2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Fiction

Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America

Alfred A. Knopf

Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston

Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on Parrot and Olivier in America being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. This is your fourteenth book. How did the writing of this novel compare to the work you’d done previously?

Peter Carey:
It’s a bigger imaginative stretch.

For a start, it was a long long way from the very small Australian town of Bacchus Marsh (where I was born) to the life of a boy named Olivier Saint Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont.

But there were other stretches, not least maintaining an argument about Democracy while avoiding didactism, being serious while laughing like a drain, arriving finally at a point where I had two flesh and blood characters whose ideas exist in a humming sort of opposition, and that by the end we understand that neither one is wrong and neither one is right.

BAJ: In the fiction category this year, each of the novels seems heavily researched. What role does research play in your writing process?

PC: I like research when it tells me I cannot reasonably do what I want to do. I am a stubborn pig-headed sort of character, so my response to these obstacles is to keep working and find a way in which I can, while respecting history and gravity, do exactly what I wished to do. These struggles always produce a more interesting and innovative solution than I could have imagined by myself.

I end up using about 5% of my research. I sometimes think its greatest value is to give me the confidence to make things up.

BAJ: Do you remember your original idea for Parrot and Olivier in America? How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?

PC: My original idea came from Tocqueville's Democracy In America where I found a much more qualified and complicated view of the young democracy than I had expected.

Tocqueville allowed me to walk through a door and imaginatively inhabit the country which had been my home for twenty years. I was not interested in ‘channeling’ Tocqueville but in imagining a parallel universe in which my aristocrat traveled, not with another aristocrat (as Tocqueville did) but with the son of an itinerant printer. The printer would be the aristocrat's reluctant servant. They would dislike each other, have different views and values. The book would be funny but not frivolous. Sparks would fly. They would come to like each other but never agree.

This plan still represents the final work, although the plan is more like a ‘mud map’, something scratched roughly in the earth. If the novel succeeds it is because of all the thousands and thousands of discoveries I made along the way involving people I had never known in places I had never seen.

BAJ: Parrot and Olivier in America is dedicated to Frances Coady. Do you have a reader in mind as you write?

PC: Frances Coady is not only a gifted New York publisher and editor. She is also my wife. She lived the book as I wrote it, day after day, many times over— not necessarily a relaxing second job to have – reading at all sorts of levels with all sort of intents, from providing simple encouragement to the close editorial questioning that writers once were able to take for granted. Her light touch is one of her great talents. That is, she is capable of reading without being an EDITOR.

And yet the time will always come when she asks me, “What do you want”, and when I say “the truth” I will get it.

But no, I do not have a reader in mind as I write. Or if I do, it’s me.

BAJ: The novel is set in nineteenth-century America. What role does setting play in your writing?

PC: It is like entering a new planet where all the vectors of force are different from the ones you take for granted. Space is different, streets are different, transportation is different, money is different, speech is different. These vectors of force push at your characters while they attempt to get from where they have been to where they want to go. Sometimes that makes them walk strangely or fall over and this gives the book its particular idiosyncratic texture and tone and, I hope, its 'originality'.

BAJ: In Parrot and Olivier in America, you’ve re-imagined the life of Alexis de Tocqueville. You’ve also explored historical figures in powerful and moving ways in previous novels. What is it about history that moves you to write fiction?

PC: When I see the past clearly and spookily alive in the present I believe the past is telling us something urgent about who we are and how we live. I found a lot of that in Democracy in America.

I also have a slightly perverse or mischievous streak, something in me that wants to say, “You think it was like this? Well let me tell you, it was completely different.” Ideally, this becomes thrilling and a little dangerous, and my work days are not boring.

This same characteristic would make me take Australia’s great folk hero Ned Kelly, accept all that was known of him, and then step off into the unrecorded dark to make at once a fiction and possibly an emotionally truer story, one that at least asks questions of the history we have not previously bothered to ask.


BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start? Is your imagination liberated by parameters—such as writing toward a specific ending or knowing you’re exploring a particular theme—or is it fueled by a lack of stricture and the act of discovery? These aren’t mutually exclusive positions, but I wonder if you find yourself on one side more often than the other.

PC: In this case I had a particular end in mind: that quivering unresolved argument. I had a very definite beginning: the child of survivors of the Terror. I had a lot of contradictory (often illegible) notes. The process was at once rational, almost mathematical, but also (like mathematics) highly intuitive. It is a real buzz to come to the end of a working day and find yourself in a place you never knew existed.

BAJ: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing Parrot and Olivier in America?

PC: The life of the artist Algernon Watkins.

BAJ: What was the biggest challenge?

PC: I remember no challenges when the manuscript has been delivered. While I am writing it, everything seems difficult. Certainly to find a voice for my French Aristocrat was—although not finally difficult— absolutely terrifying to consider.

BAJ: Another similarity among the Fiction Finalists this year is the use of an alternating narrative point of view. You grant readers access to different characters’ consciousnesses throughout the novel. While this isn’t a necessarily new narrative technique, I wonder if its current prevalence isn’t indicative of something in our culture. Maybe it’s a feeling of disjointedness or fracturedness, or maybe a longing for a broader community. What led to your decision to employ different points of view?

PC: I have often liked to inhabit many, many different points of view. (I blame Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for this). I have sought to establish a complicated, rather cubist, idea of the truth. Inhabiting the different viewpoints of different characters seemed to me a reasonable interpretation of the way the world is. We misunderstand who we are, where we are, what other people mean. This is particularly evident in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.

More recently it has seemed natural to work with just two different points of view. Also, since True History of the Kelly Gang I have become more interested in what you might call voice. So I am down to two voices, duets. I can explore this strategy without abandoning the philosophical underpinnings of a narrative with multiple points of view.

BAJ: What is the role of the writer in the world today?

PC: To produce something true and beautiful that never existed in the world before.

BAJ: This is the 61st year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about Parrot and Olivier in America being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?

PC: Of course. My bookshelves are filled with them: Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Don DeLillo, Katherine Anne Porter, Edgar Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow, and many, many more. I came to know about Kent Haruf when he was short listed. I’d be proud and happy to occupy a shelf beside any of them. They are my life.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is director of creative writing at Harvard.
For more information, visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.