Interview with Peter Carey

Peter Carey talks about The True History of the Kelly Gang, Ned Kelly, his research, his linguistic usage, living in New York City, and more.

Photo by : Marion Ettlinger

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Why Ned Kelly? 

There were two reasons. The first one to do with being in NYC and going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s painting, which I first did in the 60s in Melbourne. I was apprehensive that they wouldn’t be as good as I remembered them, but they were even better. I was explaining the Kelly story to NY friends, and as I did this I was reminded of how amazing a story this was and how good a novel it would make. At the same time I had in my mind the Jerilderie letter which I typed up and carried around with me. I thought I’d write in that voice, but also I think that the other thing about the Kelly story is that we all think we know it, that we know the story and know the man, but how much of it is unimagined? This was an intriguing thing to come to grips with. Kelly’s relationship with his mother, which I confirmed from a later reading, was central to the drama in this book. We haven’t done much of imagining of the mother-son relationship.

Which mirrors the father-daughter one? 

The father daughter thing I discovered later when, having decided to write the book, I realised that the Jerilderie letter is public rhetoric and really doesn’t serve as a template
for a novel, which I felt needed the confessional aspect. I created a daughter because the automatic response was to picture Kelly as having a son. Working against inclination and made it much more interesting.

In spite of your evocative, sympathetic portrayal of Kelly, you give a powerful speech to Curnow, Kelly’s betrayer. Is it the dialectic between hero and villain which makes Kelly an important historical character? 

I think that Curnow’s speech from my point of view grew out of my imagining of him. He is an interesting character and his action was immensely brave. He was a crippled schoolteacher who had this great courage. He got the biggest reward and was the one you would expect would be the hero. What is interesting about him is that this is Australia and he isn’t the hero. I think that there is a segment of the media, newspapers, which has grasped hold of his speech, but this is a distinctively minority view. It isn’t really a controversy. Curnow was entitled to his speech and it helps to highlight the particular nature of Australia, where a Curnow is reviled and Kelly is the hero.

Were the references to the Melbourne Public Library collection and to the parcels and their contents real? How much have you used from the Jerilderie Letter? 

Of course not. I was in the Melbourne Public Library talking to them and they did go and check. I didn’t use much from the letter, just little bits here and there. There is not a whole
lot quoted verbatim, just a few of the words used by Constable Hall and McCormicks related in the beginning. There are a few sentences here and there which creep in.

Did the Jerilderie Letter give you the voice of Kelly? 

It gives the beginning of a voice, but it is actually quite hard to read the letter and I couldn’t really do it like that. The voice came partly from the Letter and partly from Baccus Marsh State School at the beginning of the 40s. Although the vocabulary has changed a little, the 1940s had more in common with the 1870s than they do with now in terms of the language and beliefs.

You use the word “True” in the title. Is this merely an allusion to the genre of sensationalistic biographies popular in the last century or is your book in some way truer than other accounts? 

This is partly a reference to the first big book on Kelly by JJ Kenneally, The Inner History of the Kelly Gang. Secondly I wanted the title to refer to his voice – a label, of the sort that you would scratch with a nail on a door. Lastly it is the putting of true and history together – anybody who thinks about reading at all calls to mind the idea that history is written by winners and what’s true and what’s not and the dynamics in that.

The book is doing very well in Australia, but are you worried that the Kelly legend might not be as fascinating to an international audience as an Australian one? 

You can never really think about that. It is always a surprise. I know in England there is some knowledge of the story, and of course in Ireland, but it turns out that it doesn’t feel
alien to American readers at all. It hasn’t been published in the US, but from the response we’ve had from writers and reviewers I think they like it. How many of them would go out and buy the book I don’t know, but you really can’t worry about those things.

Throughout the book you use the words ‘adjectival’ and “Eff” and “Ess” to replace curse words. Why is that?

I liked the idea of Kelly being a little gentile. He has these two passions – one to tell the truth and the other to not be alien to his daughter. The use of adjectival has its roots in 19th century literature. It was used by Furphy. When you start to introduce the adjectival into the narrative it adds this extra dimension to the character and a feeling of authenticity in the period.

You mention in an interview that an understanding of Australia’s convict past is fundamental to its future. Why is that? 

It is not just our convict past, but the two big issues in our lives is that we began as a convict colony and the other is that we invaded another person’s country and took it from them and then pretended that we didn’t. There is a great tendency to deny both of these
things and I feel we can’t grow up as a nation until until we come to grips with these things. Our convict past is a big and traumatic history. I think in the last 10 years we have started to acknowledge these things . It seems to me that the past does matter.

Your Kelly calls to mind both of these things, since he has a typically racist perspective. 

One of the things in imagining Kelly is that we want Ned to have liberal racial politics and of course he wouldn’t have. This is just a nettle that we have to grasp. It felt like the right
way to portray him.

Did you invent the Sons of Sieve?

Among social bandits in Ireland, and there were many of them, cross dressing was part of the business and not so much disguised. It goes back into pre-Christian times and has more to do with masks that you put on the days when normal rules of society are to be abandoned. Because when we think about this story habitually we think of it as an Aussie story, and I was interested in what has been maintained from the original Irish. I wanted to strengthen the craft and shape the story with his mother to make it almost Oedipal, so I changed history to make Ned secretly responsible for his father’s death . The advantage of the dress is that when Ned sees this it unmans his father in his eyes. That misunderstanding is one of the causes which leads to that moment when Ned feels he has to become the man of the house.

And also a reference to the armour worn by Kelly in his last stand. 


Do you feel that parental love has a redeeming quality, even for a murderer? 

Well firstly I wouldn’t call Kelly a murderer, despite his killings. Parental influence is obviously huge and at this very moment there are thousands of people here in NYC lying on couches talking about this subject, and probably where you are too. It is important in every life, but I don’t know about its redeeming quality. I write about it because it is part of life and interesting.

You’ve said that you are incapable of writing a happy ending, but despite the blackness, something is always left isn’t it – the unwritten story still to be told: Kelly’s daughter, Maria’s baby, Lucinda’s story, Tristan, Harry in the forest, Phipp’s story, and the “interesting times ahead” in Illywacker. 

I like the notion of the book made by the reader’s imagination. It sounds very primitive, leaving the story open for the reader to imagine after the book is finished, but it is just
another layer of richness you can put in a book. One of the things I feel about my work is that there is a lot of humour. The humour is the light and an important part of the book, particularly with a very dark book like The Tax Inspector, where I think that some people may have missed the humour. Humour provides a balance to the darkness.

You’ve had two books of literary criticism written about your books. What is it like to have your work the subject of such intense scrutiny? 

Actually there have been four books. Academic readers are just readers who bring a lot to a page. It is like reading a reading – like being inside a particular reader’s head. I read them quickly and not very well, and when requested have given a couple of notes, but mostly it doesn’t feel very critical to what I do. It is nice to have reader’s who take such trouble of course.

Do you feel that scholars look too hard for illusion, allegory and underlying meaning? 

Sometimes. I think that when we all read we are all making sense of what we read. I often think that one of the great wonders of literature is that we agree on anything. It is extraordinary that there is any commonality at all. If there is a way in which literary critics can make something work that I haven’t intended than it doesn’t mean that it isn’t correct. When I was younger I used to think oh god they are ridiculous, but I don’t anymore.

Do you still teach creative writing? 

I do – a couple of hours a week.

Do you find that your students inspire your writing?

No. It isn’t a bad thing though to think of what makes a bit of fiction work. It can be demanding to read something which isn’t that good, and find something to help a student realise what they can do with it to make it good.

Why do you do it?

I have two kids in private school in Manhatten to support 🙂

You have recently finished working on a screenplay for Jack Maggs. Will you do something similar for True History? Are you worried about the legacy of bad films on Kelly?

There are thousands of bad works on Kelly, not just the films, so if I were to worry about the legacy I wouldn’t have written this book. I haven’t been approached to do a film as yet,
no one is talking about it, but in any case, as for me doing it, I don’t think so.

What’s next? 

I’m going through one of those days where I’d rather not say. But I have told other interviewers so if you want to find out you probably can. I’m really just starting out.

As an ex-New Yorker, I find that my writing about New York has become more personalised; more a platonic NY than the real thing. Has your perspective of Australia changed in similar (or other) ways since you’ve left?

Obviously there are all sorts of things which happen when you leave a country, but when you are doing it is hard to pinpoint the specific impact. I do have a certain level of anxiety to be writing about Australia, but at the same time, say writing about Ned Kelly and the late 19th century, I felt I had captured the time and place. I think and worry about it [that I might lose a sense of Australia, lose my ability to capture it] all the time. I don’t know if it is possible to lose knowledge of a place, but it does worry me and I have to go back and re-immerse myself, which is exactly what I did while working on True History, but only for a month.