In From the Cold - in a Glass Church. INTERVIEW: PRIZE-WINNING AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR PETER CAREY

`IT has to be,'' jokes Peter Carey, about whether ``Oscar and Lucinda'' is his best novel to date. ``I've got the check in my pocket to prove it.'' It has been a while since Mr. Carey was a struggling author. A half-share in a Sydney advertising agency - sold recently - took care of his earlier material needs; and winning Britain's most prestigious fiction award (Booker) brought not only a cash prize of 12,000 (about $22,000), but also hefty sales and accolades.

All this is light-years from Bacchus Marsh, the dusty Victorian town where Carey grew up - the son of a local car dealer. It also belies the hard years that Carey has spent developing his craft: two decades marked by false starts (four unpublished novels) and late 1960s experiments (influenced by French avant-garde writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute). In his first story collection, ``The Fat Man in History,'' the angst-filled Carey ignored the Australian pleasures of sun and surf and saw the future world as a dark and lonely place. That was in 1974; the critics sat up.

His first novel, ``Bliss'' (1981), pursued these themes - a breezy advertising executive suffers a coronary, sees his wholly unsatisfactory life spread around him, and recovers by tending vegetables in a tropical rainforest. (Carey himself had ``gone bush'' only to return to Sydney, determined to tackle his writing head-on.) His next effort, ``Illywacker,'' was happier in content but more convoluted in style: It was shortlisted for the 1985 Booker Prize, but reviewers' reactions were mixed. Finally, with ``Oscar and Lucinda'' - his most rounded and ``conventional'' work so far - Carey has fulfilled the promise of his earlier works and the wildest hopes of his publishers.

The kind of hoopla that resulted hadn't been seen Down Under since the jolly Tom Keneally picked up the Booker Prize six years ago, for ``Schindler's List''; or Patrick White - the testy giant of Ox. Lit. - scored the Nobel Prize in 1973. For his part, Carey has turned into the model of a happy artist - residing in a comfortable home on Sydney Harbor with his wife, Alison Summers, and their son.

For an hour Carey relaxes, talking about ``Oscar and Lucinda'' and how it has changed his life.

Do you share the Booker judges' opinion that ``Oscar and Lucinda'' is the best thing you've written?

Well, the emotional life of the characters is much richer and more complex than anything I've tried before. I think there's a quality of love in the book - not just the love story, but toward the characters which I hope the reader feels, too. I'm very proud of that, it's easily the best thing I've ever done. But sometimes when I was writing ``Oscar and Lucinda,'' I felt disappointed with it, too. I missed that sense of structural risk that I took with ``Illywacker,'' the previous book. ... I had a sense of myself as being a certain kind of writer - an unconventional one - and here I am producing a book which has, to my mind anyway, quite a conventional structure. In fact, the risks I was taking with ``Oscar and Lucinda'' - the ones that actually paid off - were the emotional ones.

The central image in the novel is the glass church, and it's really quite extraordinary. How did that come about?

I was living about eight hours' drive north of Sydney - in a very pretty, subtropical place called Bellingen. And most days I'd drive into this valley thinking how lucky I was to live there. It had a little wooden church, built on the banks of the Never-Never River - a name so corny I couldn't use it in the book! And one day I heard the Church of England was going to take it away, and suddenly I got really mad. And that's peculiar, because I suppose now I'm an agnostic. I grew up as a Christian, but now ... I'm not so sure.

And so I wondered, why am I getting angry about this church being taken away - and what sunny and sentimental comforts have I been drawing from the church, perhaps the certainties of childhood, and I thought, maybe Christianity has been underpinning it all the time. And so I wondered, is there something in this?

That's always how it begins ...

Yes, it was one of those daydreams you have as a writer. And I imagined a moment when the Europeans entered this ancient valley which was filled with Aboriginal stories and culture - the Aboriginal culture, it's 40,000 years old at least - and they killed a great number of people. And that's when the Christian stories entered this landscape, too. As a child, I went to church sometimes three times a day, and I knew all of those stories and they meant things to me.

If I'd said something about the parable of the talents to someone in my country town, they would know what it meant. And I thought, ``It's all tone ...'' like Christmas and Harvest Sunday - all these things had a significance, but now we seem to be living in quite a valueless society here. Within a very thin culture, anyway. So I decided to have this church full of stories - and I imagined it arriving on a barge, up the river so that its progress would be liquid and smooth.

But why specifically a glass church?

I was talking with a good friend, a Sydney architect, about prefabricated buildings in the 19th century. They were very common even then. And he said, ``Why don't you have a glass church,'' with an iron frame. And I thought, ``What a gift.'' Really the next two years' writing was a way to justify that single image. It was a process of exploration, where I discovered - and I did recognize it was a very rich field - that I was still interested in religion. And then I thought, there'd be a bet involved to see if this church could be floated up the river. And slowly out of that ... it came into focus. A woman Lucinda who has a passion for glass, and the man Oscar who was an Anglican clergyman - a very conventional thing to be, but I also wanted him to be a renegade. And both were gamblers, of course.

Critics are making endless comparisons with Dickens, but I felt ``Oscar and Lucinda'' showed more of Patrick White's influence - in its moral strengths and the apparent carelessness of some of the characters ...

I'm in the habit of telling people I haven't read any Dickens. I probably did at school, but I can't remember what it was. Actually I started reading ``Bleak House'' quite recently - spurred on by Nabokov's lectures - but having got to the revoltingly good little girl very early in the piece, I found it cloying and sentimental. I just couldn't read it. And so ... I don't doubt that Dickens is a great writer, all I'm saying is that I'm an irritable and short-tempered person who was looking for something to like and ... so Dickens, I haven't read yet! I've probably read more 19th-century Russian literature than English - Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Gogol.

And what about ...

Patrick White, yes. I read quite a lot up to ``The Vivisector'' and ``A Solid Mandala'' - and then I developed a young man's thing, saying ``So - who's Patrick White?'' It was a competitive thing and immature and stupid, and then a couple of years ago I picked up ``A Fringe of Leaves,'' which isn't his finest book. And then I was old enough to realize I was reading a great writer. I was humbled by that and slapped myself across the knuckles.

You've married and had a child in recent years. Do you think that's softened your approach to the world and to literature?

The obvious answer is yes. All these things - falling in love with my wife, Alison, and conceiving a child with her, the child being born and beginning to grow - all these were happening parallel to the novel. In fact, ``Oscar and Lucinda'' was conceived before I met my wife, thought out and written in the early stages of our relationship, and finished just after our son, Sam, was born. I feel remarkably happy in my personal life, and certainly having a child has been wonderful.

You've come in from the cold, in personal and literary terms?

Yes, and suddenly I look at all my previous work and think how childless it is!

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