Interview with Peter Carey

April, 2012

Peter Carey Australian writer Peter Carey performs literary alchemy, combining seemingly disparate themes and plotlines to form a cohesive whole. His Booker Prize-winning novel, Oscar and Lucinda, pairs compulsive gambling with glassmaking; Parrot and Olivier in America recounts the unlikely friendship between a French aristocrat and his scrappy servant; and Carey's latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, brings together two narrators from different time periods. Catherine Gehrig, a modern-day conservator of clocks and all manner of wind-up engines at a London museum, is secretly mourning the sudden death of her married lover. While restoring a mid-19th-century automaton, she discovers the crumbling diaries of the man who had commissioned this bizarre mechanical artifact, Henry Brandling. Gehrig bears out her grief by reading Brandling's account, which provides the novel with the parallel narration of his journey into Germany's Black Forest to find a craftsman for his pet project. Carey, a New York City transplant and professor of creative writing at Hunter College, shares with Goodreads his thoughts on writing historical fiction and the role of the artist.

Goodreads: Reading about something mechanical feels refreshing in our digital world. Your 19th-century character Henry seeks to build his ailing son a mechanical duck, fashioned from real-life, 18th-century plans by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739. What drew you to this subject?

Peter Carey: I was searching for a miraculous 19th-century machine, which would be a fantastical wooden horse that carried the seeds of the planet's destruction. I found Vaucanson's duck, which, firstly, made me smile and then led me to trip over what would be my novel's greatest concern: the nature of life itself.

GR: When you started writing The Chemistry of Tears, did you begin with a plot, a character, or something more abstract?

PC: We are living in the 21st century, where our industrial growth is overheating our planet to such a degree that it now seems likely to destroy us. Yet all our economic forecasts are seen through the lens of the 19th century. To read the business news you would think that growth was good, not lethal. So that is how I started.

In The Chemistry of Tears I was generally interested in how all the bright inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries led us to our present crisis, and in the internal combustion engine in particular. My brother and sister are the third generation of Careys who have sold cars.

GR: Henry Brandling and Catherine Gehrig are two characters in different times and places, and yet they grapple with some of the same fears and questions. How did you discover their two very distinct voices as a means to tell this story?

PC: The characters are initially determined by the actions I want them to perform and, most importantly, by my constant question: What sort of person would really do a thing like that? And why? So character is born, so voice emerges.

GR: Historical manuscripts, real or invented and often incomplete or unreliable, feature prominently in your novels. Your love of history is clear, but specifically what intrigues you about the flawed way that we record and study history? Do you suspect we get a lot of history wrong?

PC: My interest in the past always starts with the present and my feelings about where we are today. How did this happen to us and to the world? To what degree does our past behavior predict our present behavior? Has the past been perhaps lazily imagined? Whose interest is served by the stories we tell? For instance, Was Alexis de Tocqueville an enthusiastic booster of American democracy? Might he have been just a tiny bit critical? Is there evidence of this? Yes, there is. Have American students only read "the good bits"? It often seems so.

GR: Goodreads member Steve Loschi asks, "How do you view the role of the chapter in a novel? Your novels all seem to be subdivided into very specific ways, each chapter carrying its own individual weight."

PC: I think you've answered your own question. Each chapter has a task. I sometimes think that I'm building a huge mosaic and that each tile (each chapter) should be a self-contained pleasure.

GR: In the past you wrote short stories, and now novels. Some authors are starting to experiment with integrating multimedia and other options made available by digitizing books. If you can deliver information in a variety of ways, why choose this form? What is it about the unadulterated book that is still necessary for readers and writers?

PC: The worldwide Web and digital devices can provide us with a universe of choices, which may make the reader like a solo voyager among the stars. It's an adventure, but an adventure is not art. The role of the artist, now and always, has been to make choices, juxtapositions, and connections that we would never have thought of by ourselves. Of course there is no reason why adding pictures or choosing to change the story might not be a great adventure, but I imagine its thrills will come with all the longueurs and anxiety that explorers know so well. For my money, without being at all prescriptive, the "old-fashioned form" seems less like work and more like fun.

GR: Goodreads member Gina Nagler asks, "Do you struggle with perfectionism or doubt, and, if so, how do you combat them?"

PC: Writers live with doubt and failure. Most days we don't succeed. Most days we know we have to rewrite, that we haven't yet arrived. This is not always unpleasant, but it can be. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is self-defeating. A perfectionist can never finish the task at hand.

GR: Goodreads member Earl Adams writes, "I would be interested in Carey's thoughts on displacement and how it contributes to creating fiction. Or, put another way, is it easier for him to write about Australia now that he resides mostly in New York City?"

PC: The river of my life led me to New York City. It wasn't what I really planned, but I am here. And yes, being a foreigner lets you see things differently. It is interesting to explain the narrative of "Waltzing Matilda" [a well-known Australian folk song] to my American friends: "A homeless man steals a sheep and is arrested and commits suicide rather than go into police custody." Interesting by itself, but even stranger because I grew up in a country where "Waltzing Matilda" was the song of our hearts. Ned Kelly [an Irish Australian outlaw and the subject of Carey's book True History of the Kelly Gang], seen from the distance of New York, is a fresh and extraordinary story.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

PC: At my desk by 9. Work until at least 12:30. Make different decisions about how to spend the afternoon. Buy shrimp in Chinatown. Forget the spring onions. Go out again.

GR: Have you found that teaching other writers has altered your own process as an author?

PC: I don't really know what "process" means, but I am certain that teaching postgraduate writing has been, and continues to be, a nourishing "process," because one is continually called to inhabit another mind, that of the student writer, and to offer ways to help that writer find a path to do what they want to do. The teacher's role is to inhabit the "other," explain, convince, give hope, strength, and determination. One has to learn to clearly and convincingly articulate the sort of decisions that are often done, by me at least, in the mud and darkness of creation.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

PC: First, Joyce, Beckett, Faulkner. Then, Borges. Then Gabriel García Márquez. Generally, every single book I read.

GR: What are you reading now?

PC: Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue.


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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by T (new)

T W Was "Hugo" and its automaton any influence?


message 2: by Nick (new)

Nick T wrote: "Was "Hugo" and its automaton any influence?"

I hope not. That book was terrible. Though, automata is such a massive culture that I doubt he would need Hugo as an inspiration.


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