Australian expat Peter Carey has twice been awarded the Booker Prize, for his novels Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang. In his new novel, His Illegal Self, Carey is back to exploring the world of outlaws, but of a different sort: In seventies New York, Che, the son of two leading members of Students for a Democratic Society, is kidnapped by a woman he thinks is his real mother and taken to an Australian commune full of “feral hippies.” Carey spoke to Vulture about Vietnam, the loveliest thing about living on a commune, and Australia’s love-hate relationship with the United States.
What inspired your fictional Queensland hippie commune?
I lived in a place very much like that commune in the seventies. I went there because the woman I was living with bought a place there, so it was rather passive on my part, but it was fabulous. We never asked people what they did, ever. It was one of the loveliest things about living there. Can you imagine that? Nobody asking you, "What do you do?" Incredible! Anyway, one day a lot of these police helicopters came and this American guy who’d been living among us was arrested and we discovered he’d been wanted for conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States from Mexico. I’ve always thought that maybe there was a book in there, so I started thinking about people who were on the run for a different reason. I knew the political world at that time — the whole business of Students for a Democratic Society; the Trotskyites, anarchists, Maoists — and I knew these people, so they weren’t alien creatures to me.
Vietnam is the political backdrop of your novel, and obviously it’s on people’s minds a lot today. Were you trying to make a point about America’s place in the world?
I wasn’t really concerned with that when I was writing it, but of course, there are lots and lots of parallels. If one is American, one knows one is less liked in the world now than one was. A lot of the stories and beliefs that have sustained Americans are now looking very shaky and frail, and that was true of that period as well.
There’s a lot of animosity toward Americans in the book, particularly from some of the Australian characters
Australia and America — it’s quite a complicated thing. It was always rather annoying to discover that Americans didn’t know we had troops in Vietnam when our conservative government was so eager to send them off to die. But it’s complicated by the fact that our cultural heroes were American: Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, painters and artists and political figures of all sorts. You also have to ask whether Australia has a slightly crippled sense of itself in relation to the rest of the world because it began as a penal colony; we didn’t ask to go there. The great trauma of our birth was being prisoners in chains. And we want to be higher up the colonial pecking order than those terrible Americans. People say, "Oh, those Americans, they’re vulgar" or "they’re loud" or "they have no sense of irony." And yet, if you go to Australia and pick up a newspaper, Paris Hilton will be on the front page. Someone will shoot someone in a mall in Arkansas, and that will be a lead story on the front page of an Australian paper. It’s complicated, that’s what I’ll say.
What about you? You’ve been living in New York for a long time now. Do you think you’ll ever leave?
I came to New York really because my ex-wife wanted to come. But I’ve come to deeply, deeply love the city, and I’ve reached that stage where you walk down the street and think, Well, that happened there, and that happened there. When the streets of the city itself contain one’s history, one becomes reluctant to abandon that.
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