A Living, Breathing Hoax

Peter Carey, the author of My Life as a Fake, talks about adding a dramatic new twist to an Australian literary legend.

  My Life as a Fake

My Life as a Fake
[Click the title
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by Peter Carey
Alfred Knopf
288 pages, $25

Peter Carey has likened his new novel, My Life as a Fake, to "a jazz improvisation that starts with a known melody and f***s with it." The known melody is Australia's infamous Ern Malley literary hoax. In 1944, two anti-modernist poets duped the editor of Angry Penguins, an avant-garde literary magazine, into publishing the work of a poet who did not exist. They named this poet Ern Malley, riddled his poetry with lines stolen from Shakespeare, from a dictionary of quotations, and from a report on mosquitos, among other sources, killed him off with Grave's disease, and had his "sister" discover and submit his work posthumously. The editor fell for it. He published the poems and lauded Malley's genius.

As if the scandal did not bring enough ridicule to the editor, he was also later charged and brought to trial for publishing lines "suggestive of indecency." The prosecutor's farcical and much-misguided interrogation regarding the line "part of me remains, wench, Boult-upright" is one of the only pieces of the true story that remains in My Life as a Fake.

This is where Peter Carey's improvisation begins, as he draws us into the wild, fantastical tale of an Ern Malley—here named Bob McCorkle—who may actually have come to life. An impossible scenario, yet one that Carey's story calls on the reader to consider.

The date is 1972. The setting, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Sarah Wode-Douglass, the editor of a British literary magazine and a reluctant tourist, notices an old man with ulcers on his legs, reading Rilke in a bike shop. Intrigued, she gives him a copy of her magazine, which opens the door for him to come to her day after day in his tattered suit, to tell her his story.

His name is Christopher Chubb. He is an Australian poet, yet the only memorable poetry he wrote was as his creation Bob McCorkle. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Chubb has become wildly, obsessively controlled and haunted by what he has made—the monster even kidnaps his child—and Chubb is constantly coming up against "the blasphemous possibility that he had, with his own pen, created blood and bone and a beating heart."  Like Sarah, the reader must continually decide who and what to believe.

As My Life as a Fake attests, Peter Carey is an author who is not afraid to take risks in his storytelling, nor does he shy away from some of the disturbing aspects of Australia's colonial past. Most recently, in his Booker prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang—a book that some critics have compared to an American Western—Carey chronicled the life and adventures of Ned Kelly, Australia's Robin Hood, in his ultimately doomed crusade against unscrupulous colonial authorities and landowners. In Jack Maggs, we follow the protagonist home to England after years of banishment as a convict in Australia. And in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Carey sets the story in an imaginary colony dominated by an overbearing world power. If his recent fiction is any indication of what's to come, one can't help but imagine Carey heading back to the library—back to the Australian history books—in order that he might continue to discover stories and then delve into their "unwritten dark."

Peter Carey is the author of seven previous novels and a collection of short stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. His other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He was born in Australia and now lives in New York City.

I spoke with him by telephone on October 15.

—Jessica Murphy

Peter Carey
Peter Carey   

My Life as a Fake uses the premise of the Ern Malley literary scandal as a preliminary framework for the story. What drew you to this scandal as a possibility for a novel?

I can't give you a simple answer. I've thought about it from the minute I knew about it, which I guess is from the time I was twenty or so. When my friend Michael Heyward was in New York in the early 1990s, he wrote a book called The Ern Malley Affair, which is a nonfiction work—history. Like many of his friends I read the manuscript and gave him some advice. I remember thinking at the time that in order to truly get a feel for this thing, a novel might be the best way to do it, because a novel can capture the way that Ern Malley really did come to life in a sense; he exists in our imaginations. If you're a literary Australian of a certain age, then Ern Malley's voice—not just the voice of the poetry but the personality as represented by the sister's fake letters—is real for us. I always detested the hoaxers, although I have sympathy for Christopher Chubb in my book. It seems to me that the editor who was tricked into publishing Ern Malley's work has been vindicated; nobody reads the hoaxers' poetry, but Ern Malley is remembered and continues to live on. If you look at any contemporary book of Australian poetry, you'll find Ern Malley's poetry in there.

The notion of him coming to life was really my idea, and when I began to work on the book I wrote it as a first-person narrative from his point of view—dealing with questions like, What would it be like to be born at the age of twenty-four? ... To have been conceived as a joke? ... To be known as a fake? That way of doing it didn't work, so I found other ways.

So at that juncture you changed the point of view—from Bob McCorkle, the imaginary poet, to Sarah Wode-Douglass, the literary editor. Is it true that you made that shift eighteen months into writing My Life as a Fake?

I don't think it was eighteen months, but it was a while anyway. It was less than a year.

What made you decide to make that change? What goes through a novelist's mind when making such a drastic shift after dedicating a long period of time to a particular character's way of seeing the world?

Panic. All writers have bad days. You have problems and you work your way through them. But with this book, no matter how I worked on it and tinkered with the sentences and worked on this and that, all I seemed to be doing was digging myself deeper into the ground. I knew I wasn't going to fix it up by sandpapering it or refining it anymore. So at the end of one day I came to the conclusion that this could not work. As you can imagine, that's a really bad feeling. I had a horrible night. The next day I woke up, and I decided there was a good idea here and there was a good story, and I asked myself if there was another way to do it. All that day I worked very energetically. By the end of that day, I had discovered a totally different way into the material. So it went from one day being probably the worst day of my writing life to the next day being one of the really thrilling ones. I knew I had a completely unexpected way to deal with it.

Aside from the general similarity that someone created a poet and a body of work and duped an editor into publishing it, My Life as a Fake actually diverges widely and wildly from the real story. Unlike True History of the Kelly Gang, where the historical context is obvious to the reader, in My Life as a Fake you only make direct reference to Ern Malley in the afterword. It's then that we find out that although the characters are fictional, the trial documents and poetry you use in the novel are from the Ern Malley episode, which really happened. What made you decide to stray further in this novel from real events than you did in True History of the Kelly Gang? What imaginative license did changing the Ern Malley scandal to the Bob McCorkle scandal afford you?

I think the projects are similar on one level and widely different on another. Obviously, with Ned Kelly I really liked the voice that the historical character left behind in his letters, and I thought I could do something that could lead me somewhere. I also thought that even though the Ned Kelly story was supposedly so well known, we hadn't imagined what was in the unwritten dark. There were a whole lot of things, like his relationship with his mother, that hadn't been examined. So my project there was to respect what was known in history and to imagine the unimagined parts.

In the case of Ern Malley, my premise is fantastic. I have the man come to life. The minute I do that I think it's relatively clear that this is not a history—I'm just using the history as a springboard into something else. In Australia people were kind of obsessed over the original story, and sometimes that made it difficult for them to see what I'd done. A lot of reviews mostly talked about the original story and seemed to overlook the fact that a new work of literature had been created. But in the U.S., I see people not knowing the story ahead of time and reading it in a more delightful way. One gets to the end and discovers that within this wild fantasy some of its more fantastic parts actually happened. The poems are real, and the court case which seems impossible and fantastic is real, too.

How might you categorize your fiction? Would you consider yourself a historical novelist?

When we talk about historical novels, I get wildly uneasy because a historical novel to me sounds like something I don't want to read. Everything that happens in a novel is made up, so it exists in some strange parallel time. So to me there's no difference between writing science fiction or speculative anthropology—both of which I've done—and writing about the nineteenth century. When you write about the past, you can be equally fantastic (though people have a lot of opinions about what the past was like). Having had more success, I suppose, with things that were set in the past, I'm particularly edgy about making distinctions between genres—even prickly perhaps.

Let's talk about the character of Christopher Chubb, the Australian expatriate who Wode-Douglass notices for his leg sores and for the fact that he is reading Rilke in a bike shop in Kuala Lumpur. What imaginative possibilities did you see in this character?

One of the things I rather liked about him, or that suddenly made sense to me, is that I actually was thinking about a couple of people I know who have these same kinds of fastidiously high standards. It's sort of like when English people go to the tropics and they all dress for dinner. He seemed, in an intellectual sense, like someone who was dressing for dinner; he was terrified of letting the standards lapse, so there were only three or four writers he would admit had any importance at all. That aspect of his character was interesting to me. The other thing that was interesting to me is that whereas in real life I detest the hoaxers, in this story Chubb, the hoaxer, became the person whom we feel compassion for. He ends up being the nurse and caretaker of this creature that he's made. That particular arc of the story wasn't obvious to me at first, and that's one of the pleasures of the character for me—that sort of transformation, or change, from someone who's a little mean and pinched to somebody who's more expansive and generous.

The novel's epigraph is a quotation from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the link between Chubb and Dr. Frankenstein is clear. Both create a monster, if you will, that eventually controls them. At one point Chubb is described as "a soul in hell, like a prisoner turning the capstan in the drowning room, forever indentured to something to which he himself had given birth." Do you find that an artist is "indentured" to his art? And is there the potential for an author's inventions to come back and haunt him?

My characters don't haunt me. When I talk to people about them, they do exist in a fuzzy sort of way in my head, but ideally I think they'll go off and haunt others. Not me. It's trite to say it, but it's always true—it is the reader who invents the character in a way that the writer can only partially do. It's the reader who actually brings the character to life and lives with the created thing. The writer, having been through so many drafts and stages, and being so aware of the process, is unlikely to be haunted by his characters outside the pages of the book.

Throughout the novel there is a constant questioning of what is true and what is not true, the reader must always ask what to believe and what really happened. You call on the reader to wonder again and again whether Chubb might have actually brought McCorkle to life, or if McCorkle is simply a figment of his imagination. What intrigues you about the power of the imagination and about the line between what is real and what is imagined?

If you really want to know my secret—imagine this—I have no doubt that he came to life, but I also have no doubt that no one is going to dare believe it. If you want to go through the evidence you probably would come to Sarah's conclusion—that he exists, but it's impossible. My belief is that absolutely it happened, so all of the questioning that you're talking about is born of characters' responses to that. No one's going to believe this very easily, and mostly they don't.

How did you choose Malaysia as the place where Sarah Wode-Douglass would rediscover Chubb? Why not stick with Australia, where the hoax occurred?

By the time I had my little meltdown with the first draft, I had started to think about a character rather like Sarah. Also, I hadn't reread Frankenstein closely, but I had a memory of it, and I did flip through it from time to time. I was thinking about a number of things. There's a scene very early in Frankenstein where the creature is glimpsed leaping from icy crag to crag. I thought, if this were taking place in Australia, it wouldn't be icy crag to crag. It would be tropical. And, of course, in Frankenstein that scene doesn't take place in Britain, the reader's home country, but in Europe. I started to think about a chase scene, and the geography for it. I already had this stuff floating around in my head. And then I had my crisis and I started to activate the idea of Sarah and a poet discovering Chubb. I remembered being on a trip to Malaysia during the time frame that the story takes place, and looking into a shophouse and seeing this old white guy with tropical ulcers on his legs, wearing a dirty sarong. The day that I'm trying to figure out the novel, I suddenly see this guy in my mind's eye, and I think, My God, that's Chubb. At that moment I can suddenly see the whole trajectory of a life.

And Malaysia's a place I like. Probably the real shallow truth is that I love to eat there. But I've been there quite a lot and I do like the people. I love Malay English, and although it is occasionally an upsetting and violent place, as a society it's very diverse and complex. It's a place that I once wanted to live, actually. So I was thinking, Wouldn't it be fun to set part of the story there? And also, Dare I do it? Because it can be very dangerous to write about a place that you don't live in and don't really know about. I wondered, Am I entitled to do this? Whenever I ask myself those kinds of questions I know it's a risk, but on the other hand I think, Well, writers are meant to be able to do anything. So I got quite excited about that.

The other thing about setting it outside of Australia is that it's very good to have people who don't know the story. If Sarah and John Slater had been Australian, they would have been participants, and that would have been a different sort of a thing. It's nice to be able to look at it from the outside. As an Australian it's also really good to have British characters who can say all those appalling things that Brits do say about Australians.

In a 1998 interview in The New York Times you mentioned that when you teach writing you contradict the adage: Write what you know. You advise students to write about what they don't know, to learn about what they don't know. Could you elaborate on this advice?

Well, it's slightly a perverse sort of a thing to say, but

But it sounds like that's sort of the challenge that you set for yourself. You don't shy away from things you don't know.

I think with students, often when they're involved in work that is deeply autobiographical, it's difficult for them to get any distance from the material. They're angry with their mother or their father, but they don't have a very objective sense of their own role in the situation. To remove oneself personally, so it doesn't become therapeutic, feels more to me like the making of art. Therapy and art mean different things to me. That's why I would say something like that to a student and let them understand that if they do their work, they really can make up things—they can invent things, they can create things that were never made. That's quite powerful to discover. As a writer one always has great nervousness writing about things you don't feel you own. I always do anyway. This happened for me when I came from Melbourne to write about Sydney, and when I wrote about London as an Australian in Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs. It means you've got to colonize something yourself when you really don't feel any authority to do it. These are tough things to do, but interesting because of it. In the case of this book, I'm not totally foolhardy, and I did a lot of work on it. I researched it and I went to Malaysia a number of times. One particular Malaysian writer read it through for me, and was nice enough to send me back two pages of tiny errors. It's published in Malaysia now, and somebody actually just told me that they went through the Singapore airport yesterday and the book was all over the place, so that's rather nice.

How do you begin your research? Particularly for such a mammoth undertaking as the story of an Australian legend like Ned Kelly and also for a hoax that is so well known in Australia.

For the Malaysian part of My Life as a Fake, I wrote to a Malyasian writer, and I said, Give me a reading list. I just started reading, and I continued to read obsessively the whole time I was writing. I did research in libraries, and bought books from abe.com, and found weird information about Malay poisons and charm cures and things like that. For checking up on information about Ern Malley, I used Michael Heyward's The Ern Malley Affair.

In the case of Ned Kelly, rather than finding primary material that no one had ever seen before, I would get some cheap paperback about a day in the life of the Victorian farmworker and would discover that, say, they used to stuff their boots with grass and that the sons would inherit the father's boots, and so on. Some little thing I learned from that would end up going into the book.

For both books, I read very widely, voraciously, all around the subject. In both of those cases there was a more or less accepted version of the story which had to be simplified. And, of course, in My Life as a Fake, the true story behind it was just a beginning.

My Life as a Fake brims with literary references. The McCorkle poetry has within it the stolen lines of Ezra Pound. Chubb is at one point compared to the Ancient Mariner and elsewhere to "one of Mallarmé's saved spiders," and there are innumerable other references to poets. Was this also a part of your research?

If you're going to write about the Kellys, you've got to find out about horses. (In my own case I actually detest horses and am terrified of them, but just the same I've got to be able to write about them as if I grew up with them.) In the same way, when one's writing about poets, one has to take on their intellectual and emotional landscape and think about their points of reference and so on.

Part of what's so convincing about your work is the authenticity of its narrative voice. Ned Kelly in particular told his story in a gritty vernacular which reads with the velocity of Joyce or Faulkner. In a different style, I feel you pay close attention to voice in My Life as a Fake; the initial chapters from Wode-Douglass's point of view are written in crisp, literary-journal prose, and as the chapters get further into the McCorkle story, most of which is told by Chubb, there is an almost simultaneous loosening at the hinges and an acceleration of the narration. How do you approach the voice of your narrators?

Voice is something that I've mostly arrived at intuitively. Certainly I arrived at Sarah's voice that way. The Kelly voice has been in my head forever. I didn't have to think about it too much. It's partly the voice of the playgrounds of my childhood. Getting Chubb's voice right involved quite a bit of research and calculation, but even though I've never heard anybody speak quite like that, I could sort of feel it and hear it. I just had to do research to back it up. So there's some calculation, but for the most part it is just a feeling.

Many of your novels address the problems and damage caused by colonialism. Now, in My Life as a Fake the narrative delves into the history of Japanese imperial rule over Malaysia. In addition, there is the character of McCorkle, who became, "the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged best of the Antipodes." Why is paying attention to the effect of colonialism important to your work? Is your analysis of colonialism part of a particular agenda or does it simply come with the territory of your concerns as an Australian writer?

I'm sixty, so if my grandfather were alive he would be—God knows what—a hundred and something. He'd never been to England, but he called it home. The notion of empire had been so internalized that everybody just sort of thought of themselves as part of the British Empire. When immigrants came from Italy or Greece after the Second World War, they were considered immigrants, but nobody else was. If you say to Australians that they are a nation of immigrants that strikes them as slightly radical. There's an awful lot of false consciousness. It's quite important if one's writing about Australia to recognize that we have inhabited a dreadful colonial situation in many respects. People have been slow to realize that. So it's important to continually look at what happened and consider how it might have affected us. People say that the deep sense of inferiority that colonialism brought with it is a thing of the past—which of course is rubbish. Dealing with issues of colonialism is an important way of owning up to who you are.

As for Malaysia, I didn't go there intending to write a critique of Japanese imperialism, but those were the stories that I collected from people when I was there after the Second World War. So it seemed important that if I was going to try to be authentic, that should be part of the story.

In that same interview with The New York Times you said, "Australians never see the degree that we as a people were shaped by the convict experience." How might you say that this "convict experience" has affected your own work?

Simply by thinking about it. Our Mayflowers were prison ships. People didn't come by choice but in terror, having been cast out—flung out, wrenched out. They knew themselves to be abandoned and second rate. If you put that together with the dispossession and the war against the indigenous inhabitants, then you've got quite a heady mix of things that people would rather not think about.

I read in The Guardian that you compared winning the Booker Prize to a "car crash." Could you elaborate on this? And how are you faring after two such "crashes"?

It is a totally overwhelming thing. I suppose writers think they're used to being photographed and interviewed and so therefore they're ready for any of this, but the Booker is—the sheer size of the event, the adrenaline surrounding it, the overexcited press afterwards—it was totally overwhelming. I remember being just numb the first time, and everyone around me saying, You must be so pleased, and so excited, but the truth was I couldn't even feel anything. I learned very quickly that I couldn't say that—one had to say how happy one was. But it was beyond any of that. That first time I thought there was something wrong with celebrating it too much, so I sort of ran away from it a bit. But years later, I thought, Oh God, I should have enjoyed myself a bit more. So the second time, I did. I had an indecently good time and celebrated endlessly and loudly.