Excerpted from Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Did you always want to be a writer? Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
A: It did not occur to me that I might be a writer until I flunked out of my first year as a chemistry major, and found work as an apprentice writer of Volkswagen ads. As luck would have it, it was a rather eccentric advertising agency and it was there that I met writers and painters for the first time in my life. I was also introduced to the works of the writers who would influence me forever: James Joyce (Ulysses), William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), Samuel Beckett (Malone Dies, Molloy, The Unnameable).
Q: What motivated you to write Jack Maggs?
A: I am Australian. Our founding fathers and mothers did not come to our shores in search of liberty, they came to prison. Very few modern Australians are descended from those first convicts, but I believe that they affected the character of our nation forever--after all, not many modern Americans have ancestors who were on the Mayflower, but those folks on the Mayflower affected America forever.
Unlike Americans, Australians do not like to celebrate this moment when the nation is born, and it has been something of a passion for me to do just that. We carry a great deal of furniture about our beginnings. It's a complicated business to discuss in so brief a form as this, but there is a great deal of self-hatred, denial, grief, and anger, all unresolved. It took a long time before I could think of exactly how I might use these passions to fuel a novel. Then one day, contemplating the figure of Magwitch, the convict in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, I suddenly thought THIS MAN IS MY ANCESTOR. And then: this is UNFAIR!
Dickens' Magwitch is foul and dark, frightening, murderous. Dickens encourages us to think of him as the "other," but this was my ancestor, he was not "other." I wanted to reinvent him, to possess him, to act as his advocate. I did not want to diminish his "darkness" or his danger, but I wanted to give him all the love and tender sympathy that Dickens' first person narrative provides his English hero Pip. That' s where I started. The journey itself is, of course, far more complicated.
Q: Your writing has been praised for its historical accuracy. Jack Maggs abounds in details that bring your characters to life. How much research went into the writing of Jack Maggs?
A: E.L.Doctorow gives the best answer to this question: "Less than you'd think."
When you choose to write about nineteenth century London, you are entering very well traveled streets, and there is nothing in the least neurotic about being nervous about it. You are entering the territory of Dickens or Thackeray, Wilkie Collins. If you go to them for information, you will be nothing more than a plagiarist and a thief. Yet you must somehow--to put it bluntly--invade their territory and repossess it. How can this be possible? You need maps, charts. You need spies, agents, correspondents from the past. Foreign spies are always the best. They see things the English themselves will never tell you. Only a German, for instance, will spend a page describing a particular method of preparing bread and conclude: "The English call this toast." In the eyes of foreigners one discovers a foreign land, all fresh and new and waiting to be put at the service of a 20th century novel.
I live in New York. I went to the New York Public Library which was filled to bursting with the accounts of nineteenth century visitors, not just Americans, but Germans and Russians too.
Q: Did you research the history of hypnotism?
A: Yes. Here the most interesting source was Dickens himself. Anyone going to his notebooks will find a fascinating account of his treatment of a woman named Madame de la Rue for tic douloureux. I was inspired by this Victorian mind's intuitive grappling with the notion of a pathogenic secret, and something of the tone and texture of Maggs' hypnotic sessions with Tobias Oates comes from here.
Q: Jack Maggs revisits Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. The character Jack Maggs is a reinterpretation of Dickens' convict Magwitch, and Henry Phipps is a re-imagination of Pip. Were you at all anxious about re-working Dickens' beloved characters?
A: I think that my Jack Maggs has the same situation and the similar drives as Dickens' Magwitch, but is his character the same? I don't really think so. My Henry Phipps is not in any sense the same person as Dickens' Pip. They have both inherited money from a transported convict, but their actions and their characters are very different, which is, of course, the point. I would have thought it presumptuous (and rather boring) to adapt, adopt, or meddle with Dickens' actual characters.
Q: So many contemporary novels rework the plots of famous authors, including Austen, Hawthorne, and Wharton. What are your thoughts on this trend and your place in it?
A: My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country. Looked at in this way, Great Expectations is not only a great work of English literature; it is (to an Australian) also a way in which the English have colonized our ways of seeing ourselves. It is a great novel, but it is also, in another way, a prison. Jack Maggs is an attempt to break open the prison and to imaginatively reconcile with the gaoler. I see Jack Maggs primarily in this light, so it doesn't feel particularly connected to reworkings of Hawthorne or Wharton.
Q: You have, on occasion, published autobiographical essays. Your novels, however, are far from "semi-autobiographical" or "confessional" in tone. As a writer--and as a teacher--what is your opinion regarding autobiographical fiction?
A: I have never had any interest in writing autobiographical fiction, which is not to say that I don't enjoy the work of other fiction writers who work close to life. For me, the pleasure in fiction is to invent, to elevate myself, to end up discovering things I did not know when I set out. I enjoy writing autobiographical non-fiction every now and then, although it would feel unseemly to make a business of constantly confessing.
Q: As the world continues to become increasingly attuned to issues of "multi-culturalism" and "ethnicity", the issue of an author's nationality is given increased attention. How has your native country of Australia impacted your writing?
A: Almost everything I have ever written has been concerned with questions of "national identity," a seemingly old-fashioned project that seems, to me, an alarmingly modern concern. Of course you can read Jack Maggs (as many appreciative critics have) without any knowledge of Australia, its traumas, hopes, history. At the end of the day, it's just a novel, a form once defined as a long work with something wrong with it.
Q: The film of Oscar and Lucinda introduced your work to a new audience. What was your reaction to seeing that film for the first time?
A: I was simply blown away by it, and very moved that such wonderful artists had wanted to spend so much time and effort making something new.
1. "I am an old dog...who has been treated bad, and has learned all sort of tricks he wishes he never had to know" (69), says Jack Maggs. Maggs is a strong man with certain weaknesses. What in his background might have caused the tendency toward romantic fantasy (about Phipps, for example) which is so much at odds with his general clear-sightedness? What makes him violent; what makes him kind and tender?
2. Tobias Oates is possessed of an "unholy thirst for love" (37). How does this thirst shape and rule his life? Does he turn it to a strength or a weakness? Is it this thirst for love that inspires his equally strong thirst for power? Looking at Maggs, Oates reflects that he himself "would be the archaeologist of this mystery; he would be the surgeon of this soul" (52). How is this hubris punished--or is it?
3. Percy Buckle has many admirable characteristics: early in the novel Mercy Larkin says that he is "the kindest, most decent man in all the world" (68). What turns him sour and fills him with hate? What weaknesses in his character allow this hatred to take over his soul?
4. There is much speculation by the characters in Jack Maggs about the "Criminal Mind." Oates thinks that Jack Maggs is an example of the criminal mind, but as the events unfold his ideas on the subject become less and less clear. Has Maggs been made a criminal by his nature, or by his environment? Is Oates, in your opinion, a criminal? What about Buckle, Phipps, Mary Britten, or Tom? Is there in fact any such thing as a criminal mind?
5. Who or what is the "Phantom" that haunts Jack Maggs's dreams? When Maggs dreams that he kills the Phantom (105), what does this fantasy signify?
6. What effect has Sophina's abortion and the loss of their baby had upon Jack throughout his life? Might this loss have inspired Jack's original love for little Henry Phipps? Why do you think he persists in his love for Phipps at the expense of his own children back in Australia? Maggs says that he determined to "weave [Phipps] a nest so strong that no one would ever hurt his goodness" (245). Does Maggs's story imply that such protection is finally impossible?
7. How would you describe Mary Oates: is she really merely "good" and "dull" (181) as her sister sees her? Just how astute is she about her husband? From the time of Lizzie's fatal illness, Mary begins to hate her husband, and this hatred eventually "would penetrate the deepest reaches of her soul and make her into the slow and famously dim-witted creature who was commonly thought not to understand half of what her famous husband said" (292). This sentence implies that earlier, she was neither slow nor dim-witted. What do you think?
8. As a companion piece to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, with Oates as Dickens and Maggs as Dickens's convict Magwitch, Jack Maggs can be seen as a reflection upon the creative process. Maggs sees Oates's usurpation of his life and thoughts as theft: "You are a thief," he says; You have cheated me, Toby, as bad as I was ever cheated" (259-61). Is Maggs justified in believing this? If so, is such theft an inevitable part of the creative and transformative process?
9. Maggs is never a "gentleman;" Phipps is. What does this tell us about the class system in nineteenth-century England, and about the author's attitude toward it? What changes were occurring in the class system at that time, and how are these changes illustrated by the novel and its characters? Tobias and Buckle look on Maggs as a servant, themselves as masters: how does Carey subvert this idea? Mercy says that although he had two children of his own, Maggs "had an aim to find a better class of son" (295). Are Maggs's motives really as simple as this?
10. Two of the themes Jack Maggs returns to again and again are those of guilt and shame. For what crimes, real or imagined, do Oates and Maggs feel the most guilt and shame? What betrayals has each of them committed? Is their shame justified? Are there any characters in the novel who seem to be without guilt or sin?
11. Maggs tells Mercy that he was flogged by "a soldier of the King," to which she replies, "Then it were the King who lashed you" (295). What does Carey mean to imply about the social ills of England, and of the Australian penal colonies? How do Maggs's dreams, in which his Phantom is dressed as a soldier--and the reality in which the miniature he possesses of Phipps, the soldier, turns out to be the portrait of the former King George IV--contribute to the novel's political metaphor?
12. "It would not have been lost on [Oates] that Mercy Larkin's wedding finger was blown away, and that when Jack Maggs came to her side, the pair were finally matched in deformity" (303). What would not have been lost on Oates--what, that is, do the twin deformities symbolize?
13. Oates envisions the end of Maggs's story with Maggs being burned alive in his mansion. Which ending is more artistically appropriate: the one imagined by Oates, or the one Carey actually gives Maggs?
14. If you have read Dickens's Great Expectations, how do the characters of Maggs and Phipps differ from those of Magwitch and Pip, and why has Carey introduced these differences? How do the character and life of Dickens himself differ from that of Oates? What elements of the plot of Jack Maggs could be called "Dickensian"? Does Carey create a particular style for this novel that directly resembles, or echoes, Dickens's style? What are the implications of a contemporary Australian novelist harking back to nineteenth-century English traditions?