Scientific American: Peter Carey on the Weirdness of History

peter carey at the guardi 001 Scientific American: Peter Carey on the Weirdness of History

Peter Carey.

Shortly after noon on a recent Tuesday, novelist Peter Carey was sipping rosé at the Soho Mexican restaurant La
Esquina. When The Observer arrived, a few minutes late for our interview, he asked us to join him in a glass. An afternoon at the cafe was a welcome diversion for the two-time Booker Prize winner—for 1988’s Oscar and Lucinda and 2000’s True History of the Kelly Gang—who is also is a professor in Hunter College’s MFA program.

At Hunter, Mr. Carey has just 12 students, with whom he meets once a week. That way, he said, he has “time to really give them full attention. And then I can do a full day’s work.”

It’s a full day’s work that consists of both writing and research. His new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, which takes as its subject a present-day museum conservator who is grieving a lost love—she happens upon an automaton from the 19th century and is tasked with making it work once again—began as a loose web of ideas but began to cohere around a thesis about technology and its harmful effects. “If you really want to destroy the planet,” he said, “give people the tools to make an internal combustion engine and come back 200 years later and it’s all done.” He wanted to look at a time before science became beholden to corporations and the military.

Scientists falling prey to temptation when it comes to the big bucks offered by corporations isn’t so dissimilar from the temptation novelists face, of selling out, Mr. Carey said, adding that it had never seemed like a danger in his own case. “The only thing that’s ever given me success is doing some weird shit that is not likely to do well. Two people who don’t have sex who make a glass church [in Oscar and Lucinda]. I wrote The Kelly Gang thinking I was committing commercial suicide. So I’m not tempted. But I would like to be tempted, I suppose.”