Peter Carey interviewed by Robert Polito at The New School in the winter of 2001.
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Robert Polito Peter—you’ve written a remarkable novel here, True History of the Kelly Gang, it’s also been a great success on at least three continents I know of already, Australia, North America, and Europe…
Peter Carey You left out Ireland.
RP Ireland? (laughter) I’m wondering if there’s any aspects of the reception of the book that’s surprised you?
PC Well, I suppose the interesting thing is that the receptions are a little different. In Britain it tends to be talked about as a revisionist history, which seems to me a little odd. But I realized in the end that most of the British critics really had always thought of Ned Kelly as this smelly Australian criminal, and when they found somebody in the pages of the book that they actually—they thought that this must be revisionist. In fact, I think my view of Ned Kelly is very close to the view of most Australians. In Australia, a very distressing thing happened which was that — this book is hugely made up. And yet it touches on non—parts of the story. And a lot of the early Australian critics, I think, had no idea how damn made-up it was. And so basically the three major reviews really tended to review Ned Kelly. Which, of course, for somebody attempting to produce literature is a little disappointing. But fortunately some younger, more enthusiastic critics came a long way, who gave me the praise I deserved (laughter). When writing the book I thought —and I think many Australians would’ve shared my feelings — Ned Kelly was rather so much ours that American readers would not be particularly entranced or engaged with the story. And so I was continually pleased, I must say when people started saying it’s a Western. Now, if I tell my friends in Australia they’ll say, Well, Pete what do the Yanks think about this Ned Kelly thing? And I’ll say, Well, I’ll tell you they think it’s a Western. And you can hear the laughter. Because for an Australian a Western is just, by definition, completely American. And Ned Kelly, by definition, just exclusively Australian. So that particular way of reading certainly is not one that I would have expected or thought about and yet it’s wonderful.
RP You’ve built into the book these American things: your Ned Kelly gets the idea to don iron armor from the American Civil War, and the child that the book is addressed to is, in the fiction of it, living in San Francisco.
PC Yeah, I did have a very angry stalker in Australia who shooed me, first by email, and then in Sydney, and then in Melvin. And he was particularly irate about the fact that Ned’s child should end up in this country. But if you read the press at the time it was generally thought that when the gang was missing for a long time and couldn’t be found by anybody that they had indeed come to this country. And that was an option that they doubtless considered.
RP And you could’ve, of course, saved his life if he had.
PC Yeah absolutely, absolutely. There are also a lot of Americans in the story. One of his mother’s lovers, George King, historically, was American. And the armor, I mean, what Ned Kelly’s known for in Australia is that the gang produced this amazing armor which was made out of ploughshares and it’s got a head like a big bucket with a little slit like that to see right there though. And, when you put it on, it weighs about 120 pounds. I was relieved that I didn’t fall down when I put it on.
RP You did put it on?
PC Yeah. Well I put on a replica. I met with a blacksmith who produced this replica for an exhibition, and it was very, very heavy indeed, but you know it’s called armor so everyone tends to think the whole inspiration for this has come from some medieval night but in the press accounts of Australia at the time the outlaws were referred to as the ironclads. And you wonder where those words come from. But even before that I was thinking that he’s trying to make himself capable of withstanding modern weapons and my dear friend Patrick McGrath, who turned up late here tonight, um …
RP But he’s a character in the book.
PC (laughter) But he did go across the road from his house in London to a war museum to see … because I didn’t know about the history of the tanks, and I thought there might have been an armored car or a tank that had been invented earlier that he might have … but Patrick reported no tanks, so I moved on to the island, the ships.
RP Merrimack and the Monitor, yeah. There’s a double view of Ned Kelly—the officially Australian view of him as a horse thief and a murder, on the one hand, and then the secret and true history of him as, in a way, the founder of Australian nationalism and a folk hero, and with a real vision of Australia’s future. From the perspective of the role of Australia in your fiction, if we go back to the previous book, Jack Maggs, that was also a book that put the great transportation and the convict past of Australia at the center. Jack Maggs is a radical and beautiful revisiting of Great Expectations and, in cunning ways, you rewrite the story of Magwitch and Pip —here, Jack Maggs and Phipps from the Australian end of things. However, the novel provides the same empathy to Magwitch that Dickens gives to Pip. Both books have large ambitions and great historical, as well as literary, resonance, and both aim at tracking the Australian national psyche. American writers used to talk all the time about getting America down in all of its complexity in a novel, writers from Dos Passos to Norman Mailer. And while I don’t think it’d be right to say that your novels have gotten more Australian the longer you’ve been in New York, but they seem more directly focused on the idea of Australia. I wonder if you might talk about this sense that these novels —whatever else they’re trying to do in terms of story and character —aim to encompass Australia.
PC Yeah, we should talk about these questions at some time shouldn’t we. (laughter) I think it just goes back to a sort of a—well, let’s hope, a relatively healthy sort of narcissism —and writers are absolutely always obsessed with themselves. In my case, that obsession becomes mixed with my country and the question of who we are and who I am, what sort of people are we, I mean, the book is borne of the question: what sort of people are we that has a story like this as our major story? Australian culture still seems to me to be so very thin. That one is a writer, or not, has the great privilege of possibly being able to name things for the first time and because it’s Ned Kelly, my Ned Kelly says in the beginning he’s raised on lies and silence as well. Lies and silences do leave us with a lot of work in discovering who we are. So with the notion of the convict past certainly I grew up thinking it had nothing particularly to do with me and there were the convicts and then there were the rest of us. And Australians tended when they celebrate the founding of the country, well they did in the bicentennial, they tend to officially leave out the two most important things. They have the tall ships and the soldiers on the deck but somehow they forget that there was an aboriginal population that had been there fifty thousand years, so they don’t have a part in any of that, and below the ship’s decks were the convicts and they didn’t have a part in that particular celebration. So, because we’ve not wanted to see a lot of things, like the effect that the convict past has had on us, it seems to me our convict past, our founding fathers and mothers, have an effect on us that continues to this very day. These are interesting things to discover and hence the notion of fooling around with Magwitch in Great Expectations —to recognize that he was, in a sense, my ancestor.
RP Yeah, but Ned is haunted by the convict past; he has this beautiful line, “When our brave parents was ripped form Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history, and every dear familiar thing had been abandoned on the docks of Cork, or Galway, or Dublin, then the banshee came on board and cursed the convict ships.” He’s haunted by this past, but the novel is really addressed to Australia’s future, isn’t it? In the form of the daughter who’s the recipient of the narrative, isn’t it?
PC It is addressed to a better time; it is addressed to a better future. One of the things Ned says at the beginning—well, I can barely remember it —anyway, his assumption that all the cruelties and the coarse words that you’re now about to read will have all passed away. So that child does enable the novel to be optimistic about certain circumstances that were very, very oppressive and cruel, at the time.
RP And there’s these conflicting visions of Australia. There’s like the official view of Australia, which is the constable’s vision and the landowner’s vision in which you know all of those people collaborate against people like Ned, and then there’s Ned’s vision that culminates really in this army that he creates. At the end of the novel he describes people like him, “They arrived in broken car and drays it was the type that the Benalla ensign named the most frightful class of people. They couldn’t afford to leave their cows and pigs, but they done so because we was them and they was us and we had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved it weren’t no tamed goose, but true bone, blood and beauty born.”
PC That’s his line, that last but, “true blood, bone, and beauty born,” he really, well he was no slouch as a writer, not a well educated man,and certainly when it comes to invective he was far better than I ever could be; I always felt dwarfed by him. Yeah, I mean I think this is, in the end, when I ask, What sort of people are we that we should have this story?
RP Well it’s a very ambiguous character in the book who asks that.
PC Well, yes, he takes a very conservative position, saying, What’s wrong with us, why can’t we have a Disraeli or a Jefferson; why must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves. But, of course, I made him say those things —but he shouldn’t have really been surprised, after all, this is the country that has “Waltzing Matilda.” The guy who steals a sheep and commits suicide rather than going into custody, and this is the song of our heart, the song that moves us. So he really shouldn’t be surprised that we’re getting engaged with Ned Kelly. Australia really begins with this whole notion of the convict cede and the convict stain and this whole question that lies over the country: can you have a decent society in this place where you start with these terrible people? Ned Kelly is the convict seed, and he proves himself to be not trapped in this deterministic view but to show himself to be truly protean. He’s a giant, and he demonstrates to everybody that he’s smarter, braver, and basically more decent than any of the people that would like to imprison him. I’ve been touring around talking too much about myself and I was in Denver and an Australian guy came up and said his grandfather —and I’m going to tell you this story, it’s about Ned Kelly’s character and the impression he made on people —he said his grandfather had been a jockey, who rode his horse in the Melvin cup, which is the great horse race in Australia.He was riding his horse back and he just happened to be going past this little shanty in the tiny hamlet of Glenrowan, at the time when the Kelly’s were making their last stand. So this man was taken hostage along with the others. And his grandson remembers vividly that anytime if he referred to Kelly as Ned Kelly, his grandfather would correct him and say, “Mr. Kelly, to you.” There’s so many stories like that about this man, and really his great character witnesses were the bank managers or the policeman who were always, at the end of their encounters with Ned Kelly, impressed by his character. So, this was a remarkable man, I do believe.
RP One of the things that the book brings out for me is history, who gets to write it? Some of the great scenes in the book are when we get these newspaper accounts, or these probably fictional newspaper accounts …
PC Real newspaper accounts.
RP Real newspaper accounts, oh? Of Ned’s activities in which Ned or his wife then annotate and comment on and edit and give the “true” version of it. Ned is very conscious of being Australia’s first historian. I mean there’s a beautiful moment in which—I think it’s after the first killing of the policeman —and one member of his gang starts singing these old Irish songs and Ned turns to him and says something like, “Stop singing that, we don’t sing that anymore, we write our own history from now on.” It’s a turning point in that even the history of Ireland is actually inadequate to this new history; it’s part of what they have to reject of write this true history. Ned goes on, I think that when he gives his first public speech, he says, “In the hottest creek I see proof that if a man could tell his true history to Australians he might be believed.” But go ahead.
PC There are two parts. There’s the aspect of who writes history and then there’s another more character-driven aspect, and the character-driven thing comes out of the historical character who you can see is driven mad with the desire to tell the story. He had a long and rather bitter experience of the law and of justice and so on, but a person who continues to have this sort of touching belief that if he can only tell the story it will be believed. When they held up the bank at Euroah in this most beautiful robbery, which gained him the immediate respect and admiration of all Australians. They held these people hostage at this farm, and he did address, like a jury, his captives, and he swayed the jury. At that moment, he began to have a different idea of himself. You have to think of someone who’s really been at the very bottom of the social pecking order, the Irish in Australia at that time —ah, well, it’s the aboriginals and then the Irish—they had no shoes, they were looked down upon. You read the newspapers of that time and they were just filled with anti-Irish jokes. One of the lovely things about the Kelly’s two years of freedom is that the jokes did tend to start to be about the police rather than about the Irish, but that’s neither by nor by. So he’s a man who wrote this 56-page letter explaining things. That’s who I think he was. Our history of these sort of people is really like little wooden shacks in that they rot into the earth. The only things that we know really are from police reports and, as for their emotional lives, I think one can, with great responsibility, seek to invent them and make them fit into the more legal history that’s there.
RP It’s fascinating that his first two memories are these—the first memory is his mother breaking eggs into a dish the morning that her brother is taken to jail and the second memory is that he’s given a pencil by Sergeant O’Neill—two strains of his life, the scholar and the criminal.
PC I wish I was smart enough to have planned that. One does things intuitively often and I guess those things remain because they do work, but I never really considered it in that way.
RP But it’s just a beautiful moment. I wonder where Ned’s language comes from. Obviously one source is that letter, I’m going to mispronounce the letter, but the Jerilderie …
PC You did fine.
RP The Jerilderie letter … I love the way that you avoid putting that letter in the book, because it’s lost forever at some point, the government takes it over, it’s a missing chapter for the book.
PC That is what happened. That did what happened—I’m getting back into the language you can see (laughter).
RP But Ned had this real poetry throughout the text. Let me just quote one more example: “The memory of the policeman’s words lay inside me like the egg of a river fluke, and while I went about growing up this slander worn deeper and deeper into my heart, and grew fat.” You know, Ned’s mother tells him these Irish stories when’s he growing up and he’s surrounded by this Irish mythology: he reads Lorna Doone, the Bible, some Shakespeare. How did you arrive at this language for him? Because I read some of that letter, and that letter is much harsher.
PC Yes, it is. Well, there’s a different tone of voice for a man coming to the end of his tether, which the historical character is, and the Jerilderie letter is like a cry of pain—I mean, it is sometimes rather funny —but it is someone who I think knows he’s getting very close to the point where he’s going to die. The notion of this is that it’s written to a daughter so it will tend to be less harsh, but partly the language was inspired by his letter, which I first read when I was about 20 and was so impressed with it that I typed the whole thing in my slow pecking way. That really burned into my brain, I do believe. The other thing was that I went to a small country school in Victoria probably about one hundred miles as the crow flies from where Ned Kelly lived. And a lot of the kids were not particularly well educated and some of my sense of that voice really comes from the schoolyard at Becker’s Marsh State School #28. Because certainly I never felt unsure about the voice, so it’s coming from somewhere other than, you know, a parody of Ned Kelly’s writing.
RP It didn’t read like a parody at all; it doesn’t read like pastiche. When you first told me that you were going to put the novel in his voice my worry was that it was going to end up like Mason and Dixon—as a kind of pastiche of an earlier dialect. To me it reads like this genuine instance of, like, outsider art, this thing that is really self-contained and can still be generous and you just can’t imagine in it any other way.
PC When I discovered that there were people like, well, particularly Faulkner and As I Lay Dying, people like that in the world … There is a notion about As I Lay Dying, which was, and still is, particularly moving to me, which is the notion of giving voice to the voiceless and making a poetry that comes out of the those poor, uneducated, struggling people. I didn’t think about that all the time I was writing this book but, when I finished, it seemed to contain all the things that had drawn me to literature in the first place. And it’s also the influence—the other things that I didn’t think about, fortunately, until after it was done, it’s a book that I couldn’t have written if I’d not read Joyce; I couldn’t have written it if I’d not read Beckett, I don’t believe.
RP Have you read Gertrude Stein in connection with this?
PC No, I haven’t actually.
RP Because she’s the other writer that writes sentences exactly like those arc sentences.
PC The thing about leaving out commas is so damned useful that when you leave them out and run sentences on you’re in dangerous territory. I did the first draft like that and it was very like Ned Kelly and sort of unreadable. So for most of the book, I used these rough, approximate commas and it was only at the very end when everything else was locked in, whennthe dramatic form of the book was there and the scenes were fully imagined, that I just did a global search and took out the commas and the full stops and then went back and rebuilt and rewrote it from there. The interesting thing about doing it is that it forces you into far greater clarity; commas hide a lot of things. So the effect, I think, was finally to make the work clearer. And I certainly didn’t want to punish readers. I mean one of my fond memories of writing workshops is people saying, “Well, I didn’t want to make it too easy for the readers.” Well, in the real world, people don’t, you know, read our work three times with a pen in their hands. So I was really concerned that even though this is a difficult thing to do that the reader should learn how to do it in the first page or so.
RP I love the way Ned pulls this poetry from the natural world—all those metaphors, and I could’ve read like a hundred more, I mean, they’re all pulled from the world that he’s deeply immersed in as a farmer. So there’s nothing literary or affected about them.
PC Well, it has to grow out of a place. And I’m not the first person to write about Ned Kelly but two things seemed to me to be largely missing from other work. One was a sense of class, his class, and the other was the fact that these are rural people. I mean they want horses and they want land and they are of the land and all of their obsessions, all of their experience is —you have to know I’m frightened by horses, and yet one of the things I knew I had to do was write about horses so that someone who has spent their whole life on a horse will accept that I know what I’m talking about, and that had to happen with all of these things about the soil, the weather …. So naturally then if I immerse myself in that and think that the character grows from the soil, then all of the images will also grow out of the soil.
RP A lot of the reviews that I’ve read of the book focus on Ned as a kind of idealized portrait of him but when you read the book closely it’s a really complicated psychological portrait of him. It seems to me on the one hand that he’s someone who doesn’t get along with a single man except for his brothers. He tries to kill all of his mother’s lovers including his own father; he feels responsible for his own father’s death; he actively tries to kill Bill Frost … What’s the other one’s …
PC George King?
He just threatens to kill George. Oh, he goes to kill George King. Forgot that (laughter).
RP And both his brother and George King accuse him of viewing his mother as his girlfriend. When he meets his wife Mary Hearn—he’s riding on a horse —he actually mistakes her for his mother.
PC Is something wrong with all this? (laughter)
RP I’m wondering how you worked that into his social story, his political story, because one way I think of reading the whole political part, the last third of the book, is that he’s really trying to get his mother out of jail. It’s very personal, it’s not political and social at all.
PC Well, when I talk to my Aussie friends about this and I’m saying I’m writing about Ned Kelly and I expected them to be all excited, instead their eyes sort of glazed over and said, “Why would you bother because we know all about Ned Kelly anyway and uh.” So, it seemed to me that so much stuff was just lying on the ground; if this is a mine that’s been well worked over there are gold nuggets lying everywhere. This is a man who did seem to be driven, I mean the story seemed to be driven by his relationship with his mother. We know at the very end of the story when he’s sort of half nuts, and he’s signing his letters “I am a widow’s son outlawed and must be obeyed” and we know that his mother is in prison and he passionately wants to get her out. You get back to the beginning of the life you see that here’s a boy who loses his father when’s he 12. He’s the oldest son, he and the mother are naturally going to form a close bond—they’ll be a survival unit. Well, then we also know the exact size of the hut that they live in; we know there are no internal walls, there are only curtains, and we know that Mrs. Kelly had at least three lovers who —and some became husbands—and we know that their sex life is going to take place in this little hut and you’ve got a 12-year-old boy there in a close relationship with his mother. It’s not too weird to say he’s going to be jealous of those men, and so on. And if you start to think about this, you can start to put a picture together which runs a line of action that goes right through this whole story that’s determined by the relationship with the mother and of course then I emphasized it in all sorts of ways. This is the lying work of the novelist, working in the service of half a greater truth.
RP Do you see Ned as having limits in any particular way? Like you mentioned Faulkner before —in what ways do you think Ned is the unreliable historian of this book?
PC I think he’s totally of his time. If you think of Ned talking about his father who has a conflict with a group of black men. Ned describes that the father’s set upon by them, and Ned says something like “a vicious Sydney black man warragul set upon my father; my father never done nothing to him.” The modern reader reading that knows that’s not true at all—you know that what was done to those people was considerable and the reason that that particular group of black men are acting in the way that they are. So we know he’s unreliable in all sorts of ways, I would say, and certainly you know he doesn’t have the liberal racial sensibility we Australians might like to give him. It would’ve been great for us if I could’ve invented this old black man who taught Ned the tracks and that would’ve reconciled … but you can’t do that, we’ve taught ourselves enough lies. So somehow you have to grasp this uncomfortable thistle, having a person who’s a hero who’s not in every way as you would wish him to be and somehow you’ve got to represent that and let it sit there and learn how to deal with it.
RP There’s a lot of things he doesn’t see coming, he’s naïve in a lot of ways, particularly in the beginning in relation to Harry Power, the person who takes him––
PC Yeah, very trusting.
RP And he’s naïve in the end, too, in a slightly different way when he gives his manuscript over to Thomas Curnow …
PC Well, he had to do that (laughter), there’d be no book, so he was not free to keep that. I wouldn’t let him do that in my own mechanistic storytelling way.
RP But the way it works in the book is a kind of vanity. Curnow comes and flatters him about what a good writer he is and says, “I can edit this book and take it someplace.”
PC Curnow is a schoolteacher; the book does get involved with Ned’s writing. But the historical Curnow was flattered by Ned and tricked by Ned and was permitted to go home to his wife and then he––
RP Turns him in.
PC I think the historical character was continuously trusting of people. There’s a Constable Fitzpatrick who’s an atrocious person, defended by no one afterwards, who he trusted; Senior Constable Hall, another scoundrel, not a good word spoken about him by anybody, the police included, and whom Ned trusted.
RP Curnow seemed one of the most fascinating figures in the book. We might talk about him a little more. The opening, the prologue, ends with him walking away with the book that we’re reading and we’re told at the end that the gray marks that are over the manuscript are his. He’s the person that asks that question that we spoke of earlier—why are Australians interested in people like this. In some sense he’s the voice of official Australia, of the constables and the landowners and the voice of betrayal, but he’s also the reason we have this true history.
PC He also was amazingly courageous. He’s slight, partially crippled, and he’s the person that does what this whole army of police have been unable to do. He can rightly, I think, in view of this society, to some extent, be looked on as a hero, but of course he’s not. He’s not because we’re Australians and we will tend to vilify Curnow. So naturally he’s upset, naturally he says these things that are critical of Australian values. Curnow got the biggest reward and he fought hard …
RP The historical Curnow?
PC Yeah, the historical Curnow. He got 1000 pounds out of it, but he’s not remembered fondly.
RP He’s obviously fascinated enough with the story to preserve it. He’s almost answering his own question with this book.
PC The thing that I thought in having him obsessing over the manuscript was that it’s really to do with the force of Ned Kelly’s character; the manuscript has impressed Curnow against his will.
RP Yeah, exactly. This book is really rooted in the land and the soil but there’s a whole supernatural apparatus around the edges of it. There’s that banshee passage; banshees somehow got aboard the convict ship. And one of my favorite scenes in the novel is when Ned is called back to Harry Power by this boy, who’s presented to us as kind of thin with long, thin fingers, and an impossibly gifted rider, who takes him to this almost magical farm and Harry tells him that he might not be a boy of this earth but a substitute. And he has this strange sister named Caitlin that Ned first falls in love with and never sees again. But what’s fascinating to me about this supernatural aspect of it is it’s very much connected to the political vision of the world, because when Ned arrives at that farmhouse he sees these fat, well-fed cows and he says something like, “This gave me a vision of the world after justice would be achieved.” I’m wondering how you saw those? There are others, there’s the boy whose eyes change color after a gun is fired in his presence, and that’s also connected with political vision, because right then Ned says, “We’ll be changed in the fire the same way that the alchemist changed lead into gold.”
PC Well I suppose it’s what happens … The story has a number of different forces and one of them was my desire to––I mean I’m continually thinking about the political framework of the book, and I’m also thinking about what sort of culture these people brought with them. As Australians we’ve so much wanted Ned Kelly to be an Aussie that it’s been a year zero situation; we haven’t tended to imagine what came from Ireland and what didn’t come from Ireland. I spent a lot of time reading Irish folk stories and immersing myself in that, thinking that he would’ve grown up with those sorts of stories. So that child in that story, that boy with the thin legs and long feet, is a creature out of an Irish folk story, much modified. That’s really just to represent a way of thinking, and of course––
RP Because there’s magic and dread always at the edge of his world.
PC That’s probably just my bad character (laughter).
RP I’m wondering how you do these books like Jack Maggs, or even The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, and Ned Kelly in terms of genre. There’s a sense in which they are historical novels but they’re unlike most historical novels in that they delve into autonomous worlds that promote secret histories that really run on a track analogous to the official history that other books might track.
PC Yeah, historical fiction is a term that makes me so nervous because it always sounds like something I wouldn’t want to read. I never really made any distinction—although I have to keep on making it because people keep on talking about historical fiction —between science fiction, or the past, the present, or the future. Because in the end, as far as in literature, it’s all made up, it’s all fabricated and if you’re writing about the past you have the advantage that there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s been already made up before you that you can use. You have the disadvantage that people have opinions about that stuff so you’ve got to take care of that. And with the future, of course, it’s wonderful —you can invent anything, or in a parallel world you can invent anything, but you have the terrible disadvantage that … In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, I had to decide well, is there Shakespeare in this world, and what are the trees called and what are they, those trees? It gets to a stage that’s totally terrifying. I mean, thank god I decided there would be a Shakespeare in that world. But there are all different ways, I suppose, of looking at the present. Jack Maggs seems to me … Australia, you have to realize, is a country that still is not a republic, and that in 1975 the representative of the Queen of England dismissed our elected government. So, a story like Jack Maggs about this convict who is free of Australia and returns to England to sit with this imaginary gentleman that he’s manufactured at risk to his life, seems to me a very modern story (laughter); that seems to be about us now and who we are right now.
RP And the fact that this gentleman is his creation and his tormentor at the same time.
PC Well, he doesn’t recognize that his beloved son is his tormentor and one of the satisfying things for me about Joe Jack Maggs was that he finally did recognize—I didn’t let him die with false consciousness.
RP This may seem like a loaded question, but it really isn’t …
PC That means it is.
RP I think of your books as very wise and forgiving about human behavior. I wonder if, in that kind of old D.H. Lawrence sense of trusting the tale and not the teller, there’s a way in which you feel your work knows more than you do.
PC Oh, well that’s why writers are always so disappointing (laughter). I mean the whole process of writing I do think — probably not true for Anita Brookner who writes one draft, right? – but for most of us we write many drafts and we have a chance to slowly elevate ourselves and to become wiser than we are…In a way, writing a novel and all its various drafts is like making a staircase, so you come out the end having made something that is indeed smarter than you are. That’s one of the wonders of it.
Q & A
Audience Member 1 I’m curious as to how the aboriginal population figures into all of this and do they have a view of it coming in … they’re on the bottom of the pile and the Irish just one ladder above them, then what’s the…
PC Historically the people who were most likely to be the murderers and rapists of the aboriginal people were the people the next rung up and that would tend to be the convicts. This book just addressed that fact, I do believe.
Audience Member 1 Has this man achieved some kind of mythic status?
PC Among aboriginals? There is a Ned Kelly, and Australians love this again because it reconciles something —there is supposedly a Ned Kelly cult in Northern Australia, and people will often mention this as being … Because I think to have indigenous people admiring Ned Kelly in that sort of way makes us all feel a lot better, but I wouldn’t think that now Ned Kelly was of any great importance to any aboriginal people at all.
Audience Member 2 In one of the English articles about you there was a photograph taken at the Sydney Olympics in which there were a whole bunch of children dressed up as mini Ned Kellys in armor, what was that all about?
PC I was sitting here in New York yelling at the television, ‘you idiots!’ —well, it seemed to be really trivial —and actually when I went back to Australia I couldn’t find a single person to agree with me and whenever I said “Oh wasn’t that just so revolting,” they said “Oh well we really liked it” and after I mouthed off about if for three weeks. And then at the end of that time I started to ask some questions and I think what was important about that was not that it was rather kitsch, because that whole opening ceremony is like that, it’s what people do … We were officially recognizing Ned Kelly. There’s a way where officially Australia tends not to … you didn’t hear anybody singing “Waltzing Matilda” at the game, but there was Ned Kelly; it was important to people and I was wrong to yell at people.
Audience Member 2 It wasn’t like the 100 Elvis impersonators jumping out of a plane …
PC Well, sort of like that … but deeper.
Audience Member 3 When you mention black, are you talking, in light of immigration policies in Australia, about aborigines or are you talking about others?
PC No, I’m talking about the aboriginal people. Australia had this plainly named “White Australia Policy” which was in effect until the Whitlam government came to power in the ’70s, and a policy supported by people on the left and the right, by trade unions afraid of competitive people in the labor market and so on. It’s a shameful part of our history, but certainly if you know Australia today, Australian cities, they’re multicultural cities that bear very little resemblance to the Australia that I grew up with.
Audience Member 4 Robert mentioned you’ve written a lot about Australia after you left it … Connecting it with the supernatural presence in Australia, do you think that heightens in your absence from the country? Because Australia does have some level of supernatural-ness to it …
PC To me it doesn’t seem any more supernatural than anyother place. Being away from the country, I think that when I came here for a long time people would say, Well when are you going to write a New York book, and I got to a stage where I really thought I had to do it as a test of skill or goodwill or something. And I did indeed begin, and I abandoned that to begin this one, with huge relief. There’s no doubt that I learned at that time that the depth and breadth of stuff I could bring to this is so much in excess of what I could bring to a book about New York that I’m going to forget about New York for now. The whole supernatural thing … I’m not really totally engaged in that sort of notion about Australia, but in this particular book I certainly was interested in the culture of the people who’d come to Australia and how they saw the world and what stories they had and how they thought about things, and because those things are stories which I could build stories out of and on top of then that’s attractive to me, just in making this invented world.
RP The one thing that struck me was the interesting paradox that you talk about the thinness of Australian culture that permits you to make a contribution and can actually be quite strong and strategic in ways, but at the same time you’ve chosen the thickest part of that thin culture. You talk about friends all getting surprised that you chose this tale that everyone thought they knew and other artists like Sidney Nolan, which is, with that in mind, important in a sort of attempt to create national identity, rather than to deny it as an earlier generation had. So it just struck me as an interesting paradox.
PC Except that what we think is thick turns out to be really thin. I think it’s not unlike us to have been hesitant to really imagine the emotional life of these characters and Sidney Nolan’s paintings, which are truly extraordinary and certainly made me think about writing this book, are concerned with an icon, literally. The paintings represent Kelly with this sort of stylized bucket head to, this big black square head …
RP It’s very surreal.
PC And you can often see the landscape through it. So his project isn’t at all to do with character or emotional life—though it’s not devoid of emotion —but not the emotional life of the character in that way. I think it rather suited us that we would have this armored male figure and that we didn’t really want to think about much of what was inside the armor —that feels sort of like us in a way. Anyway, I think it’s meant to be thick, it should be a thick part of the culture, but it didn’t seem to me when I got into it.