Writers & Company

Peter Carey reimagines the life and death of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly

The two-time Man Booker winner talked to Eleanor Wachtel in 2001 about his bestselling novel, True History of the Kelly Gang.
Peter Carey is an Australian novelist. (Heike Steinweg/Opale)

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of England's Man Booker Prize, Writers & Company presents a special lineup of Booker Prize winners from our archives. Find our recent feature with Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel here.

Australian novelist Peter Carey is one of the few writers to win the Man Booker — Britain's most important literary prize — twice. First for his novel Oscar and Lucinda, and then for True History of the Kelly Gang, which sold more than two million copies worldwide, and is being made into a movie starring Russell Crowe and George MacKay. The story reimagines the life of one of Australia's renegade heroes, the legendary 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly. Written in the form of a letter from Kelly to his unborn daughter, it's a persuasive portrait of a complicated yet sympathetic man.

Carey was born in a rural town called Bacchus Marsh in the state of Victoria in 1943. Almost 30 years ago he moved to New York, where he teaches at Hunter College. In spite of his relocating, Carey is regarded as an "Australian legend," and the country remains at the heart of his stories — including his most recent novel, A Long Way from Home.

Carey spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his Man Booker Prize winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

A special Golden Man Booker Prize winner will be announced on July 8, 2018 —  in celebration of the award's 50th anniversary. 

Lay of the land

"The first time I went to North East Victoria in Australia — in order to research the novel True History of the Kelly Gang — my first impression was it was a very depressing landscape. It was at the end of a drought, and the land was dry and brown and hard. This area where the Kellys lived was a great plain of mixed soil quality. But from this plain there's a whole series of mountains which become important to the Kellys in different ways because they're like refuges. You could almost look at the plain like a sea and then there are these islands that rise out of it. 

"Then there are the Warby Ranges which are very close by — and they are not very high, but rough and tough bush which even today poking around those roads out there is easy to see the modern descendants of the people who lived there. You come across really odd looking car wrecking yards, way in the middle of nowhere, and you realize you may be in a slightly dodgy area. There's a wonderful place called the Wombat Ranges, which was a place where Ned and his gang were hiding when they had their fatal encounter with the police at Stringybark Creek."

Forgotten folk legend

"The story is about toughness and courage. Ned Kelly is an important Australian figure, but he's often not thought about in that way. There is no doubt he is a great folk hero in Australia yet there's a certain lack of thought about him at the same time.

"Perhaps we've been really comfortable with the notion of just imagining this man in armour and not thinking behind the armour... Every country has their outlaw stories but we are the country that has an outlaw story as our most important story. It's one of the things that attracted me to the material."

The convict stain

"Australia is a country that begins with this notion of the convict stain: How can you have a decent society that begins like this? The very soil is contaminated by this particular history. And here's Ned Kelly — he becomes a fugitive and then begins to rob banks and therefore comes to public notice. He enters into this period as sort of a rather foul murderous creature. But in the process of the robberies and in the speeches he makes to people, he starts to be seen as something finer, and decent even. I think he also gets a sense of himself; he sees that people believe him and he sees himself admired and listened to.

"The press, which was previously unsympathetic, begins to admire his courage and skill and the way he makes fools of the police. So what people are starting to see is that this man is smarter, braver, decent, charismatic and a bigger man than any of those who would seek to imprison him. So the story then becomes a story of possibility, that this is a person who is not going to be imprisoned by that particular deterministic genetic history. He's a giant. He is us and we are him."

Peter Carey's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast program: Variations on a Theme of Banjo Patterson performed by the Brodsky Quartet.