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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