From the Writers & Company Archives: Peter Carey

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This summer, the Writers & Company weekly podcast will feature some of the best shows from the show's archives. We hope you'll enjoy this opportunity to hear these programs that haven't been available as a podcast before.

Every week in July and August, CBC Books will bring you the Writers & Company podcast, an encore presentation of those great full-length conversations.

This week's Writers & Company podcast features Eleanor's 2001 conversation with Peter Carey about The True History of the Kelly Gang, which told the story about the 19th century outlaw, Ned Kelly, who could be called Australian's own Billy the Kid.

This interview originally aired on April 22, 2001.

You can listen to Writers & Company on CBC Radio One every Sunday at 3 p.m. ET and AT; 3:30 p.m. NT; 5 p.m. PT, MT and CT.


Peter Carey is one of only two writers to win Britain's most important prize, the Booker, twice. He won for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988, and again in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang, which is the book Carey sat down with Eleanor Wachtel to discuss in this archival interview. In True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey returns to Australia -- his home country and a place that frequently appears in his work -- to reconfigure one of the country's legendary heroes, the mythical outlaw of the 1870s, Ned Kelly. Written in the form of a letter from Kelly to the daughter he has never seen, the book is a persuasive autobiography of another sympathetic character.

In order to truly under Ned Kelly, Carey felt he first needed to understand the landscape he lived on. "I had to know about the land. I had to know about the soil. I had to know about the grass. I had to know about rain, what the rivers do," he said. "I had to learn to write about horses and horses in that landscape in a way that would be convincing to someone who did that every day."

So he headed to the Outback. "The first time I went I thought, 'God, what a depressing landscape that is,'" he said. "It was at the end of a drought. It was dry, brown and hard." After some research, Carey realized that it wasn't as difficult to live on as he first believed. And even though it looked punishing, it also looked majestic. "You could look at the plain like a sea and these islands that rise out of the sea."


Once he had a handle on the land, Carey turned to the man himself: Ned Kelly. Kelly is one of the most pervasive historical figures in Australia. Kelly doesn't recall the first time he heard the story of Ned Kelly, "it was just sort of in the air." This intrigued Kelley and eventually drove him to want to write a book about the outlaw. "It really was a story to do with toughness and courage," he said, knowing that would lend itself nicely to literature. "There is no doubt he is the great figure or the great folk hero in Australia, and yet there's a lack of thought about him at the same time."

Which is interesting, because the stories around Kelly are divided: is he a folk hero or a cold-blooded criminal? It's tough to tell. Carey is adamant that we'll never know, because there's no such thing as a "true history," just the history that's "written by the winners." But Carey loved the idea of Kelly telling his own story, and modelled his version of history on as many historical documents and folk stories as he could, including the Jerilderie letter. The Jerilderie letter is a 56-page public letter in which Kelly outlined his thoughts on how Australia treated Irish-Catholics and how the police treated his family.

"It certainly has some considerable mood swings in it. In way, it's a cry of rage but it's also an explanation, a plea sometimes, for understanding. It's trying to set the record straight, really, about what happened in his life," Carey said. So when he finally started to write the book, he did his best to emulate Kelly's voice. He eventually tweaked it, making the letter personal rather than public, and being liberal with the language. But he feels the final result is true to the man himself: conflicted, contradictory, but an honest portrayal of a man doing the best he could with what little he had.

"I do believe he was a decent man," Carey said. "We have to allow for the possibility that there are people who are decent, there are people who are wrong and there are people who rise above their particular circumstance to become more than we might expect them to be."

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