Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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You said that novels or books vary rarely start with a theme. How do they start, for you?

Oh, with a story, with a young woman telling me about what it was like to lose her children. Ah, with - a novel I've always wanted to write but I've postponed it because of the urgency of the times we live in. Um, I read that Charles Dickens had two boys whom he sent to Australia. And they were supposed to come because they were to do a Magwitch, as in 'Great Expectations' so had become landed gentry, Australian style.

They were boys who were, liked racing and cricket and were no good at the classics and geometry. So it's a -given that we're, Australians are all ah, either the dumb children of the gentry or economic refugees or convicts. It's a wonder we can use a knife and fork. But it is a glorious triumph for us. Ah, but this idea of Australia as the oubliette into which um, Europeans disappeared. I notice even on television, on British soapies or British crime shows they say, "Ah, does the deceased have relatives?" "Oh a sister in so and so and a sister in Australia." That means a sister in Australia means as good as dead.

So even in Ackroyd's great biography of Dickens um, Ackroyd doesn't pursue the boys who come to Australia. Um, because Australia is this mass into which ... I'm sorry I'm just going to wipe my eye ... Australia is this netherworld into which Europeans descend and enough said. So Australian literature of course has all been about defining that void called Australia. And I would love to write about the two Dickens boys and their struggles. One of them was less than seventeen when he arrived at the station where he was to be a roustabout, eighty kilometres north of Wilcannia in 1868.

He was five days short of his seventeenth birthday so he is the antipodean version of many of um, of Dickens' English heroes - obscure boys who aren't as gifted as many of those around them. And there was a time when Trollope's son and the two Dickens were members of the Wilcannia cricket club. And one can imagine them all padded up ready to bat. They've just bowled. And they're sitting round discussing their fathers' work. And discussing ideas that they might have sent their father in, for colonial, novels about colonial matters ah, late in their life.

Now there's a novel in that. As soon as I read that Dickens had two sons, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens and Alfred [d'Orsay] Tennyson Dickens in Australia. I - something said you've got to write about this. This is 'Orpheus in the Underworld'.

Tom I have to think that they failed for you still to be so interested in them.

Oh yes. This is a very interesting thing - our passion for failure, isn't it, for poignant failure. Um, that is very Australian. I think we get it from the people of northern England who are used to valiant failure. From the Scots who are used to mythic failure - look at bonnie Prince Charlie. As well of course as acquiring real estate, they're used to mythic failure. And from the Irish who have had no choice but to glorify failure for the last eight hundred years. And ah, but the - I say in the introduction to 'Schindler' that fiction generally concerns itself with the predictable failure of grandeur or moral grandeur against the forces of history.

And these boys only failed because they came too late. They were industrious and they were - or industrious enough. Um, but they were restricted to land beyond the Darling, which was rabbit infested and drought stricken and yet they tried to live like English squires. And, and well Australia ...

Now we have got off the track and I'll have to pull us back, because the question that I asked was what do you begin with? And you said usually it's with a story. And then you thought of a story that you wanted to illustrate that with ...

And that I went on too long.

Now is it, is - when you say it's usually a story, for you is that always the case? And is it a story that's told to you or you come across in a book or is it ever one that you just imagine out of nothing?

Sometimes it's one I get from my reading. But most commonly it's a story I hear and then research. Some - one interesting trigger for a book called 'A River Town' which is about my immigrant grandparents in 1900 in Kempsey. There is a picture upstairs in this house of my grandfather's store in East Kempsey which still stands and it was taken on a day in 1911, you can see that the butchers [sic] next door has gone around and got his horse and he's sitting on his horse ready for this plate that is going to be taken and the photographer is saying "Nobody move". And my father is sitting on the step as a four year old kid and ah, my aunt's upstairs and my grandfather is on the balcony.

But um, the, the banner on the store says 'K. Keneally General Store'. Now my father [sic], grandfather's name was Tim, his wife was K for Kit- ... Katie. She was a little dumpling efficient woman and she, her name was on the store. And I've always wondered why that's so and I interviewed my father about it and got some ideas from him. And what it did to their love life, they had nine kids, but why does it say K. Keneally instead of T. Keneally? Well the whole ah, novel of 'A River Town' explains that change of initial. It is to explain that change of initial. And this as a source of ideas is not uncommon.

Some novelists use character. Have you ever used a character?

Ah, one could, let me see. Not as the primary trigger, no. Not as the primary trigger. Although I've often been tempted to write a little book about my friend Leopold Page, Poldek Page, who was such an overpowering character.

The source of, of Schindler?

Yes the man who told me about Schindler.

But normally for you it's story that, that wins out.

Yes it's a story, a situation ...

But then there's also often in your novels a very strong theme, a very strong idea, an issue, a political position. Does that come later?

That, yes that comes later. That simply imposes itself. I tend to look on people as political creatures. It's part of their - everyone is a political creature to a greater or lesser extent. And in different ways. The way everyone's a moral creature and everyone has poetic ideas and everyone wants peace and justice and an ability to raise their kids, you know. These are - the politics comes automatically out of the story. But I suppose I've got a considerable interest in the politics of the story. Um, but not for their own sake, for the sake of the story. For the sake of the story.

So that in, again to talk about 'River Town' you've got people who are for or against the um, Boer War. And this is a great divide both in 'A River Town' and in 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. And I had experience of that during the Vietnam era when there was a similar divide in Australia. And it was a very serious - again a fault line. You could, you see love across the fault line, whether it be fraternal love or a romantic and erotic love is always a story. There's always a story in that. The um, the white woman who falls in love with the Aboriginal or vice versa, the English paratrooper who falls in love with a paddy girl in Belfast, which is a novel I haven't written but there are many novels about that.

Ah, the um, Caucasian who marries the Muslim or the Christian who marries the Muslim, it's a - it's these heroic gestures which contradict conditioning ah, which are interest me [sic], obscurely heroic. And I suppose I've always been - the seminary gave me I suppose what you'd call a gutful of conditioning. So I've always been interested in people who despite their conditioning go in a different direction.

You talked to us earlier about the change that occurred in the mood of your writing somewhere at the beginning of the '70s when, which you felt was matched by the change of mood in Australia from one of alienation, a little bit of despair, a sort of downbeat view of life to a celebratory one.


And you started writing celebratory sort of novels. One of the things that's striking when you look at that divide is that themes or subject matter that you used in that earlier darker stage, you revisited.

Yes to put a new spin on it. Yes.

So you mentioned 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. Now with 'Flying Hero Class' it wasn't just the point of view of the narrator that changed, it was the whole mood of the thing, wasn't it?

Yes um ...

And there were other examples of that. Does - does that strike you?

Ah, yes. Um, in 'Bettany's Book' for example there's a rather different view of the tragedy of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. There's a group - Bettany is a pastoralist and there's a group of people whom he calls the Moth people who come up from down around Canberra, where Canberra is now, in the spring to eat the Bogong moth, which is supposed to be like a sort of an animated protein bag from which you pluck the wings and they taste like a combination of chicken and cashew. Not that I've ever - I'm merely reporting what early settlers said.

And these people are, are - you know they're going to be destroyed by the pastoral ah, enterprise of young Bettany. And he tries to be kindly, you know. He reports an Aboriginal massacre by a neighbouring pastoralist. And it's a terrible massacre. And yet um even he, even he being a conscientious Englishman from Tasmania ah, by his very heroism and expectation he is also a blight upon the Aboriginal nomadic life. The idea of the valuing of this piece of stock, a sheep, over that other animal, the kangaroo.

The kangaroo is free in the landscape for anyone to shoot or spear but the sheep are sacred. The expectations that Aboriginals who have been in that ground eating the Bogong moth since the last Ice Age are going to immediately latch onto this just because the sheep has a brand on it, or some marking on it, ah, is grotesque. And yet he believes it and it's reasonable to him. And so I'm interested now in the way one culture can be a virus on another. I've not stepped back from the idea that we were more than a virus. We were willing to shoot, exterminate, poison, give social - give sexually transmitted diseases and bootleg booze to them and so on.

But um, I am [sic] become more fascinated in the way one virus - one civilisation can be a virus on another. And indeed Jared Diamond from University of California, San Diego has written a brilliant book on this very subject called 'Guns, Germs and Steel' which I don't think most of the people who pontificate about how well we've looked after Aboriginals at the end of day, have read somehow.

History has been an incredibly potent source of ideas for you and for your writing. One of the debates that's happening now is to do with the fictionalisation of history that when you actually come to fictionalise history sometimes that masks the accounts of the time and distort forever in the public view what actually occurred. Is that a responsibility you feel as a writer who's drawn so heavily on history?

I would like to say that I felt that responsibility from the beginning. But I felt a responsibility to finish a book from the beginning, to finish a new book. I, I can see what you mean and I was conscious of it from an early stage. In - and the reason I was conscious of it because, was because I'd read books about Bligh and about Macarthur. George Mackaness' wonderful biography of Bligh showed how you could give um, a man who was a relatively reasonable man a bad name and then Hollywood makes a film which places that view in cement. And then every subsequent version of 'Mutiny On The Bounty' cements that misrepresentation or that, that lack of subtle judgement in place.

Um, and um, so I was aware of it from an early age and have always been a bit of a supporter of Captain Bligh actually because the Macarthurs had no - and the others - had no right to depose him as Governor of New South Wales. And Fletcher Christian had no grounds other than his appetite for island girls not to obey his captain. Ah, but um ...

When you come to write ...

I deliberately write books. I approach the question from the other end which is when I write books I'm trying deliberately, perhaps wrong-headedly, but sincerely trying to clarify history. To show where Joan of Arc came from, to show where Jimmie Blacksmith came from, or Jimmy Governor, to show what things were like. So I have, however wrong-headed, a belief that I'm recovering history which has been stereotyped in various ways and stereotyped in a way that makes it seems distant and irrelevant.

Do you do a lot of research?

Well yes of course for non-fiction far more than for fiction. And I'm writing less historical work now anyhow. But ah, you get leftover material from one book which you put into another. Some years ago when 'The Chant of ...' - some years ago when 'Schindler's List', based on my 'Schindler's Ark', made me temporally affluent, not being content with just settling back I felt very strongly a duty to um, the um, various um, prisoners - this obsession with prisoners probably comes from being locked up at Manly - but various prisoners of the Crown in the nineteenth century, both obscure and famous ah, who um, were involved in some gesture against the Crown that had a political cast to it.

English Luddites, Irish Ribbonmen, the famous young islanders like Thomas Frances Meagher and William Smith O'Brien. And um, now just remind me of the question so I ...

I was asking you do you do a lot of research. And could you just tell us how you go about doing the research.

Well now with, with a book like that Irish one I had to spend time in the Tasmanian State Archives reading the letters of all these people, wonderful letters. In the National Library of Ireland ditto, in the National Archives of Ireland, in the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library um, I had a researcher in WA doing the Western Australian archives because Irish dissidents of considerable fame were sent here to Western Australia.

So I had a mass of material. Thomas Francis Meagher becomes a union general and this escaped undischarged convict, and that's how I came across the story of his friend Dan Sickles and Sickles' murder. So sometimes it's leftover material.

But does it matter to you, does it matter to you that you be - where the historical record is used as history, that you're absolutely faithful to it? Do you think that's important?

Not necessarily in what people did because in a novel the person - in 'The Great Shame' yes, it's crucially important. In a novel you can have a woman composed of all the women who were in the Female Factory, you can jam two women together and make them the one woman.

But what they do in the factory, does that have to be accurate?

Yes indeed. Yes. I mean but it's merely accurate in the novel 'Bettany's Book' because I'd already researched it for my wife's great granny, Mary Shields, so I knew a lot about the Female Factory already and thought as well as being an historic record the Female Factory has to be also in fiction as a metaphor for Australian gender relationships because - well I'll put it in less jargon. It was a - it was an image of the relationship between male and female in Australia, the idea of locking women away both to protect society, them from society and to protect society from them.

And ah, so in 'Bettany's Book' - which is a novel - I have a woman who's in the Female Factory who's totally fictional who comes from Manchester, not from Ireland, unlike my wife's great grandmother who was also in there. But I know all about the Female Factory from um, writing 'The Great Shame'. Bucket loads of material have been edited out of 'The Great Shame' which I can now use. Secondly ah, Judy's great grandparents, my wife's great grandparents, her great grandfather was a quasi political prisoner. He was what they called a Ribbonman - a peasant who was a member of a rural activist anti-landlord society.

And there were 70 Ribbonmen on his ship. So it was a common crime. It was counted as a crime against property but it was, as was the crime of the Luddites, but it was actually in its way a political crime. And these two convicts, the Mary Shields who was in the Female Factory and um, Judy's great grandfather formed a liaison when she went out to the property beyond where Cooma is to become a housekeeper or a maid. But they had a master called William Brodribb, who left an account blessedly of the pastoral life in New South Wales. And thus I was able to base the fictional character Bettany on Brodribb.

And very accurate historical facts.

Well yes I, Brodribb gives you a lot of detail on how a sheep property beyond the limits of location was run in the 1840s with convict labourers and so on. So I think the distinction is that in um, non-fiction you try to tell the truth by telling the truth. You can't escape the person you are, that's the only problem with non-fiction. It will always, the material will always be squeezed through this cookie cutter which is you. This nozzle which is you.

But in the novel you feel the freedom to tell the truth by creating divine lies. You can mess around with the characters. You can basically if the chief aim of the novelist is verisimilitude. And particularly the novelist in good historical fiction is trying to talk about the present too. Let's not forget that. And so um, ah, I hope this answers the distinction between fiction and non-fiction that you asked me.

In relation to your life, politics - and your work - politics has played an enormous part. Um, you've been very, very interested in your writing in political issues. Now you told us earlier that you didn't get engaged in the early part of your writing life publicly in things like the Vietnam War because you felt it was more important to write. What changed your mind about being publicly politically active?

I think age. There's something that kicks in in older people that makes them good demonstrators. It's a [sic] almost chemical subconscious um, fear for the world the young are going to inherit. Ah, I was of course vocal on Vietnam, but um, I suppose I became more publicly a commentator when Neville Wran asked me would I be Chairman of the Republican Movement. And I was Chair of the Republican Movement until Malcolm Turnbull, who was very generous to the Republican Movement, took over.

The interesting thing about the Republican Movement is that we were at a stage when it was an appropriate movement I believe. We were still hanging on to the social values of the fair go that are expressed in the most important word in the Australian Constitution, 'commonwealth'. We were an outwardly looking country that looked to have, seemed to have got over some of its fears. We were looking for alliances, and still are of course, but it seems in a more begrudging manner, in our region. Ah, the people like Keating spoke a lot about the region. Keating wasn't - was a far from perfect man of course but he was certainly a visionary man. He could see a future for Australia in the region.

And he advocated a lack of fear. He had that attitude that the Chinese have when they talk of um, risk or danger as um, as a kind of opportunity, a risky opportunity. Ah, and um, so this outward lookingness, this apparent embracing of the world, this consciousness of having been rendered a different mob by the, our shared experience of this strange continent which is an extraordinary place to find Europeans, but which we had come to feel more and more at home in.

Ah, it seemed that becoming a republic would be the icing on the cake. It produced in our community primal emotions on both sides. And the most difficult thing was to prove that you were still interested in other um, in a range of issues. That, as the Americans say, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Ah, and um, I was um, very interested in this whole reconciliation thing and um, because I felt um, on good grounds that you can't be legitimate by denying the legitimacy of other people.

Indeed one of my Irish prisoners who was a prisoner in Western Australia with my great uncle and who went to America and became a famous literary figure, read from the same platform as Mark Twain and so on. His name, this famous convict was John Boyle O'Reilly. He escaped on a Yankee whaler. And he wrote in New York, "Freedom is not a proposition. He is not free who is free alone in a community". If he's free and other people are repressed, then you're not free. And so I, that sentiment resonated with me and I felt that there are two ways of approaching this enormous tower of Aboriginal pre-occupation [sic] - pre European occupation.

You can either deny it, because you have not come to terms with it and it's difficult to come to terms with, so best to just swamp it with your own occupation. Ah, or you can ah, acknowledge it as a way of acknowledging your own legitimacy. And um, therefore there is a stain of illegitimacy in Australia, which I feel very passionately arises from this um, foundation. Now you know I was raised a Catholic as we've gone into ad infinitum and the priest says, "hoc est enim corpus meum" - this is my body and the host is said to change into the body and blood of Christ. And people find that hard to believe.

Yet they find it easy to believe that um, in early February at 1788 Captain Phillip by the words he uttered claimed what had been converted, transubstantiated what had been the property of some 500 tribes to around about, he only claimed around about as far as the Western Australian border, around about London to Moscow. Ah, transubstantiated that into Crown land instantly. And this is a big thing to believe. [laughs] This is even harder to believe than transubstantiation.

So you know, the republican movement though was based on this failed lawyer side of me. And it seemed that since we were so diverse and were coming to a maturity that it would be the icing on the cake. And now late in the - or early in the twenty-first century I feel we've gone so far backward that it matters but it doesn't matter like it did in the um, early '90s. It was going to be the crowning glory of a nation coming into its own, a community coming into its own. Um, I don't like that word nation. It's a little bit Stalinist and fascist.

Now of course we have the - we are the only liberal democracy imprisoning asylum seekers and using an American subsidiary of a company that doesn't even have a policy on children, and which is a penal, a private penal company, to do the work. Ah, we have um, resisted the United Nations, we have not signed Osaka [sic - Kyoto], we've become, we have um, with a humiliating alacrity gone along with the requirements of our more powerful western nations. And it seems that that independence of spirit and that vision has shrunk and we have 800,000 Australian children whose parents are on some form of welfare and are generally impoverished and who cannot be sure of a place at the common table of the Commonwealth. And so it's a - we speak to each other in the midst of a sad time.

When you think about that sad time and when you think about the energy and work you put into the republican movement with public speeches and so on, which do you think is more effective in changing society in the directions you want to go - writing fiction, writing, producing books or being publicly active?

I think the only book which has had a huge impact is 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' maybe, the only work of fiction. Ah, I think fiction is a very dubious way of changing the world even though I tried it with 'To[wards] Asmara'. Um, WH Auden said, "Poetry isn't political it exists in the valley of its own saying", 's-a-y-i-n-g'. And fiction exists in the valley of its own saying. And the people who make the decisions don't visit that valley nearly enough [laughs] to get informed. And so they visit all sorts of other valleys but they don't come into that one.

And the safest way is activism. And I'd say to all Australian citizens ah, through my involvement in both refugee activism which hasn't succeeded yet in its purpose, but through the republican movement that it's remarkable that a body of citizens with determination can influence to an extent politics. I think that Australians feel a certain impotence now and I'm not sure it is um, quite yet justified. I wish that our kids were taught the distinctions between our levels of government and where you go to kick up a fuss.

Too, too many of us grow up just thinking "they ought to do something about it" but we don't know how to get to those "they". And it's almost as if therefore education neglects this for the convenience of politicians so they won't be too disturbed. Ah, every child should know who to complain to about their phone bill or their light bill, who to complain to about their roads and kerbing, who to complain to about undue process in the legal system. Who to complain to about the fact that we're still taking oaths to a foreign monarch.

And maybe how to complain effectively.

And how to, how to organise. And I think this would make a far more cohesive society because the important thing for human beings is not that their proposition be upheld. It is that their - but the most important thing is that they be heard.

Why do you write?

Oh it's an addiction. It is, it is one of the things that makes me most happy. Um, and this is a terrible thing for the family because they know that you're desperate to write. Not all the time, um, but that it is the, a big thing, such a big thing in your life. And um, I feel although it's sometimes tough I could not do without it. I'm reaching a stage of life where I have had a few respiratory episodes and suffered from exhaustion and so on. Um, and um, I um, am back a little bit to being the slightly sick child I was when I was a little kid.

But I spend a huge amount of time with my grandchildren now. And ah, I'm beginning to think what people in the '70s wanted me to think. Maybe I should just stop writing, enough already. And say to the books, "Okay you're my children you go out and earn a living for me". But still I could not live without writing. I am so pleased - I see neighbours who have been, had important jobs and suddenly they're out of the loop at 64. And they have to find something to fill the void. And I'm lucky that I'll always be able to fill the void, very fortunate old sod to be able to think of possible novels.

And I pray, you know, I hope I keep my marbles. When my father was elderly a doctor said, "He's still got all his marbles" and my brother said, "Yes, but their not necessarily the same set that the rest of humanity is playing with". But I am happy that both my parents, my mother is still alive at an advanced age and doesn't have one of these degenerative mental diseases, so I'm hoping that maybe through a bit of exercise and good luck I can keep writing for some years yet. But I won't specify the years because although as agnostic as one might be, they're listening you know.

[end of tape]

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