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Mining a Colonial Past

Australia's Peter Carey writes to take risks and explore new worlds.

November 05, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter Carey is heading out the door of his apartment near Houston Street in New York City, on his way to deposit the $30,000 check that came with his Booker Prize in mid-October, when the phone rings. "It's OK," he grumbles to his caller graciously. "Citibank takes most of it in fees anyway."

It would not be unreasonable to suspect that Carey, whose subject matter is at heart the history of colonialism in his homeland, Australia, secretly relishes the idea that the Brits have given him not once but twice what their press refers to ad nauseam as "the prestigious Booker Prize." His novel "Oscar and Lucinda," which was made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, won in 1988. Rumor has it that after winning his first Booker, he snubbed the queen by taking a rain check on a visit she requested. "I met with her!" he says of their eventual visit. "We're buddies!"

"Really, how could I not be delighted?" he says about the prize. "Yeah, I could say I feel uncomfortable with Oprah's endorsements all over my high literature, but that would be silly, wouldn't it?" alluding to the spat between the talk show queen and novelist Jonathan Franzen. "I could say what a terrible thing it is that in a time when people are amusing themselves in so many ways it requires a prize to get them to read a novel. The truth is, anything that puts literature on the front page has got to be a good thing."

Carey, whose novel "True History of the Kelly Gang" was published last winter by Knopf and is due out in paperback this month, denies that prizes could ever motivate a writer. "It's hard enough just to make a book work; once you're in there, you can't be thinking about who to please. The only thing I know how to do that's safe is to start with a slightly weird idea and bring it alive. To make what starts as symbolic language real."

"True History of the Kelly Gang," the author's seventh novel, planted itself in Carey's mind in the 1960s, when he first read the Jerilderie letter. Its 56 pages were written by Ned Kelly, Australia's most famous Robin Hood-style antihero, after his gang robbed a bank in the town of Jerilderie in 1879. In this letter, Kelly describes the plight of the poor farmers in northeastern Victoria. Many years later, in 1994, Carey saw an exhibit of Ned Kelly paintings by Australian artist Sidney Nolan. He began the novel as a letter from Kelly to a daughter the outlaw will never see. It is written entirely in Kelly's uneducated, naive but wise and compassionate voice.

"If Ned Kelly looked at this book, he would most certainly say 'This is not me.' I think I wrote a well-made book, but did I get to the heart of Ned Kelly? Who knows?"

Carey has often insisted that he does not write for therapy, that he writes to invent something new, to take risks and explore new worlds. "For shock value," he tells his students at New York University not to write about what they know, in the hope that they will understand what a powerful privilege it is to write about anything one wants, rather than being "a victim of what has already happened." As a matter of fact, he says, "When I take on a character like Ned Kelly, I won't get it right until I'm free of any autobiographical thoughts. Life is messy and untidy, but we don't have to be its victims."

Carey was born in 1943 in the town of Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne. Bacchus Marsh? "Well, yeah, there's this 58-story structure rising from a swamp," he rumbles. (For a skinny guy with big glasses, he's got a throaty, bushwhacking laugh.) Carey's parents owned a GM dealership. "They didn't read too much," he says, adding they probably would have been horrified to know that Carey would become a writer. "Capt. Bacchus was a jumped-up little English officer who built a manor house, something he never would have been able to do at home.

"There are seven pubs in Bacchus Marsh," Carey says, on a lighter note. "I think I've ended up being one of those people who misses New York when he's in Australia and Australia when he's in New York. But if I were living in Australia, I'd have a more socially and politically involved life. It would be much more stressful but more politically responsible. Perhaps it's what I should be doing."

Carey got his start in writing by composing slogans for ad agencies in Australia ("You make us smile, Dr. Lindeman" for Lindemans winery is most often thrown in his face). His colleagues in advertising included the writers Morris Lurie and Barry Oakley, whom he often includes in the list of writers he most admires (Beckett, Garcia-Marquez, Faulkner and Joyce are the non-Australians). His favorites from the current generation include David Malouf ("An Imaginary Life"), Helen Garner ("The First Stone") and Robert Hughes ("The Fatal Shore"). Carey told several sources that he fully expected to write a novel about New York when the Kelly Gang stepped to the front of the line, but when asked about that plan he says, "Nah, think I'll just do more of the same."

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