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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Peter Carey speaks of his 'Chemistry of Tears'

The latest novel from the Booker's double prize-winner is set in a New York museum where a widower learns to overcome grief through the restoration of a 19th century mechanical swan

Reuters, Thursday 17 May 2012
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A museum conservator and horologist loses her colleague and married lover of 13 years, forcing her to use the intricate restoration of a 19th century automaton and the diaries of the man who commissioned it as the means to cope with her grief. Set in London in 2010, "The Chemistry of Tears" is the 12th novel by Australian-born Peter Carey, winner of two Booker Prizes for "Oscar and Lucinda" and "True History of the Kelly Gang".

The museum backdrop, of the book which was published this week, is not immediately familiar to the layman, yet in restoring a swan automaton, a mechanical device that resembles and replicates the real bird, the conservator Catherine finds solace and emotional strength -- helped by an assortment of characters from both the 19th and 21st centuries. Carey, 70, spoke with Reuters about selecting plots, the characters, and the places his characters dwell.

Q: What prompted the character's professions and the plot?

A: "Somebody has an affair, he dies, they work together, she can't tell anybody. Why I selected that, why I picked that up, I really could not explain. But having done that and having her (Catherine), and putting this together, I realized what I had stumbled onto is someone who had lost somebody and is now involved in the business of creating a facsimile of life. "A lot of these little discoveries come from work and doodling around every day and finding things and putting them together and finding how they might connect and if they did connect what they might mean. So this is putting things together and seeking meaning rather than necessarily having the meaning assemble it."

Q: Did you do much research?

A: "I have become a very unreliable narrator of my own experience but I think one of the earlier things I did was to write to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a conservator got in touch with me. She was terrifically helpful. She worked on automata and I wanted to know what it was like. When you know nothing, and your idea is a little strange, it is hard to communicate in the real world why you are even asking these questions and a little embarrassing."

Q: What did you hope to achieve with the book?

A: "To make something very beautiful that never existed in the world before I suppose, and for the work to have sort of an authentic air. To sustain you if you wanted to read it four times and (that you) would continue to find it interesting to read. Like some paintings are interesting to look at, they never quite quite resolve themselves."

Q: Is your book literature or entertainment?

A: "It's literature, of course. Is it entertaining? I hope so. Literature, I guess, is something that has at its heart perhaps more than entertainment and the writer can, I suppose, not give a damn about if it's entertaining or not. Like if you read something that has a good argument then you'll keep turning the pages because the argument keeps you going."

"I think it's in my interests to entertain as well. It doesn't seem to me literature and entertainment are actually mutually exclusive positions."

Q: Does it need to be a success?

A: "If I earn back my advances, it's an extraordinary day (laughs). Are you asking me is it in my interests to have a really commercial idea? Well, it would be if I could have one, but it's not a temptation that's ever really faced me. "The other successes I've had are about really ludicrous ideas. M y safety if there is one, is more one probably of reputation and by doing unlikely things. The only safety is in danger."

Q: Why not set it in New York?

A: "In the very beginning when I was thinking about which museum it was going to be, and I certainly could have done it here with an American museum, sometimes you just make a choice about something you feel. It just seemed like an English museum sort of a thing to me. And also because it was Europe, it was nice to imagine it. Sometimes it's just nice to live somewhere in your mind."

Q: One character, Croft, meddles in other's lives, was he intended to be that way?

A: "Yes he's a sort of a meddler. I always felt very fond of him. Later it got to that point where he had meddled so much I thought, my God, he's a little like me in the sense of wanting to fix things for people. I would never meddle in anyone's life like he does but I would like to fix things. Naturally I felt enormous affection for him."

Q: Are you running from something?

A: "Death."

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