Amnesia is Peter Carey’s thirteenth novel for adults. In telling the story of Gaby, a young woman who is a cyber-activist, it draws together strands of Australian history – focusing on the 1975 constitutional crisis and the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government by the Governor-General, John Kerr. Carey is a creator of worlds at once familiar and fantastic, from his landmark collection of short stories, The Fat Man in History (1974) through a succession of startling, inventive, raucous novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. Since 1990, Carey has lived in New York, but his focus on Australians and Australia – as a nation-state and as a US client state – remains prominent.
KYD: Amnesia seems like it was a particularly important book for you. Is that so?
PC: Yes – if I’m hesitating at all, it’s only because I wonder if it had been another book and you asked the same question – but, yes, I feel so. It’s one of those things I’ve thought about for a long, long time: I’m talking about 1975, and a way to think about that, resolve that, and expand on it. Yes, it’s an important book.
KYD: Is that because of the Whitlam government’s dismissal in 1975 and your feelings about it, or is it something more than that?
PC: Well, it has to be a little bit more than that, I suppose. I was at the Wheeler Centre last night and people said, ‘Who do you write for, do you write with Australians in mind first?’ And I said that yes, indeed, that was true. So what I’m now going to say, maybe to contradict that, is that it’s a little bifurcated in a sense that, yes, Amnesia is absolutely written with Australians in mind but it also has the objective to make the imperial centre see the periphery and understand what the fuck it’s doing to people. And I think that’s probably always been an important part of my work, which is a slightly peripheral or colonial or post-colonial viewpoint, to say, look at yourself through our eyes. Look and see who we are. And in terms of my American friends, and other Americans who are not my friends: don’t call Julian Assange a traitor. He’s not yours; he’s ours. He can’t be your traitor. And, also, it might be good for you to wonder why somebody – not Julian Assange but somebody like that – might want to do things to you. Of course, I don’t think Assange’s motives were like Gaby’s motives – but my motives are like her motives, a little bit. And if I might say one thing about the United States and its continual international excursions into the domestic affairs of other countries, generally they’re marked by an enormous ignorance of who it is they’re fucking with. I did want to remind American readers that their government fucked with our government, and this is what happened.
KYD: You mentioned your character Gaby, from Amnesia. She’s a cyber-activist. She’s not America’s traitor, either; she’s Australian. But Australian authorities are very quick to make her a traitor by proxy. What’s behind the way Australian authorities go after her – and the way they have responded to Assange?
PC: Well, I think Australia generally does maintain the behaviours of a client state, if that’s what you mean: the fact that Assange was our citizen and our government acted more like an agent of the American government than as somebody who was going to care for their citizens. So, the Australian government is responding to US needs, and we’ve always done that. And I’m sure we’ll continue to do that – as long as this government’s there, anyway.
KYD: At its core, then, is Amnesia more about power and resistance to power or about our collective capacity to forget what we have done to us and what we seem willing to allow to have done to us?
PC: I think it’s to remind us that we have forgotten. I don’t think our capacity to forget is a unique national characteristic. One finds it everywhere across the world: the things people forget in order to survive. The soldiers of World War II had to forget and couldn’t talk about what they’d been through in order for them to survive – so they’re trauma victims and that’s how they behave.
We’re trauma victims, too, at least on one level. The analogy I used for someone in the US is that we’re like a woman whose husband is a notorious womaniser and we just can’t afford to see that. So we pretend it’s not happening and we continue to have the, let’s say, privileged life we’ve been having. Because what would happen if we actually wanted to acknowledge that the US had done that to us? What would be the consequences? I mean, John Kerr had the army on standby. What if there’d been a general strike? What would have happened? What if Bob Hawke hadn’t called off the unions? We would have been into a different stage of history – maybe a necessary stage of history, but not a pretty one.
KYD: Did you give any thought to writing that ‘what if?’ story.
PC: No. No, I didn’t.
KYD: In Amnesia, there are three historical moments that you draw together: the 1942 Battle of Brisbane, Kerr’s Dismissal of the Whitlam government, and Gaby and her group’s cyber-activism. How hard was it to create a single story that was able to link those events?
PC: Well: not easy [laughs]. But I always walk out into the fog and try and figure it out. It was quite difficult to maintain it, and to connect them, and I think I did. I wanted to write something that was about the past but that was contained, pretty much, within the present. One of the essential tools was to choose Felix to write the story. And Felix is established at the very beginning as someone who is not quite reliable, whose life has been ruined by his… Well, he’s a truth teller, but he’s sort of a careless truth teller, or a ‘care less’ truth teller. His character is built from his need to be the narrator for this book, and the writer for the book, which he’s going to have to write in third person. He’s going to have to write about things he didn’t witness and things he couldn’t know.
So that’s one part of doing this . And the other is, as long as he’s working – as long as he’s swimming in his water in his present tense – then he can write what’s happening. But more is going to be required of him. So by the second half of the book we’re going to have to enter into more of a third person narrative. And that was not an easy decision to make or an easy thing to grasp. But once I started writing it, I felt so good and I knew that it would work, that the change of pace from first person into third person, with Felix writing about himself, seeing himself, would be successful and could wrap up all of the different elements.
KYD: Because for a journalist to be writing about events that he or she isn’t witnessing does go against a journalist’s principles.
PC: For most journalists. But of course – and I didn’t use the word in the book – there is a sort of a tradition of writers of Felix’s age who would be deemed gonzo journalists, who would make up all sorts of shit. In other words, reimagine scenes, and so on. Journalists, generally speaking, don’t really have the skills to do that sort of thing. Felix himself wonders whether he has the capacity, or even whether he has the human heart, to do it.
KYD: I want to come back to Felix. But has Amnesia been with you – within you, I mean – for a long time?
PC: Well, it felt like that. I do remember being in New York years ago and sitting next to Bill Buford. I’d just finished True History of the Kelly Gang, and I said, ‘This feels like the book I’ve spent my whole life waiting to write.’ And then I saw the effect it had on him. Suddenly I realised he was paying very, very close attention. And I thought, ah, God, this is a very dangerous thing; one shouldn’t say this again. But of course, I did. [laughs]
It certainly was true about True History of the Kelly Gang. I think Amnesia has that sort of element to it. How to deal with ’75 has preoccupied me forever. And I have, in the years I’ve lived in New York, continually reminded – or educated – my American friends about their bad behaviour in my country at that time. So, yes. I think the thing that’s very pleasant for me – and one doesn’t necessarily expect to be loved for everything one does – but I think that this book seems to be connecting with readers quite powerfully, and I’m really thrilled about that. This is the most relaxing book I’ve had in twenty years. So the pleasure of connecting with Australian readers who realise that I have this shit in my head all the time, that I haven’t forgotten about things, is great.
Who knows what will happen with [the book] in the United States, whether it will sell two copies or ten, but it’ll be interesting. I do believe from early readers that we’ll have some American readers reading it and thinking about themselves and ourselves in a new way.
That all sounds very utilitarian because, after all, I also did want to write, and I hope I have written, a funny book that roars along and has weird sentences and nice images and all those sort of things. You know, I guess if you want to change the world, you don’t become a novelist.
KYD: And it is funny, I think. I wonder, though: I detected quite an optimistic tone but perhaps I’m mistaking laughing for optimism?
PC: Yeah, I don’t think laughing is optimism. But I think laughter is really, to me, essential, no matter how dark the material. The Tax Inspector, which people think of as a dark book, and it probably is in a way, is also quite funny… Well, I think it is, anyway. The humour or the laughter seems to me the lifeforce, the positive energy that can exist within and around what might be objectively a pessimistic view. And in terms of where we are in history now, where we are in our nation’s history and where we are in our general habitat’s history, it’s very, very bleak. At this moment, it’s very hard to imagine an optimistic future when one of the greatest crises facing us is the destruction of our habitat, and that’s basically governed by corporations who don’t have to answer to anyone. It’s very, very hard to be optimistic about achieving any change in time. So: that’s bleak. That’s worse than the Cuban missile crisis, which was pretty damn bad. So we need to laugh.
KYD: The optimism that I thought I was detecting is more at the individual human level.
PC: Do you mean it’s optimistic in the sense that people are prepared to act?
KYD: Partly that. And even if they act and mess it up, or act but then withdraw, there’s still a commitment on some level to discussion and to dissent.
PC: If that’s part of it, then I definitely agree with that.
KYD: But, also, while you never cut your characters any slack, that still doesn’t leave me, the reader, thinking that these people are worthless or that they’re not magnificent human beings in some way, shape or form.
PC: Well, I’d love you to read it like that. They – we – are all flawed, of course, and I think one would perhaps like them less if that wasn’t pointed out. Yeah, that’s an important thing for the way I do write about people. You can’t really predict how people are going to react to your characters. I like or love most of them… almost… I think. I remember when True History of the Kelly Gang came out in the US that US readers continually didn’t like Mrs Kelly – and I loved her. I think most Australian readers look at her and understand her: she’s tough, she’s a battler, she’s going to survive some way or another. So she has my heart and my support, and then to suddenly find there’s a whole group of people who really think she’s a bad mother…
KYD: Can we come back to Felix and then Gaby, Amnesia’s central characters? Felix has a shambling, hard-drinking journo persona going, but I found him, in his way, quite courageous. Is that how you think of him?
PC: There’s a complicated wash of opinion when you’re reading Felix. Because you’ve got Felix’s self-critical aspect, and you’ve got his blindness, you’ve got an admission of cowardice at the same time that he behaves in a different way, which is quite brave. Yes, he’s courageous and afraid, I think. And I like him a great deal, that he’s a wash of things. I’ve made the character, but Felix is the person who says, ‘I am an awful person’. And although I didn’t make a thing of it, in my mind, that’s his strategy for being forgiven and getting on. I hope he’s complicated. But, yes, I agree with you, and I’m pleased that you would read him that way.
KYD: And when he says ‘I’m awful’, that is him saying it, isn’t it, not you?
PC: Yes. You’re seeing, I hope, Felix’s survival strategy.
KYD: I also saw him as a victim – a long-term victim, if you like – of the Dismissal. He seems to have carried it in a way that’s dictated everything that’s come after for him.
PC: I think that’s fair enough. Victim: you could say that. I’d certainly say his life has been formed by it. So, victimhood, I guess, is okay.
KYD: Gough Whitlam died earlier this week. I wondered what you think his legacy to Australia is.
PC: Well, just think, he was only in power for less than three years. And now all the conservative press and everyone recognises that there was some huge magic, when we could aspire, we could have the courage to be fair, we could have the courage to be decent, we could have the courage not to be a client state, where we were determined to be the best we could be. And he personified that for us in many ways: his intelligence and his wit and his decency and his wish, above all, not to be one more Australian prime minister whose name no one remembered, grovelling around the world, saying ‘Can I help you fight a war?’ There’s something there that even the right, who hated him so much, recognise as about the size of his ambition. And by god, what a lot of stuff they did.
KYD: If you put yourself back to that moment in 1975: what did you think and feel at that moment?
PC: Like everyone I knew: we were furious. We thought what was happening was unconstitutional, that it was not constitutional for the upper house to deny supply. All the things that were happening all the way along to that moment, you know, where Kerr says that this government can’t govern. The press really was alive with misinformation. And most papers all over the country that have put Gough on the front page – they did yesterday, the day before – the insides of those papers were full of the same misinformation that helped to bring him down. So that was a curious little thing.
So, yes, we were outraged. But, you see, if you look at what I suppose the question is: what should be done? And Felix is somebody who at least fantasises about doing something. And then lacks the courage to do it. Many of the unions were ready to go and call a general strike. It was Bob Hawke – who later, of course, became prime minister – who calmed them down. That was a complicated call. But Felix’s plan was to get those unions into the ABC in Williams Street in Sydney and essentially take control of that station and broadcast the call for the unions’ resistance. He lacked the courage to do it, and allowed himself to be talked out of it.
So, with the rest of us, what did we do? You know: nothing; we went on a few marches. What should we have done? We don’t know.
KYD: Do you share Felix’s views on the details of the Dismissal, especially the extent of US involvement?
PC: Oh, I think [the involvement] was really extensive. And continual from the very, very beginning. That sort of view is continually, or sometimes at least, misunderstood by people who think I’m proposing a sort of a detailed clockwork conspiracy in which this happens and then that happens and that follows. But you know, like all of life it was a great big fucking mess. But there were enough strong winds, enough vectors of force, generated by the US to have a really serious effect on the final result. This government was a very disturbing thing for the American government.
KYD: Has living in New York for so many years changed your views about the US, and about the US Australian relationship?
PC: Perhaps intensified them. As one who lives there and occasionally – with Obama – had reason to hope that something might change, and to realise finally in the end that one was living inside a corporate state that was almost psychotic in many respects. There’s nothing I see in the United States to be optimistic about. You could vote for anything, and you could win it, but you’re not going to get it because the lobbyists will stop you having it anyway. You can really see that the corporations are in control. Of course, the corporation doesn’t have a constituency.
KYD: At one point in Amnesia, Gaby tells Felix that she’s a soldier. Is that how you see her?
PC: Well, that’s how she sees it. What do I think? I don’t know: that’s a reasonable argument you could put for her behaviour. For the third time in this conversation, to go back to Ned Kelly: after the murders at Stringybark Creek, Ned said if the police had gone into the bush and brought our bodies out (and he had some ruddy bloody sort of image, like mincemeat and so on), they would have got promotion. We got the death penalty. So he’s saying, I’m a soldier, too, in a way. I’m not a bad person. As I think it through, I know it’s not exactly analogous.
KYD: I wondered if there was a touch of Ned Kelly in Gaby – but then I wondered if I was straining for connections that aren’t there? What do you think?
PC: I don’t know. It wasn’t something I ever thought about when I was writing it. I haven’t been going around talking about Ned Kelly generally, but today, talking to you, I’ve talked about Ned Kelly three times, for different sorts of reasons. It really wasn’t in my head writing it. I mean, I would talk about Ned Kelly, I suppose, and talking about it is important – it’s a piece of writing that’s always been important to me. And the way it sort of impacted on who we are – in that way, yes, the soldier thing led me to that. Do I see Gaby as a soldier? Well, as I said, for her to define herself as that is very reasonable. And I think that’s the best thing to say.
KYD: Those parts of Amnesia that deal with Gaby meeting and then coming together with Frederic show an intriguing evolution of a personal and a political relationship. I wondered if you could talk about them as a couple?
PC: I don’t think I quite know how to. It’s sort of like I felt them into existence, in a real way. I knew what I wanted them to do. And I spent time thinking about the things – technical and social – that might restrain them or affect their behaviour. And so the whole notion of inventing their sex life, or their sexuality, was not planned or really thought out, but just felt. So I don’t know what it means. I believe it works. But I don’t know if I’ve got anything to add to it.
KYD: If we compare Felix, who shies away from pursuing rebellion in 1975, with the way Gaby pushes on and acts, is she the better dissident or is it more complicated than that?
PC: I wouldn’t want to talk about it like that. I think she’s probably pushed into a harder corner than Felix, and her actions are a result of the situation she finds herself in.
KYD: If Felix has moved forward – carried on – by maintaining the rage, in comparison Gaby has acted and there have been consequences. But in the meantime, she hasn’t brought down everything; she’s chipping away at the perimeter still, isn’t she?
PC: If you want to look at Gaby as a sort of stencil for political action in the future, she is acting – it seems – in a relatively individual way against corporations and nation-states. And this is a time in history when individuals can achieve this sort of result. But it’s probably not the way it’s always going to be. The way all these sorts of things work at the moment seem to me to be immensely unstable and immensely unpredictable. The people who are kids now are going to be, and are now already, a lot more politically involved and active than we’ve thought, and will perhaps be doing things that we would once have thought of as extreme because they think that if the crisis for humanity is huge, and none of the institutions are really going to address them. You’re going to find people like Gaby who think it’s their moral responsibility to act. I just think that’s where we are.
KYD: You replied to my earlier question about Gaby and Frederick’s relationship by saying you didn’t think you had anything to add. You’re presumably answering a lot of these sorts of questions at the moment, but is it artificial to pull out a tiny element of a novel and ask you to examine it in isolation?
PC: No, not at all. The conversations, by the way, end up being all different. The conversation we’re attempting to have now I’ve not attempted to have before. But, also, I don’t have a sort of over-arching notion of what I should talk about – I mean, I’ve written a book, and then in the process of people writing about the book or interviewing me I guess I try to be collaborative and add something to the conversation. But there’s nothing in particular I want to achieve from the conversation. I just try and be relatively honourable, I suppose.
KYD: What about questions about the creative process? If I start asking you about your daily routine or where you sit to write or what you like to eat before you start writing…
PC: Do you mean am I going to get shitty?
KYD: No: is it boring?
PC: Not… terribly boring. I mean, I get up in the morning, I’m writing by 8.30 or 9.00, and, you know, I’m finished by 12, and later in the book when I’ve got more, I’ll write in the afternoon. It doesn’t seem very interesting.
KYD: I read somewhere that when you’re redrafting you start at the beginning, go forward until you find a problem, fix that problem, and then go back to the start, and do the whole process again: is that right?
PC: It’s sort of like that. I’ll feel that everything’s unsafe and wobbly and I don’t know where I am or I’m bullshitting or something. I won’t know what to do then. I go back to the beginning and then look for the things that are causing the problem. Yes, I do that, almost always. I’m not someone who would just keep moving forward to write a draft and worry about going back to a second draft; I’m always doing that to get it solid.
KYD: So as you get towards the end, that draft is very strong?
PC: Yes, by then I’ll be calling it something – like, say, I’ll be calling it the twelfth draft but in reality individual chapters which get rewritten may have been written as many as 30 or 40 times. So the numbers sort of lie, in a way.
KYD: So it’s at once a first draft, a twelfth draft, a twenty-fifth draft, a thirtieth draft, and so on?
PC: Yeah, well if you look at my computer you’d see ‘draft one’ and then all the individual chapters would be identified, so Chapter 1: crosshatch 5, Chapter 1: 6, 7, 8. And so every day, when I’m working on the first chapter, I’ll probably do about seven different revisions of it. And the next day on the second chapter, I’ll probably do the same. And then the next one I might only do one revision. So it goes like that. And that’s the first draft. And tough chapters rarely get to more than 10 or 11 tries, but the number does get that high. So, that’s all within what one would call a draft.
KYD: Amnesia seems more overtly political than some of your other works, but I wondered if that was a bit deceptive. I’ve always thought of you as a deeply political writer. Is that how you see yourself?
PC: Yes, I’ve always thought of myself as a political writer: always always always. If you want to go back to the short stories, the ‘what if?’ questions of those seemed to me to be political. I thought Bliss was political. People thought I was a hippy-dippy for suggesting that about environmental cancer and cancer maps, and now everybody knows those things exist. I didn’t make them up; they were there. So that’s something in the book that seemed fanciful and paranoid and we know to be true. So, in its way, I guess it’s a political and environmental book; I don’t know.
Illywhacker is a book set on the notion that we’re a country that can’t really bring ourselves to believe enough to invent something but can profit from exporting the raw materials and animals and things that are already there, that we can get from the ground and the sky and the trees – and that we will end up, and they end up, being pets in their own pet shop. So, this is a novel that seems to me to address a nation that is presently exporting coal, at great danger to itself, and also, if you remember it at all, it has the last golden-shouldered parrot exterminated in a bit of pelvic grinding. I did think of the budgie smuggler… but that’s a different thing.
KYD: You mentioned the short stories. I’m somebody who still revisits them. And not infrequently, I hear people pining for new short fiction from you. Is there any chance you’ve got a stack of short stories sitting around waiting for the right moment?
PC: I’m not really interested in it because I get so much from the bigger adventure of the novel, and it takes me so much further from myself. The risks are bigger, and the rewards are huge. So, there we are. I began only wanting to write novels and then I wrote short stories because all my grand – or grandiose – schemes to build these mansions of fiction failed. I came back to Australia and just thought, well, maybe I can build some really interesting little sheds and that would be good. And, indeed, that’s what those short stories were, and they were the first things I ever did that came close to succeeding. And so they were very important to me. But afterwards I went back and I wrote a novel. That was Bliss, and I got some praise. I had some praise for the short stories which I thought was enough to keep me writing short stories forever. With the short stories, I think the ideas in the short stories are terrifically good. I just think the language could be better. But there you go.
KYD: Do you revisit your previous books?
PC: No, but I did revisit the short stories once. I think it was after Parrot and Olivier in America, and I thought I would go back and just sort of, if you like, edit them, not try and change their meaning or their characters or their events. So I spent a few weeks on a few stories. And in the end everything that I didn’t like about them when I started was still there when I finished. So I stopped doing it.
KYD: You mentioned that you tried to write novels and then moved to short stories and then later came back to novels. Those three or four novels that you wrote before Bliss – do you still think about them, revisit them?
PC: No I don’t. For a lot of years I did. I’d go back – and you’d sort of have this childish hope that they’d matured in the top drawer, and that when you take them out they’ll be wonderful. And of course, they weren’t. And the things that were wrong before have, in a way, got worse with time. No one was unfair to me. In fact, people were very generous to me. I wasn’t unfairly rejected. People were kind; people recognised talent and supported this and extracted that and so on, but… no, they’re not going to get any better, they’re only going to get worse.
KYD: Is there one of your books that you hold closest to your heart, that means the most to you?
PC: No, not really. I think I couldn’t even afford to think like that. I mean, as far as just surviving as a writer: if I have to think that one’s better, then I have to think the others… It’s not a street I want to walk down.
KYD: What’s next? Are you writing a new book?
PC: Yeah, I’ve got a book and I don’t want to talk about it. Of course. But I’m very happy to have found it. And it’s terrific territory, and it’s all set in Australia, which I’m also pleased about, and again it’s something that’s been in my mind for a long time. So, that’s good: it’s got to be discovered now.
Peter Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, and now lives in New York. He is the author of thirteen novels (including one for children), two volumes of short stories, and two books on travel. Amongst other prizes, Carey has won the Booker Prize twice, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize twice, and the Miles Franklin Literary Award three times.