Ads via The Deck

Birnbaum v.

Peter Carey

To win the Booker Prize twice certainly requires talent, but to celebrate only one of the winnings suggests a particular madness. A conversation with author Peter Carey about his new book, private schools in New York, and the terrors found in boredom.

Australian writer Peter Carey has written eight novels, including the recently published My Life as a Fake, and a collection of short stories: True History of the Kelly Gang, Jack Maggs, The Unusual Life Of Tristan Smith, The Tax Inspector, Oscar and Lucinda, Bliss, Illywhacker, and The Fat Man in History. He is one of only two authors to have won the Booker Prize twice—first for Oscar and Lucinda and again for True History of the Kelly Gang—and has also won numerous other awards and prizes. Peter Carey lives in New York City with his wife Alison Summers and their two sons, and chairs the Creative Writing Department at Hunter College.

As Carey attests below, My Life as a Fake resists facile plot summary which, thankfully, lets me off the hook to attempt it. Suffice to say, this fantastic (in the real sense of that word) novel is based on an actual literary hoax, the Ern Malley Affair of 1944, that was perpetrated in Carey’s native Australia. In the novel, we travel with a poetry magazine editor, Sara Wode-Douglass, and poet John Slater from England to Australia to Malaysia and are embroiled in a plot of which, as one review gushed, there are ‘echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein…A Nabokovian masterpiece.’ My Life as a Fake is a riveting piece of literature and Peter Carey, as you will see, is an engaging and stimulating conversationalist.

 

* * *


Robert Birnbaum: I want to read something to you because it has been on my mind, so please bear with me:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day?

Peter Carey: [chuckles]

RB: [continues] ‘The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong.’

PC: [laughs heartily]

RB: [reads on] ‘Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.’

PC: That’s terrific! Who wrote that?

RB: Philip Roth. [American Pastoral]

PC: That’s very, very, very good.

RB: Yes. I read that and thought, that’s what writers do, don’t they? You try to get people right?

PC: I wasn’t thinking about writing. I was listening to that thinking about life. It’s the business of life and how right and wise that is. The moments for writers when we experience it is when you go into an interview and writers come away, they say, ‘I didn’t say that! They totally misunderstood me!’ What it always makes me think of is the nature of existence. Most people don’t write things down but we are forever misunderstanding each other and what we think is happening is not what’s happening and so on.

RB: There’s more to my question. Yes, it is about life, but then we didn’t come here to shoot the shit about generalities about life.

PC: That’s true.

RB: So I thought, what’s the application of Roth’s remarks to someone who spends their time trying to create the ‘word people’ that Roth refers to here and the aspiration for them to be right, occasionally, within some framework?

PC: Right, yes, but there is some sort of bullshit inherent in the whole thing—

RB: [laughs]

PC:—of being the writer, because in the situation of being the writer you are not in the situation, you are in the situation presumably, occasionally of being all-knowing and so you can have that.

RB: Think about that.

PC: Well, you can. You can construct a world in which people do understand each other. My characters tend not to understand each other, as a matter of fact.

RB: Why is that? Who gets it right? That [Roth’s passage] reproduces, reflects the way people view each other. If your characters aren’t understanding each other, that seems the truer—

PC: I guess so. And they don’t even get themselves right, which is also true. We tend not to know each other. The difficulty with My Life as a Fake is that having this title which I really love—I loved it as a title—I never really thought of what powerful shit I am playing with when you have a title like that. What a vector of force it is and how it creates all sorts of understanding about the book that I didn’t intend. And coming back to this question of knowledge and self-knowledge. People will frequently say all of the characters are fakes and it’s hard to know who is the most fake. I don’t think any of them are really fake at all, least of all McCorkle, the poet who comes to life. And then they cite Sarah as someone who is fake. Well, I don’t think she is fake in the tiniest bit. She is somebody who certainly doesn’t understand her life. She doesn’t know who she is. She misunderstands people around her. None of these things suggest a lack of authenticity. She is intensely private about her sexual life. And you could say then that she has a fake persona. I wouldn’t say she was fake at all. I would say she was guarded, an armored vehicle in the world.

RB: It does depend who is paying attention to her. Some people could see her beyond what she presents.

PC: Exactly.

RB: You said in another place, ‘When my friend Michael Heyward was in New York in the early 1990s, he wrote a book called The Ern Malley Affair, which is a nonfiction work—history. Like many of his friends I read the manuscript and gave him some advice. I remember thinking at the time that in order to truly get a feel for this thing, a novel might be the best way to do it, because a novel can capture the way that Ern Malley really did come to life in a sense; he exists in our imaginations.’ Should the word novel be larger on the cover of this book so that you don’t have to keep asserting, ‘It’s a novel, a work of fiction’? People have certain expectations because it is based on a real event.

PC: In Australia, in particular, I got exercised about—

RB: [laughs] That’s ‘e-x-o-r-c-i-z-e-d’?

PC: [laughs] The other one I am afraid, the sweaty one. I started to think no one could read anymore. And I thought in Australia, in particular, there is a very strong culture of journalism, if we could call it a culture. The people who one engages with, who often write the reviews of literature, are journalists. And the journalists in approaching a work of literature like this were looking for the real story. Which, of course, is not what I am interested in. I started saying to them, ‘It’s as if I was Miles Davis and I had taken ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ and made a work of art from it and all you want to talk about is the melody of ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ and how it got to be the way it is. This was a springboard. So I got very exercised about it. The weird thing is, I would have thought that in my country where the story is already known, people might actually be able to have an immediate joy of the many layers of the work. And they would be able to see where it came from and where it went to and how the improvisation went and something new was made from it.

RB: But they didn’t?

PC: Unfortunately, they don’t.

RB: I can understand questions about internal coherence but I don’t get when people criticize a work of fiction against some undefined sense of reality—I forgot what point I was trying to make. What was my question?

PC: I don’t know—we lost it. [laughs]

RB: You run the risk frequently of engaging people in a story based on some historical event or person and then having people saddle you with expectations of verisimilitude.

PC: Alas, that’s true. There are readers, and there are reviewers. And reviewers are faced with a complicated situation. Readers don’t have to worry about being right or wrong. In the privacy of your own home, no one is going to call you a fool for relaxing and enjoying the book but if you are reviewing a book for the New York Times or the Boston Globe and you feel everyone is watching you don’t want to look stupid. And the reviewers attribute to writers the most formidable intelligence, which I, of course, lack. In a very nice review in the New York Times

RB: Terrence Rafferty’s?

PC: Yeah. He is trying way too hard. There is a bit in the book where I have the fake poet McCorkle reciting this poem and the person who has originally written the poem, the hoaxer, listens to it. It’s totally fake and fraudulent and with this performance of it, it sounds like an amazing work of art—the voice is different. It seemed to me, I was particularly making a point about the voice and the performance and the pain of the person doing it. And poor Rafferty thinks I am doing this Borgesian thing, talking about Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, and this is way beyond my thinking. So he attributes to me great, complicated artistry, which I don’t have, and making allusions which would never even occur to me to make. If he just relaxed and enjoyed the show a little bit—

RB: Edward P. Jones was talking about researching The Known World and at some point found himself inhibited by his research ambitions so he set aside the 40 books he intended to read. He tells of a critic in the San Francisco who takes him to task for dwelling on the details to show off his research. Of which he did a limited amount.

PC: I know. The more this all goes on the variation between reviews becomes extraordinary as well. You have one person praising you to the skies for the wonderful characterization and the next review says the characterization is appalling. You have people—this is not a direct line from where we are coming from but never mind—I never like reviews where there is a plot summary. And I am beginning to think that this book is part of the leading edge to stop this sort of thing. This book, which I think is not at all difficult to read, is a book [for which it] is very hard to summarize the plot. This is not the same as reading the book. So these poor darling reviewers who habitually describe plot have a nightmare task. I couldn’t do it, what they have to do. You can feel some of them getting a little irritated, but I don’t blame them.

RB: As long as we brought up Rafferty, here’s more: ‘I could go on, but to do so would be to fall for Peter Carey’s own very elaborate fakery. This is an extremely unusual novel, even by Carey’s lofty standards of unusualness. My Life as a Fake, with its ornate metafictional superstructure, begs for exegesis, deconstruction, semiotic operations of the most exquisite complexity, to be performed by specialists flown in from Paris and New Haven. But, to paraphrase the old gag, the operation could be a success and the patient might die. The wonderful, perverse joke of My Life as a Fake is that it is a fake novel of ideas: not a parody, just a fancy, near-impenetrable disguise for the deeply peculiar thing that this novel really is—a ripping yarn about poets and their readers…’ I thought that was a very good description.

PC: I think that part is very good.

RB: [laughs]

PC: That is what it is.


The question that you have to ask yourself all the time is, ‘How would it really be?’ If you continue to ask yourself you’ll stop doing all those fraudulent, shitty little things that you are doing now.


RB: He should have stopped there and it would have been the conclusion of the review. Anyway, regarding Ed Jones’s novel, he spent 10 years writing it and when he began he started with the intention of comprehensive research and then he found out it just was an inhibitor and he would never get around to writing. So the upshot is that eight years later he started writing and when he is asked, ‘How do you know you got this right?’ his answer was that all he has to do is not say anything that makes you think differently about the time frame he is dealing with.

PC: Yeah.

RB: He just has to make it coherent. So I want to connect that to what Doctorow has said, ‘Do as little research as you can get away with.’

PC: I like the Doctorow answer a lot, always. ‘How much research did you do, Mr. Doctorow?’ ‘Less than you’d think.’ I certainly read obsessively all the time I was writing it but I picked little things and I’m all for—I think all you have to do is pick little corners of the world. I have to make myself comfortable by knowing as much as I can about all of it. But I am an appalling researcher with a very short attention span. So I read a lot. So, did do I a lot of research? I really don’t know. Part of the research project that I always liked best—I hope this is not taking us on one more wild goose chase—is at the very end of the book when I had written—I had really written what I had wanted to write about Penang and I had the story there and then I went to Penang. My friends in New York—this is just after the Bali bombing—people said, ‘Don’t go there, it’s a Muslim country.’ And to tell you the truth I was a little chicken shit. I should have known better not to be. But I was a little nervous and everyone is saying, ‘You don’t need to, the book’s great.’ ‘But I really have to.’ So I went. Of course, it was ridiculous to be at all apprehensive. I felt very comfortable in Malaysia—in Penang. I knew that I’ve been to Penang, I’ve read about Penang but I know that I don’t know it. I got all of these people lined up. So I go to this old Chinese guy, quite an aristocratic guy. I wanted to talk about the whorehouses in Penang. And I said I wanted a piano in a whorehouse. He said, ‘You can’t have a piano in a whorehouse.’ You just can’t do it. It’s culturally wrong. So I said, ‘OK I want my book to fit with this place which I don’t know well, I am going to respect the place. But I am still going to tell my story. It’s not going to be—I’m just going to work with it.’ And so this went on and on and I said, ‘Was there a cabaret?’ ‘Ah yes, it was the Green Parrot.’ And then I find all this stuff about the Green Parrot. I find that the Green Parrot had taxi girls who charged by the hour for dancing and also had other commercial activities on the side.

RB: Not on the side, upstairs.

PC: No, elsewhere on the premises, I think. And I met Colleen Reed, late one night after I had taken my sleeping pill, who was a 70-year-old Eurasian singer, who used to sing at the Green Parrot—we drew floor plans for the Green Parrot. So what I mean is, continually in Penang, I sought out in, two days or three days, the information I needed for the story I already had.

RB: And that made you feel better.

PC: It made it richer. It made it better. Like there is a Captain Suzuki who is a Japanese beheader—who I knew about from research.

RB: Never took any showers or shaved.

PC: That’s right. All I knew was he had long hair. Suddenly I met a man who knew him. He said he stank and had flies all over him. His sword was dragging along the floor. So continually doing that enriched what I wanted to do. It’s a really highly satisfying form of research because I know that in those days I made the book better and I now know it works for anybody who was born in Penang and lived there all their life. It’s a sort of research that is really fun and to somebody who doesn’t write sounds sort of dangerous and weird, to come in at the end and change things.

RB: It’s arguable whether it made the book better. I suppose it does.

PC: Oh, I know it did.

RB: Had you not done that, the book would still have been sufficiently compelling and well written. I think it made you feel better and therefore something about the writing and revision reflects that and ultimately does make a better book.

PC: I know what you mean. It did make me feel better, and also, how could I go to that place and sit there and disrespect the place? To me there is something deeply inauthentic and offensive about doing that. And it matters a lot. I think that there is something about how the book is made and what your intention is and so on. But it has also been my experience in writing and when I teach I really encourage students, ‘The question that you have to ask yourself all the time is, ‘How would it really be?’’ If you continue to ask yourself you’ll stop doing all those fraudulent, shitty little things that you are doing now.

RB: [laughs]

PC: That we all do. And you want to do something and everyone tells you, you can’t do it, ignore them. You do what you want to do. But find out how it is that it’s going to happen and you will make the book so much more interesting, so much more richer, from confronting the meeting of your willful fantasy and the real world. Because everyone will say you can’t do it. Just say, ‘I really had to do it.’ [Ask yourself,] ‘How would you do it?’ and it’s always more interesting.

RB: Speaking of the real world. The poet Bob McCorkle, what is his status in the real world?

PC: He’s come to life. He has appeared. He has been summoned up. In the real world. In my belief. None of the characters in the book can really accept this, very easily or at all. Sarah Wode-Douglass is the one, that finally looking at all the evidence, comes to the conclusion he actually does exist, and that’s unacceptable to her. And she has a little nervous breakdown on Oxford Street in London. I never doubted his existence. His existence was all I was interested in [laughs] And I thought by drawing—

RB: Do we know where he is buried? [laughs]

PC: I was going to deal with that. He is buried in Kuala Lumpur, but I just didn’t get to deal with it.

RB: This is the fault line of the real world and the world in the novel. While I am reading the book I don’t doubt he exists.

PC: Well. I laid in the Frankenstein stuff—there is a little bit of cross-textual thing and indeed Frankenstein does occasionally suggest the paths this story takes. Really most strongly as a bit of opportunistic storytelling, I want the reader to think, ‘Oh, it’s that sort of story.’

RB: I don’t think you can fault people and especially reviewers who are obliged to show how smart they are by summoning up all sorts of academic jargon and citations. There are a lot poetic references and this kind of story—even if you deny it to the ends of the Earth—reverberates with Borgesian tonalities.




Peter Carey, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Peter Carey, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


PC: No, OK. I would not normally talk like this.

RB: [laughs]

PC: No really. When I was very young and my books were first noticed by academics, I used to get very superior about how stupid they were. It took me a little while to understand that academics are readers, too, and they bring their life to it and their lives are very rich in a literary sense and, of course, they are going to read it in relationship to what they know and what’s on the page. So it isn’t that. I suppose the thing that I am really responding to is a certain—within this particular book, there have been remarkably two quite different kinds of readers. There’s readers who have relaxed into it and enjoyed it and then there are readers who have just fretted at it.

RB: [laughs] Or readers who do both.

PC: The thing I started to get irritated about was not the Borgesian thing—which sort of works. He was a writer I admired and had a huge influence on my life and I could only be flattered, really, by that reading. It’s really to do with two things. One is this problem of the poor reviewers having to describe plot and then getting irritated about the plot, which misrepresents the reading experience. That is something I don’t like and they can’t separate out their difficulties in doing a difficult job and the reader in the general reading experience which is different. The other thing is I get irritated about and of course I have no right to get irritated—of course, I have a right to get irritated—is people saying ‘Why Malaysia?’ If it had been Paris, no one would be saying, ‘Why Paris?’ If you are Australian, all this part of this world is our neighbors. It was no accident that it was Australians that died in the Bali bombing.

RB: I take it that that Americans are asking why Malaysia?

PC: Yeah. It’s sort of like I have chosen some weird wacko exotic thing. It’s next door. If you are gonna have a journey or a change, it’s not weird to imagine. I have done that trip. You go Bali, Java, Sumatra and then Medan and get the ferry to Penang. It’s not weird.

RB: I wonder if Daniel Mason, who wrote The Piano Tuner, or Amitav Ghosh, who wrote The Glass Palace, had people criticizing their choice of settings?

PC: Probably not. I don’t know

RB: It never entered my mind. I just don’t understand what there is to criticize about that. That locale is very interesting and colorful. Isn’t that part of why we read? To be taken somewhere we haven’t been—

PC: I was so proud of that part of it. Firstly, I like Malaysia. Why do I like Malaysia? I like to eat there. [laughs] I tried to live there. That image of Chubb, in his sarong, in the shop is one that comes from life. It’s something I saw in Malaysia. I really was anxious to not talk bullshit about Malaysia. And one of the great thrills of the book was giving it to—there is a really fine Malaysian journalist named Rehman Rashid who wrote a good book called Malaysian Journey. He read it [my book] and sent two or three pages of little copywriting things. But I really wanted to pass that sort of test. Which is ridiculous for a fantastic novel. But still—

RB: So what is the aftermath of this experience? Exotic places or back to First World locations?

PC: [chuckles] I think I am going to—the thing I am doing at the moment looks like it may have things that have to do with New York and Australia and primarily Australian characters. I am just really at the very beginning of it. That’s pretty exotic, by the way.

RB: Australia?

PC: No, New York.


I don’t like being bored. In the beginning, as a young and ignorant man in my early 20s I discovered there were such beautiful things in the world like As I Lay Dying, for instance, and Ulysses. The thought that one might actually make something very beautiful, that had never existed before was really what I wanted to do.


RB: Earlier this year, you withdrew from a Tasmanian literary festival that was being organized by a lumber company. The festival was being used to shill for something unsavory. Tell me more?

PC: It was worse than that. What you have in Tasmania—I was there recently with Richard Flanagan [Gould’s Book of Fish] and Senator Bob Brown who stood up in the Parliament in Australia recently and shouted at George Bush which I was very proud of him for doing—anyway, we went into these ancient forests which are being destroyed. For wood chips. This is ridiculous.

RB: Not even for paper?

PC: No, and they are getting less and less money for it as well and the forests are beyond belief. So you have a state government which is allegedly a Labor government. Underneath that you have this body called Forestry Tasmania, which is meant to oversee—is the guardian of the forests. And then you have this huge timber company called Gund. These interests run the state. And you cannot speak out against these things. What happened was the state had organized a festival run by Forestry Tasmania who (I don’t want to say—it’s probably actionable to say they are bent)—

RB: [laughs]

PC: Let’s say they don’t see straight. I didn’t think anything about it except I was short-listed for a literary prize and there was some money. I looked at the list at the beginning and I was busy and I didn’t think much about it. I just thought, ‘That’s a funny list. Where’s Tim Winton?’ Finally, I made some inquiries and discovered that both Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan had withdrawn from it. Then I wanted to know why and when I found out what was going on I withdrew from it as well. And, of course everyone went totally ballistic and accused me of working cunningly to sabotage this literary prize which the state needs and dah da dah da dah. So when I went later to Tasmania I was very pleased I had done it. It’s like a company town. You have to have lot of courage and determination and sheer will to continue to fight. And it gave the real workers in the front line a little bit of strength.

RB: So is there a deep or deeper reason why you write or that you attach to literature?

PC: I don’t want to be bored.

RB: You don’t want to be bored?

PC: [laughs] I don’t like being bored. In the beginning, as a young and ignorant man in my early 20s I discovered there were such beautiful things in the world like As I Lay Dying, for instance, and Ulysses. The thought that one might actually make something very beautiful, that had never existed before was really what I wanted to do. And in the end, that’s what I want to do. I would like to make something that is new and is beautiful. I may have—to the reader—more obvious obsessions. Things that I do. But I think that’s what sustains me and what excites me. I might make something new and that I hope might be beautiful.

RB: And the effect of that creation on the world, on the readers?

PC: The thing that I like that people say and people do say it, thank God—and this is a different sort of a thing—is that they feel that my books are very compassionate about the characters. I am pleased and moved by that. People, even characters I start out disliking, I have to end up learning how to love for the most part. I hope that gives the work something. The other thing that occurs to me is the humor in the books—even a book like The Tax Inspector, which is very dark but is also really funny. And the laughter and the humor is the light and the life force and to me that’s important.


I am not teaching because I am a nice guy. I am teaching because I have two kids at private school in New York City.


RB: Poet John Slater, when he is first presented, doesn’t come off well. By the end of the book even Sarah is saying she hadn’t understood what a kind man he is. And you add this funny touch of his great personal embarrassment as being at a dinner with Robert Lowell and Lowell not knowing who he was. Other than the Japanese executioner and perhaps the cop, everyone is sympathetic, seen as trying to navigate life’s rapids.

PC: I’m a little hard on cops, generally speaking. One of the more unfortunate things that happened with this book and if I could refer to the history from which I leapt. There was really a Detective Vogelesang, who was the chief prosecution witness in the [obscenity] trial and the transcript of this ludicrous trial in the book is taken from the real transcript pages of ludicrous disgusting frightening things. Anyway, I rang my friend Michael Heyward, a writer of non-fiction. I took Michael to be an expert and I asked him if Vogelesang was alive or dead. He said he is dead. So I took Vogelesang’s name—Birdsong [translation of German] what a great name for, as McCorkle says, for ‘the enemy of Art and poetry.’

RB: The Teutonic origin adds a layer of cruelty to it.

PC: I hadn’t intended that. I was in Adelaide, which is where the historic trial was and I did a reading in this big hall. Up stands someone in the back, [in a husky officious voice] ‘Suh, in a book, where you have changed all the names of the characters, why is it, suh, that you took a perfectly decent policeman and used his real name? If Detective Vogelesang were alive, would you have used his real name? And I said I don’t know, probably not. It’s pretty tempting to have a name like Vogelesang but I would have resisted it.’ He said, ‘I am here to inform you that Philip Augustus Vogelesang is alive in Adelaide today and is not a happy man.’ [both laugh]

PC: The next day the police association of South Australia had a statement. It was such a curious and perverse mirroring of the scene in the court in the book where McCorkle stands up.

RB: In the real story, was the editor of the poetry magazine Jewish?

PC: Yes, he was. As a matter of fact, when Michael Heyward was writing his book, I said to him, ‘Max Harris is Jewish. He grew up in a little town and he went to very posh schools, St Peter’s. I also went to a posh school from a little town. And it’s the first time I ever encountered anti-Semitism. I didn’t know what a Jew was, I don’t think. You know. But suddenly I heard someone say, ‘Weisberg is a dirty Jew’ and I heard this and it really shocked me. Now, St. Peter’s in Adelaide was worse or as bad. I figured—

RB: These are Christian denominational schools, attended by Jews?

PC: Yes. Quite commonly, because there is a class thing. Then I read the things the hoaxer said about the editor, Max Harris, who was handsome and they didn’t like him. They thought he was arrogant and so on. There is an edge of nastiness there. The fact that he is Jewish might matter in this. Michael Heyward talked to Harris and asked him if it mattered that he was Jewish? He said, ‘Of course not!’

RB: Jeez. The power of denial

RB: I suppose one could say you are a successful novelist?

PC: If you say so, it’s true.

RB: You still teach. Success is sometimes a liberation from other responsibilities.

PC: I am not teaching because I am a nice guy. I am teaching because I have two kids at private school in New York City. That being said, if I am going to teach, I want to do it properly. And I am teaching at Hunter College, and of all the places I have ever taught it’s the one I have felt most connected. I feel like I have the most to offer. The weird thing is that people look at an Australian in New York City as disconnected from what seems to be the general experience. People ask how long you have been there for and expect you to say ‘Two minutes.’ But there is a particular immigrant experience that an Australian has that really applies very fruitfully to the lives and work of many of the students at Hunter College. That is, as an Australian writing in English, the first thing you go to do is discover your own country and present your own country in a way that it’s not been presented before to your people. Secondly, if you are going to be honest, you are also writing for the metropolitan centers, as part of Anglophone literature, you have to think about those readers as well. But you can not patronize or betray your first readers. And this, of course, if you come from British Guyana or Caribbean or you come from India, these are the same issues. And because of this I really have felt very usefully connected and been able to express this connection in New York City, which I have never been able to do before.




Peter Carey, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Peter Carey, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: Are you faced with a multiplicity of editors based on writing Australian English?

PC: I work with one editor. He talks to—I only want to listen to one person. I don’t want to be driven fucking nuts. In this book there was copy editing in three countries. There was stuff that an American copy editor is going to have no idea about.

RB: Who is your editor?

PC: Gary Fisketjon at Knopf. Somebody I have huge respect for. He is an inspired lunatic. He is a great man. He’s good.

RB: Richard Ford has said he would quit writing if Fisketjon weren’t his editor.

PC: Richard’s a very sweet man.

RB: He is? [both laugh] What is it about Hunter College?

PC: Hunter came to me with a job that I thought I could do without messing up my life.

RB: Which is what?

PC: I am running the creative program. It’s a small program. I can still write everyday. Basically, there are two workshops and the money was fine. I really like going to work. It’s a small college and selective and the students have stuff they want to write about and they want to be there. They don’t feel entitled and I am not going to say who feels entitled where—

RB: [laughs] OK.

PC: They are hungry to do what they want to do. I wasn’t expecting it.

RB: No one sees your name until you publish a book. No award juries, no festivals, no famous poker games?

PC: [I] try not to.

RB: So it’s your writing, your teaching and your family and friends.

PC: Yeah.

RB: How much do you reflect on what you have done as you embark on your next writing project?

PC: The truth is, when I have finished a book it always seems to me that I haven’t got an idea in my head. I don’t know what I am going to do next. I feel a little anxious about that. And if I have an idea I will just leap on it and that will be it.

RB: Because you think it will vanish?

PC: You should feel empty when you finish a book. Scott Fitzgerald said something like every writer should write a book as if they are going to be beheaded the day they finish. You should be putting everything in it. It’s a horrible moment. Even on this book tour, all I have to go back to is 15 pages. It’s not really enough to reassure me that I have something. What I mean is that sort of way of being doesn’t really hold out [laughs] for a lot of overall planning. Or a trajectory—can I find something that I am interested in that I am going to spend three years writing? And if I find it, I am just grateful. I guess you would say that is intuitive writing.

RB: No solace that you have written well-received, award-winning books?

PC: You don’t want to be whoever it was that was famous long ago, playing the electric violin on Desolation Row. One of the obscenely pleasant things about winning the Booker a second time was my realization that when I won it the first time I had not allowed myself to celebrate. Not that I thought it was bad or there something wrong with it. But to get the second Booker, I thought, ‘This time I am really going to enjoy this!’ I learned to celebrate the moment. And I did. It was great.

RB: Do you pay attention to the Booker now?

PC: They had a press briefing that they were going to do something different. We’ll wait and see what that difference really means.

RB: So what is it that you read?

PC: Well, the truth of the matter—about the Booker Prize, unless they were my friends I probably wouldn’t read—I am no longer, and this isn’t very pretty, interested, no longer part of the active filtering and judgment of culture that real readers do all the time. In particular in teaching I have a lot of reading to do that relates to that. If I am writing My Life as a Fake I am continually reading books about Malaysia and occasionally some really nice literature comes along. Or I discover something like crusty reactionary Sir Frank Swetnam, a colonial administrator who actually could write and so I get the joy in my research from finding some really wonderful writing. But apart from that I started a new translation of Don Quixote.

RB: So you are not inclined to read contemporary fiction. What do you ask your students to read?

PC: It’s all writing at the moment. I will do a craft course next semester. I am still weighing what it I might like to do. It’s a not like I don’t read contemporary fiction. I’ll discover somebody like The Rings of Saturn [W.G. Sebald] and I go, ‘Oh my god!’ He was a contemporary who truly was a great, great writer. And those sort of discoveries. I am reading a little a book, which is an advance, called The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2004). It’s a most amazing book. It’s about somebody who is born old and whose body ages backwards. It’s a truly strange and beautifully written book by somebody who has really got the stuff. So I stumble across things occasionally.

RB: Coming across an amazing book is why people do the hard work of reading new fiction.

PC: Right. I would rather read Lord Jim again.

RB: Has My Life as a Fake shown up on the Hollywood radar?

PC: A number of people have been interested. And they go, ‘We don’t know how we would make it.’ It seems to me that the framing devices for the Chinese boxes, which is quite difficult to bring off in literature, are very natural movie language, I frankly can’t see exactly what difficulty there would be. And they say, ‘If we can find someone who can see the way to do it, we’ll do it.’ So all the movie people read it and said nice things and I had a meeting or two.

RB: Well, I guess we’ll stay tuned. Thanks very much. It’s been good to see you again.

PC: Yeah. Thank you.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum