The opening section of Peter Carey’s latest novel is pitch perfect. Within the first four paragraphs, he encapsulates the delightfully unconventional characteristics of all but one of the main characters. It’s a masterclass, and what follows is no less skilled.
Telling the story of Irene and Titch Bobs – a car salesman and his feisty wife who embark on the Redex Trial, a test of ordinary cars traversing Australia on the roughest of tracks, it starts as a comedic tale – but as their neighbour, Willie, navigates them through Northern Australia, a more serious theme ensues. And it’s one the author has long been anxious to address.
“It’s that Australia is built on lies, and the greatest lie is that the country was not occupied for years,” he says, sipping red wine on the cold January afternoon that we meet in Dublin. “That enabled the British to take it. Nothing was said about the wars between black and white, or the countless massacres.”
The seventy-four-year old has touched on the subject before; both Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda incorporated the Aboriginal question, but he hesitated before exploring the issue in full.
“In about 1984 I went to a playwright’s conference in Canberra, and this sweet Aboriginal guy, there to talk to white playwrights, said, ‘I know you blokes want to help; but the best way you can help is to not write about us. We have enough shit to deal with without you making things up, giving misinformation.’ I took that really seriously.
“Time goes on, and you don’t write about it, then you think, well, I’m an Australian writer. I write about Australian history, and about who we are. It’s meant to be part of my territory, and you should be able to find a way of working with what you know.”
He’d decided to base his fourteenth novel on two maps – one to be the ancient Aboriginal landscape, and, thinking about this, and the British massacres of Aboriginals, he had a lightbulb moment.
“It’s a white story. None of that shit would have happened if it hadn’t been for white people. We’d thought we were amazing, and British, and would never have done anything cruel. I decided to write about the discovery of those things by white people – and put in a sense of the emotion and the relics, and things I knew. I then researched a lot.”
A Long Way From Home open in Bacchus Marsh, the small-town that Carey grew up in. And though he swears that Titch and Irene Bobs are not based on his parents, there are, obvious similarities. His father was a talented salesman, and his mother was his father’s business partner.
“She was the administrator, running the small parts. She would sit on this high stool behind the counter, and men would come in and ask for the manager. She’d say, ‘I am the manager,’ and they wouldn’t believe her.”
There were two elements I felt he had got exactly right. The sibling rivalry between Irene and Beverly, and the scenes where, waiting for Titch to return from the pub, Irene fluctuates between anger, and real sorrow, as she envisages life without him.
“That first is not from my experience – my sister and brother, at 10 and 11 years older were more like an uncle and Aunt. But I grew up with waiting. My father would be out selling cars to farmers, and in pubs, and my mother would be waiting there, saying to me, ‘Oh! My poor little orphan.’ I was terrified. Then my Dad would come home, and they would be shouting at each other.”
Never versed in mechanical matters, Carey relied on his brother for all the information he needed for the novel.
“After he left the fancy school we both attended, my father sent him to General Motors to work as an apprentice, and from there, he became service manager. That was his life, but when I was 12, my mother said, ‘you know there will be no room in the business for you.’
“I grew older knowing that. I don’t remember feeling excluded. There was a certain stage, when I was in my twenties, that my father asked me to come back into the business, but by then it was clear to me that I didn’t want to.”
Around that time, starting work in advertising, he became set on the idea of becoming a writer. It was a long process; he completed four or five novels before his first short story collection was published; but once he found a publisher, he was looked after, and given time for his career to develop.
His huge success soon rewarded them. Often mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize candidate, Carey has won the Booker prize twice, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize twice, and he’s been awarded three Miles Franklin Literary Awards. Despite that, he says that the students he teaches at the MFA course in New York are often offered a bigger advance for their debut, that he gets for his current novels. Does that irk him?
“No. It can be brutal,” he says. “My students have no track record, and publishers can decide they’re the next big thing. The agent can sell the manuscript for a shit load of money, and the author will be punished if the book doesn’t do well. It’s, ‘You’ve sold nothing; you’re a big disappointment; and we regret giving you all that money for your first book.’ They’ll find themselves getting a lot less advance for the next one and will be looking for a new publisher for the third.”
On teaching – alongside Colum McCann and Téa Obreht, Carey says that whilst you can’t hand on talent, you can speed up the creative process for those who already possess it.
“When you’re recruiting, you’re looking for talent, but also for someone who really, really wants it. They can learn about the release of information; and how to walk into the writer’s dream without knocking their shins against the furniture in the dark. It’s like spending two or three years with an editor.”
Carey spends his life with his editor – Frances Coady. He’s married to her, (and was previously married to a former editor, Alison Summers,) so he is well aware of the benefits of that. But what’s it like, accepting criticism from the woman you love?
He shrugs. “Sometimes Frances says, ‘You are going to be angry with me, but I don’t recall that ever happening. She might have thought I was upset at times, when I’m working out how to put something right, but she’s easily the most brilliant editor I’ve ever worked with.”
A Long Way From Home looks forensically at the issue of identity. As an American citizen, who has lived in New York since 1990, how does the author identify himself?
“I’m an Australian, and an Australian writer – there’s no confusion about that. Yet I can identify myself as a New Yorker. When you sit in the subway, the majority of the people have their heart in two places, as I have. Do I identify with Americans when I refer to America? No!”
Carey is proud of the book; he believes it’s one of his best, and is pleased that, thanks to his extensive research, working with an anthropologist, Catherine Wohlon, as well as Aboriginal readers, he has been deemed to have got their story right.
Currently working on another novel, he has no plans to retire.
“What would I do?” he says, looking slightly panicked at the thought. “A fully rounded human being would be doing all sorts of amazing things, but I’m not fully rounded; I’m really specialised.”
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey is published by Faber & Faber: €14.78. Kindle: €10.20.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 17th February, 2018
© Sue Leonard. 2018