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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Novel victory: Booker winner quizzed
Peter Carey has been named the recipient of this year's prestigious Booker Prize for his novel The True History of the Kelly Gang.

His book purports to be the memoir of outlaw and Australian folk hero Ned Kelly.

When did he first become fascinated with this dashing but dangerous character? Does he welcome the further boost to his illustrious career or dread the publicity the prize will bring?

Click on the icon below to see the Booker Prize winner answer your questions.

56K  



Newshost:

My congratulations on winning the prize - presumably you're a happy man this morning.


Peter Carey:

Yes, a very, very happy man this morning.


Newshost:

Why Ned Kelly?


Peter Carey:

Well, if I had been living in Australia, I think I would have asked myself the same question. It would have seemed corny, it would have seemed obvious, I would have though not too much about it. But living away from Australia and living in New York, one's own country becomes curiouser and curiouser. It was really triggered by this wonderful exhibition of paintings that were painted in 1945 by Sir Sidney Nolan and it tells the story of the Kelly gang. These paintings looked so good to me in New York. I kept dragging my downtown friends up there to look at them and I became a sort of a tour guide. As a tour guide you start having to explain and tell the story and so on and I as I did it, it seemed to me that this was not only a wonderful story but like nothing else, it seemed to me - it explained so much. So I thought this would make a wonderful novel.

At this particular moment I was trying to write a novel set in New York and having a lot of difficulty doing it. So I happily dropped it and one of the great incentives to drop it and to get into this Kelly thing is that I'd had for a long, long time this example of Kelly's own writing - a 56-page letter that was never published and never read by the public in his lifetime - but it had this wonderful prose style - as you said - not too many commas and this great Irish voice full of, often rage, vindictive but lovely touches of poetry which every now and then are stolen and are in the book - of true blood bone and beauty born - it's Ned's writing.


Newshost:

That's a genuine Ned Kelly?


Peter Carey:

Absolutely. So I had this ambition I suppose to produce a sort of poetry from this uneducated Irish Australian voice and I knew it was going to be very challenging because after all commas are very handy things and the person who throws them away does so at their peril.


Newshost:

What is Ned Kelly's reputation in modern Australia? He seems to be part of a kind of enduring myth of convict Australia which has been something that's been part of the country since its very beginning.


Peter Carey:

Absolutely. I think you are totally right that it grows absolutely out of convict Australia. It is not the way that we easily and casually think about him. He's a hero - he was a good bloke, he was much abused, he showed great character, great courage.


Newshost:

True Australian virtues.


Peter Carey:

Absolutely.


Newshost:

We have had a number of e-mails in from News Online users. The first is from Simon Stafford, Manchester: How did winning the prize for the first time affect you, personally and in your career, and are you expecting it to have a similar impact the second time around?


Peter Carey:

How does it affect you - I don't know - in all sorts of ways. Like you get better European publishers the first time - easily. You probably get better translators - immediately. You sell more books - straight away. In one's own country one is elevated a little - arriving back in Australia after won the Booker Prize, strangers came up to me in the airport.


Newshost:

So you were the prophet not honoured in his own country until someone overseas had said this guy's a good bloke?


Peter Carey:

Television is a very powerful thing of course. I was honoured well enough but certainly one doesn't expect in Sydney to be congratulated at the airport for a work of literature - that happened. I know that right now in Australia, because I have spoken to my Australian publisher, that everybody is tremendously excited and it feels that what's she's talking about is something similar. It means that this story, Ned Kelly, means a lot to Australians and I think it means a lot to us to think of other people in the world sharing in that story and appreciating our story.

There is a way in which winning it is, emotionally, exactly like winning it the first time. I did think, for a long time - all through yesterday before the dinner, that I wasn't excited, I wasn't nervous - if I won it, it would be nice - I was so cool, you wouldn't believe it. But by the time I'd sat through the dinner by then convinced that I wasn't going to get it and when I heard the name and stood up it was like I'd never won it - exhilarating.


Newshost:

Iain Russell, Kochi Ken, Japan: Was the writing of this novel more or less difficult than the writing of "Oscar and Lucinda"? Your latest work seems to lend itself to a cinematic portrayal; would you like to see this happen? Thanks and congratulations on your success.


Peter Carey:

Books are all difficult in different ways. Thinking back on it and perhaps romanticising the process with "Oscar and Lucinda" - this did feel very, very difficult. It was difficult in all sorts of ways because I have got to work with an existing story and honour what is known - if only that I want Australians to believe me.


Newshost:

How much of it is in fact fiction?


Peter Carey:

It's hugely made up but it does honour the key slices of drama in the story. My characters tend to come out of the unimagined dark into that thin known moment at the right place and say the things they're known to have said - if I could explain it like that. So that's very difficult and those sentences are really, really, really hard to make work. So it's difficult and it's nerve-racking.


Newshost:

What about this question of cinematic portrayal? Jon, UK asks: Who would you have play Ned Kelly if you were a film-maker?


Peter Carey:

Neil Jordan, an Irish director has optioned this book and he is a wonderful writer too. So I am hoping that he can make a screenplay that works for him and that he will go to Australia with some Irish actors and with some Australian actors and make this film. So he is the one that's stuck with the problem of adapting it. Even though my work is often called cinematic, the fact of the matter is that even though it brings up a lot of visual images, it's very difficult to adapt for the movies because it tends to be dramatically very dense - it has lots and lots of threads of story. When somebody tries to make that work in a movie it is way too complicated. So the things you have got to get rid of in my work are many and various - it's tough, I have tried to do it myself.


Newshost:

It would be very hard to keep Ned Kelly's distinctive voice in a film without resorting to a lot of possibly rather clumsy voice-over.


Peter Carey:

Who knows. But I trust Neil Jordan - he would be the top of my wish-list.


Newshost:

So who do you think should play Ned?


Peter Carey:

I have no opinion - that is what you have a talented director for and thank God I don't have to think about it.


Newshost:

David Fetherston, Sebastopol, CA USA: I'm an Aussie too, writer and publisher based in California. I've always been fascinated with the Kelly story and how he was presented (as a criminal) to me in primary school, yet when I read true recounts later on, I felt a real anguish for this man and his family. He was called every name under the sun but every Anzac's championed him when they praised the bravery of their fellow comrades with "As brave as Ned Kelly." How close to real history does your novel run?


Peter Carey:

I am dealing with the story, the myth - how can I possibly know? The thing that most interests me is the emotional life. That part of history is like little buildings made of wood - they rot and fall away - you really cannot know very much about those inner lives. It's called True History which obviously means it's a novel and it's made up.

Somebody once said to me - what do you think Ned Kelly would feel if he could read your book. And I know what he would say - it's not me - it can't be.


Newshost:

But it is the Ned Kelly that many white Australians recognise isn't it?


Peter Carey:

Well I don't know whether it is limited to white Australians. There is Ned Kelly cargo cult somewhere up in the north of Australia for instance.


Newshost:

Australia is a very different country now to what it was perhaps 50 years ago. It is a much more multicultural, multi-ethnic society. Does Ned Kelly still have the same potency in that society?


Peter Carey:

That's the interesting thing because you would expect that this story will no longer apply - Australia has changed so much since I was a child. I remember the first people that spoke foreign languages arriving in our little town and speaking Dutch and we thought what's that? So you expect the story to go away.

But what's interesting and you can see this at work in the United States, which is a very good example of a country that has a recent foundation and then all these succeeding waves of immigration. If you look at the pilgrims getting off the Mayflower and you look at their stories and their values and you see how they continue to affect American life right through to the present day - even though all these washes of people have come over. I think foundation myths are like that and the Ned Kelly story continues - the people who arrive, the children of immigrants, this is their story too.


Newshost:

Claire Gill, West Byfleet, Surrey: If someone was going to write about your past, what do you think they would say?

You didn't start as a writer, you started as a scientist.


Peter Carey:

I was a total disaster as a scientist. The only thing that is notable about my one year at university was my moderate ability to fake my chemistry and physics experiments and my great pleasure in discovering someway just before the exams that my car had fallen apart and knocked a light post out of the ground and I had blood coming down my face so I knew I didn't have to sit for my exams. So I was a total failure as a scientist and after that I went to work in advertising and fell amongst novelists.


Newshost:

Jouko Koppinen, Helsinki Finland: Congratulations for your prize. I read your book in the Nordic summer with mosquitoes buzzing around, and enjoyed it immensely. Something in Ned's yarn appeals to the Finnish ethos. Do you know of any plans to translate the book into Finnish language?


Peter Carey:

There probably are. The curious translation issue that was raised recently was because I asked how it work with the translation into Japanese. After the translator explained all of the problems I just couldn't imagine how it was going to possibly work but he assured me it would.

It is a story that we think is so distinctively Australian. Australians continue to ask me how do others like it because they don't expect it to connect with anybody else. But of course it does. In different countries people read it in different ways but it seems they tend to like it. I am sure there will be a translation.


Newshost:

Willem Groenewegen, Assen, The Netherlands: As I translate a Dutch poet into English who doesn't use any punctuation, I would like to know what your motivations were to do so?


Peter Carey:

It grows out of the soil itself. It grows out of Ned Kelly's own voice and that there seemed to me to be this opportunity to create a poetry of an uneducated voice with these run-on sentences. If they are done properly they should be beautiful and surprising and satisfying to read. Even though one is evoking an uneducated man, one has also the literary reader with memories of Joyce and Beckett and another whole way of reading. So these two things I hope work fruitfully together.


Newshost:

Norman Miller, London: Does living in New York make it harder for you to write convincingly about Australia?


Peter Carey:

It seems to me a wonderful thing and a terrible thing. It is wonderful thing in that it gives me distance from my country and as a way of looking at it so it's fresh and new and strange which I think is very desirable. But I am always filled with an anxiety that I have lost touch somehow that I can't remember what it's like - so I am forever going back there to reassure myself that I've not lost touch.


Newshost:

Do you find when you go back that you find it familiar or do you find it strangely different?


Peter Carey:

No, familiar - I am going back often enough. When people like Germaine Greer and Clive James generation left, they left by ship and there was no internet and no e-mail. One couldn't read the Sydney Morning Herald on line like I do. So I think that one has to be a little almost melodramatic to call oneself an expatriate. I live in New York but I don't feel that isolation and separation that I might have felt 30 years ago.


Newshost:

No one can talk about New York at the moment without mentioning September 11th. You're wife was in the World Trade Center shortly before the planes hit. Jerard Bretts, UK asks: Do you think that the events of September 11 are going to create a dividing line between one era and another and that, particularly as an NYC resident, they will have an impact on the fictional worlds which you create?


Peter Carey:

Experience always changes you. I am a different person now than I was on September 10th. How am I different? I couldn't really even tell you. I never write directly about life but I know that my work grows out of my life and these experiences become the sediment on the bottom of the river and in a way they colour everything I do - I will draw on these things, often not even knowing how I am doing it. But I think it is a very stupid writer who would say how it would change anything.


Newshost:

Would it make you rethink your decision not to write about New York and to stick with the Australian culture and background of your youth?


Peter Carey:

As far as I know - no. I am so deep into another book that is set in Australia and I am interested in that book. This huge event doesn't make what I am doing seem irrelevant - it doesn't feel like it has changed anything about the book. But I am changed in some way.


Newshost:

Sue Sturgeon, Leeds, UK: What means more to you as a writer - winning literary prizes, or hitting the best-seller lists?


Peter Carey:

I forgot who said this - probably Faulkner - he seems to have said a lot of wise things - in the end the most satisfying thing about being a writer is actually a good day's work. Because we live with doubt almost all the time and fail almost every day in a sense to achieve what we want to do. So to have a good day's work is still the most the thrilling thing and that is why we write.

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