By Leonard Gill
FEBRUARY 23, 1998: Peter Careys new book, Jack Maggs (Knopf, 306 pp., $24), is his most fully realized to date, a novel that cohabits the London of Charles Dickens without once mistaking itself for one of Dickens own. How Carey went about this ambitious project, a formidable stylistic exercise and high-water mark of storytelling skill for the Booker Award-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda, was not the opening topic in a recent interview, however. Careys purpose as writer may not be self-expression, as he later pointed out, but this afternoon, from his phone in Ann Arbor, my first concern was his ability to express himself at all.
Flyer: Are you all right?
Peter Carey: Im afraid I have some laryngitis.
Flyer: I barely understood a word you just said. We should reschedule.
Peter Carey:No, well see how it goes.
Flyer: And Ill try keeping things simple. After Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and after you said you had no desire to do a book requiring research, why did you return in Jack Maggs to the 19th century and to a story so dependent on historical accuracy?
Peter Carey: I got hooked on an idea and I had to get back into the 19th century because the idea was so good. In this case, it was reading Edward Saids Culture and Imperialism [in Careys cracked speech, thats pronounced Ed Sis Cult Imperial]. I had not read Great Expectations then, but in his book Said was talking about the figure of Dickens Abel Magwitch, someone whos been cast out of England and can never return. Ive always been interested in convicts, how they affected us in Australia, our history, who we are. And Id never found a way that would be interesting to write about it. I dashed out and read Great Expectations, the first Dickens I had read. This is all very recent. Id always wanted to read him and never doubted Dickens was great, but I had trouble with those really good little girls. His Bleak House I previously tried to read but couldnt. Theres no doubting, though, what a really wonderful writer he was.
Flyer:And the research?
Peter Carey: The research tends to be just about everything in a project such as this one, and New York City [where Carey still lives] turned out to be about the best place on Earth to get a fresh look at London in the period described in Maggs. I really didnt want to go to English writers. It was my wife who had the great idea of reading the accounts of American visitors because it would be fresh. Visitors see things that locals never see. What one has to do, particularly as an Australian and certainly as someone whos not a Londoner, is be able to take possession of that city and command it. English readers, Londoners especially, youve got to convince them that you have a right to hold their city.
Flyer: You earned that right. But it must have been a prodigious amount of work.
Peter Carey: I dont know if it was prodigious. It was continual and neurotic. I didnt do a huge amount of library work if thats what you mean. But I did do a lot of reading from books I could borrow or buy odd little books. And I had an assistant, a student from Columbia, who worked for me. He got me a lot of maps, a lot of guides from the period. I started to fake my way through it, not terribly confident.
Flyer:Did you see it as a challenge, meeting Dickens on his home turf?
Peter Carey: I wasnt trying to replicate Dickens. I mean, if you look at the sentences, I dont write like Dickens. Even though the sentences are of the period, theyre not of Dickens. The thing I wanted to do was take basically the character of Magwitch and his search for this member of the class that had been torturing him, whom he imagines he is raising to be his son. I did know it was a slightly outrageous thing to be doing. I knew it was a slightly risky thing to do, to put it mildly.
Flyer: That brings up a statement you made last year: The only way I can feel safe is to take risks, not to repeat myself, to do only those things that I dont know how to do.
Peter Carey: Its weird, isnt it? Its weird because Im a relatively anxious person and Im just realizing in a way Im only content if Im taking risks. Its really how Im used to thinking of myself. Im very bored with doing something I know how to do, or with reporting something, or ... I really dont know where it all comes from.
Flyer: Jack Maggs, ex-con, now rich, returns to London after 24 years of exile in Australia and announces at the beginning of the novel and before the woman who raised him, Ma Britten, that Thats what I want. My home. And in 1994 you wrote: I can now see my history as a sometimes pathetic series of attempts to create a home ... this need to have something I can decorate and lock.... In that same piece, you also wrote of New York City: Im living in the midst of foreigners, not being homesick. Its a well-rehearsed strategy....
Peter Carey: Its a very problematic issue for me. Im a grandson of someone who called England home and yet had never been there. Here is Maggs too, an English guy whos been cast out and all the time all he wants is his home and in the end he has to recognize that his home is somewhere else. I was aware that these issues are ones that occupy my mind and imagination a great deal.
Flyer:And that you yourself might be somehow working through those issues in the figure of Maggs?
Peter Carey: I never think that I work through issues, but I do think I use stuff. I never imagine that I come out at the end of a book knowing any more about myself, for instance. I know about the world Ive made, the fictional world Ive made. I know a lot about that, I know a lot about these people. But the project is not really for me about self-expression or self-discovery.
Flyer: But the hypnosis scenes between Maggs and the writer Tobias Oates a mesmerist, a thief who steals from the lives of those around him so he can use them in his very popular novels these scenes are all about self-expression and self-discovery, a crude source for what would later develop as Freudian analysis. There is no parallel between you and either Maggs or Oates?
Peter Carey: The reference here is to Dickens, who did in fact practice mesmerism and did have a mesmeric patient, a woman, Madame Delarue. Theres a page in his notebooks where he describes one of their sessions and its very strange, because theres something very sexual going on between them and I dont know if either is really acknowledging it. Really fascinating. In the process of Oates mesmeric sessions with Maggs, he does stumble upon a sort of Freudian insight ...
Flyer: But you are not Tobias Oates.
Peter Carey: As a writer, Tobias techniques and ways of thinking are 180 degrees from mine. I never work from life.
Flyer: Did you say you never work from life?
Peter Carey: I have writer friends who do but I dont. I had to invent a writer in this book who would work very closely from life because I wanted there to be somebody who knew the real story and didnt tell it.
Flyer: Someone I know will never find their way into my books that way. Tobias is a writer who draws from life very directly, like a reporter. I begin my novels with an idea or a notion. And because Im driven by the idea and the requirements of the characters to do what are often sort of rather unusual things, the characters are really formed by their actions. And I say, What? How could someone do that?
Flyer:Do you still feel in New York like youre living among foreigners?
Peter Carey: Well, ahh ... on one level, absolutely yes; on another level, no, I feel very, I mean ... I do like New York City a great deal and I feel very at home there. But things will happen that make me feel that, of course, and probably will happen if I lived for a hundred years. But Ive got a wife with a career in the theatre and Ive got two little boys who are happy with their friends. Im hardly miserable.
Flyer:You have no sense of yourself in exile.
Peter Carey: I was in Australia three times within the last year. Its accessible. Exile seems a pretty melodramatic word to me.
Flyer: You worked in advertising for years in Australia. Has that experience influenced your writing?
Peter Carey: The really wonderful thing advertising did was to allow me to work part-time and pay me enough money so I could write every day. Early 1976 was the last time I worked full-time in a job other than writing novels, so I was able to write every day and I didnt have to worry if anyoned buy it, worry if it was too long or too short or too crazy. But the business of advertising ... You would think it must have done something, but Im damned if I can see that it did.
I had disgraced myself my first year as a would-be scientist in college, got a job in an agency, met a lot of writers, and started to read books in a way I never had before. I was stupid and ill-read enough to think ... Well, if Id really known what I was doing, Im sure I never would have started as a writer.
Flyer: Were Southern writers an influence?
Peter Carey: As I Lay Dying had a huge amount to do with my wanting to be a writer: the discovery of this rich, beautiful, interior world, the use of words, the fact that these were the inner thoughts of people you would pass on the road and think nothing of, the way the first-person narratives contradict each other ...
I dont know if you count Cormac McCarthy a Southern writer or not.
Flyer: And what are you working on now?
Peter Carey: I said to my wife one day Im really going to write a novel about the Irish-Australian outlaw Ned Kelly because even though a couple of my contemporaries have done this, hes a big story in Australia. He occupies the same space in our imagination and Im not exaggerating that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson might occupy in an American imagination. We dont have political figures, you know. Hes also a little bit corny and sort of a crude, kitschy image too.
Flyer: Is this the same Ned Kelly played by Mick Jagger in a terrible film from the 70s?
Peter Carey: Yeah. Worst movie ever made.
Flyer: How do you think the film version of Oscar and Lucinda turned out?
Peter Carey: An amazing piece of work with wonderful performances.
Flyer:Youve also just finished your own screenplay of Jack Maggs.
Peter Carey: Ive been working with director Fred Schepisi. Weve been friends for about 30 years, damn near ... well, 25, and Ive always admired his work so much. In fact, I invested $500 in his second film, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
Flyer: Thats one of the best films to ever come out of Australia.
Peter Carey: Well, I really loved collaborating with Fred. I wouldnt have wanted to write Jack Maggs as a screenplay by myself; it wouldnt have been interesting to me. I had just finished the book, for Gods sake. But to work with him was just a lot of fun and it was great to rip it all to bits. It really wont be financed though until theres an actor attached to it.
Flyer: Do you have anyone in mind?
Peter Carey: Lots of people. But Ive discovered I shouldnt mention it.
Flyer:And Im afraid with this interview Ive completely ruined what was left of your voice.
Peter Carey: It seems clearer to me now than its been all day.
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