Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2017

Peter Carey at the 2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong

Last night was the opening night of the 2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong, and my first event of the festival was Peter Carey in conversation with Maria Takolander.

Carey has a connection of sorts with Geelong: his parents sent him to board at Geelong Grammar, where, he said, he had a good time but didn’t realise until afterwards that he’d been holed up with the ‘ruling class’.  But apart from occasional ventures to the bookshop and the beach with his grandfather (to collect shell grit for the chickens), he doesn’t feel a strong connection to the city; it was more of a place to drive through en route to his parents holiday house in Torquay.

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

(That’s my experience of Geelong too, on weekend trips to Ocean Grove and the Surf Coast, but Victoria’s second city is actually a lovely city, with a beautiful foreshore and lots to do and see.  It’s a bit foggy early this morning so I’ll take a picture of the view from my hotel room later, but I have a view of the bay and the city lights at night are very pretty.  And their new library is a stunner. I’m going to explore it properly this morning between sessions, when I’m not in festival bookshop, that is…)

Carey says he is a contrarian by nature.  His school reports suggested that he should concentrate on maths and science, and he says he did ok at school.  He loved his year at Timbertop (the school’s bush camp) where he discovered a world unlike the landscape between Bacchus Marsh and Geelong, and fell in love with the bush.   But when he went on to do chemistry … the misfortune of having a bad car accident meant that he had an excuse to fail his exams – and he did. They gave him a second chance with a supplementary exam, and he failed that too.   (Just imagine, had the fates not decreed otherwise, he might have had an entirely different life…)

When Maria Takolander asked him why he writes about Australia when he lives so far away, Carey said that his early opinion of Australian literature was that it wasn’t very good.  He admits that he hadn’t read much of it, but he was motivated to see the world in a different way.  Liberated by the influence of Marquez, he wanted to make a new and different world, and that’s what he did with the magic realism of Illywacker (1985).

When it came to talking about his delicious new book A Long Way From Home (see my review), you could hear in his voice that Carey has fond memories of what he called the national car madness.  His father had a Ford dealership but he says that Irene in the novel is not his mother: while she was in charge of the spare parts department and often knew more about the products than the men she was dealing with, his mother was not a good driver (and neither is he).  Still, for a woman to be in the car business was unusual in the 1950s .  (Perhaps she was a contrarian too?  That’s one for a future biographer to ponder).

Although I’ve been (necessarily) cagey about it in my review of A Long Way from Home, the indigenous issues in the novel are central to Carey’s concerns.  He says that like everyone else of his generation, he was ignorant about Indigenous issues, but when he was thinking about writing about the Redex trials, he watched some of the old newsreels on YouTube and began to wonder about the hidden stories.  Whose land was it, that the cars were hurtling along?  Who spoke all those languages?  What other stories were there?  He wanted to bring these different ‘maps’ together.

Before reading an excerpt from the novel, Carey paid homage to the reader.  He said that readings can do a disservice to the book… When a reader reads a book, she will imagine aspects that aren’t there but a reading can interfere with that.  In reading aloud an excerpt about Irene, one of the main characters in the book, he reminded us that she is a woman, and he can’t portray a woman’s voice.  What we heard was a man’s narration, which good as it was, was not the way I had imagined Irene speaking.  It didn’t matter to me because I’ve already read the book, but I wonder if when other readers come to it, will they hear Carey’s voice instead of a woman’s?  (BTW just in case you’re wondering, Carey still sounds like an Aussie, no American accent or mannerisms).

Carey says that he was motivated to write about aspects of Australia’s Black History because it’s fundamental to who we are.  We are here on this land, and lots of people were killed in the wars over it.  An ancient culture was and still injured.  He was emphatic – we have to think about that.  Australia was built on the lie that the country was empty, but he had been hesitant about telling this story because he’d been warned off writing about Indigenous people by Aboriginal activist Gary Foley

Carey thought that Foley had a point – about colonising the imagination of the people that had been colonised – but that he is a writer, whose role is to imagine being another person.  You’re useless as a writer, he says, unless you’re doing this.  In his novel Parrot and Olivier in America, (see my review) he had to imagine being a French aristocrat – a comment that made the audience laugh, because anyone less like a French aristocrat than this down-to-earth Aussie is hard to imagine.  But the crucial distinction is that in A Long Way from Home he does not attempt to provide the inner thoughts of his Indigenous characters, he shows them talking and teaching the other characters.  And although he doesn’t usually do this, he had the novel read by Indigenous authors Stephen Kinnane and Stan Grant – they liked it, and he found that reassuring.  (That shows humility, doesn’t it?  A writer of Peter Carey’s international stature, feeling anxious about his book’s reception in his homeland.  I really liked him for this).

Finally came the inevitable question about the relationship between Carey the writer of fiction, and a festival about non-fiction.  He said that there are things about history that we don’t know, and can’t know because history doesn’t tell the stories of marginalised people.  He mentioned Ned Kelly, the subject of his True History of the Kelly Gang.  We only know about poor people like Ned Kelly from what the judges and the police wrote about him in their records.  He was only 26 when he was hanged, so most of his life was childhood.  So there is a large part of his life that is unknown.  The facts, Carey says, are like spotlights and the other parts of the story, the imagined parts, are not arguing with what’s in the spotlight.  Instead they fill the dark parts of the story, the unseen, with the writer’s imagination.  A nice metaphor, eh?

Maria Takolander handled this session very well.  Her questions localised the presentation not just for her Geelong audience, but also gave Carey the opportunity to talk on fresh topics.  (Which must be refreshing when a writer is on a speaking tour like this).

More about the festival later…


  1. What? Another non-fiction festival? How lovely Lisa. Carey is an interesting man. I remember him saying something about its being easier to write about Australia when he was out of it, but that was many books ago.

    And, of course, I like what he had to say about fiction and history!


    • I think he comes back here more often than we know. He said things here and there about being in such and such a place for the writing of this novel and they were all outback places where the mainstream media wouldn’t even know he was here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I think a few of our expats do. Jeanette Turner Hospital is another… I think part of it is family but sounds like for Carey it is also keeping in touch with/researching Aussie culture.


        • Janette… Silly autocorrect, or silly me for not seeing it.


      • Hi Lisa, Humans in Geelong would like to post your story on Peter Carey. We’d make it slightly shorter to fit. Is this ok with you? If so, how would you like to be credited?
        Jacqui Bennett
        Founder and Voluntary Coordinator of Humans in Geelong


        • Hi Jacqui, I’ve replied to you by email. Cheers, Lisa


  2. I heard something him say something the other day which hinted that if it weren’t for his children, who born in America so it’s their home, he would come home.
    I don’t suppose you heard Anna Funder on ‘Things That Keep me Awake’ on RN? She was talking about how she came back to Australia because she wanted her children to grow up with Australian values. It was quite illuminating.


    • No, I didn’t – Anna Funder I mean. I’d be interested to hear that. I certainly didn’t want to spend more time with our kids there. The time they had was good in many ways, but I wanted them here in their own culture, and with their relations, for the bulk of their schooling.

      Doesn’t Geraldine Brooks split her time here and the US too because of her kids? (Though it’s a while since I heard that.)


  3. Interesting…. I think you need to leave Australia and live outside of it for quite awhile to understand it… I know that was the case for me…

    Thanks for writing this up, by the way. I go to lit readings and never write them up because to me it feels too much like my day job used to be so when I go to these things I don’t bother taking notes. I believe Carey is going to the Dublin Lit festival in January — he’s the opening night act and will be interviewed by Joseph O’Connor; how’s that for a double bill?! I am seriously contemplating going…


    • Wow, that would be fantastic. Maybe you could just take a photo for us?


  4. […]… Nov 18 2017. […]

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