Guardian, Saturday January 19, 2008
A few years ago Peter Carey had a drink with his friend and fellow adopted New Yorker Patrick McGrath, the only other writer he “really talks to” about the practicalities of writing. Some time during the evening McGrath told Carey about an image he had of a man or woman standing on the edge of an airstrip, and how he knew it was the start of a novel but didn’t quite know how to proceed.
“That notion of starting work on a novel from an image played on my mind,” recalls Carey, “and soon enough I had my own picture of a woman and a child walking along this particular road in Queensland with a storm on the way and cars driving past. At that stage I thought of them as a hippy mother and her little boy hitching from here to there. But I didn’t really know much more than that and although I tried to work it out, I ended up getting in a bit of a tangle about what to do with them.”
A few months later Carey met McGrath again and told him about the difficulties he was having with his image of the woman and boy. He asked how McGrath had dealt with his airstrip. “‘Oh that,’ he said, ‘I dropped that pretty quickly. It was going nowhere.’ So, thanks for that, Patrick!”
But the idea did bear fruit and Carey’s new novel, His Illegal Self, published next month, includes a young woman and a boy in rural early 70s Queensland. They are no longer mother and son and are in Australia having absconded from the upper-class revolutionary end of the American counter culture. Another starting point for the book was Carey’s memories of his own time in a Queensland commune – “much hippier and less political than the one in the book” – when it turned out that someone who lived with them was on the run from the FBI for conspiracy to import cocaine. “All the things that happened around that were actually quite comic – driving around with bags of coins trying to call a lawyer in Texas and so on – but it was also pretty scary and it stuck in my mind.”
Carey has lived in New York for almost 20 years. But long before his move some of his earliest fiction reflected on the relationship between Australia and America with the 1974 story “American Dreams” featuring American tourists arriving in a small Australian town – “something utterly and surreally unlikely at the time”. However, throughout the rest of his career remarkably little of his work has been set in the country he now calls home. His early novels Bliss (1981) and Illywhacker (1985) were set in Australia as were, predominantly, the Booker prize winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). One of the fictional power blocs competing in The Unusual Life of Tristran Smith (1994) did evoke America, and his gloss on Great Expectations, Jack Maggs (1997) inevitably made it to Dickens’s England. His more recent novels My Life as a Fake (2003), Theft: A Love Story (2006) and now His Illegal Self, have all ventured farther afield, including passages in America, but Australia has remained his primary location and focus.
“Having written Theft I realised I had much better memory for place than I thought,” he explains. “And part of writing this book was about writing that place in Queensland. I’d break for lunch and I really felt I’d been inhabiting it all morning.” He acknowledges that his time in New York – where he has won major prizes as well as bringing up a family and going through a sometimes painfully public divorce – should have equipped him to write more about the place. “But I’ve always been nervous about writing too far out of my experience. Even in Oscar and Lucinda I tried to avoid Oscar going to Oxford because I didn’t know enough about it, although in the end I had no choice. In fact it goes right back to when I was in Melbourne and was nervous about writing about Sydney. I’d actually lived in Sydney, but I wasn’t from there.”
Carey was born in the Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh in 1943. His family owned a prosperous car dealership and he was sent to board at the prestigious Geelong Grammar school where Prince Charles was later, briefly, a pupil. There weren’t that many books in the house when he was growing up, but he does remember enjoying The Jungle Book, The Water-Babies and Biggles. “One of the great pleasures when on holiday was that my father would read Biggles books too.”
He says his teachers at Geelong were upset that he says he didn’t really discover literature and art until he was 18: “they insisted I was taught Shakespeare and Milton, and I suppose they are technically right”. But it was after school that he encountered William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which he describes as “having everything”, as well as the films of Bergman and Antonioni. “And the second art show I saw in my life was Sidney Nolan. I saw other contemporary Australian artists who were all such fun and wild and free. But unfortunately I didn’t have the confidence to buy anything, which would have been a very shrewd thing to do.”
Carey began adult life as a reluctant scientist, reading organic chemistry and zoology at Monash University in Melbourne before a serious car crash led him to abandon the course for jobs in advertising and allowed time for anti-Vietnam war political activism and writing. But he says he is still awed by the DNA double helix and “the sheer beautiful logic of the periodic table and the exceptions to its logic. That sense of structure determining behaviour was what I hoped to find in science and eventually did find in writing. What is called the creative process is for me often a matter of extrapolating from ‘this’ to ‘that’. If you follow the logic of an idea in that way you can end up in some very strange places.”
This approach led his early stories to be described often as science fiction, although he didn’t actually read any science fiction until coming across Kurt Vonnegut in the early 70s. “I was very late getting to him because many books weren’t imported into Australia due to territorial copyright. It was the same with Borges, who affected me greatly in showing what was possible in fiction, although I haven’t gone back to read him again, so my understanding of him is probably quite shallow.”
His left-wing politics and art interests informed his early work. Two of his best-known stories, “The Fat Man in History” and “American Dreams” came out of a trip to Indonesia. “At the airport I saw fat people in military uniforms for the first time. It made me think about the politics and power relationships of fatness and thinness. I couldn’t write about Indonesia, but I could write, albeit two steps to the side, about where I came from. ‘American Dreams’ came out of looking at Indonesians in their houses and wondering how it might feel to be the one being looked at. I wasn’t trying to change the world, but my work was coming out of looking at the way things are and asking what if they were done differently.”
However, a flirtation with the avant-garde theories of Alain Robbe-Grillet brought him close to the point where he thought that developing a character might “actually be reactionary and that the notion of the story itself was suspect”. He found a way out when some friends visited Colombia and brought back an English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude
“I’d never heard of Márquez and it’s still the only book that I have knowingly stolen – that is, not returned to the person who loaned it to me. But since then someone else has stolen it from me, so I guess that’s justice.” He says the book helped him understand what he had been doing and gave him “as it did for Salman Rushdie and so many other writers, permission to tell a story and have proper characters. Of course I misread it. The book is actually much less made up, and grounded in the reality of his culture, than I had thought.”
Despite being wary of writing directly about America, Carey has long appreciated the pivotal role of American culture, whether he was living in Melbourne or New York. In His Illegal Self the American woman arriving in the Australian commune is shocked at how antagonistic, even though they supposedly shared a political outlook, her hosts are to her country: “We didn’t even know these people were out there, and all this time they’d been hating America.” Carey says he is still struck by how little his American friends comprehend how deeply they affect the rest of the world.
“There are tiny scraps of American popular culture deeply embedded in nearly every other culture. I can remember being at a party years ago with the Australian writer Helen Garner and the American writer Craig Unger who was genuinely amazed that Helen could talk knowledgeably about Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. Unger couldn’t believe that we’d heard of Friedman.”
Carey’s own engagement with American culture is still a work in progress. He fulminates against the Bush administration, but is perplexed by the left’s response: “who would have thought that Vanity Fair would expose its lies and become the Mother Jones of our time”. In His Illegal Self there are mentions of both Jack London’s White Fang and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but he “didn’t officially get” Huck Finn until he heard Garrison Keillor read it on tape. “It can come over quite corny on the page, but Keillor’s is a lovely performance that gets through all that and actually unlocked something for me, which is a real gift. It would have been a shame to go through life not getting Huck Finn.”
And this ad-hoc negotiation between cultures seems to have been the guiding spirit of his career. Although he set out on this latest novel with the new approach of his vision of the woman and a boy, he says that, in hindsight, “all my books somehow come back to the colonial situation of one country and another country. It is true of Illywhacker, of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs. Tristan Smith is absolutely about that and so is The Kelly Gang, which throws in Ireland as well.
“They seem to come down to one country looking at itself in terms of another, and within that country the outskirts looking at themselves in terms of the metropolitan centre. When you set out on a book you always think you’re onto something new. I’ve come to learn that it’s only years later you discover you’ve spent your whole life doing the same thing.”