NEW YORK — In a time when the book industry seems enamored of the instant successes of hot young authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith, it is refreshing to hear seasoned Australian writer Peter Carey declare it has taken him decades to feel fully satisfied with his work.
“I’m only really now beginning to do the sorts of things that I really wanted to do when I wanted to be a writer in the first place, those sorts of sentences,” says the 63-year-old, two-time Booker Prize winner.
His finely honed craft is readily apparent in his latest novel, “Theft: A Love Story,” out now from Knopf. The book follows exiled Australian artist Michael Boone as he attempts to reinvigorate his flailing career with the help of a young woman, Marlene, the ex-wife of a famed artist’s son. Boone falls in love with Marlene and soon finds himself enmeshed in a complex art forgery scandal of her making. “Theft” alternates between the two distinct, often contradictory voices of the egomaniacal Boone and his mentally challenged brother, Hugh, who lives with him.
Carey’s inspiration came over the course of a series of long lunches at ‘ino with art dealer Stewart Waltzer. On one occasion, Waltzer described an intricate story about the artist Fernand Léger and an attempt to authenticate one of his works. It introduced to Carey the idea of the droîte morale, the right to decide a painting’s veracity, which can be passed down like an inheritance. Fascinated, Carey embarked on intense research that reveals itself in the book’s highly technical details.
“I wanted to write something that a conservator or painter could read and convince them. When you face those difficulties, you always make the book better,” he explains over lunch at his frequent TriBeCa haunt, Takahachi.
Writing wasn’t always in the cards for Carey, who was born in Bacchus Marsh, Australia, the son of a car dealer. He entered college with the intention of being an organic chemist, but soon realized his plans were ill-fated.
“I failed everything….I had a car accident just before the exam and it took off the top of my head. I’ve got blood coming down my face and all I could think was, ‘Thank God, thank God. I can tell my parents this is why I failed,’” he laughs.
Carey went to work at an advertising agency, met writers there and decided he wanted to become one, too. A colleague started giving him books to read, many of which still have a profound effect on him.
“When I read Faulkner, I think the thing I thought about writing would be to be able to make something very, very beautiful that had never existed in the world before,” he recalls.
Carey moved to New York in 1990 with his then-wife, theater director Alison Summers, two years after winning his first Booker Prize for “Oscar and Lucinda.” The couple is now divorced and a background character in “Theft,” Boone’s ex-wife, referred to only as “The Plaintiff,” has caused some to suggest comparisons to Summers. It is a reaction that aggravates Carey, who insists he is devoted solely to the art of fiction writing.
“I like taking risks and a memoir thing is a certain sort of personal risk. So that’s OK. And I can do it. But basically, it’s not what I’ve spent my entire life doing,” he says. “I spend my life inventing things. I don’t want to write about my crappy little life, really.”