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Peter Carey is not the kind of writer who knows where a story is going when he starts it, and his newest book, The Chemistry of Tears, is evidence of that. He began by thinking about the internal combustion engine, briefly entertained the idea of how aliens might use it to destroy the Earth, noodled around with "something involving a car dealership in Victoria" (Carey's parents ran a GM dealership in Australia, where he grew up), and ended up producing a heart-rending meditation on grief, love and time.

Engines still factor in, as does the BP oil spill, along with clocks; a silver swan automaton; the science referred to in the title (tears produced by emotion have a different chemical makeup than those produced merely for lubrication); and a debate across two centuries between, as Carey puts it, "a humanist/rationalist who doesn't believe in the soul or god, but does believe in the amazing wonder of the body, and the beautiful torture and joy of time and life," and a mystic who believes that humans are as unaware of what life really is as "blowflies buzzing against stained glass are of a cathedral."

But such is the nature of Carey's skill that all the disparate, generous, sometimes perplexing, sometimes thrilling facts and ideas that he throws into his newest book never overwhelm the perfectly human story of Catherine, a clockworks expert at a staid British museum who tries to assuage her lonely grief after the sudden death of her married lover of 13 years by researching and restoring an intricate silver automaton in the shape of a swan. (Carey will discuss the book at Toronto's Metro Research Library on Monday as part of the Luminato arts festival.)

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"I've always worked like that," he said recently, sitting at the dark wood dining table in his New York apartment. "Where a book starts from will be an idea. What matters to me when it's finished are the characters, and the feelings of the characters."

Clearly, his method works. Carey, 69, is one of only two novelists to have won the Booker Prize twice (the other is J.M. Coetzee) – first in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda, then for 2001's True History of the Kelly Gang. And his fourth-floor apartment, in one of those gorgeously filigreed buildings that rise above the shopping Disneyland of SoHo, is not exactly the garret of a starving artist. It's reached by a private elevator whose doors open into his living/dining room, which features soaring ceilings, a wall of windows, another wall of bookshelves with a rolling ladder, and a serene composition of modern furniture and paintings.

About that elevator. To be more accurate, it opens onto a lacquered white security door into which holes of various shapes and sizes have been cut, through which Carey can peer to assess whether to admit a visitor. He lets me in graciously – "Talking about a book is a lot better than writing one," he says – but the expression on his face remains wary for a long while. He speaks softly and rapidly, often uttering two or three half-sentences in succession as his brain rushes ahead of his mouth.

Trying to fathom how a writer works can be a fruitless exercise, but Carey is clear about his process: a lot of thought, a whole lot of research, and then a careful construction of character and argument. "I'm an unreliable witness of my own endeavours," he says, "but perhaps the best way to understand the journey of a novel is to imagine you're setting off to trek into the woods, and you're going to cross a series of ridges and valleys. Because you've got your compass, you know you're going to arrive at the top of every ridge. But you don't know quite what animals and trees you're going to discover in the valleys, or what sort of route you'll have to cut up the side of the hills.

"Writing a novel always takes me beyond myself, or what I think I know," he continues. "But a book is not an essay or a lecture. I just hope it's a rather well-shaped, mysterious work of art."

Carey's career had a similarly winding start. He studied science for a year in Melbourne, then worked as an advertising copy-writer from the early 1960s to the end of the 1980s, eventually opening his own agency. (No, he says, it was nothing like Mad Men.)

His colleagues were all writers or painters on the side, and introduced him to Joyce, Beckett, Faulkner. "Having read nothing, knowing nothing, I decided in 1962 that writing was what I was going to do," he says. "Everybody else thought I was an advertising copywriter, but I knew who I was." His first book of short stories came out in 1974, "which I think is about how long it [a writer's formation] should take."

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Along the way, he married and divorced twice, lived in England and in an artists commune, and had two children. In 1990, almost on a whim, he moved to the United States to teach writing, first at New York University, and currently in the highly selective program at Hunter College (six students are admitted every year, from a pool of 450 applicants, and the teachers are well-regarded writers, including Nathan Englander and Claire Messud.) He is now married to British publisher Frances Coady, to whom his latest book is dedicated.

Yet one notion, held by some would-be novelists, makes Carey sneer: that one writes to express oneself. "I hope that I might ultimately reveal something, yes, but self-expression is such a tedious idea, such an awful narcissistic, shallow thing," he says. "What's the difference between self-expression and a work of art? I don't know. But I think the artist is going for something a little bit bigger than dancing in front of a mirror."

I ask him what he goes for. "For me," he replies, "it's to go well beyond and above who I am, to find out things I don't know, to make things in beautiful new shapes that have never existed in the world, that people can read again and again and find new things from, and new nourishment, that will, in the midst of confronting darkness, have the insane laughter of hope." He emits a small laugh. "All those sorts of things."

Perhaps he didn't know where he was going when he started that answer, but by the end, he had said something well-shaped and mysterious enough to make one weep.

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