or forty and knows Australia very well, but he’s imagining himself as an eight-year-old American. The reader won’t have to think about that at all, but I do, and it guides me and gives me the limitations to create—I hope—a pleasurable and interesting verbal texture. I think True History of the Kelly Gang liberated that sense of possibility, that ability to disrupt and tear sentences. It’s very pleasant.

INTERVIEWER

Do you do that kind of work with editors too—disrupting and tearing sentences?

CAREY

For many books my primary editor was Robert McCrum at Faber and Faber. Robert was not at all interested in sentences, and he was very good with the big issues. When I was writing Illywhacker and I had written two of the sections and was halfway through the third, and I was in a panic because I thought no one would publish such a long book, he asked me three questions. I can’t even remember what they were—only that the answers allowed me to go back to work and finish the book. That’s the sort of editor he was, gutsy and courageous. And he was very reckless as a publisher. So I felt comfortable with him. But Robert had a stroke and after that we really didn’t work together. 

Then Sonny Mehta became my editor, and Gary Fisketjon. Sonny and Gary have taken turns with the recent books. With Sonny, you sit down and talk at lunch, and you make notes. He is not particularly interested in the sentences either. Sonny is a fabulously good reader and I love sitting down with him. It all happens very quietly and subtly. He is a great publisher in the grand tradition. There are not so many left.

Gary rolls up his shirtsleeves and gets right in there. When I was doing The Kelly Gang, he was the person I wanted to work with. Being a writer is like being an individual proprietor or a taxi driver: You don’t like the way I do things, get out of my shop. But Gary interrogates every sentence. Every page comes back covered with green ink. As a younger man I could not have borne it, but I’m older and finally understand that it’s there to help me. I’d sit there and the pages would come in and I would respond to them—Yes, No, Yes, No, No, Yes. If anything was worth stealing I would steal it. If there was something I didn’t like I wouldn’t do it. Gary was passionately detailed. He was always worrying about what was the rule for this and when did you do that. I remember being on holiday in Provence and he was on the phone in the middle of the night talking for four hours about fucking ampersands. He was obsessed about the jacket design, he was obsessed with the selling and is very close to many booksellers. I was blessed.

INTERVIEWER

These days you run a graduate writing program at Hunter College. But the way you became a writer was completely informal, right? You had no training.

CAREY

In one way that’s true, but it would be too smug to go along with it uncritically. Yes, we tend to be self-taught, and there’s a part of me that thinks that’s the way it should be—you do it alone, you learn to endure loneliness. I never said, I think I’ll just workshop this with twelve other people. But I did have help. I mentioned Barry Oakley, who’d been a schoolteacher. He encouraged me, he gave me books. He read my writing and infuriated me by telling me it didn’t work. I somehow managed to cast him in the role of an old conservative father to my young radical. But when I wrote my first successful stories, he was the one who said, They’re good. By then I couldn’t bear to be rejected by anyone. Barry gave stories to this person and that person, and with his help they found their way into magazines. It wasn’t an MFA program, but it was hugely helpful. If that had not happened I wouldn’t have been a writer. 

INTERVIEWER

When do you write?

CAREY

Mostly in the mornings. Nonfiction writers tend not to understand this; they can write for eighteen hours straight, it seems. At the very end of a book I can manage to work for longer stretches, but mostly, making stuff up for three hours, that’s enough. I can’t do any more. At the end of the day I might tinker with my morning’s work and maybe write some again. But I think three hours is fine. There are writers who go to the gym when they finish working, and there are writers who go to lunch. I’m enthusiastic about lunch. Three hours, then lunch. Now I have the Hunter program to keep me out of pool halls in the afternoon. 

No one is particularly interested that I teach, but advertising was a different matter. You win the Booker Prize, the papers say “Ad-man Wins Booker Prize.” It used to drive me nuts. But the wonderful thing about advertising—which I became quite good at and ended up doing for about twenty years—was that it provided this situation where I could be employed two afternoons a week or one week a month, so it was like having a fantastic patron or a great scholarship. From 1976 onward I never worked full time. That meant that every day I could write. 

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned that you never read any Victorian novels, but your 1997 novel, Jack Maggs, takes Great Expectations and turns it on its head. How did that come about?

CAREY

When my country began the European phase of its history there had already been some fifty thousand years of aboriginal settlement. Then this penal colony arrives and marks the beginning of what is called Australia. This was the traumatic moment of the nation’s birth, and the moment of its birth affects it forever. We grew up denying it, of course. Certainly it never occurred to us that the land was stolen, or that we had anything to do with the agony of the transported convicts. When we imagined who we were, we somehow imagined ourselves on the soldier’s end of the whip. I wanted to write about this false consciousness for a long, long time, but I was not at all engaged with the idea of writing about a penal colony. Still, it was in my head. 

INTERVIEWER

What released it?

CAREY

I recall very well. I was writing The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. I had two kids and was at one of those resorts in Jamaica where theoretically the children go off and play happily and the parents read. Most of them seem to read John Grisham novels. I took Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said. I removed its dust jacket, because it seemed tasteless. You’ve got all of these not particularly wealthy Jamaicans around—and Jamaicans are continually suffering from imperialism and colonialism and are actively aware of it—so you do feel like a terrible hypocrite sitting there reading Culture and Imperialism by the swimming pool. 

When people in America write about colonialism, it often becomes about color. It may not be immediately apparent that Australia was blighted in a similar way. But Said got it very well. Said was writing about Magwitch, the convict from Great Expectations, who is a classic Australian figure. There he is, transported to Australia, a free man after serving his seven-year sentence. He is an Englishman, but only as long as he doesn’t go to England. But he is so fucked by it all that he’d rather risk his life to go back to England and sit at the feet of his invented gentleman child and have cakes and ale. I thought, Oh, that’s so good. 

Up until that stage of my life I hadn’t read much Dickens. I’d always had trouble with the saccharine little girls—in Bleak House, for instance. Much easier to watch on television for me. But after reading Said I thought, I better read Dickens. I was astonished that I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers. I found in Great Expectations a perfect book, and not a lot of saccharine little girls either. Then I started to read about Dickens. That’s how I got to Jack Maggs

People talk about historical fiction, but for me, in Australia, Jack Maggs addresses contemporary life. It was published at a time when Australians were still squabbling among themselves about whether Australia was going to be a republic. The issues of Jack Maggs are being played out in this argument about the republic and whether they are going to go and sit by the fire with the Queen of England having cakes and ale or whether they are going to understand their situation. To label it historical fiction is to risk misunderstanding its context.

INTERVIEWER

How did you manage the historical setting?

CAREY

Well, I’m a bloody colonial, aren’t I? London is not my place and Britain is not my country. How was I going to have the authority to invent London in 1837? First I had to know something that’s different from what anybody ever thought about the period. I couldn’t steal from literature even if I wanted to—for the most part metropolitan literature takes the place for granted. So I spent a lot of time reading about people visiting London from abroad. They’re going to see things that would not occur to the Englishman. There was a German visitor to London, for instance, who spends all this time describing this weird English breakfast that turns out to be toast. That was terrific—the familiar defamiliarized. I was trying to imagine—what was it really like? We generally think of London in that period as gloomy and sooty and filthy, but in the New York Public Library I found an account by an American visitor who described London as ablaze with light. That’s not how anyone thinks of that period, but if you came from Australia or America at that time it was bright. I thought, that’s it—this story will start at night, and it will be blazing bright. That’s the first way in which I can colonize London for myself, take imaginative possession of the territory.

INTERVIEWER

So the research gives you a way in?

CAREY

Permission. And a sense of authority. It’s important. I am writing that book for Australians, but I’m going to have well-educated British readers as well. Not long after Jack Maggs was published I met Anthony Minghella, the director, and he said, I saw it just like you wrote it. Of course he saw so much more than I imagined, but I had provided him with a sort of a matrix where he could plug in all of his knowledge and experience and it would illuminate the book for him. 

INTERVIEWER

You said you were writing for Australian readers. Are they the first readers who come to mind when you are working?

CAREY

Yes. They have to be. Though in the case of Jack Maggs I was thinking about English readers as well, of course, and I liked the idea that I was messing with Dickens. In the case of The Kelly Gang, I was absolutely writing a story for Australians. But living in New York reminded me that people didn’t know the story, so I couldn’t assume anything, and that made the story better. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel pressure to go back to Australia?

CAREY

From myself, but it’s a confused sort of pressure. Australia is a nation of castoffs—we were sent to the place of punishment, like people sent to Mars. There is a great self-hatred and doubt that runs through Australian culture. If I had this conversation tomorrow with an Australian journalist, the journalist would say, Do you think we really are still like that? And I would say, We want that self-doubting colonial period to be over, but things don’t go away that quickly. So when one leaves, the unsaid accusation is that you’re going somewhere else because Australia is not good enough for you. But that has nothing to do with why I came to live in the States. It was strictly to do with a personal relationship. My friends made excuses for me, saying, Well, Pete, I suppose it will help you see us better if you are away.

INTERVIEWER

But isn’t that true?

CAREY

Sure, but I thought that was a cop-out. I said, I’m just going, it is not for anything. Of course, there is a specially reserved position in Australian culture for the expatriate. The prime expatriates—people like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes—belong to an earlier generation than mine. When these people return to Australia, they are asked, What do you think of us? How are we doing? The expatriate is occasionally lauded and occasionally fiercely criticized for daring to come back and judge. I try to stay away from that as much as humanly possible. I don’t feel at all like an expatriate. I can read the Sydney Morning Herald in a second, and I often did, before it developed its current tabloid sensibility. I have e-mail, I talk to my friends, everybody travels. It’s not like we’re weeping as the ship leaves the wharf and we’re never going to see our home again. Though when my first wife and I left in ’68, it was a little like that. But we were the first generation to take the plane. 

INTERVIEWER

Critics have sometimes described your characters as failures, but they strike me as risk-takers and mavericks. 

CAREY

The people we call battlers, Americans call losers. It’s an honorable position, to be a battler. Who are you thinking of? Butcher? What a loser, right?

INTERVIEWER

Also Herbert Badgery in Illywhacker. And Lucinda. She runs a glassworks in Victorian Sydney—that goes against the grain.

CAREY

They’re both mavericks, I guess.

INTERVIEWER

Ned Kelly.

CAREY

He’s our great hero, of course. But it’s worth considering the nature of our heroes. You have Ned Kelly, who was hanged for shooting and killing policemen. Burke and Wills, the explorers who got lost and died. Phar Lap, who was really a New Zealand horse but we think of him as Australian, came to this country and was nobbled and died. Gallipoli, our great national story, is completely about loss—a military adventure devised by Winston Churchill that was totally misconceived and tragic, and is still celebrated today. These are all about loss. Landscape forms character, of course, and ours is a killer. In America the narrative is, Go west. You might eat a few people on the way, but basically it will be wealth and success. We just get lost and we die.

INTERVIEWER

You go into the bush and then—

CAREY

You’re fucked. It’s a hostile place, with droughts and fires. There’s no frontier that triumphs over space in Australia. Also we have a big Irish component, a folkloric culture, about being robbed, tortured, and oppressed. And then we have the convict narrative, which is certainly about loss. And under all of this lies the knowledge that the land we love is also stolen. The horror of the destruction of aboriginal society is there every day. In Australian stories we trust loss and we are very suspicious of success. We have an affection for outcasts and oddballs. My stories and novels tend to fit into that tradition. We don’t have many love stories either. There’s a film called Angel Baby made by Michael Rymer, a love story between a boy who is schizophrenic and a girl who is not yet diagnosed—that’s a love found only in Australia. 

INTERVIEWER

“A Love Story” is Theft ’s subtitle.

CAREY

Well, I’m always trying to do something new.

INTERVIEWER

The brothers, Butcher and Hugh, are from your home town of Bacchus Marsh.

CAREY

Yes. And then they go to Bellingen in northern New South Wales, where I also lived. But I’d warn against reading it in any autobiographical way. Think of it like Robert Rauschenberg picking up a sock from the floor and using it in a painting. It’s still a sock, but it’s no longer a sock. When I write I look at what’s lying on the floor of my life. So I can pick up that river and that land and rip them up and glue them down to serve a whole new purpose. None of my other books was driven by such a personal and powerful memory of place. I left Bacchus Marsh when I was eleven, and it’s been twenty years since I lived in Bellingen—I was astonished by how clearly I could see lost places.

INTERVIEWER

You spent some time living in an alternative community in Australia in the late seventies. Would you tell me about that?

CAREY

Like many things in my life, I didn’t really mean to do it. I was living with a woman who inherited a little money, and she saw a photograph of this picturesque hut in a health-food shop window in Sydney, and I went up with her to look at it. She decided she wanted to go there, and I went with her. It was really wonderful. I suddenly found myself in a different physical environment, learning how to do all sorts of things. It was very tropical. We didn’t have a telephone; at first we didn’t even have any water. I spent a while trying to be a carpenter, fixing the leak on the roof and collecting water from it. People came up to see us and went back disgusted because there were flies crawling over every surface. One moment I was in Sydney, working in an advertising agency trying to write mornings and nights, using credit cards and drinking nice wine, and the next I am living in this very shaky hippie hut with policemen coming around threatening to plant dope on me if I didn’t tell them my name and date of birth. Hanging out with people who saw wood nymphs wearing hats and neat little boots. Arguing about, when you did a collective om, which way the energy flowed from person to person around the circle. Though that makes them sound silly, which they weren’t. They were all sorts of interesting people and we were living in paradise. Most of my friends lived on unemployment benefits. But once a month I would sneak out of the valley and fly down to Sydney and work in the advertising agency for five days. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you able to write while you were there? 

CAREY

Yes. I wrote a book of short stories there, and I wrote Bliss there. 

INTERVIEWER

You adapted Bliss for film, and you wrote a screenplay with Wim Wenders, Until the End of the World. How did that experience impact your fiction?

CAREY

My fiction is now far more informed by an understanding of dramatic art. When I adapted Bliss I was ridiculously complacent and stupid, but the film looks great and the actors were really extraordinary. After that, Wim Wenders approached me about working on Until the End of the World. We had lunch and he told me this long complicated story of what he wanted the film to be. I thought, This is great, it’ll be like there’s this weird beast and I’m going to invent its lungs and kidneys and skeletal structure and where it eats and lives, and I’ll discover character. For various reasons it did not work out like that at all. Soon afterward, when I was writing Tristan Smith, which is set in the theater, I began to think more about how you make a scene work through action. You start to conceive of dialogue as the disturbance on the surface that occurs as the result of tectonic shifts beneath.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been publishing regularly for more than thirty years. Do you read reviews of your work?

CAREY

Yes and no. There is no good reason to read a review except vanity and insecurity. I never learned anything from a review. But one wants to be liked, of course. In an ideal world I have someone else read them first. When people say, You are better off not to read this, it is easy for me not to read it.

INTERVIEWER

Is it strange to hear your work described as falling into a particular framework, like postcolonial or postmodern, or is that irrelevant?

CAREY

There are writers whom I think I belong with, if one is talking about postcolonialism. I think of Salman Rushdie and Derek Walcott and most writers from the former British empire. I’m at home with them. We have huge amounts in common; we are dealing with astonishingly similar sorts of shit in different ways. On the other hand, I also think of English writers as my peers and friends. Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis—I’d say that we are all engaged in the same sort of business, though I’m not an English writer. I’m in a relatively peripheral spot. We Australian writers occupy some weird little place. 

INTERVIEWER

When Patrick White won the Nobel Prize in 1973, did that have an effect on you at all? 

CAREY

I think I had a much bigger response to Thomas Keneally’s winning the Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark in 1982. I remember that very clearly, and I remember being terrifically happy. It never occurred to me that I might be in that position at all, although that must have been when I was writing Illywhacker, which did get short-listed. I took it for granted that Patrick White was known internationally to be a great writer. I never would have imagined that in 2006 I could walk around bookstores in New York and be unable to find a copy of his work. 

INTERVIEWER

What is your reception like in Australia? Is it different than elsewhere?

CAREY

I think there are things about the new book that Australians will get a greater degree of pleasure from than people in other countries—recognition of certain places and characters. Language, too. On the other hand, Australians are more likely to get angry or agitated in a way that puzzles readers in other countries. People there got upset about The Tax Inspector. They thought I didn’t like my country, because I said some things about Sydney being continually corrupt from its beginnings. It’s an edgy, unsettling sort of book. 

INTERVIEWER

Yes, you don’t have to be Australian to be unsettled by it, with its graphic descriptions of violence and incestuous abuse. Did you feel a moral imperative in taking on that kind of material?

CAREY

Well, yes. There had been a sadistic rape and murder in Sydney—really, really horrible. At the same time, my first son was born. I had the idea of putting these two things in magical opposition—the birth of a child, which is this powerful thing, and this rape. I wanted in my simplistic, sentimental heart for birth to triumph. The end of the book is the birth of the child, and there’s Benny Catchprice, the fucked-up little boy, who is intent on some weird rape. All of the time that I was writing the book—you asked about the moral imperative—I thought, it’s easy, he’s been abused. I didn’t really think about what a morass I was creating. If he had been abused, how had he been abused? Do you really want to think about that? Do you really want to see the mother finding the father sucking the little boy’s penis? Oh no. I really didn’t want to think about that, and it took me forever to write it. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. All the time I was thinking, Does the world need this book? What purpose does it serve? I was half sick with worrying. At that time I saw the movie The Silence of the Lambs. I was so disgusted. Did we really need to imagine this? For what reason? And I was writing The Tax Inspector, which is dark and disturbing. So the answer is yes. Yes. If you are going to break a taboo or imagine evil and put it on the earth you better have a good moral reason. You better hope that it is doing something that justifies its existence. 

INTERVIEWER

You talked earlier about meeting with Bill Buford in the nineties and writing a memoir piece for The New Yorker. It’s a painful piece, about your first wife’s abortion, and lost children. What makes you turn occasionally to nonfiction?

CAREY

I’d had that story in my head for twenty-five years. In retrospect I think I shouldn’t have written it. The thing I didn’t think about was that it would also be published in Australia, and my first wife had a life there and I couldn’t protect her privacy. She was terrifically generous about it, but I think I had presumed a right that I didn’t really have. That’s a sort of arrogance and self-involvement of writers that’s not very attractive. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the reaction to it here?

CAREY

When it appeared, I couldn’t walk five yards in my neighborhood without someone coming up to me and saying, God that must have been so painful to write. Well, the curious thing about it was that it was easy to write. It was easy to write because I didn’t need to make it up—it had been in my head all that time. I can think of things that were way more painful to write that I’ve made up. 

One of the things that happens to me—particularly when I do interviews in Australia—is that journalists find it hard to believe in fiction. They want to know what really happened. They’ll be looking at Ned Kelly—what’s the real story? My Life as a Fake—they want the historical story, the poetry hoax. They’ll want to look at what’s personal. In a funny way I am always pleased to have that memoir piece so that I can say, Look, I am not frightened—I should have been more frightened—but I am not frightened to write about myself. I do not need the cloak of fiction to write about myself. I am involved in something completely different. 

In fact, the two little books of mine that are considered memoir are not memoir at all. 30 Days in Sydney is called “a wildly distorted account.” The book about when I went with my son to Tokyo, Wrong About Japan, has an invented character in it. In the rest of the world this is clearly acknowledged on the cover, but in the U.S.—for reasons that still escape me—this important piece of information was not revealed. So I had to go around telling everybody about the made-up character. I was very anxious that my readers understood the contract I was making with them.

INTERVIEWER

Is there something that ties all your novels together in your mind? 

CAREY

There was a stage where I might have said, “the invention of my country,” but I think that as time goes on it’s a much looser bundle. Those things are for other people to see, not for me. It’s a little bit like being asked, Why do you walk the way you do? How do you walk? You don’t really know.

INTERVIEWER

For all your talk about stories of loss, I sense a great level of optimism in your works.

CAREY

Historically, I’m pessimistic. Is the world going to be better in five years? I don’t think so. Is it going to be better in twenty years? I don’t think so. So I am a pessimist. But my pessimism has an indecent amount of energy and humor in it. And my working life, which is a huge part of my life, has given me every reason to be ridiculously optimistic. I can believe that anything is possible and be proved right. One of the great privileges of being an artist in Australia is that you can do any damn thing you like. Of course, the period that I grew up in was really culturally impoverished, very insular, threatened. But you didn’t have the deadweight of history pushing your nose down into the soil. All of English literature was at once yours and not yours. You could do things for the first time, you could name things that hadn’t been named, at least in English.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned being addicted to the “dangers and pleasures” of writing a novel. What are they, exactly?

CAREY

The dangers are the risks you take in doing something that you don’t know how to do. It is very dangerous to presume to write a novel like My Life as a Fake, set predominantly in Malaysia—a place you’ve visited four or five times. How are you going to do that without being a colonial pig? How are you going to write a novel about a painter when you don’t know shit about painting? How are you going to write about the Kelly Gang—a group of horse thieves—when you are basically frightened of horses? And write it so that people who really know and love horses feel it? Even the novel I am writing now—and I am well into it—I still can’t be sure it’s going to work, and I certainly don’t know how it’s all going to come together and I don’t even know quite yet what it means, and that makes it dangerous to plow ahead every day. I like the sense of risk that ends up with me sitting in a cab coming in from Heathrow for the launch of Jack Maggs, thinking, What have I done? What sort of idiot is going to take on Dickens? Or taking the Ned Kelly story, which is my country’s big story, and messing with that and writing it in long breathless sentences with no punctuation other than an occasional period. All of those things are dangerous and thrilling, and I like that. 

The huge pleasures are discovering things that you didn’t know and creating characters who are not based on anybody you’ve ever seen. When I first set out to be a writer I had no real interest in character and certainly no aptitude or ability to create character. The pleasures of having created those characters are enormous. It’s a very privileged way to spend your mornings. When you realize that you’ve made some nice sentences—how thrilling is that? And then you get to go to lunch. 



Author photograph by Gilles Peress.