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How do you know you have got the first paragraph right?
New Delhi

The first paragraph is the place where you open the door into the structure of your narrative. Sometimes this comes quickly (‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him’). Others can take months to find, and the book itself will not reveal its shape until I locate the right door. But when I find it, I recognise it. The really scary business can then begin.

Your work is elegantly & intricately written, so how much time do you spend crafting your sentences, on average and at the most?

In normal circumstances a novel will take two or three years, and during that time I am constantly rewriting. Sentences which seemed perfect can begin to seem dishonest, unnecessary or inelegant and so must be cut, recast or rewritten. There is much about writing which is tedious, but this part is fun.

You have a knack for making the outlandish and alien understandable and close to your reader. Have you relied on any deliberate techniques to achieve this? So many people regard social change as outlandish and remote. How would you recommend giving us a sense that we can do better?
Cruzille – in Burgandy, France

I am not aware of ‘deliberate techniques‘ in anything I do. In fact, I look for the opposite – something I don’t yet know how to do, something born out of the peculiar needs of that moment in the story. At that point I’m hoping, praying I can find something that no one has ever done before.

I do agree with your observation about social change, that so many people see it as outlandish and remote but then, alas, history has a habit of smashing down on us: a pandemic arrives, an ice cap melts, the nation is on fire. Change will not remain remote for ever.

Many of your novels touch on a theme of fakery - do you think of yourself as a fake? And do you think we live in an increasingly fake world?

I don’t think I use ‘fake‘ in such a judgemental way. I’m more interested in the way that things that are not yet true can come to living authentic life. I first investigated this in Illywhacker (a story narrated by a 139-year-old liar), and went on (in My Life as a Fake) to improvise a story based on Australia’s Ern Malley hoax. The hoax was (in real life) perpetrated by two reactionary anti-modernist poets, who invented a working-class character and his modernist verse. It was intended to fool the editor of a modernist magazine and then (with the revelation of the hoax) make a fool of him. This worked for a little while, but actually the poetry was rather good, and as the years have gone by the poetry is still alive and the fake poet (Ern Malley) is a character who we can imagine almost as well as any real poet who lived and died. In my novel I imagined Ern Malley coming alive like Frankenstein’s monster. The book does, in fact, evoke Mary Shelley’s novel in many places.

But this is not a complete answer to your question. It is a more complicated issue and I am constantly intrigued and stimulated by the notion of those things that are not yet true – like Australia in 1778, a colony built on the lie of terra nullius, the false assertion that the land was not cultivated and therefore could be invaded and possessed. Theft: A Love Story looks at another aspect of my fascination with the fake, but I am not a fake. Art really cannot be made that way.

Having won so many accolades, what prize do you think should exist but doesn't?

See if you can find Ted Solotaroff’s essay ‘Writing in the Cold: the first ten years‘. It was published in Granta in 1985 but it is still up to date: Solotaroff writes about the idea that it takes a long time to become a writer, usually about a decade. During this time a writer needs to keep faith in him or herself and also, of course, eat and pay the rent. So this is when you really need the prizes. There could never be too many of them.

Have the events of the past year informed anything you're writing at the moment?

Is the question about racial injustice, the recognition that colonialism is still poisoning modern ‘democratic’ societies, that modern America can be usefully understood in terms of the slave plantation, and ‘the police‘ as the consequence of slave patrols?

These matters have certainly informed my daily life and conversation, broadening and deepening my understanding of issues that have been visible in my work both before and after Oscar and Lucinda (a novel about the destruction of indigenous culture by British imperialism). You might have also seen me approaching the same issues in A Long Way from Home, pinning down the white story without which there would have been no racism. That is to say, for a white writer who thought himself attuned to these issues, the year has been a serious and necessary education.

Peter, you write beautifully about the tension between rural, small town Australia and your characters. Where you are from really matters and informs their profile, behaviour, their interactions with others. Can you speak about what this tension means to you personally and what wild Australia means to you now, in light of the bush fires, in light of your life as a person who has chosen to live away from Australia for a large part of your career?

Jackie, yes, I am made by where I come from. Living in a foreign country has made this more obvious to me. Every day I think, why are these Americans like this? Why am I like that? It was in New York I visited the Metropolitan Museum and saw (for the second time) Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings. I approached the Met with some trepidation, wondering if work that I had once admired might look provincial in Manhattan. I was thrilled to see how good the paintings were, how strange and new. I began to bring my Downtown friends to visit, and as I told them the Kelly story I rediscovered its strange beauty. I doubt I would have seen things like that in Sydney. But, yes, paradoxically, my work has always been about where I’m from.

How has 'A Long Way From Home' resonated with your Australian readership? How did your readers' respond/react to it? Was Oz ready for this book? I think you were extremely brave and I really loved it.

How has 'A Long Way From Home' resonated with your Australian readership? How did your readers' respond/react to it? Was Oz ready for this book? I think you were extremely brave and I really loved it.

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