By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Carey’s great achievement in True History is to take the unpunctuated, unlearned yet baldly beautiful rhetoric found in the historical Kelly‘s own fevered writings and extrapolate an entire novel from its spirit and cadences. In rollicking, surprisingly accessible and alluring run-on sentences, Carey gives us Australia’s most famous and beloved folk hero as a very possible human being -- a son, a brother, a father, and a well-meaning citizen who single-handedly struck out against the oppressive colonialism that kept his family and people in poverty and disgrace.
Born in Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne, the 57-year-old Carey graduated from the prestigious Geelong grammar school but lasted only a year at university before leaving to write and make a living in advertising. Carey‘s first book, The Fat Man in History, a collection of stories, was published in 1974. His novels include Bliss, Illywhacker, Jack Maggs and Oscar and Lucinda, for which he was awarded the Booker Prize. Carey, who presently lives in New York, spoke to the Weekly via e-mail.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you know you were going to write a book about Ned Kelly? What led you to it?
PETER CAREY: The first time, I was a little over 20 years old, so young in my reading that I had only just discovered Joyce, Beckett even existed. At this time, still half drunk on those giddy, breathless Irish sentences, I chanced to read the 56-page letter whose author spoke in an equally Irish, if far less literary, voice. That author was Ned Kelly, an outlaw whose story was then -- and is now -- not only Australia’s most popular, but was something like a foundation myth. Yet for all his fame, the language of this letter was new to me. Here was the familiar story with a great unpunctuated river of language. It was a cry of pain against injustice, but it was also often funny, and in its particular untutored way, well-written.
The letter so astonished and excited me that I copied it out and then carried it with me for a great number of years until, somewhere between cities and marriages, I lost it. Perhaps I threw it out. I can‘t remember. Certainly there had been a time when I had imagined I would ”use“ this letter somehow, and another, later time when I changed my mind. Just the same, I never forgot that document, which is known as ”The Jerilderie Letter,“ and it came bursting back into conscious mind sometime in the late ’90s when some paintings by the Australian artist Sydney Nolan were exhibited in New York. I had always loved these paintings, which I had first seen in the 1960s around the time I first read ”The Jerilderie Letter,“ but in the cab uptown to the exhibition I felt a sudden rush of nervousness. Would they travel well? Would I still like these paintings in New York? What I discovered, in a city where art often seems to be about theory or fashion, was a number of paintings which had the rare distinction of looking as if they had to be made. They were beyond fashion, imbued with an apparent awkwardness. Artlessness illuminated enormous grace.
Soon I was bringing my Manhattan friends uptown to see the show, and as I circled the rooms with my victims, telling the story, explaining the story, it struck me what a strange and powerful thing this was. I immediately began to think of writing a novel, and when I had that thought, I had not the slightest doubt as to how I should write it. I would inhabit the voice of ”The Jerilderie Letter.“ Here was Ned Kelly‘s DNA. I would make a poetry from that passionate, uneducated voice. I would re-imagine my country’s great story. I would wake its hero from the dead and make him walk around.
What obedience does a fiction writer have to history? Or, what obedience (or disobedience) did you have toward historical fact when writing this novel?
When I told Australian friends that I was writing about Ned Kelly, I was often met with a sort of puzzlement. ”Why would you want to do that? We know all about Ned Kelly.“ But the truth is, we know very little of this history. Indeed, to understand exactly how Australians know the Kelly story you might imagine it as a great dark plain on which, here and there, passionate or violent scenes are played. All around these bright scenes are black seas of unseen incident and unknown feeling. We Australians, so I decided, had not even begun to imagine the emotional life of the characters in our great story. One quick example: It is no secret that Ned Kelly‘s father died when he was 12, that he was the oldest boy, that he took responsibility for his family and became The Man. Ned and his mother were very close all his life, and his actions in his last two years seem largely motivated by his desperation to get her out of jail. I AM A WIDOW’S SON OUTLAWED AND MUST BE OBEYED!