Peter Carey, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, recently took over the MFA program in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction at Hunter College. The Rail’s James McCloskey spoke to Carey about his plans for the program.
James McCloskey (Rail): Before starting at Hunter, what was your experience with MFA programs? Had you been involved with any before?
Peter Carey: When I first came to New York from Sydney—this was in 1990—I imagined MFA programs were a bit of a scam. I’d never taught anywhere before, but my friend Thomas Keneally, the Australian writer, said to me, “It’s easy, Peter. What you do is get a couple of bottles of wine and a whole lot of plastic glasses and you go into the room with the lads and lassies and they talk about their work.” And when Tom first taught at NYU, this is pretty much how he did it. Indeed, the day after his first class, there was a major security alert. Someone looked in on Tom’s classroom and saw the wine bottles and the glasses and decided vandals had broken in and had a party. So I didn’t know very much about teaching, and after my first semester none of my students seem to have got any better so I thought, well, I was right—it’s just a scam. Finally, of course, I got better, I learned a little bit more about teaching, and miraculously the students got better, too. Outside the United States people tend to be very skeptical about creative writing programs. They say things like, “Well, you can’t teach someone to have talent.” And of course, this is true: If you haven’t got talent, no one can give it to you. But there are so many things you actually can teach, things a writer will find out eventually, but a Creative Writing course helps you learn them a lot, lot faster. If a student has a big talent your biggest responsibility is not to screw it up. And if a student doesn’t appear to have talent, it’s always best to remind yourself—you can never know—writers develop in surprising ways.
Rail: And what was it that first attracted you to Hunter, even though you’d been at the New School and NYU and all these other programs?
Carey: I’d teach and then not want to be part of a faculty, not want to be going to meetings. So I’d be forever deciding that I wasn’t going to teach anymore, just going to be a writer all day long. But in the real world I have two children, who are very expensive, so I’d keep on going back to teach for that reason. And I went up to Hunter to teach for a semester and I didn’t really expect very much—just coming up from the subway I thought it looked chaotic, disorganized. But I went up to the twelfth floor and found my classroom and I had the best teaching experience of my life. Those students really wanted to be there. It was serious to them. That made me want to be there, too. Also, there were so many first and second-generation immigration stories in that room and I could engage with these issues in ways that probably surprised my students. As an Australian I have tended to be obsessed by issues of colonialism, imperialism, the center and the periphery, and these were often the concerns of my students. This was a big deal for me. As an Australian you always feel very peripheral in the life of New York City. After fourteen years here, this was the first time I felt so connected.
Rail: You spoke about some of the chaos that was at Hunter when you visited. What were some of the changes to that that you wanted to make when you initially arrived?
Carey: I thought, “These Hunter students are every bit as good as the students I had at Columbia or NYU.” Hunter is often seen from the outside as an easy choice. It’s the cheaper choice, for starters. And if you want to talk about the most prestigious writing program in the country, well people say Iowa or Stanford perhaps, but looking at the talent in the room at Hunter I didn’t see why these students should feel they were somewhere inferior to Iowa or Stanford. And I wanted to make that clear, to everyone, the students and the world outside. One fast way to do this was to show them the caliber of the writers who would come and talk to them. Who wanted to come and talk with them. So now our students get to sit down with Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie or Michael Ondaatje. If you’re an MFA student at Hunter you’re going to have some very bloody privileged conversations. People outside didn’t understand this overnight, but I think it’s slowly becoming clear that something big is happening on the corner of Lex and 68th. I mean, we already have a wonderful program in terms of how things happen week to week, in a pedagogical sense, but I think we also need a program that’s publicly understood as spectacular. And that’s not all for my particular personal vanity—if you have a Hunter MFA it should feel like a lovely shiny thing.
Rail: As I’m sure you know, there are a lot of differences for a writer starting out now and a writer starting out 20, 30 years ago. So how do you prepare writers for navigating the publishing world, given that there are so many differences in how publishing has come to operate?
Carey: There’s a huge difference between where I come from culturally, geographically, and New York City in 2005. I was born sixty years ago in Australia. No-one would admit that there was an Australian literature, and the notion of Australian writers being published in London was a little like we were dogs getting on our hind legs and talking. This is so odd, but of course a part of me feels that this is the way it should be. I mean, you shouldn’t expect to make any money from literature. You should just write and if you’re lucky (or maybe unlucky) you’ll be able to make a living from it. But it’s now 2005 and I’m living in New York City and I have students who want to know about agents and careers. And my real response to this—and perhaps this is not a very smart thing to say as the director of a creative writing program—is do the work. Nothing else matters. It matters more than an MFA. I still believe that if you do the work, write obsessively every single day, the career part of it will not be as hard as everyone thinks it is. There’s an awful lot of mediocrity, not just in literature but in everything, from optometrists to pharmacists to carpet cleaners. That’s the normal human condition. One of the real reasons that people are not published is that the work isn’t yet good enough. In fact, there’s a lot of very, very ordinary writing published every day. All that being said, the minute I find a student doing something remarkable, I’m going to be the first one on the phone to a publisher or agent. And this is the thing about my ego: I want to be the somebody who helped a writer of talent get to be known, and any teacher wants this. But our job is not to continually call around for all our students. Certainly not. Our job is to teach, and we can do that. But if formed talent crosses our path, then of course we’re going to do everything we can to help it see the light of day. And New York, for that reason, is a really good place to go to school. And this is not just true of Hunter but of Columbia and the New School and NYU. Your teachers will not only have a relationship with their editor, their agent, but with a whole rack of people who are part of the publishing life of the city. We’re living at publishing headquarters so we’re very well placed to help students of talent.
Rail: Besides mediocrity, what are some of the obstacles that stand in a writer’s way these days?
Carey: How about not writing enough and not reading enough? [Laughs.] Look, when you consider the people who do get published and have a career, what you see is Willpower. Lack of will and lack of drive and lack of energy are the greatest obstacles to getting published. And yes, it’s a very, very, very hard time to be published. People in publishing may well disagree with me, I’m not an expert in publishing, but my sense of how publishers looked at me in my twenties is that they were relatively patient. They didn’t pay too much, but they weren’t going to throw me away. They were expecting my second or third or fourth book to be the One, so their commitment was for the long term and they were planning to grow a writer. My sense—and perhaps I’m wrong—is that publishers often pay a lot of money for a new writer and then…it’s merciless. If the first book doesn’t do well they’re disappointed, and they maybe don’t even want the second book. Writers grow, and in an ideal relationship there will be a relationship between a writer and an editor and a publishing house and that will continue. I think another obstacle to a literary life in this country is the demise of the independent bookstore. Or of booksellers who will have opinions. You’ve got a big bookstore, well that’s like a big grocery chain. You have smart, well-read buyers, but they’re buying for everybody and when the book gets out on the floor it is not necessarily going to be known or loved by the clerks who work there. Of course there are some amazing booksellers working for the big chains, but one seems to meet them less and less frequently. In my idealized view there’d be a whole lot of little booksellers and they’d all have opinions and they’d all be reading new writers. And that still happens of course, but there should be more of them, and they should be passionately pushing young writers, “hand selling” them, introducing new work to new readers. And the great booksellers are a blessing, but there are just fewer and fewer of them. So that’s a serious obstacle, but you and I can’t do anything about that. Nor can we do anything about publishing corporations becoming divided between the creatives and the suits. I would if I could but I can’t. If you start to look too much at the obstacles to being published, you just decide, “Go home, don’t even think of it.” It’s just like being an Australian writer in 1964. Who was ever going to publish you in New York, or London? But writers are not like that. We’re pigheaded and so I think the best advice is, if you’re brave enough, or stupid enough, put your life and your energy and all of your passions into doing it. Write. Every day.
Rail: This lack of hand selling books, do you think it’s had a large impact on the quality of the literature out there?
Carey: There’s always mediocrity out there. We can’t really say that it’s a new condition. You can only tell that you’ve lived through a wonderful period [of fiction writing] when you look back on it. Sometimes I look back on the British Commonwealth fiction in the ’80s and I think there was a certain period there when year after year there were wonderful books: Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Russell Hoban and many others, and it was such a rich period. And afterwards you look back and think, “Holy shit that was just amazing.”
We might even be in a wonderful period now in American literature, but it’s very hard to see. I was thinking about this recently, and thinking about the younger generation of American writers and how they’re not afraid to deal with emotion. I was re-reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, really moving, lovely stories. And then there’s Franzen, and Jonathan Safran Foer. I sort of feel like something quite wonderful might be happening right now in American literature. We might only appreciate that when it’s over. We have this tendency to whine like I’m whining to you about the terrible state of bookselling and how bad everything is and how it used to be better, and then you suddenly look at what you can read and what’s being written and published right now, and, well, it’s not so bad.
JAMES MCCLOSKEY is an author and co-founder of the Street to Home Initiative.