Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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What would you do without football?

Oh I'd be um, fine without football but it is a, it was one of the sort of ritual religions of my childhood. My father played it apparently very well. And it was my hero system. Because we didn't have culture heroes then we had sporting heroes. And some Australians are still fixated at that level. But the, my - there's part of me that's still the seven year old, and my wife can attest to this, that sees the sporting hero as a God-like creature that if you touch the hem of his garment, if he says "G'day mate" to you, you know your life is enlarged in ways that are imponderable but definite. You know so the end of your - on your deathbed you'll remember the encounter with the divine passing being who said "G'day mate".

And um, I um, simply enjoy it as a break from um, from writing. I tell um, I tell, I like the argot of rugby league, I like the emphasis on not spitting the dummy even though I've been a dummy spitter myself at various times in the past. I got one of my greatest statements of multiculturalism from a Manly Warringah rugby league second rower who was Greek. And they - we'd just won a big game against Brisbane and I said to him, "Jimmy, I thought we'd rise from the dead last Sunday, Easter Sunday and - but you chose today a week after Easter". And he said, "Oh mate, you picked the wrong bloody Easter, today is Greek Easter".

So ah, I like the folk wisdom of - I once took the splendid English novelist and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare to a rugby league game and afterwards one of our trainers said to him, "Nick" - with a lot of interspersed profanity - he said, "Nick, rugby league is like booze. It makes heroes out of ordinary men and bloody ordinary men out of heroes". And ah, Shakespeare thought that this was a wonderful aphorism. He said in his highbred British way, "Do you mind if I use that?"

And so I like it as a social phenomenon. You know that old Lang Labor thing - rugby league has been transformed - but it grew out of a sense of justice. It grew out of the fact that rugby union was the game of the dilettante and the amateur, but what happened if you were a working class player and you broke your collarbone and you were out of work for four weeks and your family was put in a situation where it was close to the bone. So rugby league began by paying the - for the injuries of players and playing [sic] them what was originally a pittance for every game.

And for most of its history until television and Murdoch, it was like that, it was a game played by working men who were not um, as luxuriously placed as to be able to afford to be injured and not work. And so again it's got a strong - well no this is just justification giving this social history background to it. I really just like the game. But there are, it is not, it is not the biggest thing in my life but I really love the community of going to the ground and talking to blokes who for their whole week they haven't been worried about how their novel is going. They haven't been - and you're bound to them by this tribalism, but it's a kind of benign tribalism.

You wouldn't go forth and kill another tribe. The boys of course do that for you ritually on the paddock. But I loved the game when I played it as a kid and a seminarian so I suppose I've still got that. And the other thing I would say ah, talking to cultivated people, it is very much a social phenomenon. I said to you in relation to the seminary that we were drawn from the same classes that provided the cops and the pub owners. And I do meet many former seminarians at the um, at the football. It is one of the rites that still means a lot to them.

Now of course when we played it too it had a cosmic significance. I don't know if I've said this already but the ...

Doesn't matter.

Brother coach would say to us, "Over there is a state school crowd you're going to be playing and their coach doesn't care as much for you as I do because he's got a wife and kids to look after, and besides, you know, you have the advantage of having the one true faith, thus virtually you are to beat them to show that Henry the Eighth was wrong". So I suppose this idea of rugby league as a map of the world is something that's stuck with me. I do notice that terrible conflicts arise from awful refereeing mistakes that it's a little bit like the chaos theory that says that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can create a hurricane somewhere else.

A falsely called forward pass that prevents a try, particularly by your own team, quickly has a knock-on effect which leads to conflict in the Balkans. Or so - so one primitive part of me believes.

Is it in any way a substitute for religion, going along each week to a community of people?

It certainly is. I'm very fascinated by the um, connection between sport and religion. How they are, there is a process, there is a liturgy. Um, I - and then of course as a substitute for warfare which has become a cliché to say it's a substitute for warfare, but it is. Um, but it was - football is inevitable because someone was going to take the bladder out of a pig and either try to run with it or try to kick it between two sticks. One or the other was going to happen.

And I notice with my grandson he runs around the living room belting a football and yelling, just, I mean the football hasn't been forced on him, it's just amongst the things in the house. And he says, "Fall on the ball, fall on the ball" or "Kick the ball". So there is an innate tendency to do potentially destructive things like kick the ball and kick other men's heads and so on. And so sport was codified to deal with, to make it less war and more a just exchange. It is interesting - games are fascinating to me because they are an expression of cultures, as much as ballet and opera is [sic].

And I've once referred to rugby league as the grand opera of the proletariat. And to an extent it is. It's no excuse for not going to the opera however.

As far as I'm aware you've never written a book about a football player.

Well there is a character who is one in, in um, 'A Family Madness'. There is a family that's come to Australia from Belorussia, which brings all manner of ghosts with them from the Second World War. And they interact with a security guard out in Penrith to whom politics is not questions of fascism and anti-Semitism. Politics is his game.

He lives, this has been something that we've been fortunate um, with that for a lot of us we can go on being lazy because our politics was kind of benign enough to be, to look after itself and for a large part of the populous, benign enough to look after itself so that they could concentrate on sport. Ah, I think increasingly that's not true. I think increasingly no matter how many world championships or gold medals we win we are disgraced by a number of our present policies, and that that disgrace is more profound and more indicative than our prowess.

Can I now ask you to look back in hindsight and trace some of the things that have developed through the course of your life? Religion. You started off intending to be a priest, absolutely devout. How has your attitude to Catholicism, to God, to the whole concept of religious practice evolved in the course of your life?

Well because of that what I think of as being genuinely shocked - and I'm speaking as genuinely as I can now - genuinely shocked by the uncompassionate nature of many of the senior clergy. Um, I found it hard to then say, "Well that's okay because over here are these mysteries which, the mystery of communion, of reconciliation, of baptisms, which still belong to me". I mean in that church that I was in all this belonged to the Bishop and the Pope. And it didn't really belong to you.

I haven't, I haven't found a means of going on to be a fully practising member of that community while saying, you know, my Archbishop is a lunatic but that doesn't matter. I'm not talking about my Archbishop as we speak, but a hypothetical Archbishop. Um, and ah, many can. My brother can. But - and he's a very intelligent man, a very advanced technocrat. He runs the Anaesthetics Department at the big children's hospital out west. Um, he's a source of great pride to all of his. And he, although he has - he's an intellectual, sophisticated ideas, he is able to separate the absurdity of some of the senior clergy from the ultimate sustaining mysteries.

I haven't been quite able to manage to do that. And yet I like to do it. Um, another person who does it is the great historian from ANU, a former priest, John Molony, who is able to go to - he took me to mass recently in the bush in Victoria and a bloke came in and said, "Hey, you're Keneally aren't you? What's happened to you, you seen the light?" [laughs] And ah, I ah, that's - I find it hard to see the light.

But I was guided by a few theological revelations that came to me while I was writing 'Schindler's List' [sic]. One is that God might be - the problem of evil is the great problem of God, a compassionate God of the universe. Because if he exists why does he let children die, why does he let Afghanistan happen, why did he let the trade towers happen? The answer is free will. He gave us all free will and you can either crash a plane into the trade towers or you can't. You can either imprison innocent asylum seekers or you don't. And that's your free will.

But um, it's a lame - you know it seems a pallid excuse to someone who's lost a child or lost a relative in an unjust way. And um, I notice that the Jews, some Jewish survivors looked on God as a kind of overimaginative - in this intimate way of someone you argue with - and like an overimaginative screenwriter. Um, a Jewish prisoner, a former Jewish prisoner said to me about Mauthausen he said, "When I got to Mauthausen I saw that great cliff and the SS throwing people off the cliff of the quarry. I said "God, this is too much"."

Sort of editing, trying to advise God to edit things, to be a little more, a little bit less obscene. Whereas we looked upon God as an omnipotent person who um, intervened regularly but if he didn't intervene it was his obscure will that you would suffer in a particular way. Ah and so the idea of God the screenwriter I found a very important one that helped me deal with the problem of evil on earth. The second idea was this idea the Jews have that they mightn't believe everything. But they observe certain high holidays for the sake of those who are not there, the sake of the ancestors.

And particularly when I look at the sort of anonymous people from whom most Australians of my background are derived. People like Hugh Larkin, my wife's convict ancestor and so on, who waited for the priest to arrive in the bush before he'd get married. I mean before he got married, they had a child before the priest arrived but as soon as the priest arrived peace was made. And when I think of those historic Catholics who were persecuted, um, in their home nations, then I feel an identity with them too. And you think you can't throw it all away because they suffered so intensely for it.

And so the idea of tribal observantce - after all the most enduring religion on earth, the one that makes the most sense to the most humans is pantheism, the idea of God [sic], gods in the geography. And that's one of the reasons that brings me back to Australia. There are different gods that have more to do with me than gods anywhere else in the landscape. There are gods in this landscape and you can feel them. At least I think you can feel them. I can feel them.

Secondly, ancestor, reverence for ancestors. And um, um, you know you have to - if you don't know what your ancestors went through, if your - whatever your background, then you know, you are deprived of a story of yourself that's important. Um, I know conservative people say that "You should - you know the day you arrive in Australia you're an Australian and you ought to forget all that old stuff". But if you forget all that old stuff you lose your third dimension. You have to, when you arrive in Australia, observe the pluralist compact. If you're an Armenian and you become an Australian, you don't have the right to bump off the Turkish Consul General. But the idea that you're supposed to immediately forget the Armenian language, Armenian writing, Armenian religion, Armenian ancestors, is just ridiculous.

So you were in a situation where you miss aspects of your religion like the ritual and the opportunity to join with those who've gone before.

Yes.

But your concept of God is really now nothing like the concept of the Christian God.

No, I mean the concept of my God, of God when we were kids was very much a vengeful God who would um - we were told he was a God of love but we were also told stories about the girl who went to mass every Sunday and then there was one Sunday she didn't. They asked her to go to a picnic, her non-Catholic friends, and she went with them and she drowned and of course she went to hell, despite the ... That was the God that was depicted for us. And one of the reasons I think there's the phenomenon of the wild Catholic girl and the wild Catholic boy. And J.F. Kennedy was the wild Catholic boy.

The reason I think they go so mad and become erotomaniacs is that if you harbour the faintest sensual thought then you go to hell. And if you have an affair with Marilyn Monroe you go to hell too. So you might as well be hung for Marilyn Monroe's boyfriend than for a mere sensual thought. And ah, so it was a God who was likely to put you in the pit.

Do you believe in God now? Do you believe in a God? Do you have a God you actually believe in?

I don't believe there's a personal intervening deity who has a personal interest on - you know, if I drop to my knees now and say, "Please let me be shortlisted for the Booker prize next year", I don't think he's there. But I find the idea of some sort of principal of - hard to shake. Maybe it's atavism but I feel that um, ah, you know I know how that there is an initiating spirit and an underpinning spirit but I don't think it's the kind that makes virgins [sic] weep, statues of the Virgin weep in Western Australia.

You know I wish it was a personally intervening God. The universe is a cold place without that personal deity but ah, so I suppose I've become a deist which is a [sic] terrible according to my childhood upbringing, is a terrible thing to be. But a deist who often goes to Catholic masses and requiem masses and marriage masses and so on.

How often do you go? How often do you go?

Well because I've got an extensive clan, quite often. And ah, but I don't think that means that ...

Do you go to confession?

Oh no. No, no. I do occasionally receive absolution from the heretical priests who don't require absolution. Not all priests - you see there came to be a time when the right of reconciliation could be administered by a priest to a whole group. This was, this practice came in the '80s and the early '90s. The Vatican stood on it again and said no there has to be a personal confrontation. But what I like about - at sea, occasionally I'm asked to give lectures on posh boats and occasionally I go on them. And the priests on the boat generally snaffle me and get me to read lessons at mass. And they are empowered to give general absolutions.

And I think of it in these terms which are typically heretical terms that Bishops and Archbishops wouldn't like. But um, Hess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, made a full confession to a priest before he was hanged and received communion. And if he can receive communion I can. Father Sean Fortune, a scandalous paedophile in, in Ireland molested a boy before saying mass, recited a mass at which the boy was present, and then molested him after the mass according to the evidence and the boy, evidence that was accepted in court.

And if Father Sean Fortune could say mass then I can - after all, the sacrament was called communion, which is about communion between maybe people of similar background, maybe people of similar values. Um, so there is still, you know, a kind of yearning for the sacraments there. But ...

Will you be calling - will you be calling for them on your deathbed Tom?

I don't know. It's quite possible. I know, I'm hoping Eddy Campion will last that long. I would call upon Eddy Campion or upon a few other priests who are maybe not models, considered episcopal material, bishoply material.

One of the things that interests me about you is this issue of identity. You've been concerned with issues of identity in a great deal of your work, especially ambiguous identities.

Mm. All identities are ambiguous. Because all identities carry with them a satanic temptation to - they have, they have a beautiful face and we all need them. We all need this self-definition. We seek self-definitions by the religion we belong to, by who our ancestors were, by the football team we support, by who we vote for. We are continually seeking these identities. And they are nourishing to us. But they have an evil baboon backside attached to them and that backside says, well okay, you've built yourself this beautiful identity you know, just look forward and you'll see this exquisite identity. But this means that you're entitled to excrete on the rest of the human race who don't have this beautiful identity.

And people say how remarkable that the Holocaust and other, other terrible events in history come from cultivated people. From people, the same people who um, created Chekhov and Tolstoy, the same people who created Schopenhauer and created Mozart and Beethoven. And of course it's going to come from there, this extreme reaction. Because people will become so enamoured of their own cultural identity that there is an immediate temptation to dismiss the validity of other identities.

And that satanic temptation is obviously in America and is frequently succumbed to. And it's obviously in Australia and it, it frequently feeds our myths of identity.

And you yourself started life named Michael. You grew up named Michael. The first thing you wrote you wrote under a pseudonym.

Yes.

Coyle.

Yes, that's my mother's name.

And then you became Tom and you were happy for people to call you Tom.

Yes, yes I liked that word.

Do you feel that you yourself have had identity crises in your life?

Oh sure.

Would you like to talk about them?

Well of course, I mean I think in a way I already have. I've had to um, decide whether I would be joyous or terminally depressed. I've had to decide um, my politics, my - but above all that one - the tension between failure and the huge appetite for success, to make up for the failure I'd been in the seminary. All those um, issues brought me to crises and I've had a crisis as recently as two years ago because I was a workaholic until two years ago.

And I went to Eritrea when the Ethiopians last invaded it in 2000. And it was an - I don't know where these impulses that make us adopt this cause and not that cause. It's very mysterious. It's a different proposition for every human. But I saw some footage on SBS of the damage that had been done to a cotton mill - deliberate looting, a cotton mill in a town in western Eritrea by the Ethiopian army. And a rage rose in me because this cotton mill represented sophistication and it was partly - when I actually got there and saw it, it had a message written on the wall to the President of Eritrea and it read "Dear Comrade Afwerki, Isaias Afwerki ...Dear Comrade Isaias, we have taken great joy in destroying this plant because we know it hurts you so much".

And um, so I didn't want this to happen to Fred Hollows' very sophisticated lens factory which is now run by Eritreans in Asmara. And I said to my daughter, "I think I'd better go to Asmara and ...", you know, as if I'd make any difference but I had this idea that I wanted - if the Ethiopian Army captured Asmara I wanted to be there to say there's Australian money in this you leave that - well I probably would have spoken very timidly and with the greatest respect. But I got viscerally angry.

And um, indeed a million and a half people were on the road. They'd been displaced from their farmlands and the farming towns of the south by the invasion and barely a word in the world's media. This invasion was an invasion like Hitler into Poland, like Saddam Hussein into Kuwait. Not a word, except from that heroic Irish woman Robinson, Mary Robinson. Anyhow I, my daughter and a young filmmaker called um - well my daughter and a young filmmaker that I went with, we were shaking hands with a lot of these people who were coming up from the south, who were living in the open. Most of whom had severe gastric problems and a lot of respiratory infections.

And so I got - started to get sick in Eritrea. And I got back and continued to get heavy chest infections and went back to the pattern of asthma I'd had as a small child actually. And ah, became very exhausted. And then grandchildren - a grandchild was born and I said, "It's ridiculous working like this", you know. Less is more and to hell with writing and I'll write in the interstices of time that real life gives me. And I began to be more casual, I'd even go to lunch with people. I'd, I'd go and have coffee in the middle of the day in Newport.

Still continued to walk the beach a lot. And indeed I did find that less is more because ah, the periods that I did work I worked with greater efficiency and less frenzy and anxiety. And so um, that was my crisis. Every man in his late sixties or early to mid sixties will have such a crisis. It will be a heart attack, it'll be the wake up call that he's been a nerd all this time. And it has been a very fruitful time since I came to that wall beyond which I couldn't work any more.

And I spent two and a half months off work. But I was so ill and so down that I thought that I mightn't ever work again. And that really panicked me, the idea that I wouldn't work again. And naturally that passed and so that was an identity crisis. What was I going to be more, grandfather or writer? A great New Zealand writer ...

Whom we won't talk about now ... because we've got to go back and look at the first identity crisis.

Okay ...

And, and - because I was very interested to see that you embraced, along with your new life, a new name. And I wanted - if you could characterise the difference between Michael, who you were through all your childhood right up through, through the seminary you were Michael. And then you became Tom. What happened to Michael?

Well one of the things that happened was of course Michael had been a total failure. Ah, but one of the chief objectives in writing under an assumed name was that people wouldn't at once know it was me. I wanted to go on being this Michael for the time being and I wanted to use this other name Tom purely for writing. And I did not expect to become as notorious. I was in part hiding the fact that I'd written racy short stories in the Bulletin from the principal of Waverley College, Mad Mick O'Connor as he was called.

And - however the word, the word got out. And I continued to use it because it was my real name. There's something that appealed to it perhaps because my father had been Tom. Mind you his first name was Edmund, so there's a tradition in our family of using your second name. Anyhow ... but I thought, I can embrace this Tom is the writer, Tom might save himself where Michael couldn't. I suppose that was running in my mind too.

And how do you think of yourself inside yourself?

Now I'm definitely the Tom because I gave up becoming the pale monk and became the free thinker, the hedonist and the garrulous person, garrulous to a fault. I think in Australia only Gough Whitlam is more garrulous that I.

When you write though, you're quiet, on your own?

Yes.

Lonely? ... Ever lonely?

Yes indeed. I find that as much as I go amongst people the better I am in my head, to an extent. And balancing the communal life against the - the communal life can swamp you, you know. And even the communal life of going to literary festivals. Now on earth one could go from one festival to another, they're like stepping stones in the river of the year and you could go from Sydney to Melbourne to Byron Bay to Adelaide to Western Australia to Edinburgh to Belfast to the London - I'm even going to the London Literary Festival in a couple of months which is a new one.

But um, even that delightful communalism can absorb your life. And because there's a suspicion that writers who get published have some special knowledge, you tend to get asked to speak about a lot of things. So ah - and yet it's, it's so invigorating and enriching to have this community with other people, particularly in a cause, particularly in a cause. Like the republic, like liberating the asylum seekers, like saving Mona Vale Hospital. You meet, you meet very noble people in these causes and I'm sure you meet very noble people in the groups that oppose these causes too.

Um, but um, that feedback is um, that um, human rubbing up and down of one personality against another is, is very important and thus I've found over time that you don't write yourself into um, a spiral, a downward spiral. Um, and also spend more time with other writers because writers get very paranoid about publishers and other writers and so on as well. And um - but only if they, you know, you um - we are a fraternity, we are all parallel pilgrims.

And when I 'taught' in inverted commas at the University of California Irvine, I said that envy is the greatest disease of writers because you're so on your own and the book takes forever to write. And it will poison you. It will make you um, a savage person and it will, it will demean your own writing if you - and I said every dog, every writer has his day. And every - there - you know the literary glory is not a finite amount. There can be only one Prime Minister but there can be umpteen splendid novels. So don't think that one writer's glory in any way diminishes, diminishes yours.

Where does your energy for all of this come from?

I don't know. I need a lot of sleep to write. I'm not a, one of those people who can sleep four hours a night. Ah, I can function, in a general sense, on a communal level with less sleep than that, but to write, writing demands that you be fairly well rested. And um, the ah - I wasn't aware when I was young and wasn't aware until recently that I had a lot of energy of a kind. It doesn't extend sadly to carpentry, to useful things like reconditioning an automobile motor. Um, it doesn't extend to many useful things at all but it's ah, it's definitely there.

There is a drive um, to write. Interestingly one of the times I don't feel the urge to write is, is when I'm cross-country skiing. Now that sounds very flash but cross-country skiing is like hiking on long planks. And my wife and I do a certain amount of it down in the Australian Alps. And it is like hiking except you go faster downhill. And it so absorbs every nerve and every um, the total concentration of the front of the brain, the conscious brain, that I barely think about writing when I'm out there. [END OF TAPE]

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