Imagining Ned Kelly: Interview with Peter Carey
In this interview, Peter Carey discusses the inspiration for his novel True History of the Kelly Gang, from an early encounter with the Jerilderie letter to an encounter with a less-familiar Kelly relic in rural Victoria.
-How does it start? It's really interesting that for me that this book have such a long gestation period. Well, obviously, you know, I live in Victoria. I grew up Ned Kelly. I lived in Australia, I grew up with Ned Kelly. But the thing that I most vividly remember was walking into George's in Cullen Street, 1962 I think. And then there was an exhibit of Sidney Nolan's paintings of-- well, it's called the Kelly series.
It's the second serious exhibition I'd ever been to in my life, and the previous one was only a couple weeks before that. And that just knocked my socks off. And it stayed with me, burned into my brain forever. And not long after that, I read somewhere, two or three years probably, the Jerilderie letter. Didn't see it of course because there was no way to see it then. But I was so taken with this writing that I typed it all up in my very, you know, thumpy, inelegant typing.
And I had just been reading-- I just discovered at the same time, James Joyce, and I had discovered Beckett, and there were these other very strong Irish literary voices running in my head. Also writers that didn't use a lot of commas and full stops. And so I read or misread the Jerilderie letter in that particular way. And why that really, really excited me. And the reason I typed it up is that I knew-- well I thought I was a writer then but I knew one day at least I would be a writer an I'd do something with it.
And now there have been some good things written about Kelly, of course. Bob Drewe wrote a wonderful book called, "Our Sunshine." And you've got to believe me that I thought it was a wonderful book because I've got a blurb on the back of it. And Jean Bedford also, and Douglas Stewart. But I still was conceited enough to think I could add something extra to this.
And when I thought about it, there was only one way I wanted to do it. The one voice that was in my ear was Ned Kelly's voice in this Jerilderie letter. And that really was like it seemed to me like, you know, this was the character's DNA. And one could really hope to inhabit the character of Ned Kelly through the voice of the Jerilderie letter. And my original ambition was really just to begin at the beginning of the Jerilderie letter and write another 300 pages, you know, as if that-- it didn't work out like that of course.
Well, there are a whole lot of ways in which we've sort of become used to thinking about Ned Kelly, and then I think as the years have gone by, it's funnelled in to being pretty much about the armor and perhaps less and less about the man behind it. And these are, I suppose, relics. And the armor does have all sorts of stories and ideas associated with it, but there are other things that I think we've forgotten, or I for one really just didn't even know about.
And I think one of the more moving objects, things, associated with Ned Kelly is this green sash than he was given for saving the life of a little Protestant boy, an Avenell. His name was-- I've forgotten his first name now. It was a Dick Shelton. Anyway. I know it was Shelton because, yeah, that little boy's descendants are alive and thriving as a result of Ned Kelly's-- the young Ned Kelly's heroism. Anyways, as the result of him saving this little boy from drowning he was given this green sash.
So the Protestant community gives the Irish boy the green sash. And we know how much that meant to him. And remember-- so sorry to go back. You got to remember too, you know that the Irish are at the bottom of the pecking order. The Avenells are very English sort of a town with people with English names. And the Kellys were way down there.
So he's given this green sash. And this is the day I think that he's seen as a good citizen. His courage is recognized and he's included in the community. We know how much it meant to him because on the last free day of his life at the Siege at Glenrowan he was wearing this same green sash under the armor. And that tells us so much. It perhaps tells us a lot more than the armor tells us about him.
So it was-- now I'd seen a photograph of it. I only discovered quite late in the process that such a thing had ever existed. But I was on a research trip up to what's called Kelly country. And I was with my friend, Richard Leplastrier and Laurie [? Malouf ?] from University of Queensland Press. And Laurie had driven down and had already found out that the sash was in this little museum in Benalla. And so after bought the leg of lamb and the various things that we were going to take out into the bush with us,
Laurie said, ah, there's a little Kelly museum in here. You know, maybe you should have a look at it. And I walked in that door, and there was that damn green sash. Very, very, very moving. When I think about the ways that we represent Kelly to ourselves, what pictures the newspapers want to-- you know, they want the death mask, the armor, and the old engraving of Ned's shooting.
I think there are other more telling things that we can sometimes look at, and I think the green sash is one of them. It's an odd thing. It's physically very, very beautiful. It's also interesting to reflect that it was taken from his body, if I'm not wrong, by the doctor who was there to save him. A souvenir that like so many parts of this story was souvenired only surfaced quite recently.
Well, the thing that really most engaged me with the problems of writing Ned Kelly is it that, you know, we have these bits of the story that we know so well, almost like the stations of the cross in a way. There's this bit and that bit and that bit. But we really have no idea what happened between this bit and that bit. And so there's a huge pleasure in inventing a whole world that's consistent with what is known, but is unlike anything anybody ever imagined about the Kelly story before, and in which you have to have your characters walking out the door they're known to have walked out of, and walking in the door that they're known to have walked into. So you know, there's one way of reading it where you can read that and think, well, it's not very inventive. But in fact, it's the most invented, made up book I've ever written.
"I lost my own father at 12 year of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences. My dear daughter, you are presently too young to understand a word I write. But this history for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in hell if I speak false. God willing, I shall live to see you read these words to witness you astonishment, and see your dark eyes widen and your jaw drop when you finally comprehend the injustice we poor Irish suffered in this present age. How queer and foreign it must seem to you, and all the course words and cruelty which I now related are faraway in ancient time.
Your grandfather were a quiet and secret man. He'd been ripped from his home in Tipperary and transported to the prisons of Van Diemen's land. I do not know what was done to him. He never spoke of it. When they'd finished with their tortures they set him free and he crossed the city to the colony of Victoria. He were by this time 30 year of age, red-headed and freckled with his eyes always slitted against the sun. My dad sworn an oath to ever more avoid the attentions of the law. So when he saw the streets of Melbourne was crawling with policeman worse than flies, he walked 20 miles to the township of Donnybrook. And then or soon thereafter he seen my mother. Helen Quinn were 18 year old. She were dark-haired and slender, the prettiest figure on a horse he ever saw. But your grandma were like a snare laid out by God for Red Kelly. She were a Quinn, and the police would never leave the Quinns alone.
My first memory is of mother breaking eggs into a bowl and crying that Jimmy Quinn, my 15-year-old uncle were arrested by the traps. I don't know where my daddy were that day, nor my oldest sister Annie. I were three-year-old. While my mother cried, I scraped the sweet yellow batter onto a spoon and ate it. The roof were leaking above the camp, having each drop hissing as it hit. My mother tipped the cake into the muzzling cloth and knotted it. Your auntie Maggie were a baby, so my mother wrapped her also, then she carried both cake and baby out into to the rain. I had no choice but follow up the hill. How could I forget them puddles, the color of mustard. The rain like needles in my eyes.
We arrived at the beverage police camp, drenched to the bone and doubtless stink of poverty, a strong odor about us. Like wet dogs, and for this or other reasons we was excluded from the sergeant's room. I remember sitting with my chilled bland hands wedged beneath the door. I could feel the lovely warmth of the fire on my fingertips. Yet when we was finally permitted entry, all my attention were taken not by the blazing fire, but by a huge red gel creature, the Englishman, who sat behind the desk. I knew not his name, only that he were the most powerful man I ever saw, and he might destroy my mother if he so desired."