I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On an unseasonably sultry October afternoon, I make my way over to the West Village townhouse Peter Carey shares with his wife, Alison Summers, and their sons, Charley and Sam, to discuss his latest novel.
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith … a seemingly whimsical title, reminiscent of Sterne and Swift … but whimsy can’t fully conceal Carey’s fierce—and hilarious—satire of cultural imperialism, and can’t fully display the sweep—and dazzle—of Carey’s fictional landscape. Creating two entire countries, Efica and Voorstand, and sustaining them with a cavalcade of maps, local histories, dialects, folklore, and a creepy Disneyesque pop culture, Tristan Smith, from the shaky vista of the formerly colonized, is the first of Carey’s books to register the impact of New York City. Carey, an Australian, is the author of four novels, Bliss, lllywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda (awarded the 1988 Booker Prize), and The Tax Inspector, as well as a collection of stories, The Fat Man in History.
I follow Peter up three flights to a rooftop deck. The previous evening, while introducing Kazuo Ishiguro at the 92nd Street Y, Peter remarked that “recklessness” was the quality that most engaged him in literature: Don Quixote, Tristam Shandy and Dickens as opposed to, he said, The Eustace Diamonds. Directly after our conversation he would rush to meet with one of his graduate writing students; earlier that morning he already had worked four hours on his next novel, Mags … .
The shaded pastoral of Peter’s roof proved deceptive—the tape disclosed a squall of police cars, ambulances, motorcycles, and school children we must have overlooked as we talked about Australia, America, and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.
Robert Polito Your latest novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, is steeped in questions of national and cultural identity. I wonder if we might start with your own background. You’ve lived in New York now since 1990—how did you come to be here?
Peter Carey My wife loved North America and wanted to be here and direct theater. And then there was a job at NYU for me. So we just … came. I’ve made big moves in my life relatively lightly and easily—it wasn’t odd, given my history, that I packed my books and rugs and set off for New York. What I hadn’t anticipated was how having children makes this move more permanent. I have one absolutely American son, Charley, who was born in New York City. And my other son, Sam, was born in Australia: but he’s probably more American than Australian. What do I say to them? OK guys, time to change your accents again? In another life I might be shifting on to the next thing. After having had this rather cavalier attitude towards where I lived, it’s odd to suddenly become anchored in New York City.
RP Yet your essay of a few years ago called “Home” sounds more unsettled than cavalier—agitated by feelings of yearning and displacement. You wrote: “I can now see my history as a sometimes pathetic series of attempts to create a home.”
PC Yeah, it’s true. I began my life as an expatriate at the age of ten. I was sent from this working class country town to a very posh ruling class boarding school, Geelong Grammar, which would not easily fit in with anybody’s notions of Australia. You might be astonished at how much it was like an English public school. Accents were a little different, but not always all that different, because in the fifties, the Australian ruling class often spoke with English home county accents. We were brought up to believe that there was something inherently vulgar and second rate in the Australian accent. And to this day I still fluctuate between saying dance, and dhance — I said castle my first week of Geelong Grammar, and they said to me, “We don’t say castle, we say khassel. Only Americans say castle.” There was this weird sense of Australia’s place in the colonial pecking order. These Australians were acting like 19th century British snobs, looking down on Americans as vulgar colonials. It was grotesque.
RP That little country town where you were born was Bacchus Marsh—what was it like?
PC It was a small town of about four thousand people—one main street with the shops, a lot of farmers, a coal mine, a brick works, and a lot of the people were laborers for a living. In fact, I was just remembering it today because a former classmate sent me our class pictures from 1950 and 1953. They look like they were taken in England at the end of the war. These are real working class kids: ill-fitting clothes, old, rumpled; but the faces, there are little men in there, staring out of children’s faces … . My kids’ school photos don’t look like this.
RP I dressed more like an adult when I was six than I do now—a miniature adult in a suit and tie, a tweed top coat, perched on Santa’s knee. Some of that’s period fashion, I suppose.
PC These were tough kids: so it was a major cultural leap for me to go from there to Geelong Grammar. I was staggered. No one had fist fights.
PC No one fought, no one fought the whole time I was there. It was amazing.
RP What did your parents do?
PC They owned a car dealership.
RP Ah—the original of Catchprice Motors?
PC Well, I stole the topography of their business for The Tax Inspector. And I did worry afterwards that people in Australia would read the book and think that The Tax Inspector was thinly disguised family history, and thereby embarrass my sister and my brother. So I went around giving this speech about the nature of fiction: how we draw on things … (laughter) I grew up in a household that was obsessed with motor cars, selling motor cars. All they talked about day and night.
RP So how did you end up at that boarding school, coming from this background?
PC I’m not always clear about the motives of the characters in my non-fiction life. It was my mother who knew about posh boarding schools. My father would probably rather have not had to worry about the money, but he did, they both did: 600 pounds a term, in 1953. That was incredible money, as they always reminded me. When I was first published and people started to interview me, I made some comments on my parents’ motives, which I regret now. I said going to Geelong Grammar was a reflection of my mother’s social aspirations, for instance. You have to be really young and sort of stupid to say those sorts of things.
RP Now you get to say them: but also say they’re stupid at the same time.
PC It’s true. (laughter) Anyway, my mother had her media revenge on me when I won the Booker Prize. It was such an unimaginably big deal in Australia. The tabloid TV shows went out to Bacchus Marsh, 30 miles from the city. She was getting a little old, she was a little forgetful, things were starting to not work well for her, and this is what my mother said on television: The reporter said, “You must be very proud, your son’s won the Booker Prize.” And she said, “Oh yes.” And they said, “Did Peter ring you to tell you the news?” And she said, “Ring me? Why would he ring me? He never rings me.” (laughter) Which was totally untrue! In fact I rang her the morning after I’d won the prize. It was about six in the morning in London, and I said, “You know that prize that I told you I might get?” She said, “Yes dear, I know you won it. There were some people here from your work.” I said, “What work?” She said, “You know, with the television cameras.”
RP So, as far as she was concerned you were still in advertising. Were you already writing when you worked for an advertising agency?
PC I began writing, and reading, when I got my job in advertising. I’d really not studied literature very much. Although my English teacher at Geelong Grammar says (quite frequently) that we studied a lot of Shakespeare—I did like that. He says Milton, but I don’t remember that. I went to university to be a scientist.
RP What kind of scientist?
PC I was going to be an organic chemist; and then I was going to be a zoologist. Along the way I bought the Faber Book of Modern Verse, and I got very excited about what I found in it. So I started to write poetry. My bad poetry was published in the student newspaper and I also produced a very inelegant cartoon strip. And then I failed my first year exams, and got a job at an advertising agency. I had no political critique of advertising, no social critique, just thought it would be sort of an interesting thing to do. I didn’t think there was any need to be guilty about selling anything to anyone—my folks sold motor cars. And when I went into advertising, all the copywriters were writing short stories, novels … literature just fell into my lap—not eighteenth or nineteenth century literature, but Joyce and Pound and Kerouac and Beckett and Kafka. It was an odd way to begin an education. Most of our copywriting was rejected. We just talked about literature.
RP Was there a transition between writing advertising and writing your fiction?
PC I have a very obsessive personality—the minute I decided that I was going to be a writer (and I decided it quite soon, with no justification), that’s how I defined myself. I was a writer. From the start. I wrote every night, and every weekend. And all this other stuff, the copywriting, the suit, was peripheral to my life. I simply became very snobbish; aside from a couple of very literary friends in advertising I wouldn’t socialize with anyone from an advertising agency. It was very juvenile. Once again I was an exile. I wasn’t really from the place where I lived. It wasn’t until after the Booker Prize that it began to look as if I could really live off my writing. But by then I was a partner in a small advertising agency, so it wasn’t so easy to get out of it. It was like a large ship that takes a little while to turn around. I was on the train coming back from Princeton with James Lasdon last year, and we were coming through those poisonous swamps or Meadowlands. It was winter, the end of the day. We were both exhausted from teaching. And I said, “You know James, I used to work just two afternoons in an advertising agency in Australia that’s all I had to do. The rest of the time I just wrote, and I never had to worry about whether my books sold. And he said, “Why did you give it up?” And I looked out the window and said, “I don’t know.” (laughter)
RP As an Australian living in New York you’re recreating again that sense you’ve been describing, of being an exile, an outsider. Do you enjoy being here?
PC I like being here a whole lot. It’s when something goes wrong that I can suddenly feel very foreign and very nervous. Like the Sons of Gestapo derailing the Amtrack, or the Texas state legislature deciding that it’s okay to carry concealed weapons—these things feel triply scary for me. But no, I really love New York City. I still get high just walking in the streets. I sometimes complain to Alison, my wife, and say, “I’ve got to get back to Australia. I’m Australian and that’s my culture.” But if she turned to me and said, Okay, we’ll go now, I wouldn’t want to go … not quite yet.
RP Do Australians view you differently now that you’ve moved away?
PC I can’t tell. I’m here, not there. But we are descended from people who were cast out, exiled from the center and locked away on the periphery. So when a successful Australian leaves, there’s a shiver that goes through the community, that really means, “You think you’re so high and mighty, you’re better than us.” Of course the discourse has become more sophisticated, and perhaps it’s not quite as bad as it was. Still, last week’s Australian newspapers carried this major story about a literary lunch, one of those lunches where people pay money to eat and hear their favorite author speak. They’re normally very polite, genteel affairs. But last week Frank Moorhouse (a very fine Australian writer) used one of these lunches to actually talk about something important. He complained that it was considered cultural “treason” for an Australian writer to live elsewhere, or to write about matters technically outside the national border. This upset his polite listeners so much that they began to walk out, and it delighted the media so much that it showed up on page three. This was provincial in the best, most exciting sense. I shudder to think about it. And I’m sorry I missed it.
RP The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith maps some of these vexations of cultural and national identity, but the geography appears at once invented and familiar. At one end of the telescope there’s “provincial” Efface, a former penal colony composed of 18 small islands; and at the other end is the powerful, culturally dominant and insinuatingly sinister Voorstand. In a sense Efica approaches Australia, and Voorstand the United States—Saarlim City even suggests a sort of Blade Runner echo of New York City. Yet we’re not reading simply allegorized recent history. Were you concerned that the novel maintain its fictional integrity?
PC I spent a lot of time making sure that no one could ever read Voorstand and think, “that’s America,” or Efica and think, “that’s Australia.” On the other hand, the emotional engine of the book comes from the fact that I’m an Australian. I live in the United States. I’m from a country that—whether Americans know it or not—has this long emotional, culturally and politically complex relationship with the United States.
RP One of the chilling moments for me in the novel was that line an Efican casually addresses to Voorstand: “You have no idea of your effect on those of us who live outside the penumbra of your lives.” As Tristan Smith remarks, “It’s the periphery shouting at the center.”
PC I have many American-born friends who travel a great deal and certainly are not isolationist in any cultural or political sense; but they don’t, as far as I can see, fully grasp the deep and profound effect of American popular culture on other cultures. You were here on this roof one night having a drink with [Australian novelist] Helen Garner, and Helen was talking about Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys and you guys were all amazed that someone in Australia would have any interest in Kinky Friedman. You bet we knew all about Kinky Friedman in Australia in the early ’70s. The powerful can never experience their own power … .
RP Americans seem to rarely think about how anyone outside might perceive us—or even, I suppose, how “history” will perceive us. We have a country that originated out of a massive campaign of genocide against an entire native civilization, then was sustained itself by slavery of another race, yet still manages an almost spectral innocence about itself.
PC Yeah, that innocence is extraordinary. A perfect example of false consciousness.
RP As you write in Tristan Smith, again addressing Voorstand, “You stand with your hand over your heart when the Great Song is played. You daily watch new images of your armies in the vids and the zines.”
PC When I read that line to a Canadian audience, I can feel them ‘get’ the line. I mean, they understand about the big country and the little country and they know which is which. Yet I have sometimes been surprised to discover American readers who never saw any connection between Voorstand and the United States. I suppose that one of the things about false consciousness is not having self-perception.
RP And no sense of irony as a people …
PC Well, New York is a very ironic city, but I take your point.
RP The main cultural display for both Efica and Voorstand, speaking of Disney (or irony!), is the Sirkus—these oddly appealing and terrifying animal “stars”: Bruder Mouse, the Duck, and the Dog. You told me once that you started Tristan Smith while on a trip to Florida.
PC There was a conference of the American Association for the Study of Australian Literature in Florida. I stayed for a few papers, and then I went off with Alison and Sam to Disney World. It was something to see Mickey and Minnie walking among the crowds, like royalty, like a King and Queen. This happened at a time when I was eager to engage the notion of America in a novel, and at Disney World I started to invent a country that was like an idea of America, not America literally. I started to imagine a country where figures like Mickey and Minnie were the decadent flowering of a heretical Protestant sect. It was like drawing a cause-and-effect line connecting Mickey and the Mayflower. It was an amusing, but also invigorating thought. It created a site for action, an arena in which to engage with my novel.
RP Are there incidents or episodes in the novel that might jump out at an Australian reader but go by an American?
PC You can say The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is most resonant within its own culture, but I think you could say the same thing of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. There isn’t a right reading of it, but there are things that Australian readers feel in their gut that American readers would not. For instance, there are many Australians who see the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 as having more than a little to do with the American government. I mean, we had a left-liberal Social Democratic government which behaved, from the beginning, in ways that were unpalatable to America. It was a heady time for us. We recognized China, withdrew our troops from Vietnam—there’s a long and exhilarating list. Australia, finally, began to behave, not as a Client State, but as an independent power with a mind of its own. This was a very worrying situation for the United States to face in a country which was, and is, strategically important to it. The Whitlam Government irritated the U.S. government (to say the least). It certainly angered and alarmed the U.S. intelligence community. So: Did American intelligence work to destabilize our government? Did your government help down the government I voted into power? I believe so. Many Australians believe so. So in a way, the book wasn’t really born in Disney World in 1990, but in November 1975. in the moment the Whitlam government was removed from power.
RP The way The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is framed, with the voice of an Efican speaking to Voorstand, the “you” invariably is Voorstand. Could the novel have only been written by someone who moved from a colonized country to an imperial power?
PC I guess. I guess, but I didn’t begin by playing it this way. I know the address to the Voorstand reader makes sense in terms of my particular history and psychology. I mean it makes sense that I, Peter Carey, should take on the Efican voice and address my narrative to the Voorstanders. It’s like I’m shouting out my apartment window in the Village. But the fact is, I did it to solve a technical problem. I gave an early draft to my editor Robert McCrum, and he said he thought the characters, the individual drama was working exceptionally well but that he was totally mystified by the history and the politics. All this stuff, which is so important to the novel, wasn’t clear to him. And he was dead right. So I sought a way to express this very clearly from the start. So I had my Efican narrator—Tristan Smith—address an imaginary Voorstand reader, and it just fell into place. Tristan could say: “We are like this, you are like that. We do this, you do that.” Suddenly I could lay all of this stuff out on the table. I could be clear. I could even hope to be entertaining.
RP Can we talk a bit about those footnotes and the rest of the “apparatus” that accompanies the novel? Because they seem to me symptomatic of something edgier than a smart joke. You provide all these mock references to Efican histories, ranging from something titled Efica: From Penal Colony to Welfare State (published by the Nez Noir University Press) to Tristan Smith’s own political pamphlet “What Is to be Done?” Then, the book concludes with glossaries of Efican and Voorstand slang. These are very funny, teasing academia, among other targets. But they also convey a powerful, almost tragic sense of the two countries’ linguistic strangeness from each other. I’m interested in how you approached the situation of language in the novel.
PC If you are a novelist inventing a country, one of your first questions has to be: How do the characters talk to each other. Are there “guys” and “buddies” in this country? No, that’s specific to the United States. A trite easy expression like “Have a nice day” has its roots deep in the soil of a particular culture. So how would my Eficans and Voorstanders talk to each other? One of my ways to reveal the language of the Eficans was to delve into their French and English colonial past. I began to develop these creolised expressions which would grow from Efican history. Once I began to invent this patois, I could name the trees, the streets. Because I had already done a lot of work imagining what their history was, that history then percolated through their language. The footnotes are there to reveal these historical processes, to add mythological or cultural layers to the narrative in a sometimes amusing way. But you can also ignore them if you wish—the book works without them.
RP There’s a sense in the novel that Efica and Voorstand can’t speak to each other except through broad cultural spectacles like the Sirkus. The small, avant garde, left wing theater company that Tristan Smith’s mother, Felicity, runs in Efica, the Feu Follet, seems an attempt to create an alternative culture and an alternative language—to the Voorstand popular culture that pervades both countries.
PC That was certainly an obsession of mine. If you’re an Australian artist you’re engaged in the exhilarating and difficult task of inventing your culture. So the passions that drive the cultural nationalists of the Feu Follet are also mine. Australian writers can have a sense of their own importance that is unthinkable for most American writers. An Australian writer can really name things for the first time. We do all this, of course, at a time when fewer and fewer people are reading novels, and fewer and fewer people can afford the theater. We do it in the face of an all-pervasive popular culture which is not only very popular but has its roots in a foreign (I mean, American) history.
RP As Felicity says, “We have a whole damn country to invent.”
PC Yeah, I think that’s so. Also Australia still has very little sense of what it is has become. It thinks of its self as an Anglo-Celtic place where people might see Paul Hogan as a “real Aussie.” Yet there’s been this massive immigration since the Second World War, and the effects of this are only just beginning to be felt in the cultural mainstream. So Australia is still in the process of inventing itself.
RP Felicity’s theater is an outpost against the ascendancy of the Sirkus. But I wonder if you also had in mind something closer to home. Your wife, Alison Summers, is an accomplished theater director.
PC I drew on Alison’s work continually. But I began by thinking about a theater called the Pram Factory, a radical theater collective in Melbourne in the 1960s. At the start I had no idea that theater would be important to me thematically. I was really looking for a political environment, and I certainly wasn’t interested in writing about the lives of politicians. Alison is always such a wise and perceptive reader, but in this case she also became a fantastic resource. She’d read a draft of a chapter, and say, “You need to have the work light on there.” And, “That’s called the pre-light.” And, “If your characters are going onto that set, the set should have glow tape to mark the edges in the dark.” I love her work and to talk about what she does. I was informed by, enriched by, her life anyway. But that was not why I wrote about the theater.
RP Tristan Smith is hideously deformed—lipless mouth, triangular face, tiny twisted body, strangled speech, club foot and all. He’s also kind of Byronic: a terrific acrobat and storyteller, ultimately quite sexy. From The Fat Man in History through Benny, the abused child in The Tax Inspector, and now Tristan, you often invoke characters who might variously be tagged “monsters.” But that’s just the starting point for these figures, isn’t it?
PC Benny, of course, is physically attractive; but he is, no matter how our sympathies might be engaged, finally evil, monstrous. And I certainly had no desire to engage in a three-year relationship with another monstrous character. But the thing I love about fiction is that it is a totally plastic world. Every word, every “thing” is there to be at the service of the story—I needed to have someone who really wanted to be, for psychological reasons, inside a mouse suit. Then I saw this guy in a wheelchair on Bleecker Street. Physically, he was a tragic ruin in every way, but in his face there were these bright intelligent eyes. I thought, God, there’s a person inside there. Tristan was born of that moment. But I did a reading at Mount Kisco this weekend, and three dwarves came to the reading. I was very self-conscious and fearful that they would be offended. Anyway, they liked Tristan. A lot. They were beaming at me from the front row. They asked one of the first questions from the floor—why did I come to write about a character like Tristan? So I said it was the idea, kind of like an equation, and once that was done I had to engage his humanity. He had to stop being an idea and start being a person. With Benny in The Tax Inspector I also began with an idea: I wanted to oppose birth and a sexual predator, good sex, evil sex. There seems to me no connection at all between Benny and Tristan. But if there’s a pattern here … (laughter)
RP Some of your reviews have tried to suggest that there’s a tremendous bleakness about human relationships in Tristan Smith and The Tax Inspector. Yet sitting here talking this afternoon, you’re one of the happiest men I know.
PC Well, I don’t see Tristan Smith as bleak. Look at the characters, for instance, Tristan’s mother Felicity. She’s this beautiful, driven, slightly neurotic woman who gives birth to this hideously monstrous child. And what she gives that child is incredible. She loves him. She’s by no means perfect—she shouts and shrieks at him—but those muddy passionate outbursts don’t feel bleak to me. Or there’s Wally, the exprisoner and not very perfect con man. He also loves Tristan. And look at his relationship with Roxanna. She is crazy, if you like, and damaged, I suppose, but I hope their affair is gentle, and touching. Go through the list. There’s a very compassionate view of ordinary folk. Perhaps this “bleakness” comes from the political environment, from the degradation of the physical world? Well, maybe you’re right there. That’s always in my work. How could it not be? But even in The Tax Inspector, which is often a harrowing book, the characters are always seen with compassion, and even Benny, the most damaged of the lot, finally respects life—he returns the newborn baby to its mother’s arms.
RP You’re the favorite novelist of so many women here in New York, among my Australian friends, even in Taipei, where one bookstore I visited maintained a sort of shrine of your books. Felicity Smith or Maria Takis in The Tax Inspector are just two of your strong female figures. There’s a disregard—almost contempt, maybe—for American machismo in your fiction.
PC In the real world, these women would not be so unusual, or original. We all know women like these characters. The biographical thing? I suppose one could start talking about my mother. She was certainly a very strong, and determined individual.
RP For a whole year, once, you were in the office next to mine, and what I could pick up of your daily working process seemed pretty formidable. As a writer, you do so many things stunningly well. You arrange your incredible sentences in these short Cornell box-like chapters, but spilling out of the boxes are all these marvelous characters—fantastics, sometimes, out of Fielding, Sterne, or Dickens. And you concoct dazzling plots. What is your process of writing and revising a novel?
PC Well, of course I do all the usual note-taking and planning. Then, I set off for my first-draft, but my first draft rarely gets more than fifty or sixty pages before I realize I don’t know very much. I go back to the beginning, because the flaw will be with the motivations of the characters. I’ll realise that I don’t know why they are doing the things I want them to do. I do tend to always build my stories out of what you call “Cornell-like boxes,” which I think of as building blocks of story. I think about those little boxes quite schematically—sometimes draw the little boxes—a little square. Inside the square I write what should happen inside the box. I’ll probably have as many as ten different threads of story locked inside the box. So think of the draft as boxes stacked on top of each other. Whenever they get unstable or shaky I go back to the start again. The first draft may have fifty pages, eighty pages with the next, one hundred and twenty with the next, then maybe three hundred. At this very moment I’m on the fifth draft of a novel, about three hundred and fifty pages, and some of the chapters or boxes I’ve rewritten eight times. I stubbornly commit to those little boxes. That’s how I write and rewrite. The motivations of the characters within the boxes will keep on changing, but I am likely to stay committed to a relatively unreasonable action. And I work and work until the action is reasonable. For example, in Tristan Smith, Wally the production manager, impatient with everyone’s negativity about this baby, leaps from a high scaffold behind the stage down into the audience. He descends like some sort of ludicrous, sacred clown!
RP That’s one of the great moments in the novel.
PC I saw it in my mind as an affirmation. I just knew that it was right. But to really believe the moment was terribly difficult. There were so many reasons why he wouldn’t do it, and I had to write it twenty or thirty times to discover the real reason for the action. I’m very flexible about writing and rewriting. I love to throw out good writing, but I’ll cling to an action, the way a young writer might cling to a notion when someone—quite rightly—says just throw it out.
RP One knows that a book is yours just by seeing how the chapters are arranged through the pages. I’m guessing you do a fair amount of research for your novels—all that old religion behind Oscar and Lucinda, say, or for Tristan Smith.
PC Yeah—but it’s always less than you think. I spent less time in the library for Oscar and Lucinda than you’d probably imagine. At night I tend to read around the subject I’m writing about—I’m so self-absorbed and obsessive, I can’t help it. But the most important thing with research is to feel confident enough to throw out 98 percent of it.
RP The new novel you’re writing grew out of your reading?
PC I spent a little time recently thinking about Magwitch in Great Expectations, and my new novel plays with the story. My character, Jack Mags, returns home to London in 1837 expecting to find the orphan he had arranged to have raised and educated as an English gentleman. The English gentleman knows he’s coming, and runs away. You see, Magwitch (and Mags) seem important to me in all sorts of ways. Magwitch is the first Australian to go home to London and not be wanted. He’s also, in my version, been perfectly Australian in that he’s abandoned his Australian children in favor of the superior English product. Dickens has a considerable degree of affection for my imaginary ancestor; but, for all that, Magwitch is also this dark, loathsome other. His money is vile, unacceptable. Dickens knew what Australians discovered painfully over many generations: they cannot go Home. I thought it might be interesting to give Mags the degree of sympathy Dickens gives Pip. I have also always been interested in how exploitative and controlling the best writers tend to be. And when I discovered that Dickens had practiced mesmerism, I was electrified. So my Dickens character—who is not Dickens, I didn’t want to be burdened with that—is having a mesmeric relationship with Jack Mags, he uses mesmerism to burgle the convict’s soul. The book has other threads in it, which have to do with children—Australian children, lost children, dead children. Some of this touches on my more personal nonfiction writing, like “A Small Memorial,” the piece I had in The New Yorker about abortion and the lost babies in my own life.
RP Do you see yourself writing more nonfiction?
PC Emotionally it is wrenching to write, but technically it is so much easier than writing fiction. I am very, very proud of “A Small Memorial,” and it was only a week’s work. Because it’s not made up, it only has to be shaped. I certainly have plenty to confess but it would be a little unseemly to make a career of it. Yet when I think about the short form, it’s the personal essay that really interests me.
RP Not short stories?
PC I can’t think of anything I want to deal with in a short story.
RP You’ve also just published a book for children, The Big Bazoohley, that features your son Sam. How did that come about?
PC We were in Toronto, and Sam sleepwalked, went right out the door of the hotel. The door slammed behind him. It was one in the morning, the air conditioning was on, and the door was thick, so we didn’t hear him knocking. He set off down the corridor, just knocking on doors until someone heard him. Fortunately, the people were not child molesters or kidnappers. They rang Security and we got him back, but it was really scary. So now I’ve turned it into something less scary, but when I finished writing it, Sam didn’t want to read it. I think he was a little frightened of it. Finally, he read an advance proof, but without the illustrations.
RP What did he think?
PC He said, “Not bad.”
RP A character in The Big Bozoohley is Philip Lopate, and there’s a Una Chaudhuri in Tristan Smith. Other novels also feature characters who bear the names of your friends. Are these little hidden homages?
PC Sometimes they’re like gifts. Other times, there’s my friend Stephen Wall in Australia, I put his name in the books from time to time to check if he’s really reading them. He’s not such a committed reader, so I keep moving his name further towards the end of the book just to give him some exercise. But sometimes I choose a friend’s name from laziness. I’m not disowning the celebratory nature of it, but … That reminds me, I haven’t sent Philip the book.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee