Australian writer Peter Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh in 1943. After flunking out of first year university, where he was a chemistry major, he wrote ad copy for Volkswagen before embarking on his remarkable career in fiction. Influenced by Joyce, Faulkner, and Beckett, Carey writes award-winning fiction that spans the genres. Among his eight novels are the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda, The Tax Inspector, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Illywhacker, and Jack Maggs. His latest bestseller, True History of the Kelly Gang, a retelling "in his own words" of the Australian outlaw's life, won this year's Commonwealth Prize, and is short-listed for the Booker Prize. Carey's newest book is the part-travel, part-memoir, 30 Days in Sydney. Nancy Wigston spoke with Peter Carey on September 9, 2001, at the Eden Mills Writer's Festival, in Eden Mills, Ontario.
Nancy Wigston: Congratulations on winning the Commonwealth Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang.
Peter Carey: Thank you very much.
NW: What prompted you to write about Ned Kelly and why now?
PC: I was living in New York and things that were previously familiar began to look strange. Trying to tell a story which happened in a particular place to people who are not from that place, causes you to see what's wonderful about the story and you begin to see certain gaps, the things that have not been imagined. Seeing the Ned Kelly paintings by Sydney Nolan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the big trigger.
NW: That's a Nolan painting on the jacket cover?
PC: That's a detail. It's not typical of the paintings, which are mostly figurative. The thing Nolan invented was the iconographic image which is [Ned Kelly's] armour, like a black letter-box. His other paintings are very striking, strange and beautiful¨and about people.
NW: When you were a child in Australia did you and your friends play at being Ned Kelly? Does he live in the culture that way?
PC: I've had letters from people who said they did, but I don't recall doing that. I recall playing cowboys and Indians¨which is the Australian situation in a sense; other cultures often dominate what you think of as Australian folklore. But. [Kelly] was always in the air. We always knew about him. Absolutely.
NW: And he had this thrilling Robin Hood reputation? He isn't thought of as just an outlaw.
PC: He's a good bloke is what he is. One of the things I noticed about the English reception of the novel, which was generally positive, was that they all kept on talking about it being a revisionist history because my Ned Kelly was a sympathetic figure. In fact that's not really revisionist to us at all. It's revisionist from an English perspective, because [they see] Kelly [as] a dirty, smelly Australian criminal and not many would have believed that even us weird Australians liked this unruly ruffian. But we always¨most of us¨felt he was a good guy. The [extent] to which my book is sympathetic to Ned Kelly I don't think is very odd within an Australian context. We love him.
NW: Do you know Michael Ondaatje's book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid?
PC: Yes, but not well enough to talk about it. I read it a long time ago.
NW: It's a bit similar, in that he takes an imaginative approach to someone who was in real life, I think, a rather scurrilous type.
PC: When you talk about the United States, and you think about the outlaw figure, very often you find that the American outlaw is sort of a sociopath, somebody who is acting outside of society. As for Jesse James [a Kelly contemporary] I know they love him in some parts of Missouri but other[s] hate him. He rode with Quantrill's Raiders and I think a lot of really dirty, nasty, violent stuff went on. The Ned Kelly story isn't about that sort of person. He operated within his society. The only violence to have taken place was the deaths of those policemen. Later a sheriff was killed but Kelly didn't personally do that. When you [survey] all those bank robberies, you see that no one was hurt. The general effect Kelly had on people was always incredibly positive. The bank managers' wives and the policemen's wives all talked about what a gentleman he was...I think the American notion of the outlaw and the Australian notion are very different¨it's hard for me to talk about him as an outlaw, even though he was.
NW: In this country, we don't venerate the outlaw so much, like the Americans.
PC: You have the Mounties.
NW: Yes, we have a cop. Whereas in Australia¨
PC: We hate the cops.
NW: Does this make you more like the Americans?
PC: No, if you wanted to be glib you could put that together, in a way. But I really don't think we are alike. If you look at our history, we began as a penal colony, and so our relationship with the law is very complicated. We also expect the government to feed us and look after us. We view the government as a potentially benevolent force even if it's been cruel in certain respects. We expect that. The Americans continue to talk about their government as if it's some kind of alien force. I think we're profoundly different from Americans. And if you want to talk about the Mounties¨just think, a society in which the policeman is a hero is a society that cannot be too alienated from itself. One would wish for a society where the rule of law was respected. I think Canadians should stop beating themselves up about all the things that are really wonderful about them. I think this is often, and has been, at its best, a really kind society. But Canadians say to me, "We're such wimps."
NW: You've said that when you were growing up in Bacchus Marsh, that the language was similar to the language Kelly speaks. I've noticed some forties slang like "hubba hubba" for instance. Did people really speak like that in the 1870s?
PC: I've no idea. I'm a novelist. I'm making it up. But I think if one gets enough things right you can slip in the odd little thing and I don't think anybody can tell me I was wrong. Although there may be some anachronisms here and there I try not to have them. On the other hand I want to play fast and loose as well.
NW: Are Australian boys always so close to their mothers?
PC: This detail is completely made up, but I think that's what really motivated him. [Kelly] always signs his letters at the end, "I am a widow's son." And if you think of it objectively, you can picture this boy¨he is the oldest boy, the father dies...I noticed when I was living with hippies that there were a lot of single mothers and those boys and their mothers were all close like that. When you look at what happened [to Kelly] and what he did, it just makes sense to think of his relationship with his mother in that light.
NW: You invented Kelly's wife and daughter. Is there evidence that he was sexually active with women?
PC: Well, no. In one of the police reports he says that he was 400 miles away getting married, but I think he was lying. Ian Jones, a popular Australian historian, says he thinks "the boys looked after themselves," which I suppose means they looked after their sexual urges, whether they were gay or not gay. That was his opinion. Kelly is a young man, and I thought, what's he doing? I did feel he was rather shy despite being a hero. We do know that [Kelly gang member] Joe Byrne had lots of girlfriends¨
NW: Funny, I wondered about the relationship between Joe and his childhood friend¨
PC: Well that can feel homoerotic in a way¨
NW: Isn't that part of the genre? Were you surprised when an American reviewer said, "Peter Carey has written a western?"
PC: I was, because to us, by definition a western is something that Americans have and its roots go down into American history and American history is so different from ours. It did seem weird. But finally I realized what it meant was [that] this book's not alien to [Americans]. They can read it [because of] their experience. When I was writing it I thought [Americans] would not connect with it because the language was odd. The whole history was different. But people started talking about it in terms¨which I'll repeat to you because I'm flattered¨of Huckleberry Finn, for instance. I can only be pleased, even though I did sort of laugh out loud at the beginning.
NW: We've talked about the English and the American reception to the book, what about Australia?
PC: I think what's happened there is what I really hoped for, which is that I'd written my people's great story and it's been accepted and it sells and sells and sells and it's read across the social classes. All sorts of people who don't normally read literary work are reading it. And I like that. The other thing is that at the very beginning, the first lot of reviews were a little uninspired, although generally very positive because they, firstly, had no idea how much I'd made up. It felt like the Kelly story to them. If you know the history you'd see that it touches the points but then it's hugely made up in the darkness beyond these brief, sharply illuminated, dramatic moments. Only a historian knows how much is really invented. Also, I'm really proud of the language. [Australian reviewers] didn't really know what those sentences were or what they meant. At the end of it I was saying to those journalists in Australia¨and it's very boastful¨"There are no sentences like this in Australian literature." But then there was a second wave of reviewers, mostly younger, who admired me in the way I wanted to be admired.
NW: Language is a huge presence in the book. "Adjectival," which Kelly uses constantly, is sort of like "expletive deleted" isn't it?
PC: It's exactly that. We know what it means.
NW: On the Nixon tapes, it had a sinister tone, whereas it seems that Kelly wants to protect his reader [his fictional daughter] by being somehow genteel.
PC: Australian nineteenth century literature would often use "adjectival." It's fake in a way to have Ned Kelly [speak it]. I think it has a more genteel history to it. But it seemed to fit very well with what I felt his intentions would have been. He wanted his daughter to read it
NW: When you were in school, were you taught not to speak Australian English?
PC: No, but I went through an experience like that when I went from a state school to a very fancy private school; and this came out of sheer class prejudice. They spoke like the Home Counties. "We don't say 'castle,' we say 'cawstle'¨only the Americans say 'castle.'"
NW: Why do you live in New York?
PC: This was sort of accidental, nothing significant. My wife is a director and she likes North America and I was offered a job at NYU, not a very demanding job. I was sort of famous in Australia and it was nice to get away from that.
NW: Do you feel like an expatriate?
PC: Well, one is forever homesick. I'm now in a situation where if I go back home tomorrow I know I'd miss New York a lot.
NW: In True History, the characters and the land seem locked together in love and fear. In these lines¨which I guess are written by you¨Kelly warns: "Neglect this and abide by the consequences which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria or the druth of a very dry season to the grasshopper of New South Wales."
PC: That's his. There aren't many lines in the whole book that come from him. Two times in the book there are words I don't know the meaning of and they're there because I'm just a carrier of the words. But that's his letter. Absolutely. 'I'm a widowed son outlawed.' Another is 'of true blood burned and beauty born.' He could write, for an uneducated man.
NW: To get back to the landscape in this book¨
PC: This is a story about people living in a landscape, a story about people who wanted to be farmers, people who love horses. You've got to look at all that land and really [understand] it. One of the things I really wanted to do was make it a story about that soil and the people who wanted it, and who looked at what [this soil] would give to animals...The whole thing about Kelly learning the land from Harry Power came to me quite late. A friend gave me this idea. We were travelling together, covering big, big areas and really understanding the result of [Kelly] being with Harry. [Kelly] would have learned a lot of tracks and trails. He used Harry's hideouts, like the one where Harry said, "You'll always be safe."
NW: The ingenuity of these people¨Harry's bullet-proof walls, Ned's armour¨is quite striking.
PC: I think Australians are like that. When I won the Commonwealth Prize, I found out about it at the last minute, got on a plane and went to Ghana for the day. It's a big state event and these people were in their handsome robes and national costumes. I had a suit and a shirt I'd forgotten required cufflinks¨which I don't even own. So I thought, I've got to get some cufflinks. I tried the hotel gift shop and the little news agency and they both said "No, No." I went to the bar and asked for matches, and they had some, with a little blue head. My shirt was blue so I went back to the news agent and got rubber bands, and made some cufflinks from the matches and rubber bands. And I thought, 'there's my speech.' It's like post-colonial literature. You're working with limited resources, but because you have limited resources, you make something that's wittier and cooler than what you have anyway. They loved [the speech.] And the cufflinks did look good.
NW: I'm wondering where you feel 'home' is? Canadian critic Northrup Frye said that we had this idea that if you don't make it in society you can always escape to the bush.
PC: We have that sort of notion I guess. I've got so many different homes. So my [ideal] landscape would be subtropical, in Queensland somewhere, one that's got lovely, meandering tropical rivers, mountains and jacaranda and thunder clouds. A very particular one, Bellingen, in northern New South Wales, where I wrote Illywhacker, where Oscar and Lucinda ends up. That's a landscape I love. Where I come from, in the south, it's very boring: sheep, wheat-brown in the summertime, windy and wet and cold in the winter. All the farmers have closed down wind-burned faces. I was so pleased later in life to discover this other place where summer was wet and warm. In places north of Brisbane you can grow bananas and papayas. I like the way those tropical grasses smell, musty, and walking in bare feet in the summer. So different to the dry, hard bush of my childhood. You never feel frightened of people in the Australian bush, but the land will kill you.
NW: In your new book, 30 Days in Sydney, did you mean the title to be ironic? It sounds a bit like a jail sentence¨
PC: Oh no, that's interesting, I don't think like that normally. I just wanted to make a label.
NW: Are the people here really based on your old friends?
PC: Sheridan is totally invented¨
NW: Good, he's so sad.
PC: Yes, he is sad. The one called "Jack Ledoux" is very close to a friend of mine. I taped his story [about barely surviving a storm at sea during a boat race]. I just fixed it up in two or three days. The form of the story was quite well worked out and it was the best story, which is why the book is structured around it.
NW: Tell me about the word "Eternity" that you see written on the bridge during the millennium celebrations¨
PC: You mean Martin Sharp¨he's a real person.
NW: He carries on the legacy of this word popping up all over the place, which was begun by another man called¨
PC: Arthur Stace.
NW: You write about him: "We like him because he was a cockatoo [lookout] outside the brothel, because he was drunk, a ratbag, an outcast. He was his own man, a slave to no one on this earth." In this book, being "a real character," like this odd fellow Stace, is vitally important¨he's someone who is off the wall and yet genuine. That's the Sydney essence, isn't it?
PC: Well, it's what I think. We really don't like wowsers, God-botherers¨to even have a word like God-botherer, you know.
NW: I think you're lucky as a country to live so far from the United States, so that your language evolved in a way that ours didn't. Our obsession is whether we have an identity or not¨
PC: You're being Canadian again.
PC: You're so nuts. To anybody coming here from the United States it's totally clear it's such a different place. ˛