John Walsh meets Wandering Ocker and world-class
In the glacially posh hotel in downtown Sydney where I'm to meet the novelist Peter Carey, a gaggle of girl students are hanging around in the foyer, flapping and bating like a flock of bantam hens. They carry folders, they chat with a kind of pre-hysterical inanity, they radiate anticipation. Well, well, you think, so Australian yoof have got their first literary superstar, and Mr Carey is about to be thoroughly monstered, as might Jay McInerney or Martin Amis in their own, fan-strewn backyards.

It seems quite justifiable, too. From the publication of Carey's early novels in the Eighties (Bliss in 1981, Illywhacker in 1985, Oscar and Lucinda in 1988), he has been rapturously received at home and across the English-speaking world, cried up as a talent on a world scale, hoisted with almost indecent haste on to the pedestal marked "Top Oz Writer". The scope and zing of his exuberant storytelling has been compared to that of Rushdie, of Marquez, and in the pinkly self-conscious milieu of "Oz Lit", that gives him the status of an arty princeling in Sydney, even though he has lived in New York for the last eight years. And that's even before you take into consideration the Booker Prize he won in 1988, and the film Gillian Armstrong has just made of Oscar and Lucinda, starring Ralph Fiennes. No wonder the 19-year-old babes are waiting to meet him, to press themselves shyly upon him...

But I was wrong. Carey walks past the teen babble without drawing more than a glance (they were waiting, I later discovered, for some visiting tennis player). He has, it turns out, not much time for young Oz culture, nor it, indeed, for him. He disparages its low expectations, its unsophistication, the small-town mean-spiritedness of Sydney's critical cosa nostra. He is, you sense, rather too big a poppy for his writing peers, and one just asking to be cut down. And now he seems to be offering his home critics a happy opportunity, by publishing a novel in explicit homage to Charles Dickens.

"Look at this cover," he says with distaste, indicating the Australian dust jacket of Jack Maggs, on which a mustard-yellow Atkinson Grimshaw scene of a stagecoach in a Victorian street hints that the contents will probably feature costermongers, town criers and beadles. (It doesn't). "I really hate it, it's so... Masterpiece Theater," he groans. "So lacking in irony. But my publisher said it's a really good cover for this market, it'll really sell the book. And I thought, What the fuck do I know?"

The question is multi-layered, since it's evident that while Mr Carey knows a lot about many things, he likes to affect an aloofness from the procedures of lesser mortals while simultaneously coming on like a bloke among blokes, as if he were back selling cars in his one-horse home town. A modest and friendly cove, there's nonetheless something slightly alarming about him, something of the young Sam Beckett about the sharp eyes behind their granny specs, and a touch of pathos about his apologetically receding chin. Alternately aggressive and defensive, as befits the Great Artist on Home Territory, his conversation can be exhaustingly allusive and sidelong, eg: What did he enjoy most about New York?

"The waters."

But there aren't any waters...

"I was misinformed."

You realise after five seconds' silence, that this interchange is straight from Casablanca, when Claude Rains asks Bogart what he's come to the North African city for.

The new novel is called Jack Maggs, the title a teasing nudge towards the name of Magwitch, the convict in Dickens's Great Expectations, who scares young Pip in the opening scene, is touched by the boy's assistance, is sent to the Australian prison hulks and, when released, secretly pays for Pip's elevation in society before coming back to England to claim him as his son. Jack Maggs tells a kind of parallel story, of a former convict who has arrived in London to look for a "Harry Phipps" and enlists the help of an energetic popular novelist called Tobias Oates. The book is a metafictional jeu d'esprit which takes the three original characters and re-locates them in a parallel London, there to investigate their claims, real and imaginary, upon each other.

Australian critics have mostly ignored the possibility that Carey has produced anything more than a historical pastiche. All the Sydney reviews suggest he is offering a cosy alternative to Dickens, like one of those modern sequels to Jane Austen. "I kept on telling people, in the three years I was working on the book, that originally I'd thought a great deal about Great Expectations, and about Dickens - but after that I stopped thinking about them at all. They affect the scaffolding and the structure of the book to a degree, but, for God's sake - I was writing about Tobias Oates, not Dickens." So readers who expect, say, a walk-on part by Uncle Pumblechook, with his fondness for pies... "I'm afraid they'll be bitterly disappointed," says Carey, with affected sadness.

On the other hand, I insist, there has to be a point to writing about English fiction's most renowned Australian, that irresistible combination of convict-turned-gentleman. "What I wanted to explore," says Carey in a rare concession to straight talking, "was the idea of a man who's been cast out of his home, brutalised from the first and tortured later on, but who has so bought into the society he was once part of, that he abandons his own children in order to live out this fantasy. That seemed a terribly Aussie thing to do. I know Magwitch is an immigrant - you have to stretch it a bit to call him Australian - but I decided he was my ancestor. It all seemed a very Australian-colonial thing, the sort of stuff we grew up with."

Carey admits to enjoying the rich idioms that permeate the characters' conversations. "I sat there with lexicons of cant open in front of me, Eric Partridge's collections of argot and patois. And some of it, of course, I made up." I suggested that seven years in New York had made him infuse his 1837 characters with a delivery nearer to the Bronx c1997. "I think what you're saying is a big load of crap, myself," says Carey, not unpleasantly. "I hope you're wrong." Doesn't he think New York has invaded his work at all? He considers. "One way it might be usefully similar is in having all these different classes inhabiting public space and the way that happens in New York and that density of city life, yes, that may have informed some of my imagining of 19th-century London."

He sounds dubious. "I've made some very good friends in New York. My wife, Alison, directs theatre and is very successful. She has three off- Broadway shows in the coming year. All that life with theatres and actors occupies a great deal of my life and I'm very involved with it."

Carey grew up in the unprepossessing purlieus of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, where his whole family (mother, father, older brother and sister) sold cars for General Motors. He had no chance, however, to explore his own talents in automotive retail. "I was told by my brother and sister that there was no room for me, no job for me. It was like being excluded from the family, though I didn't allow myself to feel that." His parents sent him, at 11, to board at Geelong Grammar School, where Prince Charles was to attend a few years later. "I remember it was the best year of my school life. I made the discovery that Australia wasn't all made of flat brown paddocks and sheep shit, that there were these beautiful mountains."

There was also this headmaster... "One thing I recall is how the head, a bachelor, and the matron, who was single, too, both in their 50s, would sit down and go through a whole pile of dirty underwear. We all had our names sewn inside and they'd go: `Fortescue - Careless...' and make a note. They did an inspection of the shit stains of the whole school's underwear and put the resulting list on a notice board. I'm surprised they didn't give us marks out of 10. I remember thinking, This is the school where the future king of England is going."

Feeling a scientific career beckoned, Carey enrolled for a degree in Organic Chemistry and Zoology at Monash University, Melbourne, but quit after a year. Had he kept up an interest in Australian literature while doing science? Carey looks startled at the idea. I try again. Did he read a lot of Australian fiction when young? "I didn't grow up reading any fiction at all," he says bluntly. "I didn't start reading seriously until I was 18 and my scientific career had failed."

When he finally got round to it, duck met water with a resonating thud. "I started with Ulysses, a rather odd book to start your reading career with, perhaps. And the Cantos of Ezra Pound, with an annotated index. And the Beckett trilogy - Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. It was very high-class stuff. But in every other respect, I was a peasant."

Like many aspirant writers before him (Rushdie, William Trevor, Dorothy L Sayers, Fay Weldon), Carey developed a flair for advertising. All through the Sixties and Seventies, his copywriting talent bankrolled his restless travels through Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Ireland, Iran and England (where he lived in Notting Hill and went to film school) and his earliest attempts at writing. Four novels were unpublished, two of them frustratingly accepted, then turned down. Carey switched to short stories, published his first collection, The Fat Man in History, in 1974 and was launched. He struck a deal with his agency: "The most wonderful thing happened. This boring old Grey Advertising did very well and I became important to it, so when I announced I wanted to go away and live in the country and devote one week a month to it, they said yes. From then on, I never had to work full-time again."

He is reminded of this idyll - solitude in an "alternative community" in southern Queensland - in New York, where he teaches part-time as an "adjunct professor" of creative writing at NYU. Do you, I ask, have to work? I thought you were fabulously wealthy? "Oh I am," says Carey with a smile, "but only after my little NYU cheque. My kids are still at private school. I used to get fabulously wealthy by going to Princeton to teach, one afternoon a week. One day, James Lasdun [the British author] and I were going back to Manhattan on the train. Looking at the poisonous swamps of New Jersey, I said, you know, James, there was a time in Australia, I was working in advertising, I used to live in the country, come to Sydney five days a month, go to restaurants, I never taught, I didn't give a fuck if the books sold, the money was pretty good and everything was fine. James said, `Why'd you give it up?' I said, I just don't know."

Carey bellows with laughter, a shade too forcefully. The product of deracination and exile, there's a curious undercurrent of guilt about Carey's work, a guilt that's brought out in the new novel with its central character - violent, uncouth, brutalised, embarrassing and doomed - prowling London in search of a new identity, the Wandering Ocker looking for some class. Carey relates it eloquently to the plight of the aborigines. He never saw one, he said, until he went to university and met an aboriginal folk singer. "I think we're really aware of the paradox that we think it's our country, but we're also aware that it's stolen land. This occupies a stronger place in Aussie consciousness than it does in other white-settler cultures, like the US and Canada."

Do Australians worry that, in addition to dispossessing the aborigines, they're also descended from convicts? He turns his penetrating gaze on the ceiling. "At school, when I used to think of the Australian convicts, I always placed myself imaginatively, not on the side of the ones being whipped, but on the other side, with the soldiers and bureaucrats. I think that's strange, don't you? The convicts never seemed to be anything to do with me. But of course, they're a lot to do with us."

There's a lot of overlapping guilt here, especially when you start to speculate about Carey's own identification with Magwitch, in leaving his natural family behind in Bacchus Marsh, and going in search of a new identity in Notting Hill and now on the streets of Manhattan. But Carey doesn't take kindly to cheap psychology, as he dislikes any other form of pigeonholing. Perhaps we should settle just for calling him a world-class writer with an unresolved complex about the mythologies and nasty realities of his native land. His next novel project is a book on Ned Kelly. Another Australian parallel history, like Jack Maggs? Is he becoming the conscience of his race? Carey raises an eyebrow. "A guy in the Melbourne Age, when he was asked about my writing, said it was as if the Australian Literary and Academic Industry were looking for something which would represent Oz Literature. And I was definitely not it, and that was the problem. I think that's true"