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Powell's Q&A

Peter Carey

Describe your latest project.
I'm fearful that the question will tempt me to tell you the story and, in the process, ruin everything I've spent the last two years doing.

After all, what you want from me is for me to keep my reader engaged, alive, curious, sympathetic, unable to guess what will happen next.

So, imagine: it is 1970. There is a seven-year-old boy living on Park Avenue with his grandmother. His name is Che. He can no longer remember what his parents look like. They are famous Harvard radicals, now underground, on the run. The teenager downstairs tells him, don't worry, man, they will come for you. They will break you out of here.

Here's the third paragraph:

Then, when the boy was, by his own count, almost eight, a woman stepped out of the elevator into the apartment on East 62nd Street and he recognized her straight away. No one had told him to expect it.

So finally it seems the prediction has come true. She will break him out of here. Thirty minutes pass. By then, the woman and the boy are on the run.

At the turnstiles she released his hand and pushed him under. She slipped off her pack. He was giddy, giggling. She was laughing too. They had entered another planet, and as they pushed down to the platform the ceiling was slimed with alien rust and the floor was flecked and speckled with black gum — so this was the real world that had been crying to him from beneath the grating up on Lex.

They ran together to the local, and his heart was pounding and his stomach was filled with bubbles like an ice cream float. She took his hand once more and kissed it, stumbling.

The 6 train carried him through the dark, wire skeins unraveling, his entire life changing all at once. He burped again. The cars swayed and screeched, thick teams of brutal cables showing in the windowed dark. And then he was in Grand Central first time ever and they set off underground again, hand in hand, slippery together as new born goats.

What will happen next?

That is what they hardly know, what I can't reveal.

They will be in a Greyhound station in Philadelphia, a motel in Oakland, a plane to Sydney, Australia, a road in tropical Queensland.

The boy had no idea where on earth he stood. He understood the names of hardly anything, himself included.

In this entire continent he knew only the big faced, boned mother with her bag full of entertainments. She was two long strides ahead — sarong, T shirt, rubber flip flops, walking way too fast. What he really knew about her, he could have written on a candy wrapper. She was a radical, but that was as obvious as the exit sign ahead.

The boy spelled out the exit sign. Caboolture?

A town, she said, it's nothing. She would not slow.

What sort of town?

His strong hair was now disguised, dyed black, cut like a hedge, revealing a band of pale untanned skin around his neck. He rubbed at the crown and squinted up at the sign — Caboolture — dumb black letters on a dumb white board, an ugly redneck sort of thing, he reckoned.

What sort of town, Dial?

Come on, she said. An Australian town.

He should have asked other stuff, where is my father, where is granny, but sometimes it seemed she was sick of him already.

It goes on. There are more characters, many worlds, a mystery, and then another mystery, and then one more. If everything works as it did in test drives, you will be up all night reading.

  1. His Illegal Self
    $6.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    His Illegal Self

    Peter Carey
    "Carey's unique take on the conflict between the need to belong and the dream of freedom during the days of rage over the Vietnam War is at once terrifying and mythic." Booklist

    "[A] cunning fugitive adventure....[A] fine addition to the author's oeuvre." Publishers Weekly

  2. Theft: A Love Story (Vintage International)
    $8.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[I]nsanely readable....Theft showcases animated, hilarious, jewel-encrusted prose, and it is motored by some good old-fashioned storytelling." Anna Godbersen, Esquire
  3. True History of the Kelly Gang
    $4.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "A spectacular feat of imagination." The Boston Globe
  4. My Life as a Fake
    $7.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    My Life as a Fake

    Peter Carey
    "As the Booker Prize has noted — twice — [Carey is] one of the greatest storytellers alive, the perfect qualification for this novel all about storytelling." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In 1964 I began this job which involved crawling inside the skins of imaginary people and making them walk around in a lifelike way, making them talk and laugh and eat and dance until no one believed they were imaginary at all. Been doing it for over forty-two years now. No gold watch in sight.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
If there was any justice, Peter Robb would be one of the most loved and admired writers in the world today. He's Australian, but does not usually write about Australia. He writes about Brazil, for instance, but it's not exactly a travel book, although it is. It a food book, a history, a political saga that chronicles the rise of Lulu, and it is most of all a work of art, beautifully, lucidly, sensuously written. He's as good as anyone you know. A Death in Brazil would be a fine place to start, but so would his book about the Mafia, Midnight in Sicily, which of course is and is not about the mafia, and food, and history, and travel. There's an extraordinary book about Carravagio, titled M. Rather like the books above, but of course not at all like them.

If you are a writer, read him and know that this is why we write.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
This is how Conrad establishes the character of Lord Jim in the first lines of the book.

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular.

How do you relax?
Celexa's pretty good. Occasionally a tiny hit of Ativan.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I was reading at Temple University at Philadelphia. This is a nice gig because they pay you and take you out to a fancy steak house. It was even nicer in this case because I learned about Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley, who was unfortunate to have a famous fascist for a father. Hopeful Monsters is set before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War, and it carries its love stories, its feast of Freud and Marx and quantum mechanics, on a gorgeous flood of prose.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is one of the big reasons I became a writer. So after I had been received at Graceland I went down the road to Oxford and there, being accompanied by a distinguished gentlemen from the University of Memphis, I was permitted to pass beyond the scratched Perspex security barrier and do some serious snooping. Inside the master's drawers I discovered various squashed-up tubes of creams and ointments and experienced that sad scared feeling you have cleaning out your grandpa's house. Apart from that, there was not a lot left of Faulkner, nothing but his loneliness and some shirts on wire hangers, which have surely since been conserved somewhere very dark and far from life.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
I arrived in Tokyo at midnight. I had no Japanese. At four in the morning I was at Tokyo Station with my travel directions written on a piece of paper. No one wished to read my paper. Having charged at many Japanese men waving my paper, having managed to change from the bullet train to a regular train, having waved my instructions at a taxi driver, I arrived at a fishery in Yaizu, a small town halfway between Toyko and Nagoya.

In the fishery canteen at Yaizu I ate enormous quantities of fresh, iridescent tuna and washed it down with beer. When the hurricane arrived the next morning, I was gone.

Why do you write?
To make something very beautiful that has never existed on the earth before.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Theft: A Love Story involves an art forgery. It is all completely invented, but I wanted to make the process work well enough so it would be almost credible to professionals and conservators alike. Or, to be more exact, I wanted these particular readers to know I had taken the trouble to imagine their lives.

It was a thrill therefore to get a letter from a conservator in a very respected museum in Boston who told me that he used my book to teach his students.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Finally, after years of looking, I feel I can almost see Rembrandt. The self-portraits have such a quizzical, wise, arrogant, vulnerable, cocky sort of quality — which is to say nothing, of course, when really what I wish to say, to quote Bob Dylan, is "like a corkscrew to your heart."

And Dylan, every day, all my life — there is no one else who can, within a single verse, inhabit so many different points of view and arguments and make you want to cry or laugh out loud at the nerve and magic of it all.

I've been sittin' down studyin' the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this cruel world today

Is this even remotely like Rembrant's late self-portraits? Oh yes, it is.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five books I continue to buy and give to friends:

These are extraordinary novels. As to why I think so, see "Why do you write?"

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

÷ ÷ ÷

Peter Carey is the author of nine novels and has twice received the Booker Prize. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he now lives in New York City. Visit his website at


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