What was your starting point for Parrot and Olivier in America? I might say, “Reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,” but in fact it began before that—years of hearing how Americans quote Tocqueville. If one were to rely on these snippets, one would think that Tocqueville fell head over heels in love with this new Democracy, that he “got” America.
Of course, he was in his twenties and was only here for a very short time. It’s impossible, you would think, that he “got” everything. He was a child of traumatized survivors of the French Revolution. He had good reason to fear the mob and the rule of the majority. You might think he had no chance of getting anything. But to read Democracy in America, the reader will be astonished to see that did indeed “get” America, although in a much more complicated way than common quotation suggests.
It is eerie, really, to see him fearing the dumbing down of society and the devastating conjunction of capitalism and culture. He is looking at the USA in the 1830s, but he clearly sees the phantoms of Palin and the Bushes.
He also thought it was impossible to create culture in a democracy without a leisured and educated class, and he is obviously wrong and less obviously right. He creates an argument in the modern reader’s mind—indeed, I conceived the novel as a kind of argument. In creating Parrot, the son of an itinerant printer, I was inventing someone much closer to my own cultural history. Parrot is that exotic impossible thing, the working class artist.
How closely did you go back to reading de Tocqueville work and specifically Democracy in America? And in taking on this figure as inspiration, did you feel any difficulty in moving away from the historical, factual records? I read a great deal around my subject. In the end this does not matter too much, but people who are interested in this sort of thing can find it on my website (www.petercareybooks.com). As for Democracy in America, I read it closely in my own magpie way. People who know Tocqueville will find some of his lines woven into Olivier’s narration. When you stumble across anything dismissive or snobbish about America, that bit came from Tocqueville. These are the lines that have been forgotten in Washington and elsewhere. That is not to say there is not a love affair with America (and a particular American). Indeed there is, and it is cerebral and physical and always passionate.
As for the historical record, I wanted to be fastidious in one way and reckless in another. I wanted to signal to those who know the territory that my departures from known history were informed choices. For instance, Tocqueville travelled with Beaumont and wrote a report on prisons with him. My Beaumont figure is called Blacqueville and I had him killed off in Le Havre before the journey started. I think that this is a clear sign that we are dealing with fiction. I was much more interested in expressing and testing ideas through the conflict and odd friendship with his very independently-minded, completely fictional servant.
You did some very diligent, detailed research on de Tocqueville—such as working with a French architectural historian to see detailed plans of his home in France. Yet you changed much of this detail in the book so that it doesn’t correspond to the historical record. Why? It was overwhelming, at first, to set about imagining Olivier, my aristocrat. What was it like to live in that time, to be a child living in a chateau? We imagine a modern house easily enough, but I had no clue how a character like Olivier might live. As the character had his origins in Tocqueville, I set out to find out about one of Tocqueville’s houses at Verneuil, near Paris. I found a wonderful French architectural historian, who visited the chateau—which is now a convent and not open to the public. He took photographs, and most important of all, he drew maps and plans so I could understand the principle of the place: the pigeon loft, the library, the orchard, and the relationship with the river. It was so exciting to understand. So then, of course, I came to write the novel, not about Tocqueville but about my Olivier, and then I built his chateau for him using all the knowledge I had gathered from Jean Marc Devocelle, the historian. I could change a color, shift a door, place the Seine in a slightly different relationship to the house. Thus the Chateau de Garmont was created, and exists only in my book for which it was, can we say, purpose-built?
As an adoptive New Yorker, how much do the characters’ views on America relate to your own? And have your views on America changed significantly over the 20-odd years you’ve lived there? Well, I’m an American citizen and the father of two American sons. But I am also the citizen of another country—Australia. I’m one of those New Yorkers with their hearts in two places. So no matter how familiar America (or at least New York) becomes to me, there is a huge part of it that appears to be alien and mad. Both these things increase side by side, a huge fondness and a kind of terror.
I have spent 20 years explaining to my New York friends that America is in no way like Australia, so I was rather astonished to realize, in studying Tocqueville’s visit and its consequences, just how much it paralleled a certain aspect of Australian historical experience—by that I mean the insecure and boastful nature of the New World when showing itself to the Old World. It’s sometimes hard to remember the extremely radical nature of American Democracy, this nation without kings, and it was startlingly familiar for this Australian to see these proud republicans seeking the approval of an aristocrat. I never felt so at home in all my life.
What parallels do you think can be drawn with more recent American administrations? Tocqueville saw them coming. You see him fretting at the circumstances that lead to a Palin—a woefully undereducated populace, a press that caters to fear and ignorance, a potential leader who can represent that mediocrity and ignorance, can hold up a mirror to the voters and therefore be popular. This is his nightmare—in 1831 he wrote to France from Yonkers, “they believe in the wisdom of the masses provided they are enlightened, and they don't suspect that there is a certain instruction which can never be the lot of the masses and which may nevertheless be necessary to govern a state.” Of course, many Americans of 1830 had high hopes for education, but we seem to have abandoned that. An informed electorate would be a beautiful thing to see.
Any parallels with our subprime crisis?
It is perhaps no accident that a reviewer in Dubai got this absolutely. Can I be lazy and quote her? “Carey’s depiction of America isn’t all wholesome: a New York banker who sells a house on credit to Parrot’s lover, though she has neither job nor money, provides a clear premonition of the subprime crisis.” Thank you, Gaiutra Bahadur. Also, the modern reader might like to note that the last words of the book are May 10, 1837. A quick Google will highlight the contemporary parallel.
Do you think that this is a novel that you could only write now?
Well, I’ve been thinking about Tocqueville for a long time now, but I held back. Why? Perhaps due to a sense that it was beyond me. In hindsight, I see that fearfulness has always been an extremely positive sign for me. It was true of both my Booker Prize novels (Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the KellyGang), the terrifying big idea which only finally gets explored because it will not go away.
How have readers in different countries reacted to the book’s themes?
I’ve seen individual Americans despise the snobbish Olivier, and English readers feel very fond of him. The English engage with the master-servant relationship in a more powerful way than I had expected. My early French readers seem to have been interested and amused, and have not yet questioned my right to mess with their history. And in Australia, where Tocqueville is not a figure of historical consequence, where one cannot expect anyone to give a damn about anything but the success or failure of what exists inside the covers, the reviews have been almost uniformly good. That is a category all of its own—too many different readers for me to simplify their responses, and the very pleasant sound of turning pages.
Do you hope Americans to take anything specific from the novel? If so, what?
Well, there’s the question of how we create and maintain culture in a capitalist democracy. How we can have any culture that is not swamped by the demands of corporations. Tocqueville wrote: “We have a motley crowd whose intellectual needs crave satisfaction. These new enthusiasts for the pleasures of the mind have not all received the same education….The citizens have no shared intellectual links, traditions, or culture with each other and they have had neither the power or the will or the time to fund a common understanding. Authors emerge from the heart of this disparate and turbulent crowd which then dispenses profit and reputation to them.” I wish this did not seem so horribly familiar.
You head the MFA in Creative Writing program at Hunter College—now the most selective in New York City and tenth most selective in the country. (Congratulations!) You’ve been there for 7 years now—what do you like so much about teaching? Do you think it has made you a better writer?
Oh yes. To teach a workshop you have to inhabit a student’s story. You have to not only get past the tangle and confusion, but also find its heart. You are, in that moment, placing yourself in the student’s shoes. You are being the student, understanding what the student wants, but you are also the teacher, the guide, trying to figure out and then explain how they can get to their destination. You must be empathetic, supportive, critical, technical, historical. In leading them through their own maze you use all your own resources and strengthen yourself while you teach them.
Your first novel, Bliss, is now an Opera in Australia (and will travel to Edinburgh and Hamburg as well). What is it like to see your creation on the page turned into a staged and sung performance? How does it compare to having your book made into a movie, as with Oscar and Lucinda? I don’t regard the opera or the film as being mine at all. In each case I have been delighted that I have written something that has made another artist want to make something in another form. My feeling is, I have made a vase. Now you have to break it, to grind it up, to use its clay to make what you want to make. I had the right to fail when I wrote my books. I give you the right to fail. I hope you succeed. So when I see the film or see the opera I am not at all worried if the work is faithful. Fidelity is impossible. A book is made of ink and paper. A film is made of light and electricity. So, I suppose you could say I am flattered and excited, but my book is still my book and an opera or a film will not improve or diminish a single sentence.