Peter Carey talks about prose, politics, and his passion for Australia

Best to come straight out with it. Peter Carey, your new book is entitled His Illegal Self. Before that there was My Life as a Fake; and then, three years later, Theft: A Love Story. What’s that all about?

Carey’s usual ebullience suddenly seems muted. “I know, it’s a shame,” he says, not exactly joking. Sitting across from him in the cosy environs of Lupa, a trendy Italian place in Greenwich Village, New York, I persist. Are the books a kind of trilogy?

“No.” There’s a pause. “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s something I want to address, I think it’s kind of unfortunate…” Another, very long pause. “What are we going to put that down to? The convict system? I don’t know. The illegal thing comes from a subject, a very personal thing between my youngest son and I, being in the country and Charley being worried about ‘illegal’ drivers… there were the rednecks and the illegal drivers, so it’s some kind of tribute to Charley, a little joke.”

Just an accident, then? “Yes, and it’s why I was very clear about the jacket and why it had to be a little kid’s face, because it makes sense of the understanding of illegality, his illegal self. But the repetition of theft, fake, illegal is rather unfortunate … in the sense that it suggests something much stronger than I feel. On the other hand who’s making these patterns, Doctor? It’s me.” And he grins, at last, the wicked Carey grin, its slight goofiness an effective screen for the remarkable perception and imagination that hallmarks his work.

His Illegal Self takes place in the early 1970s. It is the story of Che, who, at the beginning of the novel, is stolen away from his grandmother – and a life of privilege – in New York, by a woman whom he believes to be his mother. His mother, he knows, is an outlaw, a member of a violent political group that bears some resemblance to the Weather Underground. “Dial” (short for “Dialectic”, her nickname in the activist world) takes him to Queensland, a place that Carey knows well but which is painted vividly afresh through Che’s eyes.

Somehow – thanks to Carey’s sure hand and true heart – this wilderness of bugs, drugs and hippies becomes a place transformed by love.

Carey talks of the genesis of the novel in a matter-of-fact way. When someone asked him why he set My Life as a Fake in Indonesia, his answer was simply: “I liked the food”; the reasoning behind this latest book is a little more elaborate, but still as bounded by the real. He had loved finding that he could describe the New South Wales he remembered in Theft; so the setting of His Illegal Self seemed a logical progression.

“Living in Queensland is like living in Paradise. It’s just gorgeous. You live in this rainforest, in the afternoon you go to the beach, and ride – so that was one thing. And the other thing was when I did live in that community some of the characters around were the sort of characters who were needed for the book; the people who lived there were really nice and very open. It’s the only place in my life I’ve ever lived where no one ever asked me what I did. That’s really unusual.

“Into this came this American guy, and nobody asked what he did either, and it turned out in the end that he was actually wanted by the FBI for conspiracy to import cocaine into the US from Mexico. But we didn’t know that. He just turned up. Suddenly one morning there was this huge police raid with helicopters; that was the first we knew.”

Although this description may seem exotic to British readers, Carey recounts it with a deadpan style that makes his alchemical transformation of the plain stuff of life even more striking. But, then, it’s clear that Carey is a storyteller in his very bones; and my opening question was, in a sense, unfair – in that his whole body of work is peppered with chancers, liars, thieves. That is: people who make their lives as stories, just as the novelist does.

Can we trust Peter Carey? As it says on his (brand-spanking-new) website: “He claims his birthplace of Bacchus Marsh had a population of 4,000. This fact should probably be checked.” Born in 1943, he was sent away at the tender age of 11 to the prestigious Geelong Grammar School (alma mater of Rupert Murdoch and the Prince of Wales).

Might this explain the persistence, in his fiction, of the dislocated or orphaned child, of which Che is just the latest example? Carey, it’s clear, is wary of such “explanations”; and of 21st-century society’s obsession with the “real” – reality TV, “misery memoirs”, the docu-drama. Has fiction lost its appeal? There is, it seems to me, a distrust of the very form. Carey doesn’t mince his words.

“Yes, fiction’s certainly distrusted… yet we have a society where the basis of everything, the political basis of our lives, is a complete fucking lie. And the media have no interest in telling any truth at all. And in this, maybe, you have something happening at a profound level – maybe people think there are conspiracies because there are. I mean, they understand something’s wrong.

“Maybe the great passion that something has to be really ‘real’, exists because there’s so much that’s not. If you look at this [the Bush] Administration, and all of the things that have led us to where we are now – the whole schmear – it’s all complete lies. And this is the time when we have a passion for what’s true, and no interest in what’s made up? I don’t know. The degree to which people are suspicious of the imagination is beyond me. When fiction works really well, it has to work in such a way that it feels like it wasn’t made up. But this time now doesn’t trust it.”

“This Administration”, “schmear” – spoken like an American; indeed, a New Yorker. Carey has been in the city for nearly two decades; he seems at home here. The beginning of our meeting is taken up with a little tour of his neighbourhood; he lives in SoHo with the publisher Frances Coady. We hit Joe’s Dairy, where he buys me a ball of the best mozzarella in the city; then on to Raffetto’s, for the best pasta to go with it. For dessert, a tart from Once Upon a Tart… oh, yes, we go to a bookstore, too, Three Lives on West 10th Street, where it’s clear he’s a regular customer (that was clear at Joe’s Dairy, too).

By his account, it’s happenstance that he ended up in New York; he first came with his wife, Alison Summers, whom he has since divorced. For some years he has been at Hunter College as director of the MFA Programme in Creative Writing.

Read recent pieces about Martin Amis’s supposedly exaggerated salary for doing the same at Manchester University and you could be forgiven for thinking the whole thing a con; or anyway, a business proposition, a way for students to “make it” in the writing game. Carey shrugs; he takes what he does seriously, but is realistic about what he can achieve with his 12 students – chosen from a couple of hundred applicants.

“I tell them to forget about the business. That’s nothing to do with me. I used to be slick at talking about this, but as I’ve started to enjoy it more, I’m not slick at it. First, I think it saves people time – a couple of years, three years. They’ll figure it out in the end. If they haven’t got talent, you’re not going to give it to them, but they will have it because you’ve chosen them.

“But they might turn out to not have will; which you can’t always judge very easily at the beginning. If they don’t have will, they’re screwed. But you can’t make them write every day or get up early in the morning; you can give them an example, or tell them what they should be doing, and they might listen.”

The students line-edit each other’s stories; they analyse other writers – recently Edith Wharton and W.G. Sebald. Carey once asked them to keep a weather diary: it’s a way of making writers, who tend to be, in his words, self-obsessed, look out at the world. But there are no magic tricks: that’s clear when he talks about his own working methods, which come down to hard graft, to feeling his way into a book and writing and rewriting until it somehow comes true to what he intended – but without knowing what that will be when he begins.

“As I’m writing I’m thinking, what is this book about? In the end this one is only about love. So for me to be writing a book and then to understand that it’s about this relatively simple thing was a surprise – I’ve written books where you could discuss what they were ‘about’ in a very different way. It’s very strange that you spend all this time playing with something to give it pattern and meaning and it wouldn’t work if we knew at the beginning what we were doing.”

When he speaks this way it seems clear that, to some extent, the finished product of the novel is an afterthought: the happy result of the process of writing, a process that consists of discovery and escape.

At the end of our talk he refers briefly to the difficult separation from Summers, the mother of his two boys: “I wrote three books going through the most horrible time in my life – who was it that said you might ‘live your days within the pages of a book’? Well, I did. I really had thought you had to have a peaceful life to write… but I then discovered that you don’t. So the thing of going somewhere else, living in your imagination, is a privileged state.”

It was reading his Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda, many years ago, that first truly made me feel the possibilities of fiction; or, rather, to wonder whether it would be possible to be a writer. Now, at the end of our meal, Carey effects another introduction – to camomile grappa. Wow. I am quite overcome, and decline dessert, which Carey, with a flash of that grin, claims that he predicted.

“As a novelist,” he intones, “I can see into the souls of others… that’s a gift we have. I can just look at people and know what it is they are feeling, and thinking… it’s why I carry this notebook.” He throws back his head and laughs.