An Interview with Australian Author Peter Carey

Australian novelist Peter Carey lands on campus this spring as the Michener Center’s Residency Award Author. The special residency program brings writers of international acclaim to the center each year for short, intensive seminars.

Carey’s latest book, “His Illegal Self,” is out in paperback from Vintage this month, and like each of his ten novels, it is boldly inventive and tackles new territory.

Whether drawing upon his own experience as an advertising executive-turned-commune dweller in “Bliss,” or re-imagining the life of a Dickens’ character in “Jack Maggs,” Carey never repeats himself. He won the Booker Prize in 1988 for “Oscar and Lucinda,” a lush, improbable 19th-century love story about two obsessive gamblers, and a second Booker followed in 2001 for “True History of the Kelly Gang,” told in the unschooled vernacular of its outlaw narrator Ned Kelly, Australia’s version of Jesse James.

Since 1990, Carey has lived in New York City, where he directs Hunter College’s MFA program in creative writing. On a busman’s holiday here in Austin, Carey will conduct a three-week fiction seminar and give a public reading next week, but he took time to answer a few questions for ShelfLife about his work.

Q: In “His Illegal Self” we see the human toll of violent radicalism as your child protagonist seeks the truth about his parents, who were fugitive 60s radicals. But are you also addressing violent radicalism in our own time?

A: Readers often make this connection, but it was never in my conscious mind. I began the book as an attempt to make art from something I had experienced: an American on the run from the FBI who ends up in a community of hippies in tropical Queensland. The novel moved a long way from its roots.

By the time I had finished, “he” had become two people: a young woman from Boston and a six-year-old New Yorker called Che who thinks the young woman is his mother. It is their lives and loves I am concerned with. The political climate of the time is the water that they swim in. “His illegal Self” is a love story more than anything.

Q: “His Illegal Self.” “Theft: A Love Story.” “My Life as a Fake.” Is it just coincidence that your last three novels focus on the theme of imposture?

A: I have been asked this before and never get more than a B+ for my answer. I view the subjects of these books as over-lapping circles. “My Life as a Fake” is about the power of the imagination, a Frankenstein story, an argument that the lies we tell will come true. “Theft” does involve a fake, of course, and there the circles overlap, but I would think it deals with the lives of those who grow up far from the great centers of culture and their true passion for art (which they, as children in their isolated small towns, never knew existed).

Q: “His Illegal Self” begins in New York, but by page 23 has segued to Australia. After 20 years in New York, do you think you’ll ever make the United States a setting for your work?

A: The book I’m finishing is set in Paris, Devon and New York. The story takes place in the late 18th and early 19th century. It asks how we got to be living in a democracy marked by crookedness and cronyism, and wonders who might have predicted the great dumb culture of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Carey will read from his work at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, Feb. 12 in the Avaya Auditorium (ACES 2.302). The reading is free and open to the public.