Humour in a Dark World: An Interview with Peter Carey
Peter Carey spoke to Michael Williams for the Wheeler Centre last week about his new novel Amnesia, his school days at Geelong Grammar and Monash, the Australian character, and how he used Julian Assange as a springboard for creating his activist hacker, Gaby Baillieux.
Here is an edited version of their conversation. You can also read Peter Carey’s reflections on Whitlam, the Dismissal, and the possibility of American involvement on our website.
Your new book is, among many other things, a love letter to Australia, and in particular, bits of Melbourne in the late 70s, early 80s. Is it vivid in your mind, that time and place?
Yes, it is really there. Even though I have to confess I ran away to Sydney in 1973, that part of my life in Melbourne is very, very close to my heart. I grew up in Bacchus Marsh, where Melbourne was the big city. I used to get a headache just coming here. When I was a teenager, it was so terrifying – I’d come on the train, and sort of walk up Bourke St or Collins St, go round the block, make sure the station’s still there. The enormous size of the city was overpowering.
Your central character, Felix Moore, the son of used-car dealers from Bacchus Marsh, shares certain elements of your own biographical details.
A lot! Not biographical, just geographical.
Is that provoking lazy critics who always want to see you in your work?
Well, whenever I’ve written a book … I’m always really pleased and proud and excited to make stuff up. So when I go to all this trouble to invent a character and then I discover that Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda is really me, and that poor little deformed Tristan Smith who lives inside a mouse suit is really me, and that great, brawling painter from Bacchus Marsh Butcher Bones has to be me, I just thought with this book I might just put in all my biographical stuff and give it to this character.
So, he’s born in Bacchus Marsh – and I’ll go up to Bacchus Marsh on Friday night and I’ll have to face my sister, who will have read this, and she’ll know that people will think that our mother disappeared from our life, that our father couldn’t think about it, would weep about it every time he was spoken to about it. And of course this is not true. But I’ve warned her, that I’ve done it once again.
I read that your sister is the only one in your family who did read your books. Is that true?
Yes. My mother thought that was generally bad form and that my sister was sucking up. My mother didn’t want to make too much fuss of me. She thought that was bad. She didn’t want me to be a big noise. I remember a certain occasion, sitting with her and some local women, and one woman said – it was after the Booker Prize – ‘You must be so proud of Peter’. And she said, ‘Yes, every mother has her favourite son. Mine is Paul.’ She was … herself.
You had your first experience as an expatriate not from Australia, but going from Bacchus Marsh to Geelong. It was a nice early betrayal.
It was one of those things I always knew, as a child, lay ahead of me. I was going to this place where people sort of spoke, in my brother’s rendition (he’d been there before me), in sort of English accents, and called each other by their surnames. It was a boarding school and I was going away from home, there was no escaping it. So, I went. And I decided to be a happy camper.
The only thing I ever learned from a critic, I think, is the observation that my books are always full of orphans. I thought I was doing it because it was easier, because then you didn’t have to make up the rest of the family, but I think actually that going to Geelong Grammar at that age did pay its toll.
And of course it was a change of class. To this day, the trauma of how one speaks … I spoke, arriving at Geelong Grammar, the way I said certain words, led to certain mockery, so to this day I still alternate between dahnce and dance. And cahstle and castle. I was informed, incorrectly, that only Americans say castle. Which of course was very bad.
It had its traumas, yes.
Monash University formed you, made you the man you are now?
It made me the failure I am now. I was asked to speak at a commencement ceremony at Monash and I said, ‘Well I know why I’ve been asked here, I’ve been asked to talk about failure and the uses of failure’, because that’s all that ever happened to me at Monash University, where I failed my first year.
Anyway, the people in the audience were very intense and looked like they were all commerce students, who didn’t really appreciate the notion of failure at all – and their parents looked even less happy. The faculty enjoyed the speech, but I don’t think anyone else did. I went to Monash for a year. I don’t know what effect it had on me except that I came out of a boys’ boarding school and was suddenly not in a boys’ boarding school, and that was exciting. And I failed all my exams and crashed my car. And then they gave me supplementary examinations, so I failed them all again. And that was sort of it …
In November 1975, you were working in advertising, in Sydney at that point. For a communist?
I worked for a lot of communists! This particular agency was Grey Advertising. The first time I worked for Grey was for Ralph Blunden, who’d been a member of the Communist Party, but he was gone by then. So no, it was run by American capitalists.
The question about the Whitlam dismissal and the relationship between Australia and America is one you’ve visited in slightly more abstract terms in one of your earlier books, Tristan Smith. Memorably, he remarks at one point, ‘It’s the periphery shouting at the centre’.
Well, it’s always been the case of the periphery shouting at the centre. If you’re my age, and you grow up in Australia, you’re really aware of being on the periphery. You don’t expect anywhere else in the world to know who you are. If you write a book, you don’t expect them to read it. People of my age grew up to expect a certain patronising attitude with visiting Brits.
Generally with visitors, they got no further than the airport before they were asked what they thought of Australia … so, we’ve been rather fragile in that way.
Above: Watch the video of Michael Williams in conversation with Peter Carey, in full.
I’m interested in that Australia-America relationship. One of the lovely things about Amnesia is that while it looks backwards at the Whitlam Dismissal, it uses an act of cyberterrorism as the reason to go back.
Well, I think one of the centre/periphery things was, I was in New York and my publisher was talking to Assange about a biography, and I started to talk to him. At a certain stage, he said to me, I don’t suppose you’d like to write this? And I said, ‘Of course not’, and he said, ‘Yes, of course not’. I repeated this to a journalist in London and it got transmitted into the fact that I’d spurned Assange. Refused to write his biography! And it wasn’t that at all.
But the one thing that struck me about Assange was that firstly, he was Australian. The American politicians were calling him a traitor. I thought, excuse me? He’s an Australian; he’s not your citizen. He’s an Australian citizen. So when I think about Assange, I think of him as being one of us, someone who comes from our history.
I still don’t know very much about his life, because I don’t really want to, but there were a few things about him at that time that occurred to me. Firstly, there’s Magnetic Island that’s part of the story. I’m thinking Queensland, I’m thinking interesting mothers, I’m thinking puppeteer. Hippies. He has that certain way of speaking that I thought sounded Queenslandish. It might not be, but that’s what I thought. And I thought, his mother was at least Labor party or to the left of the Labor party in the 70s, and was harassed by the police during that period.
Therefore, I thought, this is someone who grew up with all the rage and trauma of the Dismissal. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to have a character who was like that – not him, but like that – whose whole motive for doing what they were doing was really to do with payback for 75. And that of course America wouldn’t see that for a second – it wouldn’t even occur to them that they’d done anything to upset us. No one would know anyway!
Assange, by the way, when he was still a teenager in Melbourne, they penetrated NASA and on the NASA screen, it turns up with this thing that says, ‘you’ve been wanked’. And that stood for Worms Against Nuclear Killers. So it had a political purpose to it. But there were all these concerned people after this huge breach of security, wondering what does WANK mean? And where are these people coming from?
It was a dead giveaway from an Australian. You’re only going to get ‘you’ve been wanked’ from an Australian. And because I carry a continual sense of America and its continual 150 years of foreign adventures … it continues to go into places not really understanding where it is. Maybe not understanding what the tribal structures might be, or not having people who speak the language.
I just thought, they don’t know who you are, they think you’re a traitor, I know that the character I’m going to make up is going to be affected by this and the book can be about that. So the character that you’ve made up is Gaby Baillieux, she’s the daughter of an old friend of Felix Moore’s and he’s drawn into telling her story to somehow humanise her.
To Australianise her. Show she’s the girl-next-door from Coburg, so they won’t want to extradite her to the United States and execute her.
Is to Australianise to humanise, do you think?
The motivation that other people attribute to Gaby as the book evolves isn’t necessarily …
No. Felix is the one who’s obsessed with 1975. To him, it’s absolutely obvious from the beginning when he sees what she’s done. Because she’s the child of a Labor Party family, it’s not irrelevant to her life, but by the time Gaby’s interacting with the world, she’s really much more concerned with the role of corporations. American corporations destroying the human environment. It’s as an environmental activist … their first action above the Merri Creek in Coburg against the agricultural chemical firm that’s polluting the environment is a physical one. She says, if this had happened later, we would hack in there and shake it to pieces.
It bothers me that we’ve talked about this book and the big ideas in this book, but I haven’t done justice to how funny it is. One of the delights of this book is that it’s a real romp. In Felix, you have a character who is hapless – the self-styled last left-wing journalist in Australia, who is a kind of accidental and incidental hero, who goes from disaster to disaster. And his sinister property develop benefactor Woody Townes. I’ve heard you in many interviews describe yourself as a pessimist, but this is a book that’s brimming with a kind of anarchic optimism.
Humour and optimism are different things. I do think I’m a pessimist, but humour is light and life, and if you’re going to write a book about a world that’s objectively getting darker and darker, you’d better laugh and you’d better be able to laugh. For me, that’s light in the darkness. Also, it’s sort of compulsive. I don’t know how else to be.