Peter Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh in Victoria, Australia, in 1943.
He studied Science at Monash University, and wrote advertising copy to support himself during the early part of his literary career. Australian identity and historical context play a part in several of his literary works.
He began by writing surreal short stories, and published two collections, War Crimes (1979), and The Fat Man in History (1980). These stories, along with three previously uncollected works, are all included in his Collected Stories (1995).
He then wrote 3 novels: Bliss (1981), about an advertising executive who has an out-of-body experience; Illywhacker (1985), a huge vision of Australian history told through the memoirs of a 100-year old confidence man or "illywhacker"; and Oscar and Lucinda (1988), a complex symbolic tale of the arrival of Christianity in Australia. Although not a science fiction writer as such, there are some elements of this in his writing, particularly in Illywhacker, which led to this novel receiving the Ditmar Award for Best Australian Science Fiction Novel and being shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, both in 1986. Illywhacker was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1985, and three years later, Oscar and Lucinda won the same prize.
While writing his next novel, The Tax Inspector (1991), Peter Carey moved to New York, and has since written further novels: The Unusual Life of Tristran Smith (1994); Jack Maggs (1997), billed as a re-imagining of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations; True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), told in fictional letters from the Australian outlaw and folk hero Ned Kelly to his estranged daughter; and My Life as a Fake (2003), a story centred around a literary hoax which gripped Australia in the 1940s. Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang both won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book) and with True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey won the Booker Prize for Fiction for the second time, in 2001.
Peter Carey wrote the script for the Wim Wenders film, Until the End of the World (1992), and co-wrote with Ray Lawrence, the screenplay for the film adaptation of Bliss (1985). Oscar and Lucinda was also adapted for film in 1997, with a screenplay witten by Laura Jones. He has also written a children's book, The Big Bazoohley (1995) and a non-fiction book, 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account (2001). Wrong about Japan (2005), is a memoir/travelogue of the author's journey through Japan with his son Charley and their attempts to understand the Japanese culture and heritage.
Peter Carey still lives in New York, where he teaches Creative Writing at New York University. He has been awarded three honorary degrees and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the Australian Academy of Humanities and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His later novels are Theft: A Love Story (2006); and His Illegal Self (2008).
His novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific region, Best Book) and the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. His latest novel is The Chemistry of Tears (2012), which tells the story of a clock expert who is restoring an automaton while grieving for her lost lover.
Peter Carey was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished services to literature, in 2012.
An Interview With Author Peter Carey
10/06/2010 02:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Over the past thirty-five years few authors have written with the skill, consistency, and imagination of Peter Carey. The Australian-born novelists’ ability to weave disciplined research and compelling 2010-10-05-Peter_Carey.jpg prose, coupled with his sheer brilliance as a storyteller, has twice garnered him the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and his most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber & Faber, 2010) was recently shortlisted for a third. Last week, I sat down with Peter to discuss his life and work.
Ben Evans: Do you find yourself, still, at this point in your career, getting better as a novelist? Can one continue to learn even after eleven novels and a mantle of awards?
Peter Carey: I have never begun a novel which wasn’t going to stretch me further than I had ever stretched before. For instance, I am presently working a novel with two voices. One is a woman in London in 2010, the other a man in Furtwangen, Germany in 1854. They will never meet. They will not fall in love. It is obviously an impossible thing to do, but today, at least, the thing I didn’t know how to do is working like a dream.
BE: As a writer grows older is there an urgency to produce more work?
PC: I’m certainly working longer hours. Sometimes I think this is to do with my age (67) and the question of how few books I will write before I die or lose my wits.
But then there’s the question of my sons who are now 20 and 24. They just don’t need me to cook for them or pick them up from school. So yes, I write more. How else am I going to fill my empty time?
BE: How is the quality of contemporary American literary fiction affected by its presumably declining readership, if at all?
PC: I just read Freedom. It’s a great book and Franzen is a great writer and that will not be diminished by either mad jealousy or a shrinking market for literary fiction.
BE: Do you find it easier approaching a novel within a historical framework like True History of the Kelly Gang or Parrot and Olivier in America, or is it more difficult to write a book like The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, where everything is created from scratch?
PC: The great thing about using the past is that it gives you the most colossal freedom to invent. The research is necessary, of course, but no one writes a novel to dramatically illustrate what everybody already knows. I go to the past to illuminate the present, but also to make up weird shit. I use research for lots of reasons but one of them is to make the weird shit bullet proof.
Here is the most perfect thing anyone said about Oscar and Lucinda (Jonathan Miller in fact) “Oh, I see, it’s a sort of science fiction of the past.”
And yes, a completely invented world brings certain degrees of difficulty. Does Shakespeare exist in the world? The people speak English, but what sort of English? How is their invented history contained in their slang? What sort of trees and shrubs grow there? What are these plants called and how do they look? Et cetera, and so on, forever.
BE: You’ve said that as a writer, the personal doesn’t interest you, nevertheless it seems inevitable that an author’s own experience will creep into his/her work at one time or another, are there any instances of this you can recall in your fiction?
PC: I have written a memoir here and there, and that takes its own form of selfishness and courage. However, generally speaking, I have no interest in writing about my own life or intruding in the privacy of those around me. My greatest pleasure is to invent. My continual mad ambition is to make something true and beautiful that never existed in the world before.
To achieve this I will use whatever is at my disposal. For instance, I just gave your name to a character in my new book. I don’t really know you, so this character can’t be like you in any way. But I stole your name and stuck it on the page much like, I imagine, Robert Rauschenberg might pick up a sock, glue it to a canvas and paint over it. It was a sock. Now it’s a Rauschenberg. Same thing.
BE: You are the executive director of creative writing at Hunter College in NYC. Can good writing be taught? Or is it simply honed?
PC: Good writing of course requires talent, and no one can teach you to have talent. It also needs amazing will (so if one is recruiting students one looks for both of these qualities together).
Your role as teacher is to nurture and protect your students while, at the same time, forcing them beyond their limits, encouraging them to see the world, to imagine every action in the moment, to see the body as part of dialogue, and basically to write as if their life depended on it. If we were discussing tennis, we’d agree that a good coach can dramatically lift a player’s game. That’s what Colum McCann, Nathan Englander, and I do at Hunter College. We’re working writers, every day. We’re as driven and obsessed as our twelve fiction students.
BE: Even though you keep away from personal experience, is writing catharsis for you?
PC: It is intensely emotional and hugely demanding. One spends ones’ day in a very weird place. It would be dramatic, even ingratiating, to say it was cathartic, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.
BE: One Peter Carey novel survives, it is mandated that it never go out of print as long as human kind exists, you get to choose. Which one is it and why?
PC: Tell the bastards, burn them all.
Parrot and Olivier in America can be purchased here.
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