Steppin' Out

London Calling

The Flyer talks to Peter Carey about his new novel, his approach to fiction and fact, and where he draws the line.

by Leonard Gill

eter Carey’s 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. Carey’s 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: I’m afraid I have some laryngitis.

I barely understood a word you just said. We should reschedule.

No, we’ll see how it goes.

And I’ll 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?

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 Said’s Culture and Imperialism [in Carey’s cracked speech, that’s pronounced “Ed Si’s Cult Imperial”]. I had not read Great Expectations then, but in his book Said was talking about the figure of Dickens’ Abel Magwitch, someone who’s been cast out of England and can never return. I’ve always been interested in convicts, how they affected us in Australia, our history, who we are. And I’d 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. I’d 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 couldn’t. There’s no doubting, though, what a really wonderful writer he was.

And the research?

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 didn’t 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 who’s not a Londoner, is be able to take possession of that city and command it. English readers, Londoners especially, you’ve got to convince them that you have a right to hold their city.

You earned that right. But it must have been a prodigious amount of work.

I don’t know if it was prodigious. It was continual and neurotic. I didn’t do a huge amount of library work if that’s 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.

Did you see it as a challenge, meeting Dickens on his home turf?

I wasn’t trying to replicate Dickens. I mean, if you look at the sentences, I don’t write like Dickens. Even though the sentences are of the period, they’re 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.

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 don’t know how to do.”

It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s weird because I’m a relatively anxious person and I’m just realizing in a way I’m only content if I’m taking risks. It’s really how I’m used to thinking of myself. I’m very bored with doing something I know how to do, or with reporting something, or ... I really don’t know where it all comes from.

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 “That’s 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: “I’m living in the midst of foreigners, not being homesick. It’s a well-rehearsed strategy....”

It’s a very problematic issue for me. I’m a grandson of someone who called England home and yet had never been there. Here is Maggs too, an English guy who’s 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.

And that you yourself might be somehow working through those issues in the figure of Maggs?

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 I’ve made, the fictional world I’ve 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.

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?

The reference here is to Dickens, who did in fact practice mesmerism and did have a mesmeric patient, a woman, Madame Delarue. There’s a page in his notebooks where he describes one of their sessions and it’s very strange, because there’s something very sexual going on between them and I don’t 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 ...

But you are not Tobias Oates.

As a writer, Tobias’ techniques and ways of thinking are 180 degrees from mine. I never work from life.

Did you say you never work from life?

I have writer friends who do but I don’t. 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 didn’t tell it.

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 I’m 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?’

Do you still feel in New York like you’re living among foreigners?

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 I’ve got a wife with a career in the theatre and I’ve got two little boys who are happy with their friends. I’m hardly miserable.

You have no sense of yourself in exile.

I was in Australia three times within the last year. It’s accessible. Exile seems a pretty melodramatic word to me.

[Long pause and cue to change subject]

You worked in advertising for years in Australia. Has that experience influenced your writing?

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 didn’t have to worry if anyone’d 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 I’m 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 I’d really known what I was doing, I’m sure I never would have started as a writer.

Were Southern writers an influence?

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 don’t know if you count Cormac McCarthy a Southern writer or not.

And what are you working on now?

I said to my wife one day I’m really going to write a novel about the Irish-Australian outlaw Ned Kelly because even though a couple of my contemporaries have done this, he’s a big story in Australia. He occupies the same space in our imagination – and I’m not exaggerating – that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson might occupy in an American imagination. We don’t have political figures, you know. He’s also a little bit corny and sort of a crude, kitschy image too.

Is this the same Ned Kelly played by Mick Jagger in a terrible film from the ’70s?

Yeah. Worst movie ever made.

How do you think the film version of Oscar and Lucinda turned out?

An amazing piece of work with wonderful performances.

You’ve also just finished your own screenplay of Jack Maggs.

I’ve been working with director Fred Schepisi. We’ve been friends for about 30 years, damn near ... well, 25, and I’ve always admired his work so much. In fact, I invested $500 in his second film, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

That’s one of the best films to ever come out of Australia.

Well, I really loved collaborating with Fred. I wouldn’t have wanted to write Jack Maggs as a screenplay by myself; it wouldn’t have been interesting to me. I had just finished the book, for God’s sake. But to work with him was just a lot of fun and it was great to rip it all to bits. It really won’t be financed though until there’s an actor attached to it.

Do you have anyone in mind?

Lots of people. But I’ve discovered I shouldn’t mention it.

And I’m afraid with this interview I’ve completely ruined what was left of your voice.

It seems clearer to me now than it’s been all day. n

Peter Carey booksigning

5-7 p.m. Monday, February 23rd
Burke’s Book Store
1719 Poplar Ave., 278-7484


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