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Photo credit: Elizabeth McCracken
North Melbourne Books: After discovering that his son, the puppet Pinocchio, has been cruelly thrown into the sea, the woodcarver Geppetto desperately tries to find him. He wades out to sea but ends up swallowed whole by a giant fish. Inside the giant fish he discovers a ship, the schooner Maria, and several crates of candles. With the candles slowly running out, he writes his story.
What attracted you to re-writing the story of Pinocchio? Has it always been a favourite?
Edward Carey: I was given a commission to do an exhibition of Pinocchio-themed work by the Collodi foundation for the Parco di Pinocchio in Italy. I read and reread and read the book and I was suddenly struck that Collodi put Geppetto in the sea monster’s belly for two years and says almost nothing about it. I wondered what he would do for all that long time. Geppetto is an artist (he made his son after all) and I began to make the art that I thought he would create in the belly of the shark (it’s a shark in the book). Then it seemed to me - Robinson Crusoe like - it should be his journal as well.
NMB: The Swallowed Man is richly imagined, with lots of strange happenings and curious characters. The section depicting the different women Geppetto has loved during his life is terrific. Where do you find inspiration, or do images and characters come to you naturally?
EC: I sat in the darkness in the corner of our house and tried to think how the old man would sum up his life. I kept thinking that Pinocchio spends much of his book wondering ‘What is a man’ and how he can be one. It seemed to me Geppetto would eventually ask the question ‘Am I still a man’. I tried to imagine his whole life. Collodi - fortunately for me - gives very little information so I felt free to imagine most of it. And to link his life with objects. I’d found small lozenges of wood worn down by the sea, for example, they looked like portrait miniatures and so I painted the loves of Geppetto’s life on the wood.
NMB: The book's story is about the hopeful reunion of a father and son. Do you see the book as having a main theme?
EC: I don’t really think in those terms. But if I had to I suppose I would say, it’s about creating to keep going, it’s about faith, I hope, and resilience, I hope, and family. It could be a portrait of any human in some ways, it just happens to be Geppetto. How do we sum up our lives. How stories - and memories - can keep us going.
NMB: Both your previous novel, Little, based on the life of Madame Tussaud, and The Swallowed Man, deal with the need to create human likenesses in art. From puppets to AI, there's a long history. Is this a subject that preoccupies your thinking much?
EC: If I could paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss, I find dolls and puppets and sculptures good to think with. I carved Madame Tussaud in wood, full size, and this large doll sits at home with us. Pinocchio is perhaps the greatest doll of them all, the wooden toy who longs to be human, I think of him as the patron saint of objects.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
EC: I’ve just finished Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, an amazing memoir. Right now I’m in the last weeks of semester and so there’s not time for much beyond reading student work. But as soon as semester is over I’m going to read The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox and then Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge.
The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $24.99
Photo credit: Karin Locke
North Melbourne Books: Lapsed examines your Catholicism, from devout childhood through to reconstructed adulthood, the journey articulated with an often comic commentary. While the book is playful in tone, there’s a serious struggle that happens throughout as you try to sort out what your Catholic past meant and how it affects you now.
What made you want to write such a book at this time in your life?
Monica Dux: Although I’d stopped believing in God back in my teens, and had long since rejected the Catholic Church, I always felt shadowed by my Catholicism. It was as if being brought up as a Catholic had imprinted something very deeply on my character. When I was researching Lapsed, I often heard people comment that Catholicism is like an ethnicity, or a blood group. Something that’s quite fundamental to your identity – even if you don’t believe a word of it. And that really resonated with me.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. If you ask lapsed Catholics to describe their relationship to their former religion, you rarely get a straightforward answer. There are almost always loads of qualifications, and lingering, ambivalent feelings; feelings that people often struggle to clearly articulate.
It was on a family trip to Rome, when my 6-year-old daughter suddenly declared a desire to be baptised as a Catholic, that I realised just how unresolved my own feelings were. I’d been bringing up my children in a thoroughly secular family, and yet I felt quite confronted by her sudden religiosity, even if it was just a childish whim. My discomfort wasn’t about her wanting to believe in God, but about the Catholic Church itself.
And so I realised that a reckoning with my religious childhood was long overdue. I had a lot of unfinished business with the Church, a lot of anger, and a lot of mixed feelings, so I wanted to figure out exactly what it was all about, and what it means today to be a lapsed/former/recovering/ex Catholic.
NMB: The chapters to do with paedophilia in the church are quite impassioned. Do you see these crimes and their cover-up as making the institution irredeemable, for yourself at least?
MD: Yes, I do. I approached this book with an open heart. I wanted to look at the light and the dark of my Catholic childhood, and weigh it all up, but when I researched Church abuse, the darkness stained all the rest of it, spoiling all the good parts. For me, it became impossible to separate the crimes of the Church from everything else that comes with the Catholic institution. I started to realise how little effort the Church has made to rectify the profound trauma that has been inflicted, and how devastating and unspoken so much of that trauma is – both individually and collectively.
It struck me that all of us who were brought up in the Catholic Church are so closely connected to church abuse, even if we don’t have a personal experience of it. I didn’t want to write a book telling people what to think or believe, but I did want to explain my own journey and how I came to my conclusions. I think that, uncomfortable as it is, it’s important for lapsed Catholics to examine their relationship to their former religion in light of the Church’s history and response to child sexual abuse. Because it’s not enough, to simply pretend that it isn’t relevant to you, just because you’ve stopped going to mass.
NMB: Your close relationship with your brother Matt is lovely to read about. He came out as gay at about the same time you were claiming your own sexual independence. How much did the relationship help you when growing up?
MD: My brother was such a wonderful companion when I was a child. We used to sing at the piano together as kids, and I think those moments were among the happiest of my childhood.
He is a year older than me, and I completely adored him when we were growing up. And when it came to our relationship to the Church, we were both on a similar journey. Catholic ideas about sex and sexuality are especially constrictive, and we both felt that quite keenly, in our different ways.
I was very lucky to have his support while I was working on Lapsed. We share a lot of memories, but he was very clear in allowing me to own mine, to write my book, even though so much of it intersected with his life. Which isn’t an easy thing to do, when you’ve got your own story to tell.
NMB: There’s a hilarious episode in the book where you decide to scandalise your school. For a health presentation you dress up as a condom to instruct on the importance of safe-sex. Has the same trouble-making ethic followed you through life?
MD: My son thinks I am very embarrassing and that I am a habitual line crosser, doing extreme, provocative things, and advocating openness about matters of sex, in a way that horrifies a teenager, at least when it’s coming from his mum! So if you asked him, I’m sure he’d agree that the condom dress-up was an early manifestation of that.
You have to be prepared to be a bit of a trouble-maker if you want to write the kind of non-fiction that I’m attempting. Pulling punches, shying away from difficult subjects because you are scared of how it will be received, trying to sugar coat difficult ideas, none of that makes for good, honest writing.
It isn’t easy, of course. I spent a lot of time while I was writing this book, thinking about my responsibility as a writer, versus my fear of upsetting people. It can be a high wire act.
On many occasions I’ve woken in the middle of the night thinking, “oh dear, what have I done!”…but it’s too late to take it back now!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
MD: I recently finished Hamnet, which I loved. Such a gentle, graceful rumination on grief. I adored the way Maggie O’Farrell has re-imagined Anne Hathaway. My last few years have been so consumed with reading about Church history, and theology and Jesus (occasionally very dry, but usually a lot of fun), it’s often felt like there wasn’t much time for anything else. But now I’m heading into a complete Jesus-Free zone. I’m especially looking forward to reading Kazuo Ishuguro’s Klara and the Sun, and Emily Maguire’s latest novel Love Objects.
Lapsed, by Monica Dux. Published by ABC Books. $34.99
Release date 7th April