Thursday, November 12, 2009

Peter Carey live

I thought I should get around to posting a followup to my earlier post about Australian novelist Peter Carey and his book True History of the Kelly Gang. Carey visited my university late last month, and as is customary with these things, he gave a public reading one night and then held a small group discussion with students the next day. As it turned out, he read from Kelly Gang, after providing a substantial--and much needed, given his Arkansan audience--introduction to his native country, to Ned Kelly himself, and to the book. In my earlier post, I marveled at the half-illiterate, half-eloquent first person voice Carey had developed for his novel. As impressed as I was by that voice when I read the book at home, I was even more impressed in the public reading. Kelly's voice carries commandingly when spoken aloud. It seems real and true and compelling--at least when performed by the author himself. Carey reads with confidence and with experience; also with a useful touch of the showman. I thought he and Ned Kelly were both tremendous.

As I suspected, that voice, Carey told us, was an invention, as was most of the action in the novel. According to Carey, very few personal details about Kelly are established in the historical record, necessitating that Carey's biographical novel be just that: fictional. More interesting, though, was something else he told us: A couple dozen or so pages of writing by Kelly actually do exist. Carey's first approach to the novel was to try to exactly imitate the voice that appears in those extant pages. He tried it but wasn't satisfied. In the end he invented his own Ned Kelly voice, which holds up remarkably well over hundreds of pages, in which there is very little punctuation. What occurred to me, however, as I listened to him comment about the book is how fictional any character in a novel must be, whether real worldy or not, whether a lot or a little is known about him. I hope the Van Gogh of my novel comes across as believable and interesting, but no doubt he's my Van Gogh. Not a couple dozen but thousands of pages of his writing are available as well as numerous anecdotes and memories by people who knew or met him. And then there are all the paintings! His life is about as well documented as a person's can be from the 19th century, yet the entire time I was drafting my novel I felt I was making him up.

Personally, Carey proved a friendly, gracious, open visitor. He seemed genuinely curious about the writing lives of his UCA hosts and about UCA itself. Impressed by our (quite lovely) Writing Department building he took pictures of it to take back to show to his students in New York. He showed a complete lack of pretension and could not have been more direct, more honest with his answers to questions. Best of all, he demonstrated for our students--through his reading, through his comments, through his anecdotes, through his honesty--what a commitment to the writing craft and the writing life means. He's a pro, in only the best sense of the word, and a writer who deserves far more attention from U.S. readers than he's received heretofore. In England, I am told, he is held in the same esteem as Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. How ironic that his adopted home country has yet to truly embrace him. Carey, I must say, seems unphased by this. He's got his life in New York--and he's always working on a novel.


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