For 15 years or so in our small, Greenwich Village condominium, the Australian-born writer Peter Carey was my neighbor. Certainly you know him from such novels as Bliss, Jack Maggs, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, My Life as a Fake, Theft and the two for which he won the Man Booker Prize, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, among other worldwide literary awards.
Today, Peter’s newest novel, His Illegal Self, appears for sale in stores in the United States and online. I will leave reviews to those who get paid to do that (some are here at Peter's new website) and say only that I read it in a single sitting and will undoubtedly reread it - soon. It is now my favorite of Peter’s books, but I say that after reading each new one. You will get a good sense of some of it in the interview below.
Since Peter is only two years younger than I am, I took advantage of our friendship and today’s publication event to talk with him not only about the new novel, but about getting older – in which he indulged me.
RONNI BENNETT: It is common for old people to say they don't feel old and I think what they usually mean is the are not much different on the inside from when they were younger. Do you find that to be so?
PETER CAREY: I still haven’t gotten over my introduction at Barnes and Noble as “the venerable Peter Carey.” Don’t get me going.
RB: Many people on this blog have mentioned the occasional shock at how old they appear when they look in a mirror. "Who IS that old guy or woman?" they say to themselves. Does that resonate with you?
PC: I shave in the shower. I have no need for a mirror, and of course I would look fine if I accidentally saw myself. You want to talk about old, it’s a shame you missed my mother. I remember her showing me her hands, the hands. These were old hands. Eighty years old. She said, I can’t believe these are my hands. To tell you the truth, Ronni, I can’t believe these are my hands either.
RB: What's the biggest surprise - positive or negative - you've encountered about getting older?
PC: To be fifty-eight years old and suddenly in the middle of a divorce was not amongst my big ambitions. When it happened, I thought my life was over. I thought, I’ll bring my kids up and then I’ll die. Mind you, that was a bad night in a hotel in Tokyo. I had bronchitis but was certain it was pneumonia. I know you’ll be grateful if I spare you all the symptoms.
Two years later I met a wonderful woman. I was dreading my sixtieth birthday, but when the day arrived, I was in love and happy and I looked around the table at my friends and the gorgeous woman beside me and perhaps it was the lighting or perhaps it was my heart, but everything was suddenly golden. I was in loved and loved. I have blessed every day since then.
RB: When you were young, what assumptions did you have about getting old that have turned out to be false? Any that are true?
PC: I figured people stopped having sex by the time they were fifty.
RB: When you were a kid, what did you think being old was like? How is it different now?
PC: See above.
RB: What do you like about getting older?
PC: To see how wrong I was about everything.
RB: Are you comfortable, at nearly 65, of thinking of yourself as old?
PC: Well, I keep announcing that I’m 65, but only in the hope of surprising people. It’s upsetting when it doesn’t work.
RB: Do you think people treat you differently now than when you were young that is attributable to getting older?
PC: When I was eighteen in Australia, I couldn’t get served in a bar because I looked like a baby. Now I get served - whoosh - like that. When I was young, no-one would wait for me to finish my sentences. Now they wait for me to finish my sentences. Of course, this comes at a time when I can no longer remember what I was going to say.
RB: What, if anything, do you miss about your youth?
PC: Beef Rendang, Chili Crab, the fiery tiny dishes in the windows of Sumatran restaurants.
RB: Have there been old people who have inspired you in life?
PC: My grandfather and grandmother were as important to me as I parents. It would never have occurred to me that old people might ever be marginal. They were central in my life. They loved me and I loved them.
RB: Aside from the fact that everyone, with time, gets better at what they do, how has getting older affected or changed your writing?
PC: I’m not sure it’s true that we all get better at what we do. We can all think of artists whose early work was the most remarkable aspect of their output, but put that to one side. The great thing about getting older is that you contain all the lives you lived before. You may have liver spots on your hands but you are also an eight-year-old boy with smooth skin and clear eyes.
I’ve just finished a novel, His Illegal Self, whose protagonist is an eight year old boy. People read it and are moved. They say, well you’ve written this so well, it must be because you are close to your sons. Well, I am close to my sons and I will not say that hasn’t affected what I write. But the most easily over-looked aspect of inventing literature is that we spin so much from within.
And yet this, of course, is to ridiculously oversimplify the business of inventing character, a mystery that should never, ever be reduced to experience or observation. As a young man, I was always eager to demystify the mumbo-jumbo of “creation” but it is now clear to me that it is a sort of magic and we are, all of us - readers and writers alike - short-changing ourselves when we try to explain it in terms of the writer’s own short and narrow life.
We interrupt this interview for a video about His Illegal Self (1:35 minutes). Part 2 continues below.
RB: His Illegal Self takes place in the early ‘70s amidst the radical politics and social constructs of the time. What drew you to write about this period?
PC: I had very fond memories of living in what you might call a hippie community – in tropical Queensland more than thirty years ago. This was a radical place, although not in the sense your question suggests. I was drawn back there because I wanted to inhabit that space, that rainforest, that lovely humid fecund air. Of course my main characters – Che and Dial – are from new York and Boston and they won’t like that environment at all. But that’s their point of view, not mine.
For me it was a strong desire to reinvent a magical place. So that’s the first step towards His Illegal Self.
RB: What was the starting point for the novel?
PC: I began with the vision of two fugitive Americans, this hippie mother (as I thought of her) and this little boy, walking along a Queensland road. There is a huge scary storm coming. All the cars are coming the other way, their lights on in the middle of the day. These hitch-hikers have no idea of where one earth they are.
RB: Well, the relationship between Dial and Che is…
PC: …more complicated than I at first imagined. At the start I was not even sure what they were running from. How did they get into this mess? I didn’t know.
RB: Trevor - one of the feral hippies that take Dial and Che in, for a price - Dial, and Che have a complicated relationship that runs from derision to love and a sense of connection. Were these adoptive and seemingly strange parental relationships between them intended to make a statement about the notion of family?
PC: My friends read the book this way. For myself, I was heading towards a moment in Che’s life where he would know, without any doubt, that he was deeply and fully loved.
RB: How did you come to the voice of a seven-year-old boy from Park Avenue?
PC: Don’t want to sound too woo-woo about this, but voices do come to me. They are not the result of observation or study but like Hugh in my novel Theft for instance, come from some place that one might describe - if it did not run the risk of sounding self-congratulatory - as magical. But also we have all been children so it isn’t hard for any of us to see the world from that point of view.
RB: Are there old characters in any of your early books that now, with the experience of getting older yourself, you would like to have written differently?
PC: I suppose I could cite Illywhacker which is narrated by a 139-year-old liar. I might say that I could have drawn the protagonist, Herbert Badgery, more realistically, given him a stroke, say, and written from within the stroke, and that is true. But everything about the book - it’s 600 pages - is sheer cheek. It’s mad ambition, everything good about it, is the work of a forty-year-old. I am not suggesting that 65-year-olds don’t write ambitious books. Indeed, I am deep into something now which I hope will be the best thing I have ever done, stretching, wild, but it will not be like watching a 40-year-old teetering on a parapet.
RB: Are there old characters you wrote when you were young that you think you got right? Who and how so?
PC: I never return to read my own work. This is, I suppose, the literary equivalent of not looking in the bathroom mirror. I worked on all my novels until they were as good as I could make them. These days I experience my characters as they are reflected by my readers’ responses. Judging from the letters I get, I would say my characters are alive and working. Of course someone else might have written them better, but I doubt anyone else would have wished to write them at all.
RB: Do you think about dying? Have you come to terms with the fact of dying one day?
PC: Our lives are, of course, defined by the fact that we will die and when we enter this stage of our lives this is no longer a distant possibility. As death comes closer, life becomes more intense and precious.
I have a very happy personal life. I go to sleep each night and wake up each morning feeling blessed. I want to live forever. The intense pleasure I feel in the present must be, at least. produced by this inescapable fact of death. It’s like looking at the gorgeous evanescent light in a Monet painting or wisteria blooming. It is the brevity of time that makes it so ecstatic.
RB: Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what do imagine it to be?
PC: Hard to imagine it except we’ll definitely be out of Iraq.
RB: What is one lesson you've learned in your years that you would like others to heed?
PC: Don’t waste electricity. Turn off the lights.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz tells of her personal visit to The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy.]