Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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[When we talked about your season of purgatory] your response was very robust, very strong um, you thought back and you handled yourself without there being any apparent really deep problem for you. Now given that you'd had that crisis so early in your life where, when you left the seminary, that interests me because I would have thought that an episode like that would have echoes later in life when emotional problems might have created moments of really big self-doubt again. Did you recover completely from that or do you sometimes still now have times where the robust Tom gives way to the doubtful Michael?

Oh yes certainly that um, that ah, dead-beat Michael is still around but it's - in a long lifetime you learn not to live or die by these issues. You learn to be calm about them and you - I wrote and studied a lot about the Stoics. I actually suggested to a publisher that I write a book on the Stoics and um, Epictetus the Stoic. And I think the Stoics are heroes actually. They had a bit of a problem in that they only had one sacrament and that was for the high class ones who incurred the Emperor's um, the Emperor's judgement, that was suicide.

But the - and Stoicism is identified unjustly for that reason with suicide, with Socrates drinking the hemlock and all the rest of it. But it's there in the New Testament too - "Consider the lilies of the field they neither spin nor do they ...", sorry I've forgotten. But the idea is, you know, cool it. Ah, and Epictetus wrote "Instead of devouring your life um, wishing that things and people were different than they are, begin to wish they were exactly as they are".

Because people are not going change and you're only going to change in so far as you can change your direction consciously and the world is the world. And so your chief revenge on events that seem malign is to celebrate the events, wish that things were exactly as they are. Now there are obviously places at times at which that breaks down. If you lose a spouse or you, God forbid, lose someone younger in a family but um, it's still my mantra and I came to it too late, but it's, it's very much the way I try to live now.

So if a critic really gets stuck into you, you say "Oh, isn't it wonderful that this critic is getting stuck into me".

No I kind of ignore it. Yes I ignore it.

Well that isn't celebrating it.

No. Ah, but there is something you can celebrate. You can celebrate the fact that that critic is not going to write another book and you are. So that is the, there is a kind of benign vengeance because too many good writers - all writers have wanted to be praised. And because of the sort of temperament that is attracted to fiction they want to be praised exorbitantly to make up for - well I suppose all humans want to be praised exorbitantly and uniformly. But it cannot happen and um, it um, may as well be lived with, the fact that all manner of writers had their psychological life tormented, and in some cases their life shortened, by criticism.

Um, Herman Melville dreading the publication of 'Moby Dick' because he knew the American critics were going to give it to him in the neck and they did. Ah, so I'm not saying that my work is 'Moby Dick' but there are many instances in the lives of remarkable writers where um, they have been damned, almost, and damned almost like a pack hunting a rabbit. Um, and this is characteristic of literary culture and the rabbit should refuse to die.

Have you ever got your own back by putting people that caused you some offence into your fiction?

Ah no, I - for some reason, it would be nice to do that but for some reason it doesn't quite work. Although naturally if you're writing about confrontational issues you do draw on um, people that you have known. But what happens in fiction is that unlike non-fiction you give people a different colour hairstyle, two boys instead of a boy and a girl, um, slightly different suburban setting, and this is a small compass deviation from reality.

And by the time you've finished a novel, which when you're writing it seems as big as the Atlantic and you're in the rowboat, small compass deviation at the end of even an 80,000 word novel is enormous. So the person you were setting out to punish has kind of asserted his or her identity in the book just by the changes you make so they won't sue you. And so um, I haven't found it a device that works. And also I think that writers are generally trying to get even in a different way in their writing. They're trying to say, "Look this is an important story told in a way that I think will interest you. And will change the way you think".

So they've, they've got a bigger ambition. Ah, I don't know too many writers who've set out to do that. Evelyn Waugh was one I believe. He put - he used a university don and sent him up in a number of novels. But um, well of course he was a picaresque and comedic writer in his way and works best with the picaresque and the comedic. But you find that the characters quickly become other than the character you're either, you would - the living character you most, you would most want to praise and the living character you might most want to denounce.

So your friends don't have to be afraid that you're going to use them.

No, no. That's right. In fact characteristic of male writers of my generation, we tend to write about anything but the personal. Ah, because Australian men don't have personal. You know they don't have inner vulnerability so you tend to, there is a tendency with me to mask myself behind some huge event like the war in Eritrea. Ah, not knowing um, that in everything you write anyhow you betray everything about yourself and it is a - you're doing the full monty even though you're trying not to. [INTERRUPTION]

In life outside as opposed to fiction, when you do come to these dark moments that happen to all of us, and continue to happen to you despite your success ...


... and the, and the praise that you've got. Do you feel confident now that you're going to have, by these stoic techniques you've developed, the ability to overcome and get out of it?

Yes I am um, I know that there are absolutely genuinely disabling griefs that happen to some human beings but barring those I feel okay. I feel okay. I've also woken up to the fact that there's nothing written in heaven or earth that says that someone who comes from Loftus Crescent, Homebush via the Macleay has to a be a great writer. So I've even given up worrying about whether my work is good, bad, splendid, terrible, deplorable. There are people who have said all manner of - all those things about it. It has been all things to all men and ah, I don't, I don't care anymore. I would prefer my work was good than bad but um, it doesn't haunt me as it used to.

People have nominated you and your work, your novels um, in fact there've been more than one critic who've nominated different works to be 'the great Australian novel' that you were asked to write early in your career. The demand was put on you that you would write the great Australian novel.

Yes, yes that's right.

If you had to nominate any of your books, not as a great Australian novel, but as the best of your work, what do you think is the best of your work?

The - I'm not being evasive but the problem in answering that question is the problem we're [sic] been talking about of being all over the literary map and so different works for different times.


But I liked um, 'A River Town' because it had magic realism, it had - which just means the dead coming back and talking to you - which is what my parents, my grandparents believed they could come back and talk to you. And it had um, it simply seemed to me to have vibrant Australian material in it. It was fed that novel directly from the pages of the Macleay Argus and the Macleay Chronicle in a vigorous Australia that was arguing over becoming a Federation or not. And people were saying, "Can you believe it, if it ain't broke don't fix it". You know, "We're getting on perfectly well".

And um, that um novel with its delineation of the racial divides in a small town in an enclosed valley, which is itself an image of the sort of place Australia is. Australia doesn't know whether it wants to be an open valley or a closed one. Um, that you know, I enjoyed working through all that and showing that if you shut out the river, the coastal steamer Burrawong, which is full of rats, but also full of books and newspapers delivering them to town.

There are risks in contact and Australia has never quite made up its mind whether it wants to take the risks of contact or whether it wants to fine [sic], define itself in a stagnant way. And I enjoyed exploring all that, that stuff. And trying to explain about my dreamy, tall, melancholic grandfather and my small, hard-headed um, dumplingesque granny. And um, so that's one book I'd nominate.

And that's the only one?

No, I'd nominate also maybe - there is a big question in my mind as to whether 'Bettany's Book' is two novels or one, but I think 'Bettany's Book' even though narrative is all, the story is everything, I think 'Bettany's Book' is such an omnitechnicon [sic] of such an encompassing of modern and ancestral questions that it might be a good book, it might be a good book too. But the best book is the one I'm writing. It's, it's the one about, for every writer that's so - it's the one about one which [sic], about which one harbours the most illusions.

Now obviously in the course of your life you've overcome all sorts of things. You were - you've described how you've, how you,ve managed to live your life in a way that gets you through the hard times and so on. You've also referred to the fact that your marriage has evolved. Could I ask you now to move into the personal and tell us about how your marriage - what it's meant to you and how it's fitted in the person that you've become?

Well I am in the situation of many men my age that I don't think now I could've done without Judy. Sometimes in the middle of an argument when you're a young couple you could, you think you could very easily do without each other. But Judy um, she worked for a time as a nurse but this is something I heard Frank Hardy say when I was young and heard him read and he said, "One of the greatest problems that writers have is correspondence". And I thought he was just putting on airs as we writers do, and Frank was not above doing.

But in fact it's the build up of correspondence necessary and kind of relating to your readers and publishers and so on. It's the dealing with the backlist, books you've written in the past which keep on demanding little things um, to be done. Some blessed person in Czechoslovakia decides he wants to bring out a new edition of a book you published twenty years ago and you know these things have to be signed and letters have to be written. Um, and um, then there is of course the fact that being a writer is like having a small business and then of course relations with the press.

And so Judy has over time assumed all that. Um, if I had to employ someone um, to um, I claim a certain amount for her work but at least to employ someone who would cover all those areas so competently and with such skill um, would require a salary of a hundred and twenty, a hundred and fifty thousand dollars really a year. And so we are bonded by that. We, we've got to that glorious stage where we understand each other so well that there's not a cross word. We are companions in many adventures.

Judy came to um, Eritrea with me a couple of times and it was interesting how much more rugged she was at all this than I was. There was an evening in a - actually the evening is recorded in a documentary that we made for 'The South Bank Show', Melvyn Bragg's show where we encountered a nomad girl who'd had her, both her legs damaged by a mine and the wounds were old wounds.

It was a tragedy to me of course when Lady Di, Princess Di died because not only was it a personal tragedy for her but it was also sad that she was, had made a certain progress on this mining issue, this matter of mines all over the earth from East Africa to Cambodia and so on. Anyhow Judy was able to handle this woman and this girl and comfort her. And - whereas the soundman and I were out under a tree being sick. And I was fascinated to realise that what upset Judy was if one of my daughters had an untidy room, but a war was no trouble to her.

She just organised things and it is her incredibly competent um, person. And sometimes we've had a talk about whether I've crushed her as Germaine Greer says Mr Blair has crushed Mrs Blair. Whether you know I took her nursing career away from her. And she says "No, but of course you'd expect me to say that wouldn't you?" And um, but we've had remarkable travels together and ah ... Now there's too much subtext. Couples get to the point where they have so much subtext between each other it would be unfair to go off with someone else because the other person would be clumsy about the - there'd be too much to explain. It would take them the next twenty years to get them to understand you.

And so um, there is a great deal of dependence there because there are, there are things that I'm good at that Judy, that Judy, that stress Judy and then vice versa.

You have an optimistic positive sort of outlook on life that's got you through all sorts of things. Do you feel optimistic and positive about Australia's future?

I'm worried about a few things that we're, we're willing to be um, you know we're not leaders in technology and the new technologies. That might disadvantage us. I've heard various takes on that. Um, of course I was very influenced by Barry Jones' um, book on all this 'Sleepers, Wake!' and it was um, I am concerned about that. That we - you know, will our future be that of a technological 21st century country or will we become a nation of waiters. Will we become a nation of hospitality workers?

Ah I'm worried, everything that's happened in the world, the growth in ethnic hatred. Um, in the early '90s we believed we had nearly worked ourself beyond that. But all over the western world people who are um, have the same position as Pauline Hanson had here, have arisen with considerably more success than Pauline had politically. And it seems that the beast is slouching to - is in heat again and is slouching towards Jerusalem to give, to give whelp the beast of um, tribal and ethnic hatred.

Um, then there's the conflict for us between - which I think is one of the biggest conflicts we've got um - between the idea of commonwealth and the idea of globalisation of the new economics. I believe that globalisation is inevitable, let me say first of all. But Alfred Deakin when he had helped create an Australia that had high tariff walls and high wages and an Australia in which there was not a great gulf between the technocrats and the, or the professionals and the workers.

He said um, it is our desire to build an Australia, I forget the exact quote, which is so full of equal opportunities of um, vigorous and competitive industries, um of fair human conditions that people will want to become Australians. Now that old dream - and Deakin was not a, not a socialist by any means - that old dream of commonwealth is of course, has of course been influenced by globalism and by a philosophy that says let the market work it all out. It will look after everything. It - there'll be a trickle down effect.

Well there's been very little mediation of the effects of globalisation upon um, Australia. And I've read experts who say that there are many other societies that have mediated the impact of globalisation. This inevitable stage of the development of the community of the earth - have mediated it better, the effects of it better to their people. And even the Americans have mediated and the French mediate it through these great farm subsidies. They want a globalised world but not just yet, you know, not over here.

"Fred might lose the congressional seat if we, if we ah, bring it too quickly over here." And we haven't done a good job of making people feel they're still part of the 'commonwealth', that they sit at a common table. Now in our Australia, in the Australia I grew up in, we were, had this good fortune that however poor we felt we were a community. And we felt um, that we were a community of opportunity and this is why my mother was always forcing books upon us because she knew it could work. That she might have been a girl from Kempsey who left school, you know, earlier than she would have wanted. But there was an Australia that would permit us to go further.

And um, that sadly has, has disappeared, that Australia, and I wish it had been, the effects had been mediated more. So the question is will we be a commonwealth or will we be a winner of losers who can afford electronically to protect ourselves against the underclass who have no place in the common wealth and at the common table? I think that's a big Australia because one of the things that always brought me back was that that sense of commonwealth existed here. And it's still there.

They've tried to make Australian health as American as they can but there's still a resistance at the most apolitical level or bipartisan level, there's still a resistance to doing away with public education, for downgrading them. And yet there's been a tendency to downgrade them. And we're also told that, of course, pensions, that great vision that was introduced here nearly anywhere, anywhere else [sic]. We're told that we're all getting too old and we're not fertile enough so, you know, you fund your own retirement.

I think this excuse that we're all getting old is just another political excuse. I don't think that it should be the basis, the exclusive basis, of all policy. And it's typical of the new, it's an argument that's typical of the new economics. It's not um, it's not Deakin's argument that we must provide a minimum dignity to every Australian. It is, "Sorry folks the demographics don't make the fair go possible any more so go to hell".

Ah, and this challenge from the new economics and the [sic] globalisation are up against the traditions of commonwealth which are very much entrenched, and which Bill Bryson praises in his book in Australia. It's going to be the biggest conflict. And if we don't look after commonwealth we're going to have a divided society.

Tom, coming back to the personal, how would you like to be remembered after you're dead and gone?

Um, you know that used to be important to me. I would like to be read for a while. At least till my wife dies. Anthony Burgess once said, "Your ambition with any book is to be in print for ten years". And ah, that's where you should start both as a journeyman and as a creative artist. And ah, I would be, like to be - you know, a few little editions to be around at least till Judy dies a happy widow in advanced old age.

But I don't really care about it because I won't be here to say, "Wow I've been remembered" or "My God, my publisher's let me go out of print". I will be a very quiet spirit when it comes to going out of print after death. And you can't tell. There are many, many writers who have been remarkably applauded in their day or have been considered significant who go out of print very easily. I mentioned that former convict from Western Australia, John Boyle O'Reilly who had a large part in American history. Um, he was considered an equivalent writer to Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. And yet his star has faded. And there are many such cases.

So you don't expect immortality through your books. What do you think about death?

Um, look I don't think of a - you're putting me in a position where more and more congregations of the Holy Sea are going to disapprove of me. But my um, belief is that our concept of person is a concept and it may not survive death. But when my father died with all that particularity of character and all that, all those sayings which still float round in my head, all his Australian aphorisms, all his roguishness, all his irreverence. Um, it's hard to believe that all goes.

So you know I'm little bit - as I've often said in the position of that Irish woman to whom they said, "Do you believe in the little people?" And she said, "Of course I don't I'm a civilised woman. But they're there you know". And in some sense I'm sure my father's still there. Even his nunc dimittis, "Now let thy servant depart in peace oh Lord", was a very Australian nunc dimittis. He, he said the 'Our Father' with a young priest whom he'd asked to bury him. And it was terribly poignant to see an absolute Australian larrikin like my father saying the 'Our Father'.

And no sooner was 'Amen' out of his mouth then he said to the priest, "Well Gerard, I think I'm bloody rooted". Now I can't believe that all that particularity is going to be, is going to just disappear into - it's got to appear into the pool of humanness that - of, or of the surviving spirit that's out there somewhere in the universe. It's, it's very hard to talk about this without sounding as silly as Shirley MacLaine, but it's, it's hard for me to believe that all that just stops.

[end of interview]