Creative Grocery List: An Evening With Peter Carey and Josip Novakovich

little wooden man with veggiesI have a very unwriterly reason for having a soft spot for Peter Carey: my godmother was a fervent fan of his.

I remember a wonderful visit with her years ago in her little house (oh how I loved her royal blue bathtub and loo), listening to her talk in great excitement over tea and cake about “this marvelous new Australian writer” and his newly published first novel “Oscar and Lucinda.”

So when I heard the two-time Booker Prize winner was coming to Montreal to discuss “the writing of inspiration” with Globe and Mail’s Arts Editor Jared Bland at Concordia University, how could I not go? Especially as they were to be joined by Booker short-listed author Josip Novakovich, the master, I discovered last year, of the art of hilarious-but-serious anecdotes.

How to begin

PC – Give a list of ideas, thoughts, questions to yourself…I set up something I don’t know how to do. I like taking a risk. I know I’m going to be pathetically anxious… it will keep me alive…you have to stretch to find something you don’t know.

Planning the story

PC – If I know the story, I would be bored. …you know the line of the story… that he has to go up the ridge, but you don’t know what’s going to happen on the way… It’s a messy business.

Inventing characters

PC – It’s magical to invent characters. They’re real to me.

Hating your character

PC – if you hate your character, it stops your reader understanding them

“Stranger’s eye”

JN – “stranger’s eye”: things that look normal – if you look at them, they become strange. Be a “perpetual foreigner.” As a stranger you see things you wouldn’t see [if you lived there and were used to them]. See the strangeness of things.

Become a magpie

PC – Be a magpie. Pick up something…use it in a different way

JN – Robert Rauschenberg – a sock dropped on the floor becomes something else

Focus on detail

JN – Stay with sentences and scenes, stay in meditative state. Detail. Detail. Observation.

Making a living

PC – Making a living has nothing to do with writing. Nothing is going to stop people wanting to tell stories.


PC – I sit and work. I keep on going in the belief I’ll find my way through inertia.

JN – You start on something and suddenly have ideas.


JN – One [story] out of ten might be finished. “Not all of them deserve to live”

Grocery list

Asked how they used their creativity in everyday life: “I don’t,” said Peter Carey right off the bat. Then he relented. Creativity, he said, is a touchstone in every part of our lives. “You can do it in a grocery list.”

I so liked the idea of a “creative grocery list” that as soon as I got home, I wrote one.

Do try it. Don’t worry about a story. Just write a creative grocery list!


The Thinking Out Loud conversation series “The Creative Process” was organized by Concordia University and The Globe and Mail. You can listen to the conversation here.




4 thoughts on “Creative Grocery List: An Evening With Peter Carey and Josip Novakovich

  1. I’m a big fan of ‘the stranger’s eye’ too. I remember with fondness my first experiences and impressions of certain places and foods, and wish I could return to them physically. I like to try to write my essays/memoir pieces from a place that’s both strange and familiar at once. Not easy.

    ‘One [story] out of ten might be finished. “Not all of them deserve to live”’ — A great point, but one that is not always easy to apply. I should go delete a few files now…


    • Maybe deleting those files is going a bit too far! Why not just let them gather dust for a while – you never know, you might pick them up in two years’ time and suddenly see exactly what you should do with them. That’s what I tell myself, and that’s why I have oodles of files lingering on my hard drive!!


  2. Great snippets of advice here! I particularly liked:
    See the strangeness of things.
    Making a living has nothing to do with writing.
    And, last but not least: I keep on going in the belief I’ll find my way through inertia.
    Sometimes life is like that.
    Thanks, Susi!


    • Yes, I loved ‘stranger’s eye’ too. Neither of the authors live in their country of origin (Josip Novakovich is from Croatia, Peter Carey from Australia) so they are probably especially aware of this. For me, the ‘stranger’s eye’ is one of the great delights of traveling. I was thinking this morning though about my return visits to the UK (where I lived through my childhood and school years) and realizing after all these years away, that I have more a stranger’s eye there than here in Canada…although this new Canada with its governmental changes in politics, attitudes and ‘esprit’ feels sadly strange too!


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