Interview: Peter Carey, author of The Chemistry of Tears

Peter Carey: Fears failure. Picture: TSPL
Peter Carey: Fears failure. Picture: TSPL
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Even after so much success, double Man Booker winner Peter Carey fears failure, he tells Lesley McDowell

Peter Carey’s New York loft apartment in the city’s SoHo district is a cavernous space that gives little sign of who its owner is. There are books aligning one wall, but you might expect that in any home. Some original artwork, a stainless steel kitchen, and a dining table and chairs that could seat a dozen easily – there’s an anonymity here, a self-effacement almost that makes one wonder how self-effacing the author himself will be. He doesn’t disappoint; the twice winner of the Booker prize, for Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang is aware of his achievements without losing a sense of modesty. That, one suspects, is part of his charm.

And there is charm. Carey has been married three times – his second marriage, to Alison Summers, the mother of his two sons, ended in a notoriously acrimonious divorce after she accused him of depicting her as a greedy ex-wife in his 2006 novel Theft: A Love Story (she later returned the favour when she said in an interview that she saw him as “a vampire. He consumed everything in my life.”). He now lives with Frances Coady, the British-born publisher of Picador US, in this curiously impersonal but airy space, a space without shadows and where the noise of the busy New York streets outside intrudes easily.

One can see why he might have been married so often -– he is soft-spoken and gracious and humorous with women, without being avuncular or patronising, for all that he’s been publishing books since 1981, when Bliss appeared. And at almost 70, he might be expected to find the regular interviews that accompany every new work just a little tiresome, just a little too much rehashing of familiar events. If so, he doesn’t show it. He’s eager to talk about his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, which is dedicated to his third wife. Set partly in the present day and partly in 1854, it is divided between two narrators: Catherine Gehrig, who is a conservator at a museum for mechanical objects, specifically clocks, has just learned that her married lover and boss, Matthew Tindall, has died suddenly; Henry Brandling, the wealthy inheritor of his forefathers’ investments in the steam engine, is in Germany, looking for a mechanised duck designed by a Monsiuer Vauconson. His little boy is ill and the only thing that has given him the will to live is his love for Vauconson’s design. Henry determines to take the design to the best clockmakers in the world, in Germany, and commission a clockwork duck from them. Meanwhile, his marriage is failing and he’s missing out on what could prove to be the last months of his son’s life, in a possibly futile search.

Carey’s book was born, as all his books are, from an idea. “What always attracts me is an idea – how do we get to where we are?” That’s part of what attracts him to writing about the past. “I don’t separate my books into historical novels and the rest. To me, they’re all made-up worlds, and both kinds are borne out of curiosity, some investigation into the past. I’m interested in where we are, where we’re going, where we’ve come from. I want to keep my readers, I want what is known about the past to click with what’s expected to be known about it, I don’t want to lose anybody. And I also think of the past as an enormous shadow and darkness, because very little is illustrated clearly, there’s a lot of room to make things up in the gaps between what is known. So I like doing that, saying, what if it was really like this? To me, though, whenever it is, it’s an act of imagination, of making things up that didn’t exist before.”

Wanting to “keep my readers” might almost sound like anxiety – it may be what every novelist tries to do anyway, but one might have thought someone with Carey’s standing could afford to be more complacent about it. He’s spoken before of feeling a sense of danger when he sits down to write, of whether it will all come good. Can he really still feel that now? “Oh yes – and [a novel] gets increasingly dangerous [to write] as it continues. It’s dangerous at the beginning because you’ve just got these ideas that aren’t very well-formed and can you really possibly find something that you can use? You’ve got 200 pages and you think, ‘Don’t panic, don’t look down’ – that still happens to me.”

But you know how to get out of any difficulties? Doesn’t that make it easier? “Yes, but each time you think, that’s what happened in the past. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this time it won’t, that you’re not going to screw up big time, one time. It’s not a choice of whether I need to feel danger, I really do feel it. It’s very real and one hits it every now and then and it’s like suddenly you’re falling off a cliff.”

And once the book is finished? Does he still feel anxious? “I’m not nervous by the time it comes out. The hardest bit is actually doing it – by the time it comes out maybe 20 or 30 people have read the book and have opinions about it, which will tell you that maybe you’ve done what you wanted to do. But of course you want to be liked. You want a nice review. And it’s always possible that you will not get a nice review. So – and that’s enraging of course, to get a bad review, you can’t talk back, and it’s sort of shaming in a way.”

Perhaps this anxiety, this modesty about what he’s achieved in a hugely successful literary career, comes from not having had instant literary success when he started out. Carey’s parents had a car business – part of what sparked this latest novel into being was an idea about the internal combustion engine and the industrial revolution, what it has bequeathed us (“I had a father who loved Henry Ford”). But he himself went into advertising as a young man. He always thought of himself as a writer, he says (“with very little justification, I might add”). “At the age of 20 or whatever I was a writer, people would laugh at that, though, and I’d get angry” . He smiles at this.

Carey carried on writing through his advertising years – early works didn’t do so well, then, when he was 38, Bliss was published. Just nine years later, he’d leave his native Australia for New York, where he’s lived ever since. “People would ask me a lot at the beginning if advertising had any influence on my writing, and I’d get very offended because I thought advertising was the enemy and literature was with the angels. So I’d give a rather hostile denial and later I’d think, well … but I’ve never thought of a single connection between them, no.”

Would it be true of him to say, if he has always been writing – whether during the years he lived on a commune in Australia with a girlfriend or while doing the day job with the ad agency – that his work was his life? “Is my work my life? Is it part of my life? It would be weird to arrive at the age of 69 and not recognise you’ve been doing this every day since 1964 or ’65 – it’s a long time. I’ve been living inside my head that time. So it’s a big part of my life which is very nice but I do have two boys who are a big part of my life, certainly, I have a wife whom I love, and I teach, and the teaching actually is very important.”

Carey teaches creative writing at New York University alongside Colum McCann – unsurprisingly, it’s fiercely competitive to get in (they take 12 out of 450 submissions), but he loves the support the students give one another: “Nobody’s going to hurt anybody,” he says. Does he wish he’d had that experience as a young writer? “I did apply and was one of three finalists for a writing scholarship at Stanford University – but I always thank God I didn’t get it because that would have killed me! I’d have been truly destroyed.” Why? “I just imagine – you’re in a class with Ken Kesey. I wouldn’t have wanted to join a class with Ken Kesey. Ken Kesey would have f***ed me over. And I wouldn’t get into my own class now. If I was in my twenties, no, I wouldn’t be good enough.”

It’s not false modesty – he really appears to think that. It seems that terror and modesty are a combination that keep Carey at the top of whatever literary ladder there is. Of course, there is a healthy dash of literary genius, too, but many literary geniuses fall by the wayside through life; a tenacious grip is required to succeed the way Carey has. For beneath his grace and self-awareness, behind that self- effacing surface of his airy loft apartment, lies real tenacity. Only a fool would overlook it.

• The Chemistry of Tears is published by Faber this week, priced £17.99.