Soon after we meet, on a brisk New York day, to talk about his latest book, Peter Carey wants to set the record straight about Julian Assange. Despite rumours, the Australian novelist was not asked to ghostwrite the memoir of the WikiLeaks founder.
He says the story became something of a Chinese whisper. “My publisher and I were talking, and when I said I thought Julian Assange was important, he joked, ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to write the book?’ “But by the time the question was asked he had already come to the same conclusion that I had: that it wasn’t a good idea. It was more about his recognition of my passion about the subject, not an expression of his belief that I’d be a fantastic nonfiction writer.”
Carey’s passion is for the subject of hacking and secrecy in the information age. The era hugely informs Carey’s new novel, Amnesia, which combines the issues of hacking, activism and the media. The seed of the story goes back to preinternet times, to a political event that left a mark on many Australians. When Gough Whitlam, the leader of the Australian Labor Party, became prime minster, in 1972, he transformed Australian politics, abolished conscription, introduced free university education and introduced laws to help deal with discrimination against women and indigenous Australians. Yet in 1975 he was sacked by the Australian governor-general, John Kerr, in the British crown’s first dismissal of an elected prime minister. Whitlam had threatened to close US military bases in Australia, including one at Pine Gap. It was alleged that Kerr had acted on behalf of the CIA in having Whitlam turned out of office. (Even after losing power Whitlam remained a towering figure in Australian politics; a string of former prime ministers attended a memorial service for him last week, after his death, in Sydney, on October 21st this year.)
Back in 1975 the political climate went from one of joy to horrified incredulity at the way such a progressive government had been treated – “some people tried to make it look as though they committed a terrible crime,” says Carey. It is commonly regarded as the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australian history. He says that many Australians never coped with what happened – and that, in revisiting this aspect of his country’s past, he was struck by the modern parallels with Assange. ‘‘The person they called a traitor was an Australian citizen. The American secret service had interfered with us all those years ago, and I thought it ironic that an Australian citizen had interfered with them.” Carey didn’t want to write a book about Assange, however; his hacker protagonist, Gaby Baillieux, is a woman. The opening page of the book reads like a thriller, when it’s revealed that Gaby has hacked into the Australian prison system and opened all the locks. This spreads to the US, where county jails and correctional facilities are sprung. Felix, a troubled journalist in need of cash, agrees to write Gaby’s biography, which will be used as a PR tool should the US attempt to extradite her.
If Amnesia seems overtly engaged with politics, Carey believes that all of his work has a similar angle. “Going right back to Bliss, I’ve always asked questions about how we live and what happens when we attempt to change that. A book like The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is also about exactly this kind of disruption, even though it was years before Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Assange.” Carey is in an interesting position to comment on the US. He has lived in New York for more than 20 years, but he retains a strong Australian accent and is happy to hold court on every aspect of contemporary life in his home country. He has been writing for more than 40 years, including two short-story collections published while he was working in advertising in Sydney in the 1970s. Bliss, his first novel, was published in 1981.
Just as he acknowledges the political seam running through his novels, he thinks of his work as inherently Australian. Parrot & Olivier in America, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker, briefly visits his home country, but that’s not what makes it an Australian novel, says Carey, one of only three authors to have won the Booker prize twice. “It’s not an inside view about America. It’s an anglophone outsider’s view of the US. And that outsider” – Carey – “happens to be an Australian. It is an Australian book, but not too much about it would lead a reader to that conclusion.” The sense of being away from home has been instrumental in how Carey thinks about the stories of his homeland. The decision to write one of his best-known books, True History of the Kelly Gang, was not prompted by a heat-ravaged trek through the bush. “There are many things I wrote about Australia, and thought about Australia, that came from living away from there. I doubt I’d have written The Kelly Gang if I’d not been in New York. I wouldn’t have visited the [Metropolitan Gallery] and seen Sidney Nolan’s paintings of Ned Kelly. When I saw them I realised what a wonderful story it was, and how much of it was under-imagined, how lazily we thought about Ned Kelly, and how rich his voice was on paper. That was a gift that came from being away, and there are many of those.
“Jack Maggs came to me from being here in New York and me being obsessed about who we were. It became clear to me that the role of the penal colony was very strong in shaping us as Australians. All of that writing comes from being away from Australia, and is really vivid.” Although True History of the Kelly Gang, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2001, is steeped in Australian history, it has a partly Irish inflection in terms of the characters and culture. Carey admits he would be “flattered and thrilled” if the book were claimed as an Irish novel.
“We [Australians] are the people who came from other places, and one of them is Ireland. My forebears came from there, so to be claimed in Ireland might allay that very unpindownable homesickness that is the nature of the colonial existence. When I was a kid at school I’d go to the library on rainy Saturday afternoons and occasionally look up the Careys. They seemed to be either Baptist reformers or Irish traitors, so I stopped looking.”
Carey is now 71. When asked about how other writers his age talk about difficulties with writing, he scoffs. Even if the Assange-book idea had been genuine, Carey has no interest in writing nonfiction. Equally, he no longer feels at home in the short story. The novel is “a much more interesting, richer exploration . . . If I begin a novel the exploration can be huge and thrilling . . . to go so far beyond oneself, what one knows, what one has a right to know. “The possibility of a novel thrills and terrifies me. If I wrote a short story . . . what would I do next?”
The thematic links between geography and subject are not always obvious in Carey’s work, from Alexis de Tocqueville, in Parrot & Oliver in America, to Oscar and Lucinda’s gambling duo and the literary hoax of My Life As a Fake. By locating Amnesia in the present, Carey has also found a way of exploring the past. The book examines the media and its motivation in which stories it tells. Stories about people like Assange will always capture the imagination, he believes. “If your government or my government had performed dirty actions in our name and not told us, and someone provides evidence that the kind of things we thought were going on are going on, then we value their courage. “If you found anyone saying what the characters in my book are saying, you’d be called a conspiracy theorist or a leftie lunatic. The powers that be always want to humiliate and disown the whistleblowers and truth-tellers.”
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on November 15th, 2014