Lunch with the FT: Peter Carey

If I said I’d known Peter Carey for years, it would be both true and not. We were friendly acquaintances some years back, when Carey would arrive in London from his New York home as the slightly unlikely superstar among the Faber boys, as we junior, female denizens of the book world rather disparagingly (read: enviously) dubbed the fine stable of talent at his London publisher. We were each in significantly different lives at that time. So when I met Carey for lunch at the Gramercy Tavern on New York’s East Side we had much not to talk about, as well as much to discuss.

I quite like that, as a framework for an interview; and for Carey, who must have done several hundred such in his 35-year career as a writer, any variation on the theme must be welcome. He immediately makes a small game of it, eyeing my tape recorder as if it were a slightly prudish extra guest at the table, occasionally cocking an eyebrow at it – pas devant les enfants.

But that makes Carey sound as if he is evasive, when in fact he is a generous talker. And a generous writer: since his first novel, Bliss, in 1981, his books have appeared every two to three years – quite a pace by the standards of today’s novelists.

“It’s every two years really,” he tells me as we settle into a table by the wall in the restaurant, which is still relatively placid with the sedate early-lunch crowd. “But I used to do other things in between – little projects like going to Japan with Charley.” Carey’s trip was with the younger of his two sons, who was then 12, and it resulted in a short non-fiction travelogue-cum-meditation, Wrong About Japan, in 2005.

“Or I’d waste some time on a film. But then you just start to think – at 68 – how many books can you write before you lose your wits?”

Slight, wiry, with a face always lit up with fleeting expressions – some of which, you sense, may be more barbed than his courteous manner would suggest – Carey certainly doesn’t look his age. Born in Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne, he has been settled in New York since 1990, and now lives there with his partner Frances Coady, a distinguished publisher.

“I don’t like publication any more,” he says cheerfully, with the launch of his 12th novel, The Chemistry of Tears, in prospect. “I used to look forward to it so much, to flying round America staying in nice hotels with minibars, but now I’m sick of it, and I think people are sick of writers doing it too. There used to be a lot more media in this country – so with a book tour, the whole purpose was to get written up in the local paper and on to the local radio station. But most of that’s gone, and it’s not worth it for 20 people in a book store.

“It makes one want to stay home.”

The restaurant is rapidly filling up, the clatter rising. The interior, all heavy wood, moody lamplight and starched linen, is solid old-school chic. “It’s a kind of collision of styles, isn’t it?” Carey says. “But you know if you asked me to describe this place, I couldn’t do it, apart from an impression of lighting. It’s like an old leather slipper.”

This makes me smile: not that the guy from Bacchus Marsh is so at home in one of Manhattan’s most desirable restaurants but that the novelist has switched off his forensic descriptive powers and succumbed to sheer comfort.

A quick bit of attention to the menu results in apple, pear and walnut salads for both of us, braised lamb for Carey and pollock for me. Carey chooses a glass of red wine from the far south of the list, whose price tag implies that it’s going to be pretty serious. I go for a more conventional white, knowing that (the curse of the lunchtime interview) I’m hardly going to be aware of it anyway.

“The thing about getting older and being an artist,” he continues, “well, Hockney is a brilliant example of what you might aspire to, amazing – and if you look at Rembrandt’s self-portraits, then you see it can be a wonderful thing getting older – and smarter. Allow three years – let’s say – for a book; when you’re getting towards the end of your time, each succeeding book becomes more important. That’s no bad thing. In fact, it’s rather good.”

He writes all day, even in that graveyard of writers’ hopes, the afternoon, and pays warm tribute to Coady as his first reader and “a fabulous editor, totally trust-worthy”. Asked if he dislikes editing as much as many successful writers, he demurs: “I want to do better. Why resist?”

The new novel, a complicated interlinking of stories in the past and present, contains, he says, “a pretty risky notion ... two characters who will never meet. Looking back, I had no real reason to believe that I could do it, and make it work, except the exhilaration when it works out. But I always did things that were beyond what I knew how to do. It keeps one alive.”

In the book, a young museum curator, Catherine Gehrig, tries to recover after the death of her lover by immersing herself in restoring a fine 19th-century automaton, an exquisite silver creature created by a Victorian father, Henry Brandling, to divert his dying son. The various narratives soar off, looping in and out of each other as Carey plays with all the themes and tics his fans will recognise – the real and the false and the nature of identity (as in My Life as a Fake, 2003, or Theft: A Love Story, 2006), the power of past worlds and stories (Jack Maggs, 1997, or True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000), the hand of the past on the shoulder of the present (as in Oscar and Lucinda, 1988), the distorting or redeeming power of love (passim).

These magnificent books have lassoed a thick bundle of awards, including two Bookers, two Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes and many more. I have never before had lunch with a man whose face is on a postage stamp (as his was, in Australia, in 2010), but before I can mention this Carey goes back to explaining the new book with his characteristic mixture of disparagement and intensity. “At one stage it was going to be a novel about Henry Ford and space aliens.” Then he got talking to a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – and for this book, employed a young writer to research for him, who sent pages of mundane detail. “I wanted to know everything – where she [the V&A curator] worked, the colour of bricks, everything in the street.” He tracked down a horologist who’d restored a real silver automaton, and started to find out about the museum business. “Then BP went and spilled all that oil just in time” – to make a short incident in his book, he means, displaying his jackdaw instincts towards real-life events.

“So I thought it was about one thing but then discovered the things that I love it being about – life, death, is there a soul, where is it located, all that.

“Writing about the past, at first I was intimidated, I thought everyone knew all about it already and I’d be found out. With Oscar and Lucinda, I had to put in Christian stories, and aboriginal stories – I really didn’t want to but I had to. In fact, you can make up the most outrageous things too.

“We have to think about where things come from. We are living with the consequences of the 19th century – could we be destroying the planet without the industrial revolution? That was when the modern world got formed – take the internal combustion engine, a fanciful idea, a process of exploration. And the past is full of wonder. Babbage’s difference engine – what a wild, lovely, beautiful thing.”

The interlinked parallel narratives of The Chemistry of Tears create another of Carey’s unlikely pairings, as did his previous book Parrot and Olivier in America. Asked if he is drawn to unlikely twosomes, Carey jumps as if it’s a trick question (it’s not) and says: “I guess I just don’t like being ordinary.”

That’s for sure. As well as his intense literary output, Carey’s background is packed with surprises. In the 1970s he lived in an “alternative community” in Queensland, where most of his early stories and his first novel were written, while continuing a part-time career in advertising. By 1980 he had moved to Sydney and started his own advertising agency, which he finally sold on his move to the US a decade later with his then wife Alison Summers.

Carey’s lamb has arrived. He says it’s “spectacularly good – cooked really slowly”. My fish was probably pretty good too but I have no idea. Another glass? “Oh yes,” he says. “I’ll become much more informative.”

When Carey talks about today’s world, you can hear the voice of the one-time hippie and the one-time ad man combined. He has spoken out elsewhere about his views of contemporary culture – “Everything feels stupid and depressing.”

For instance? “For instance, people seem to have given up on the notion that kids can read. Given up on the imagination. Getting boys to read, they say books have to have at least one explosion in them. There’s something so wrong about that way of thinking – kids can learn Shakespeare.”

As for ecology: “When we had our hippie moment we thought about the planet but we didn’t realise how dire it was – though we thought we were serious. Now we’re having a fabulous time – but it’s impossible to think that there’s any answer other than starvation, war, huge population shifts, death. I can’t see a happy end in sight,” he says, looking around at New York’s smart crowd noisily at the trough – “but I like this wine.”

His younger son, he tells me, is working on a collective organic farm in North Carolina: they are a serious generation, we agree, concerned with issues of sheer survival. Carey deplores the situation in America, in which “the democractic process is so poor”.

So, I foolishly ask, does he feel jaded about US politics and the upcoming election? Suddenly, a small flash of temper. “I’m not jaded, I’m enraged, which is a little different!” Obama, he says fiercely, “tricked us”.

Carey, who has had dual US-Australian citizenship since 2002, adds: “I wept when he was elected, with pleasure and joy. We never thought he was a radical but we did believe he would try to do what he said. But he was not able to, and he has a passionate belief in compromise, that’s who he is. It was f**ked from the beginning. Meanwhile the other lot have got worse.”

For his next book, Carey is harnessing this head of steam to fuel a new challenge, “to deal with political events in Australia”. It will be, he says, a story of three generations, running from the Battle of Brisbane in 1942, through 1975, “when the American government f**ked over the Australian government”, up to the present day. “I feel strongly about it – it’ll be really good to write an Australian book. I often have to go back on business but otherwise my relationship with my country is through the newspapers.”

I’m lost. Battle of Brisbane? “Yeah, no one knows about that.” Over the course of two days in November 1942, it turns out, Australian troops and American troops attacked each other in the streets of Brisbane, with violent incidents, gunfire, barricades; there were several deaths. As for Carey’s take on the constitutional crisis of 1975, we’ll have to wait for the book for that. He has set it in a place just like Bacchus Marsh (where his brother and sister still live), and its narrator, an unreliable journalist, is just Carey’s age. But the guy’s nothing like him, he insists – although “everyone wants you to be writing about yourself”.

It had taken some time and several requests to get those second glasses of wine – “they didn’t believe us”, was Carey’s diagnosis – and now we decide against desserts and ask for coffee.

I can’t resist a last question about ideas – I so much like hearing him talk about them. His earlier books seemed to me more purely narrative, more fantastical; recently they seem more ideas-driven. There was that clutch of books about the notion of authenticity; in his previous novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, he took on democracy; in this new one, it’s the nature of the soul.

But he’s having none of it. “I always thought I was doing that. I couldn’t write a book unless I was – the things that have always set me going were the ideas. Maybe I’m just getting better at it.”

Then, suddenly, he’s had enough. “OK – so. Are we done? Can we turn that thing off now?”

Peter Carey is speaking at the Southbank Centre on April 2.

‘The Chemistry of Tears’ (Faber, £17.99) is published in the UK on April 5 and in the US (Knopf, $26) on May 15

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

Gramercy Tavern

42 East 20th Street, New York

Pear salad x2 $24.00

Pollock $24.00

Lamb $24.00

Glass of Felfiñanes wine x2 $24.00

Glass of Mas Martinet x 2 $49.00

Espresso $5.00

Cortado $5.00

Total (including tax and service) $196.28

How the automaton has inspired artists

Peter Carey’s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, features the creation (and later restoration) of a lifelike automaton by highly skilled watchmakers. In this case it’s a bird, but human as well as animal mechanical figures have been a powerful trigger of artists’ imaginations through the ages.

It begins with a resonant myth. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is a Cypriot sculptor who falls in love with a woman he has carved from ivory. His prayers are answered and the statue comes to life: they marry and have a son called Paphos, after whom the city is named. The Greeks had many other myths about manmade creations coming to life, and there’s some evidence the mechanical skills of the time were good enough to make lifelike moving figures – the island of Rhodes was especially famous for this.

Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’ (1940)

The fascination with these manmade figures continued through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and into the modern world. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has the “statue” of Hermione come to life as the high spot of the drama. In the 17th century, Descartes used automata as a parallel or metaphor: he believed non-human animals were complex machines whose actions can be fully explained without any reference to an idea of “mind” – effectively, they are living automata.

Showmen profited from the 18th-century craze. The “Mechanical Turk”, built in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, was an automaton that played chess. Although exposed as a fake in the 1820s (there was of course a person inside the “machine”), it remained hugely popular in exhibitions until its destruction by fire in 1854. The Turk played chess with Napoleon, who was caught out trying to cheat it. It inspired dozens of novels and stories including one by Edgar Allan Poe (in 1836), which in turn inspired Buñuel’s film El Jugador de Ajedrez (1981).

The credulity that kept crowds flocking to watch the Turk play (and usually win) games of chess seems impossible in our cynical age. Yet writers, artists and film-makers have persisted in trying to recapture the magical-mysterious properties of manmade figures. And the moral properties: in 1883, Carlo Collodi’s famous creation Pinocchio was a wooden toy who comes to life and takes on some less admirable human attributes, mainly lying.

In 1920 came the robot, when the Czech writer Karel Capek’s play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots) posited artificial people manufactured by biotechnology not mechanics. Robots have been central to the science fiction genre ever since.

An old-fashioned automaton, and the watchmaker’s art, came to the fore again last year in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, in which a young boy desperately tries to restore a broken mechanical man because he believes it can give him a message from his dead father. The automaton’s missing piece is a key – in the shape of a heart.

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