An Interview with Peter Carey
(Conducted on 26 March 2004 in Manhattan)
GAILE: Out of the nine novels you have so far published, five could be classified as historical novels – of course, ones of a particularly postmodern brand, whether you call them historiographic metafictions, factions, histories or anything of the sort. Why do you again and again decide to write about the Australian past with so much happening in present-day Australia? I'm thinking of reconciliation, the Republican Movement and so on.
CAREY: Within the question lies the argument that Shakespeare could have been doing more socially meaningful things than writing Richard III. But of course we all know it's a work of art, and we don't wish it to be investigative reporting, or even history. Do you go to Richard III to find out what really happened? No, you go to it because it's great literature, and because of this it can be used as a lens through which to look at Shakespeare's time or our own. The utilitarian view of literature is useful in the case of journalism, history, philosophy, but it doesn't seem a productive way for this novelist to think. Of course we're all passionately concerned by the politics of the present. And it would be a very narrow pedestrian reader who could not see the relevance of Jack Maggs to the Republican Movement, for instance, or to see that Oscar and Lucinda or even Illywhacker might illuminate, and be illuminated by, the issue of reconciliation. It's trite, but important, to also remember that the present always has its feet in the past. In Australia, where the past has been the subject of denial and memory-loss, it's essential, it seems to me, to go back to the past and try and untangle all the lies we've told and been told. I think we've often been incredibly lazy. Ned Kelly is a really good example. At the time I announced my intention to tackle him, many of my friends said, “oh well, we know all about Ned Kelly!” Well, of course we didn't.