Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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I notice at the beginning of 'Schindler's Ark' there's a very elaborate acknowledgement of your sources, more so than you'd normally expect in a book like that. Is there any reason for it?

Yes it was because in the mid to late '70s, I forget the exact year it might have been 1977 I was accused of plagiarism in relation to a story set in Yugoslavia during the Partisan era. I'd spent some months in a house that belonged to a fellow who'd been a young English doctor amongst the Partisans in World War II and there was a pre-existent book by a man I think called Bill Strutton. And I um - based on talking to the doctor in the house and reading Strutton's book I wrote my book.

And I was accused of plagiarism. And I don't know whether - I've never gone back and read the two texts because the accusation is the worst accusation any writer can get. Um, but I certainly didn't want to have a long trial on the issue so I did settle as fast as I could. My, the - I'd already written a number of books without any such accusation and the idea that I would deliberately violate another person's copyright and steal their words was the worst that - and it was - if there was any truth in it then I was not consciously guilty.

And so I - my reaction was - it was very [sic] grievous time - it's a, it's [sic] happens to a lot of writers and it's a period of - it is 'A Season In Purgatory' is the title of the book calls it [sic]. But my reaction was, "Okay I've written a number of books to which no accusation attaches um, and now I'll prove I'm not a plagiarist by writing umpteen more books, which ..." However one of the things that journalists said to me at the time, "Why didn't you acknowledge Strutton's book in an author's note?"

And so I thereafter studiously mentioned sources, even sources that might have been, whose copyright had, had passed. And that's, that's not entirely why I mention all those people and sources at the start of Schindler. I did want to acknowledge the living survivors who had given me information. I did want to acknowledge the staff of the Yad Vashem who had put up with Poldek telling them that we were going to take documents home and photocopy them. But certainly whenever I've had a heavy reliance on a book of non-fiction I always mention it.

'A Season in Purgatory' was a work of fiction, when you write fiction set in an historical period you often read background non-fiction works. What is the protocol for acknowledgement?

I don't - this is one of the problems, I don't think the protocol is absolutely fixed but it is obviously the very safest thing a writer can do if there's been a heavy reliance upon the material rather than on the words, I mean the accusation was that there was a similarity of words, my argument was that of course if you're telling the same story there will be a similarity of words. But that was never resolved. Thank God. I am delighted that argument was never held, you know and in - because it is easy to prove to the public plagiarism by saying in A's book you've got this incident and in B's book you've got this incident, thus B must have stolen it from A.

It's an accusation easily, and in some cases falsely, proven to the public very - with great facility. Um, so I think if you do rely heavily on information it's, it is a courtesy to mention it. But you know every writer like every university student writing a thesis enters - well they instruct university students now very clearly on what copyright is and how to acknowledge things. But you know you can overestimate the writer's understanding of the law of copyright. He learns the law of copyright as he goes along particularly by grievous experiences like this.

What did you feel when the first accusation came up? I mean what were your own personal internal thoughts about it?

Well I thought that the accusations didn't take into account the fact that I'd, I didn't need to take anyone's material in an illicit way because I'd already written a lot of books. The idea was that I'd gone out and plundered because I wasn't, I was, you know, too lazy to get my own material. But most writers who have written a number of books don't operate in that way.

Did you only use that book as your source? I mean did you talk to this, to this man about whom the book had been written and whose ...

Yes. Yes I did.

And did he give you an account of his time there?

He gave me accounts of what it had been like and the extreme and improbable conditions under which he'd operated and so on.

Can you remember whether you were using what he'd told you or what you'd read in the book? What I'm really trying to say is ...

Yes I was certainly using what I'd read in the book. But my belief I was using it licitly. The way you say if you're writing a book on the French Revolution you would read, you would use Schama's great book on the French Revolution citizens. There are legal - and of course you'd mention the pages you'd quoted from later. Even if you'd put them in your own words you'd credit them. And um, I learnt about that crediting process in the, you know, in - the learning curve was very steep from then on.

At the time there were critics in Australia, writers who were sort of politically opposite to you, who were delighted that they had an opportunity to ... to have a go at you on something as grievous as plagiarism. Um, what was your - did they make any marks? Did they land any punches on you as a person at the time?

Well of course it - they did but I um, I feel that the only vengeance is to not go away, ultimately. I've tried other vengeances like face-to-face confrontation and so on. None of that, there's nothing you can do except the long and slow response of writing another book, which doesn't suit an impetuous nature like mine. But ultimately it's the only response not to be, well not to say, not to be silenced is a melodramatic sort of writer under Stalinism statement. But we, we all, there is such a thing as um, people who adopt a role in any literary community of being the arbiters.

And often their - sometimes their arbitration is based on politics. But it was interesting about that time it didn't affect the Governor-General Sir John Kerr from offering me a Commander of the British Empire, which I of course politely declined. So fortunately it did pass. But I was very careful from that point on.

What did you choose to be your next book?

Boy I wish I knew.

Actually I'm trying to remember. I mean what I'm saying that in the course of your work you've done novels which were historically based and you've done novels that weren't historically based and you've also done non-fiction. I was just wondering whether in your answer to these you had any particular kind of choice to make about which of those genre you'd choose.

No I was - I was not influenced by the experience as to what subject matter, I just went on as I continued - I just continued as I'd begun. There's another pattern in my writing other than the alienation, post-alienation period. It is a typically Australian pattern in this sense that I begin with Australia then I go overseas and try to work out the Armistice and events like Antarctic expeditions and events such as the war in Yugoslavia. And then I increasingly return to Australia and my work through um, 'A Family Madness' and 'Woman of the Inner Sea' and so on. 'Bettany's Book', um, a book that I'm writing at the moment, which will be out by the time any one looks at this, 'An Angel in Australia'.

So I've done what your average Aussie backpacker does is, you know, start here, go away, look back at Australia from that distance and try to interpret it. Um, even through the lens of the Armistice. And then largely return home with an occasional overseas vacation.

And even when you go overseas for your subject matter you usually have somewhere in it a link with back home don't you?

Yes. A non-fiction book I wrote recently about an extraordinary American scoundrel called Sickles. The reason I wrote the book 'American Scoundrel' was to attack the conservative idea that there was some golden age in which um, decent values prevailed, there were no special interests and um, values were rock solid. This is a proposal put up by many of our politicians too that there was a golden, a golden age. They forget that it was pre-antibiotic. They forget that it was characterised by child labour and child prostitution and galloping tuberculosis.

By um, marriages which were inescapable but were often marked by economic want and misery. Um, and they want us to return to this world of unsupervised venality and rampant social disease and tuberculosis, you know. And I've never wanted to go back there. Um, and I think any Australian listening to this would be able to nominate the politicians who beat the traditional values drum, you know. I think what they're really saying is that everyone goes to church and they don't wash their dirty linen in public.

Ah and - that is, they're hypocrites. And there is a connection between Dan Sickles and his extraordinary career of having killed his wife's lover and then redeemed himself through the Civil War and through his association with Lincoln. But his wife, his young brilliant wife never being able to redeem herself. Not even being permitted to visit the sick and the widows and the children. Um, this tale however does derive from the fact that Sickles was a close friend of an escaped Australian convict, an Irish nationalist, Thomas Francis Meagher. A really large figure in world history who of course gets no coverage here at all because he you know, he wasn't a loyalist.

And yet Thomas Francis Meagher was one of the lawyers, this undischarged British convict who escaped from Tasmania, was one of Sickles' lawyers. So there generally is - and a friend of his and a general with him - so there generally is a, some strange submerged Australian reason for writing the book. But I don't say that, I would not for a moment say that a book that doesn't have some Australian connection is verboten and shouldn't be written, because primarily we're members of the human race. We're not Australians. We are homo and mulier sapiens. And um with this overlay of specific experience and specific tribalism which is part of the experience of being Australian.

Tom, when you come across a story like that, what makes you decide whether or not you're going to treat it as fiction, non-fiction or as historically based fiction?

Well I can't, I can't fully answer that but I've got a few clues. I think that fiction is suited to the peripheral figure who's on some interface between two cultures, a fault line between two cultures. There are two cultures rubbing up against each other. Aboriginal or European, Muslim or Christian, um, white or African, white or Aboriginal, and these are lines that are always shaky, you know. And there are always interesting people living and often straddling those lines as Jimmie Blacksmith did, trying to live in two worlds both of which were moving in different directions doing the cultural splits.

And you can tell those stories best, I think, through obscure people. Um, through the obscure aid worker in, in 'To[wards] Asmara' or through the, you know, the wealthy but obscure young mother in 'Woman of the Inner Sea', or through an obscure Jewish, Anglo-Jewish woman in the Female Factory as in 'Bettany's Book'. Ah, there's something about the novel even though Gore Vidal has disproven this point many, many times by writing about captains and kings, writing novels about captains and kings such as 'Lincoln'.

Ah, there's something about the novel that attracts as subject matter people who are the, the subjects of history. People to whom history is happening, people who are obscurer people as in say to quote another writer, Ishiguro, the butler in 'The Remains of the Day'. He is the fascinating study and yet he's not in any history book. And so I tend to think that if it's a big, bursting, complex story involving people who knew Lincoln and commanded armies and were friends of Presidents and so on, something simply tells me that that is better as a kind of new journalism biography.

Not a, not a - the old fussy biographies you know, that begin, "The first Sickles to arrive in the new world was in ...", you know they start in 1653 and they take ten pages to get up to the birth of the subject of the biography. Not that sort of biography but ...

But you apply to biography - those sorts of biographies - your novelist skills and so you arrange it in that way. I'm just interested in why it is that obscure characters straddling two worlds fire your imagination. Could it have anything to do with other themes that preoccupy you when you are in imaginative mode which have to do with moral choice?

Ah, yes. And I think it has to do with my experience as a child was of such people. You know, obscure people who were as, as the old orator said, "Better than their masters and nobler than their lords". You know I was as a child aware of these events occurring to obscure people like my mother and myself and so on, my father. And ah, there is simply - the novel in a strange way exists to exhalt the humble. To take the person who is marginalised in some way and then prove that they're non-marginal.

That they are really a lens through which you can look at a hold [sic], whole age. And so this is the way the novel has worked, the modern novel has worked you know, before Dickens. But Dickens did it too. Take in 'Great Expectations' a very obscure blacksmith's boy. So there's something about novels which doesn't favour captains and kings. Gabriel García Márquez's great novel 'Love In The Time Of Cholera' you know a fairly prominent doctor in a town, but a man of no international or national importance, who is obsessed with a woman.

Um, the novel seems to favour this obscurity. It, it gives, it asserts the humanity of marginal people. And I don't know why that's so but there's too much in the Sickle story to deal with in the, with the intimacy of the novel.

But you were able to do it with 'Joan of Arc'.

Yes that's - well, see this blows my proposition out of the water. But Joan of, Joan of Arc was also a marginal person. You know she was born on the edge of France, she was a peasant's daughter, she was also you'd have to say there were signs of sexual marginalism. And she was also marginal between Christianity and some weird old witchy thing from ancient Europe. And so um, again there are qualities of marginalism to her.

A figure that I think you could put into a novel. I've often thought wouldn't it be great to write a novel about a Rasputin figure who turns up in the White House and has huge psycho-sexual impact upon the President's you know the woman who is married to the man who rules the earth. It's the story of, of course the Tsarina and Rasputin but we have had - in a way Sickles was a slightly Rasputin figure because he used to take Mrs Lincoln to séances. He was trusted by Abe Lincoln to take Mrs Lincoln to séances. And the idea - people in grief will embrace any crazy idea if they're stricken enough and will turn to any crazy man or woman if they're stricken enough. So I think Rasputin could make a novel.

Talking of your American connection, when you wrote 'The Confederates', which was a sort of sprawling American novel, was that inspired by your interest in America or was it as some people suggested at the time with an eye to the American commercial market?

Well if I did have an eye to the American commercial market it only partly worked. But no, 'The Confederates' was actually at one stage described as one of the best novels on the Civil War. It was purely out of interest. And it was purely out of this bloody mindedness of mine that said um, you know, "Why should I be restricted?" If an Englishman writes a novel about, about um the Armenian massacre do people say, "Oh, he should be writing about Shropshire"? If Thornton Wilder writes a novel like 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' set in South America do people say, "Oh why did he? ... obviously he's lost his interest in Ohio and he's trying to go upmarket"?

It is only in places like Australia, because of our developing cultural trend which is at a much healthier stage now than it was, I mean it is well on the way to, it's well on into its therapy. But it's the sort of stuff that you know, Australians used to say. And I think it's crazy. If you examine that statement what it is saying is that anything written about Australia will not sell, which 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' had already disproven to be untrue in America. And which as I say the novels of um, Peter Carey demonstrate to be untrue.

You've relished in your fiction imaginatively placing yourself in a position of people from cultures very, very different from your own. But you, and you did that in many people's view including many indigenous people's view very successfully with 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. More recently you've said that you don't feel you should have done it with Jimmie.

Well I, my position is that I was young and reckless and we weren't as culturally sensitive then and there weren't as many Aboriginal writers visible as there are now. Now one would not dare do it I think for this reason that um, generally unless you're part of a culture it is hard to put yourself in another culture. I don't say that you shouldn't do it and there are many good books that show it can be done, but I felt that if I was writing 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' now I would not pursue[sic], I would not presume to put myself in the mind of a tribalised half-Aboriginal half-European.

Because I would have now tell [sic] the story from the point of view of an observer. And very deliberately some years later I wrote a novel about a white manager of an Aboriginal dance troupe. And very few people saw that it was connected with 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' because I was, I was in that situation talking about the impact of observing the dance troupe on a white man. And that's the way I would have done 'The Chant' now. And there are so many splendid Aboriginal writers around now, Leah Purcell and so on, that you, I would - it's simply a matter of courtesy.

But ... but there are many splendid women writers around now but that didn't stop you writing from a woman's point of view. There are many splendid American writers around but that didn't stop you writing from an American's point of view. Do you feel given that you want to embrace the humanness of everybody that Aborigines somehow or other are outside that?

I think Aboriginals have been so mistreated that they warrant our cultural courtesy. I'm not a ...

You don't consider it a cultural courtesy though to enter into trying to imagine what it must be like to have been in the position of Jimmie?

That's right. I, well, I mean it was a well-meaning intention at the time but I wouldn't do it now because of the stage we've reached and the - I mean when I began to understand a little, a fragment about the Aboriginal cosmology, the planet, there are two planets Australia. There's the Aboriginal planet and the European planet which is partly stuff we brought with us. And they are getting closer and closer through goodwill on and generosity on the Aboriginal side and on and I hope on our side.

But this world of which the much criticised and equally criticised writer for writing about Aboriginal things, Bruce Chatwin, he spoke about Australia as a, a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys expressed in geologic terms. I think the people who can best do that, I think we're still on the way to finding out exactly what that, those Iliads and Odysseys are. And I think that should be left to the emergent Aboriginal writers. So I think that I don't have the same responsibility to other nations.

But again you notice that I don't presume when writing about Eritrea, Fred Hollows' country of the heart I suppose and to an extent my country of the heart. Um, I don't write from the point of view of Eritreans. I've lost the sort of bikie confidence I had in 1970, the early 1970s to do that. But on the other hand I'm not in favour of rules that say men shouldn't try to write from the point of view of women, that, you know, one culture shouldn't try to write from the point of view from another culture. I don't think there are any rules. I think, or if there are, they're the sort of rules that are there to provide a creative spark in the direction of their violation.

Um, so um, the American culture is, is very close to Australian culture with some remarkable, remarkable defining differences, so - but we are Europeans you see so we all know what we're into, real estate, marriage, um politics. You know we're all into the same stuff because we are European derived. And it's much easier to write about people who are European derived than it is um - I would be very reckless I think to write from the point of view of Latin American writers living in the US, some of whom I know and respect greatly including the person who said what they call magic realism is only magic realism because their dead don't appear to them. And they don't have visions. And they - but this is all normal stuff to us.

But Tom, one of the great pleasures of your work comes from the fact that you have been very much drawn to the different.

Ah, yes indeed. And again that was with women. I - through having daughters and through having worked my way into a successful marriage - what is now and has been for many years a successful marriage - I became fascinated with that difference in similarity. It is interesting to me that we make such a wall out of male and female. And one of the by-products of feminism, of which I approve, I approve of feminism, but one of the by-products was to accentuate the difference.

But fellas had it, good old Aussie sexists had it anyhow. As my old man used to say, "Queer cattle, the sheilas", in his unreconstructed full-flowering Aussie sexism, a man of his age. Now um, I think the difference is enormous, but I think it's also very close. And yet when I, I heard from a woman in America to whom it had happened. The story of 'Woman of the Inner Sea' which is the story of a young woman who is wealthy and privileged who then loses her two children in an unspecified way and is so full of self-blame and self um, self-doubt that she goes into the centre of Australia and tries to make herself even on a cellular level into another woman.

She used to eat pasta and um, wholegrain bread, here she eats steak and white bread with lashings of butter. And she is accompanied of course by this totemic kangaroo called Chifley and she is an ally of a dynamiter called Jelly and so on. Now the capacity to write about loss from a woman's point of view was something, I delay- ... I thought you can't do that. And indeed if you do you know, I was afraid I suppose like everyone of Germs, of Germaine Greer, perhaps through viewing it and damning to hell.

But ultimately I increasingly began to realise that men and women are the same sort of poor pilgrims on this earth and also to suspect that without any scientific evidence that everything men needed to be women was already laid down before that Y chromosome kicked in. And similarly everything women needed to be men, if the chromosome went the other way was implanted too. And then once the chromosome decided the direction, well there certainly were psychological tendencies which went in different directions.

But that there was femininity in men and masculinity in women to varying degrees. But the femininity in us got cemented over by, you know, playing rugby league and being blokes. And so I've always, I had a - began to have a suspicion that psychically if you release that, that part of yourself which fiction does release, the process of fiction releases information that you didn't know you knew, the process of writing fiction. Um, it certainly releases what you knew you knew but it releases all sorts of material you didn't know you know.

And so ultimately I bit the bullet and wrote 'Women of the Inner Sea' and I've never stopped writing from the point of women since. No one has chastised me yet for it.

Well you used to write about women but rather less well and you've just explained why.

Ah yes. Well we all grow. It's funny though that people think, and I suppose they do it with politicians too, people think that something you said when you were in your twenties you still believe.

What drew you to Africa?

Well ah, I was interested in the question of whether famine is produced by drought or politics. Famine when it occurs has to be attended to because the people suffering from it are innocents. But is it an act of God or is it an act of politics? And someone said to me, "You ought to meet this Eritrean bloke that Fred Hollows knows". I mean this is a special case of politics and famine. And that's how it began. It's very rarely that a book begins with an idea - is famine caused by politics or by, by God? And it's - I've never had another book that began with a concept and then worked from the concept up.

But, are we running out of time?

No you can - you've got time to tell me about Eritrea.

So Eritrea proved to be a remarkable lost country ignored like the dark side of the moon, for obvious reasons that there were no telephones, there was no fax you could send out. And it was relatively difficult to get into from Khartoum to Port Sudan and then by truck into Eritrea. You could only travel at night, you could not send despatches out. It was like, a little bit like nineteenth century travel, but the point was all aid agencies were impressed with what the Eritreans were doing. And I wanted to see that operation first hand.

And how did that translate into fiction for you?

Well I - again, this novel was written as a story. The story is all but it did have a political purpose and books that have a political purpose are dangerous because the politics can swamp the um, the veins, the arteries of the narrative.

Some critics have said that that's true of, of 'To[wards] Asmara'. Did you - what did you feel about it?

I think they only said that because it's a passionate book and they're not used to passionate books. You know, the, I don't come from say the Anita Brookner end of fiction. It was certainly a passionate book but it was a just book because a war was raging that everyone was ignoring and it was an unjust war.

Did it make a difference politically?

Well when - one of the proudest things, times I've been proudest to be a writer was when Eritrea got its independence, and this is a very boastful statement but all the UN observers for the referendum had to read 'To[wards] Asmara'. And the Eritreans would take it round to politics [sic], politicians in Washington and give it to them. [END OF TAPE]

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