True History

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!


Ellen Kelly was a wild woman. She had lovers, husbands, children by numerous fathers. If we only imagine her son as a hero, then we cannot allow him to be jealous of these men. But if we allow ourselves to think of him as a growing boy, we can permit him to be human. When I began to fully imagine a passionate mother-son relationship, I found a logic to his actions that had not always been so clearly argued in the histories.

So I felt free to invent the intimate texture of this relationship but not, I hope, in a way that a historian could possibly contradict. It was at once True but also Imaginary.

Writing fiction this way sometimes felt like making a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle and therefore immensely demanding. There were many times when I would rather have had, say, three members in the gang rather than four. I wished Mrs. Kelly had had fewer children, but I did my best to accommodate them all within the pages of the book.

Ned‘s relationship with his mother does ring as true as it seems troubling. She is the hub of all his difficulties. Yet her frequent indifference to him and her intermittent affection only fuel his loyalty and devotion to her. Ned’s final, single-minded purpose to free her from jail is his downfall.

I never felt very judgmental of the relationship, mostly because it felt like an important discovery. I think the historical characters really had a bond like this. Certainly it helps illuminate the story.

I was far more interested in seeing how this relationship might ”work“ and how it might affect the course of history. People are sometimes shocked by Mrs. Kelly, but to me she is simply who she is, and -- given her background, her environment, her inheritance of all those wild ”Quinn“ genes -- I don‘t really see how she could have done anything very differently.

In the book, Kelly is writing a personal history for his daughter, whom he’ll never meet. Clearly, many things were gained by your choosing to write within this context -- the brilliant, hilarious use of the word ”adjectival,“ for one -- and some things were understandably lost, some of the more shocking rhetorical violence of Kelly‘s ”Jerilderie Letter.“ Can you talk about how and why you chose this particular ”apologetic“ form? Didn’t you yearn to break a into a different point of view?

Readers have sometimes imagined that it must have been difficult for me, an educated literary writer, to adopt the ”limited“ vocabulary and sensibility of an uneducated narrator. But I never felt this for a second. Indeed, it fulfilled a lifelong ambition, one that had driven me since I first read [Faulkner‘s] As I Lay Dying and decided I could be a writer too -- that is, to give voice to the voiceless. In Kelly’s uneducated language I discovered jewels not available in polite discourse. The real difficulty was, for the first time in my life, to write a novel limited to a single point of view. I have always preferred to offer a more kaleidoscopic view of reality, to shift points of view from one character to the next, to have them contradict each other or provide a prismatic, almost Cubist view of reality. But if I was to grasp the treasure of Ned‘s voice, I had to abandon this prop.

I did so, but was occasionally able to sneak in a different point of view -- edited newspaper accounts of a robbery, for instance. Thus, here and there, I found ways to provide a slightly different vision than that provided by an exclusively first-person narrative.

Folk heroes tend to engender fierce attachments. Your own Ned Kelly surely stirred up feelings, positive and negative, in the culture that birthed him.

I believe that the great majority of Australian people share a view of Ned Kelly that is very close to mine. In the words of the old folk song, ”Those who blame him are but few.“ Of course, there are a minority of Australians who are embarrassed to be seen embracing a hero who they think of as a criminal. And so it is inevitable that a newspaper editor will be able to dig up someone who will foam at the mouth about my book.


But when you think about Australia and Ned Kelly, you should also remember that we are the people whose song, the song of our heart, is ”Waltzing Matilda.“ Our official national song is ”Advance Australia Fair,“ which is filled with so many lies and errors of fact, and it is not our real song and never was. Our real song is the song about the swagman who stole a sheep, is caught by a policeman and who suicides rather than face incarceration. To politicians and diplomats it is an embarrassment of course, just like Ned Kelly. Yet ”Waltzing Matilda“ is Australia at its best. We do not have a Statue of Liberty, but when we sing, when we thereby imaginatively inhabit the world of ”Waltzing Matilda,“ we become all the poor and all the downtrodden. It is not a song of triumph but of empathy. It suits us.

Some fellow writers wanted me to ask you if you research as you write, or amass your research and notes and then begin?

I enjoy researching, but I always have the feeling that it’s not real work. Real work is writing, and that‘s how I begin a book, in a state of great ambition and enormous ignorance. Working this way has one great advantage, of helping me discover exactly what it is that I need to research. In the case of Ned Kelly, of course, I am dealing with a story covered by historians. Ian Jones’ book Ned Kelly: A Short Life was the most important of all those I consulted.

Of course I also read in the period continually, but the most important research was really into the nature of rural life, then and now. This is a story about land, horses, rain, drought, mud, plains, gullies. I therefore had the excuse to return to Australia twice, each time having the great pleasure of once again connecting with my earth. Did I mention the quality of good Australian wine? This was immensely important at the time.

How long did it take you to write True History, and what was it like writing, and sustaining, 500-plus manuscript pages of relatively punctuation-less, image-rich, inventively flexible prose?

It took about three years. I began my first draft trying to write in the same style as the historical figure, and I succeeded. The first draft was only 100 pages, enough to show me the difference between a novelist and an outlaw. Ned‘s unpunctuated prose was hard to read, and it was a public rhetoric, addressed to judges, government, people, not really suitable language for a novel.

It was in the second draft that I invented the daughter, and therefore provided my character with a personal motive for writing his extended ”letter.“ I also began to use commas, not in an exactly conventional way, but just the same I needed them. We have commas for a damn good reason, and although I was passionate about creating an uneducated poetry, I had not the slightest desire to confuse or irritate my readers.

It took almost two years for me to return to my original ambition, and in this I must credit my wife for encouraging me to take up the challenge one more time. It was in the penultimate draft, with the silent breathing patterns of the prose firmly established, with the dramatic structure of the book firmly locked into place, that I found I could knock out the commas like a builder knocking out the scaffolding from beneath a cantilevered building.

It was not, of course, quite that simple. It required that I then rewrite the book once more, and here, in a thousand tiny decisions, I was able to make sure that these run-on sentences were actually reader-friendly. I was delighted to see how the absence of commas forced me, not toward confusion, but toward an even greater exactitude, a more forceful clarity of expression. It was a heady time, and the voice became so much a natural part of me that, for a long time afterwards, my e-mail correspondence read like it was written by Ned Kelly.

This is a silly question, but we want to know. What was it like winning the Booker Prize?

Like being run over by a truck.

Peter Carey will read from True History of the Kelly Gang at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on Tuesday, March 6, at 8 p.m. For information, call (310) 659-3110.

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