by Rossella Venturi
I am early for the interview and Thomas Keneally is already in the library which is named after him, working at a round table surrounded by hundreds of books. Once held in his home, these books have been moved here because the apartment where he now lives in Manly has no space for them all. It’s Tuesday morning, we are at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in Pitt Street, Sydney, and I am about to interview a ‘National Living Treasure’ for the first time in my life.
Keneally is possibly the most extraordinary and compulsive storyteller Australia has ever had – ‘the Australian Balzac’ according to some. He is a very passionate man, impulsive by his own admission, and telling stories for Tom is such a joy that interviewing him is like waltzing – you can’t stop the conductor. He was brought up in an Irish Catholic working-class family. As a teenager he spent six years at St Patrick’s Seminary but just before becoming a priest in 1960 he dropped out, started writing and has never stopped. Every book has a personal story attached.
He met his wife-to-be, Judith, at a hospital through his first novel, The Place at Whitton, in 1964. He wrote Schindler’s Ark (The Booker Prizewinner in 1982) because of a broken suitcase: he was in Los Angeles in 1980, entered a leather-goods store and its owner, Leopold Pfefferberg, told him, ‘I’ve got a story for you!’. Pfefferberg had been saved from Auschwitz by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler.
Once a week Keneally, aged 82, catches a ferry to Circular Quay and comes to Pitt Street to meet anyone who wants to talk with him about writing, literature, memoir, and even writer’s block. He strongly believes in the magic power of notes. ‘They grow like yeast, and the book rises like a good loaf of bread,’ he says. His new novel, Two Old Men Dying (Penguin) is out this month, and he is already writing at least another two. After having published a book every 12-18 months for nearly fifty years he says, ‘Writing is almost a divine intoxication’. According to Tom his problem is ‘the number of books I have in mind that will remain unwritten’. So discussion of the ‘divine’ seemed a relevant place to begin our interview ...
You often speak about ‘the trascendental joy of writing’. What gives you so much pleasure?
You feel possessed by something bigger than yourself. It is the feeling of moving forward, a world that is in your head, and it’s as if you have gone in the fireplace of God because you are creating things you didn’t know you knew.
Does the subconscious play a big part in writing?
A lot of the great things in good writing come from the part of our mind we are not aware of. We engage it by writing. That’s why I write every day, at least a thousand words. Our subconscious is a museum and a library in which we have all the great stories of humankind – Asian, Celtic, European, gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines – they are all in there. Sometimes people delay writing too long because they feel that something special has to happen, but the something special is likely to happen after they begin writing.
How many pages do you write in an hour?
A thousand words, which is three pages I suppose. I write first thing in the morning, before I speak to anybody. You must make it a priority. Leave me alone until I run out and then I stop. I finish the sentence though. Graham Greene would write 300-600 words. When he got to the bottom of the page, even in the middle of a sentence, he just stopped. He would pick it up the next day
Keneally's latest book Two Old Men Dying is released this month.
"Our subconscious is a museum and a library in which we have all the great stories of humankind"
What are you writing now?
A book about two of Charles Dickens’ children sent to Australia in the 1860s. British gentry sent their children here to remake themselves and the working class shipped them over because they could escape British poverty. Sometimes it worked. David Hill, who used to be chairman of the ABC, was one of those English working class kids. In Great Expectations, Magwitch comes here as a convict and turns into an immensely wealthy man. But most of those British kids were abused and not happy. None of Dickens’ children were very successful and they died relatively young. I am also finishing my history of modern Australians. The third volume gets up to nearly the end of the Vietnam war. I am writing the fourth now and I am afraid it will be written off as very Left-wing.
You don’t look very concerned about that.
We live now in a time when saying that there shouldn’t be homeless people is left wing! To me it’s just human rights but for some politicians we are all mere consumers or clients. We are told that people have to wait for the economy to trickle down, and it doesn’t trickle down at all.
Most of your books move between fact and fiction and are based on an immense work of historical research. Do you do it all on your own?
Mostly. I occasionally use researchers. I have a grandson who is a university student and I am sending him to the Mitchell Library. Research is such great fun, but when you are writing there always comes a time when you have to make up stuff about some person. You must fill the gaps. That’s the area where fiction kicks in. For example, Dickens dies and then his letters are published and some of them say harsh things about the two boys he sent to Australia, but we don’t know what they said to each other. So I fill the gaps, and I am showing one son who is very distressed about his father’s rejection but he only talks about it when he is drunk.
Do you keep researching after you start writing?
I do. You have to be careful not to put too much of it into a novel because you will lose your reader. For Two Old Men Dying I didn’t research that much. It’s about a contemporary man my age, a documentary maker, dying in modern Sydney. But there is another parallel story, another man also dying 42,000 years ago, Mungo Man, the oldest indigenous human remains on the Australian continent, and the first case of our species ritually buried by his fellows. I just researched a bit about the Paleolithic Age.
Which novel has had the biggest influence on you?
Patrick White’s Voss. Patrick showed that art was possible in this enviroment, in Australia, something we’d doubted. My generation was raised thinking literature was happening in another hemisphere where everybody read Thomas Hardy and George Eliot all the time, and that if you wanted to write a novel, you had to have winter in the right time of the year. There were not many publishers here, no strong society of authors, no public lending rights even, and there was a ‘colonial royalty’ so if your book was published by a British publisher and sold in Australia you got less for it than if you had a copy sold in the UK.
In the early ’90s you were one of the founders of the Australian Republican Movement. Do you think Australia will ever become a republic?
We have to, or it will just become too ridiculous. But we have smoothed down the corners of the monarchy. In embassies overseas, increasingly you don’t see the official photo of the Queen, though Tony Abbott brought back the rule that you had to. When you become an Australian citizen you don’t have to take an oath to the monarchy anymore. This was done by blokes like Howard to make the coming of the republic less important, so nobody talks about it anymore. And it worked.
Do you grieve for your characters when they go?
It happened to me with The Daughters of Mars. It is about two nurses on the First World War front. I finished it and I missed the girls. Those two nurses see blood and guts and are able to receive 800-1000 badly injured people over two days and get on with it. Women appear to deal with trauma better than men. Judith, my wife, could become hysterical if my daughter’s room was untidy as it always was, but I saw her handling tough stuff very easily in Africa. I was very disturbed while she was calm.
How did you meet?
My mother was in hospital for an operation and gave her night nurse, Judith, a copy of my first novel The Place at Whitton. It is not a great book but Judith loved it, asked to meet the author and married him a year later. Maybe because we both have convict forebears (laughs). I had a great-great uncle who was Irish, and got ten years for sedition, God bless him. Anyway let me tell you this: if you want to be a writer always try to be kind to your family – their world doesn’t depend on your novel. My granddaughter has a good way of putting it. She is now thirteen and one day while we were walking along the beach she asked me, ‘Why do people we don’t know call you Tom?’. And before I could answer she said with contempt, ‘I know what it is. It’s those books you write’. So try to remain a human being – or at least pretend.
TIPS FROM TOM KENEALLY
Make sure you desire to tell your story. Infatuation with the subject is essential. Always remember your family is a good basis for a novel. You can make enemies by writing it but, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every family is mad in its own way.
Begin. You don’t need an exact plan of your book before you start writing. If in doubt about whether to begin, or take another class or read another book, begin. Don’t worry if you feel you don’t have control over your material. It takes time; it will happen.
Don’t listen to self doubting. You are often stricken by lack of confidence in the middle of a book. If you can’t write, dictate and then transcribe. Dictating is less agonising than writing. Writing a novel is like a relationship – you will have crises. Try not to drink so much you become a boozy writer.