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13 January 2018

Peter Carey Q&A: “Heroes are dangerous types in need of a damn good biographer“

The novelist talks Donald Trump, childhood heroes and architectural fantasies.

By New Statesman

Peter Carey was born in Australia in 1943 and studied chemistry and zoology before starting a career in advertising. He published his first novel, “Bliss”, in 1981 and has won the Man Booker Prize twice. He currently lives in New York City.


What’s your earliest memory?

Could that have been a nun standing over my crib? Where was my fervent Church of England mother? Why had she left me alone? Why can no one clarify this issue?

Who are your heroes?

As a child I idolised my older brother, Paul, who would surely have been the novelist if he had not been needed as the service manager in PS Carey Motors.
In my grand old age I see “heroes” as dangerous individuals in need of a damn good biographer.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C Scott, an ethnologist, geographer, anarchist and sheep farmer. It looks at the much maligned “barbarians” who avoided state control and that familiar friendly grain (wheat) that provided the mechanism of enforcement.

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Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Gough Whitlam, who almost destroyed the left wing of the Victorian Australian Labor party yet persuaded us to call him “comrade” for the remainder of his long, ironic life.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A wine growing region between wars, any time after penicillin and before television.

What TV show could you not live without?

I would have imagined it was a treat to have an hour or two of anti-Trump opinion every night, but New York’s MSNBC has proved to be an awful enervating addiction with no relief in sight. We have also just discovered Rake, which makes me feel nostalgic for crooked non-nuclear Sydney town.

Who would paint your portrait?

Shepard Alonzo Mount, whose portrait of Ann Brooks (c1845), is described: “Her skin is flawless, her breasts are heroically blossoming above a too-small waist, her eyes are perfectly luminous, and her gaze is stately.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

My father told me to never take advice from anyone. It remains a reliable guide when faced with expert opinion, for instance, don’t write a novel about Ned Kelly.

What’s currently bugging you?

Print media filling up column inches with free “content”.

When were you happiest?

At breakfast. I am married to a woman who brings berries back to bed for us to share. This morning at seven I cracked a joke. You may say “poor woman” but she laughed.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I have always fantasised about being an architect. Being cursed with a poor three-dimensional imagination I have had to settle on being a client.

What single thing would make your life better?

A peaceful and legal end to the current American presidency.

Are we all doomed?

See above. 

Peter Carey’s new novel, “A Long Way From Home”, is published by Faber & Faber. He will appear at a Cambridge Literary Festival event, in association with the NS, on 16 January

This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief