Peter Carey’s new novel, His Illegal Self, set in the late sixties, is about a young American boy, Che, the child of fugitive members of the SDS underground. Che is abducted from his grandmother by Dial, an acquaintance of his mother, and smuggled to Australia.
All your novels are quite different from each other. In His Illegal Self, the chief protagonist is a young American boy. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
I began with an American who arrives in south-east Queensland on the run. He thinks he has come to the end of the earth. He has no idea where he really is. This was the starting point. It came from real life but not even that small germ survives in the final novel. For a start, the man has become a woman and is now on the run from something completely different.
My first chapter in my first draft is now much later in the work. It’s the scene in which Dial and Che are hitching, walking north beside the Bruce highway, heading into a tropical storm. Almost no cars are going their way. The traffic is all southbound, heading back to Brisbane with headlights burning. In that first draft, I imagined Dial was a single hippie mother with her son.
Obviously I changed my mind, but that’s why novels are such a challenge and a joy. You discover things he never knew, imagined, or experienced. Each day you climb another rung of the ladder. Two years later you have arrived in a high and dizzy place.
Che, the young boy, has grown up separated from his parents and is desperate to be reunited with them; this longing, and its resolution, is central to the novel. It seems to me a much more intimate and affecting novel than, say, Theft or My Life as a Fake.
Intimate? Let me quarrel with the word. To write a novel you must always be, without exception, incredibly intimate with your characters. You live inside their skin, see the world with their eyes, dredge up their joys and traumas. And you must love them all, even the worst of them.
So that’s intimate. How ‘affecting’ a novel is, is a judgment that can only be made by the reader. If this book was more affecting for you, it means you were deeply involved with my book. I’m pleased. Yet how much my novels affect a reader is beyond prediction. I am still somewhat startled to hear the intensity of emotion produced by the ending of Oscar and Lucinda.
The novel is set in the late sixties, in both the US and Australia. The protagonists in the US are hard headed warriors of the left, the Australians are bumbling hippies trying to avoid Bjelke Peterson’s police raids. Was that an intentional contrast?
Fortunately we know each other. You know I am a contrarian and will disagree with almost everything you suggest. However even you, further down the page, describe the American radicals as narcissistic. They are also often strident, and doctrinaire, but they are in their own way also bumbling. One of the characters blows herself up while trying to make a bomb.
Generally speaking I was not trying to represent all American radicals in this way, but to represent an interesting thread of the resistance, those who came through Harvard were children of great privilege who, in terms of their political activism, seemed to have little social ease beyond the confines of Harvard Yard. The sort of political adventurism that led to bank robberies and bombings always seemed to me the response of privileged people who could not get their way. In general I don’t disagree with what they wanted.
The Australian hippies in the novel are not political activists in the same way, although you could easily agree, from the vantage of 2008, that they made a political choice, and their choice demanded some courage of them. I don’t mean this to be read as a national trait.
When I think of the Australian anti-war movement I am more inclined to think of the young union guy who has coffee with Dial in Sydney, in that scene where she reveals she has no idea that Australia has troops in Vietnam. In other word I think of trade unionists, labour organisers and the younger more middle class left.
All your novels seem to be strongly located geographically, Oscar and Lucinda in Bellingen, Illywhacker in Bacchus Marsh, My Life as a Fake in Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur and Penang; this time it’s the Noosa hinterland. Does it have anything to do with the fact that our new Prime Minister is from Nambour?
One of the huge pleasures of writing Theft was my personal discovery that I had a vivid visual and sensual memory of Bellingen, that house on the Never Never River particularly. I had lived there long ago and thought it lost to me. Now, in New York, I could reach out and touch it. This gave me an intense pleasure that was related to, but different from, the pleasure of writing the book.
When it came time to think about the book after Theft I began casting around in south eastern Queensland for many, many reasons, but it would dishonest to play down the importance of place, not to the novel, but to me. I could leave my desk and go out into the streets of New York and carry the secret of the pitta bird scratching around on the rainforest floor. It is also called a jeweled thrush, and it did feel like treasure.
This has nothing to do with your new book, but Prime Minister Rudd recently announced a national prize for Australian fiction and non fiction. What are your views of such a prize and what do you think the new government could do for Australian writers?
I think this is a wise, uncontroversial decision. Mind you if I had understood all this earlier I would have been nicer about Nambour, the Prime Minister’s home town. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to set things straight. I would, first of all, like to thank the clerks at the National Bank in Nambour who always took a long time investigating and conferring before they would give me any money from my savings bank account. Also thanks to the guys with the red noses and yellow shirts who would always remind me that parking was for Day and Grimes customers and only for the period when actually engaged with shopping at Day and Grimes. I know I have suggested that a character in my book shoplifted from Day and Grimes, but would like to reassure the Prime Minister that this character is fictional. I paid cash for everything I bought at Day and Grimes there and did not shoplift once.
Che’s father is a member of a Weatherman type group, who seem narcissistic and indulgent. Is that your view of the left in the US, then? Now?
Absolutely not. It is my view of the characters in my book which is based on my opinionated foreign understanding on a sliver of the student movement against the war. To talk about the American left feels almost quaint. America has gone so far to the right since those years that we can talk about living under fascism without really shocking anyone. Reagan destroyed the unions and now they will have to be rebuilt. The left, generally, will also have to be rebuilt, and that must partly come from a re-invigorated union movement and those young people who understand the real consequences of NAFTA and globalisation. Wal-Mart will not be happy.
On a number of occasions in the novel, you refer to a future that isn’t in the novel. Does that mean you anticipate a sequel, or to give the reader a sense of hope?
There will be no sequel, but yes, there is a future that isn’t in the novel. I wanted to make it clear that this was a whole novel, but not a whole life. If you think about it this as a chapter in Che’s life you will conjure fleeting glimpses of a remarkable man.
Dial enlists the help of the hippie lawyer Phil Warriner to help her out of her legal predicament; he becomes one the great comic characters in the novel – his incompetence helps bring the novel to its resolution? How did you think of him?
Phil was sent to me, descending through a propane glare. He was surrounded by white ants, like singing angels, and when he rolled his first joint and the smoke drifted up and clung to his amazing sideburns I knew that he was mine.
I imagine you research the time and settings of your novels quite extensively. What was involved in researching for this novel, especially the Sunshine Coast in the sixties?
Well I lived there in the mid-seventies, but of course I went back there when I was writing the book. I was generally disgusting, stayed in a fancy place on the beach on Hastings Street, ate at Sails every day for lunch. I went beyond Noosa, of course, but the dirty little secret is that the world of my book did not exist in the real world of 2006. What you have on the pages of His Illegal Self are nothing but figments, inventions, things I made up based on imperfect recollection and irresponsible invention.
But what a pleasure it was to return to Queensland, to walk on Sunshine beach, to feast on mud crabs and Morton Bay bugs.