The Blagger's Guide To: Peter Carey

When a student went in search of an exciting life
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Peter Carey's 12th novel, The Chemistry of Tears, will be published on Thursday by Faber & Faber. The novel is his first to be set in contemporary London, and describes a museum conservator, Catherine, who is set to work reconstructing a 19th-century mechanical swan by a kindly boss who knows that she is grieving the death of her married lover. A journal that is found along with the swan reveals that it was commissioned by a bereaved Victorian father, whose young son was dying of consumption.

Carey is one of only two writers (along with JM Coetzee) who have won the Booker Prize twice: for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988, and True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

Carey was born in 1943 in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia. His parents ran a car dealership, and there were not many books in the house, though the young Carey did enjoy The Jungle Book, The Water-Babies and Biggles stories. He attended Geelong Grammar School in Victoria, where the Prince of Wales was later sent. HRH later recalled: "Seventy mile hikes – it was hell in those days – blood-soaked shirt from the rucksack on my back. I'm not making this up. But I loved it. All I can recollect is thinking 'Christ I'm bloody-well bushed'."

After high school, Carey began studying in Melbourne for a degree in organic chemistry and zoology, but abandoned it after a car crash. "I thought science would give me an exciting life of exploration and discovery," he has said, "but then I saw that literature would do that better." During the 1960s he worked in advertising in Melbourne, Sydney and London, while writing short stories that were published in magazines.

Carey's first full-length novel, Bliss, was about an advertising executive and was published in 1981. It won the Miles Franklin Award, and was later turned into a film (Carey worked on the screenplay) and an opera.

Carey's 2006 novel, Theft: A Love Story, was embroiled in controversy when his recently ex-wife and editor, the theatre director Alison Summers, claimed that the character of The Plaintiff, an "alimony whore", was modelled on Carey's embittered view of her and the end of their marriage. During the nearly 20 years they were together, Carey dedicated several books to her, praising her "clear literary intelligence and flawless dramatic instinct". Summers called his novel "emotional terrorism". Carey maintains that it is completely fictional, and that Summers' allegations are "all crap".

There are two Peter Careys associated with Australian rules football; one who played for Leyton Orient in the 1950s; a historian; a character in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of Black Peter"; and a civil servant whose colleagues believed he was the model for TV's Sir Humphrey in the soon-to-return Yes Prime Minister.

Parrot and Olivier in America contains some embarrassing inaccuracies about leeches, according to a 2010 article by Germaine Greer. "Carey seems unaware that some of his readers might know more about leeches than he does," she complained.

Peter Carey currently lives in Manhattan, and teaches creative writing at Hunter College, City University of New York.