Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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Did you get anything positive for the rest of your life out of your time at the seminary?

Oh yes and I'm very grateful for it. Ah, of course ultimately I got to the point of sanity when you say you can't deny what took up so much of your life. You must live with it. And I got a familiarity with Latin. And of course I got a view of the world as a place where huge dinosaurs of good and evil tussle. And the other thing is it's curious that two groups in particular, the Irish and Jews, argue moral points all the time that are stories.

In the shtetls of Europe - no wonder America and Australia and Canada are full of Jewish writers - because in the shtetls of Europe they used to argue points such as if a man's barn catches fire on the Sabbath, should he attend to it? Should he - is he allowed to put the fire out? And of course then the, this was debated by Jewish divines who said, "Some say yes, some say no". Ah, and ah, that is a novel that question. Imagine the man who is the absolutist and the dreamer. And he's got a little farm and he's got a debt to the money lender and the barn is burning down and he stands there accepting God's judgement on his barn. But his wife who's more hard-headed is saying, "For God's sake save the barn. Save the barn".

Now that's all a novel. And similarly it sort of is a novel in capsule. Similarly in James Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', the young men whom Stephen Dedalus goes around with discuss the point of if a man steals a pound and then becomes rich, what does he have to give back to expiate the sin - one pound, one pound plus interest, half of his fortune or the whole of his fortune? And again imagine a situation where an old Irishman who has bought a mill, built himself up from that stolen pound, and bought a mill.

And he decides in his seventies that to save his soul he's got to give it all back to this hapless shoeless creature from whom he stole it all those years ago. And again wife and children saying, "Are you crazy?" So these moral questions that we discussed in, in class um, are themselves novels, are themselves dramas in capsule. And of course morale, moral questions are the great um, material of novels because so many novels are about marginal people who are put in - under extraordinary moral - put in an extraordinary moral impasse.

And so that contributed to the ah, to the seminary - that contributed to my later life. And of course many friends like Eddy Campion and like Brian Johns who was in there, the future head of the ABC. And well, a capacity last of all my daughter was asked if she would get me to translate certain common football sayings like "Don't spit the dummy" and "He's been doing it all day ref" into Latin. And the Latin came in very handy at that stage. And I was able to Latinise these normal sayings, "Keep him on side ref" etcetera.

And that's no small benefit. The Latin and the Greek enriched my sense of the language. And I don't know - I realise that a lot of the young now - and I'm not, Im not making a claim on behalf of the, on behalf of the classics - but they,they don't quite know where words come from. And thus words come to them without a history, either Anglo Saxon or Latinate. And so there were, there were benefits from the seminary.

You have a phenomenal work habit now too. You are tremendously disciplined in the way that you go about your work, which has contributed to your astonishing productivity. Does any of that come from the disciplinary [sic] - the discipline of the seminary or does it go back further?

I think it comes from the discipline of the seminary and further, you know. It comes from that - my daughter said to me recently um, "You and mum are so task-oriented, it's so working class of you". [laughs] And ah, the - there's probably truth in that.

So after you left, what was it do you think that actually cured you? Was the writing of the whole mental crisis that you'd been through, was it - was the writing important in that or was there something else?

The writing was important in that in two ways: a) as a release as it always is and b) as a means of claiming a place in society. I began studying law and I've always been a lawyer manqué. If I had five lives I'd spend one of them as a lawyer because I'd love to be in a [sic] front, front of a judge arguing nice points. He'd probably tell me to stop fancying myself and "Mr Keneally one more sentence like that and you'll be expelled from the court", but I've always been interested in constitutional issues. Passionately interested as a layman.

And I've got a lot of friends who are lawyers and I love law stories and so I've got a natural attraction to the law. But when I was working as a sort of school teacher at Waverley College and I wrote - my little brother was now studying medicine and I was delighted that at least there was one son who was a consolation to my parents, because my parents were uncomplaining when I left. They stuck with me - extraordinary, you know. This is why I think when you use terms like 'people from the bush' or 'working class', you know, these terms smother ah, an ocean of particularity. Of - they don't take account of the individual dignity of people who have actually paid for the ordination breakfast.

And there's not going to be an ordination breakfast, but there's still no reproach. This is - it's only with time that I've got to honour that acceptance because I didn't realise there were parents who said, "If you do a) or b), that's it". I didn't quite realise it. There were such parents in novels but I didn't think they were in real life. But in any case I was interested in writing. But Australians in those days um, weren't sure whether we could quite write. It was not amongst the job descriptions of Australians. It was um, the - again, the fine wool, the fighting in foreign wars and the sporting prowess, that we were known for.

The idea that we would ever be known for anything else wasn't on the radar screen at that stage. There were a couple of lonely nunataks of um, of excellence like Sidney Nolan and Drysdale and of course Patrick White. Although I didn't read Patrick White until I was in the seminary on seminary holidays. But I ah - it wasn't exactly, there wasn't a kind of mother fluid of a culture that there is now.

Um, and um, so I really wanted to write and one Christmas holidays as I say when my brother was studying medicine, I sat down, we shared a room at home in Homebush. That was the other thing - I hadn't left home. Um, to an extent it was timidity, to an extent it was a belief that I had a responsibility to the home, because I'd wasted their time and money. Um, I wrote a novel and sent it to an English publisher. Now one of the great things I always tell people as step one in getting published - it's amazing they don't notice it.

Inside the copyright page of every book there is in small print the address of the publisher. The publisher keeps it in small print and obscure because they don't want unsolicited manuscripts. But I very much wanted to be published by Faber and Faber. They publish a lot of writers I like. But I thought this book isn't good enough, so who would publish this sort of book and I decided Cassell would. They published Alec Waugh, Auberon Waugh's brother and sorry, uncle. And of course Evelyn Waugh's brother, and they published a lot of um, middle brow writers in those days.

And so I sent it off to them and it was um, ultimately accepted. But in the meantime I'd been a fairly um, lost sort of figure, but I made a lot of strong male friends amongst other teachers and other fellas. I quite liked the male companionship, which I still do. I mean there's something good about mateship as well as something sinister. Mateship can be the extermination of a minority. It can also be a kind of solidarity. But it's shortcoming is that, as I realised early, is that you can't confess anything.

You are in mateship. Everyone is funny and a character, everyone is getting on well in the world, everyone is having top grade associations with women and everyone has a string of profane jokes. But no one says, "God I feel lost". And that's the limitation of mateship. But ah, I quite, I quite liked it. One of the things I like about women is that obviously they come out with what is on their soul very readily with other women and - so I'm told. Even very readily with other men in some cases they come out with things that men would consider it inappropriate to confess when they're all together.

I think Australian men are getting better at the confessional. Ah, the social confessional, not the old confessional in the church. But anyhow I was a fairly lost soul. I trained, sublimated some of this into training rugby, the polite version of rugby league. And I'd never played it as a kid but I took to it with a passion and it was my Saturday morning and afternoon recreation and it lit up the week. But I was very um, to an extent socially inept, and again was haunted by the sense of how could I um, get out of my situation because I was aware that in many Catholic schools there are men who were formerly brothers or formerly seminarians who became these lonely, continuingly celibate old men. Very good teachers but sort of - they weren't able to make that second breakout.

You were studying the law part-time, you didn't see that as the way out?

I did see it as the way out until I started to write. To be published in The Bulletin was a fantastical experience for me. I was up at the - I remember catching the train to work from Homebush Railway Station and looking down at the people about to enter the train and thinking some of those people are going to read my short story and this was a miraculous feeling to me. This was - this gave me a, it gave me a sense of a possible escape from the ignominy of what I saw as the ignominy of my position.

I still occasionally went to football games in particular with some of the blokes who were damaged whom I'd been in the seminary with. Some of them would never come out. They would - one of them has been a lifetime patient, you know. Um, and ah, these were um, kind of bittersweet associations. They were good men. I'm quite sure that they would have had the normal stresses in their lives had they gone elsewhere, but I'm also quite sure they wouldn't have been destroyed in the way they were.

So my companionship was still chiefly male and often with men who had been raised in the same tradition of suspicion of women as I'd been raised in. And ah, but my social life was gradually expanding, gradually expanding. And gradually becoming more and more fulfilling. But I wanted to escape this second circle of the fate of former seminarians. And many of us were - I had many friends who were in that second circle. Many of them were studying law. Many of them became future lawyers. One of them well, reached great, great heights and um, I - Brian Johns had gone straight into journalism, which was a lucky escape for him.

And you didn't think of that?

I didn't think of journalism because I didn't think I could be employable. And I definitely thought that the law was a way out for me but ...

So you had two strands of possibility. You were studying the law.


You kept that up. But then when you got this short story published you thought I'll write something and you wrote this novel and sent it off ...


... to be published by ...

From Homebush, not the sort of place you send novels off [sic].

And you sent it off to London.

Yes, definitely. Ah, I wanted to be for - and look it wasn't cultural betrayal. I've always wanted to be published in a number of markets. You know I'm a um - the idea that it would be published in Australian and Britain was important for me a) because I was ambitious but also I wanted to make a living. I'd already decided I wanted to make a living and I was determined to make a living. And I found through my experience in the next couple of years of being published here, in Britain and in America, sort of going broke in three markets added up to a living in Australia. And um, I um, therefore sent it to this company, which had Australian distribution and was in Britain.

This book was 'The Place At Whitton'.

Yes, which had a lot of the - it was a technically impossible book. But you know in technically impossible it was very poorly crafted but it had a lot of passion in it. Now the interesting thing was in those days, unlike now, publishers would take a book like that and they'd say well maybe this isn't too flash but ah, his next book might be better. And they would bring people along in a way that since the accountants have won out in publishing doesn't happen now. And a book like that would be three years on the shelves and would be three years before it went into paperback. And now of course for all of us it's about three months on the shelves and then the paperback within about nine months or a year. And if you're lucky the paperback sticks around.

So um, the - I've often told young writers that their books would have been published in the'60s and '70s. It's no consolation but there - many publishable books now don't get published because it's much harder. But I got a letter, a telegram from them, saying that they were going to pay me 150 pounds and sort of binding me to them for life. And that was okay. I - again I felt liberated. And it gave me social confidence, you know. If you go up to a girl at a bar and you say "I'm studying law, I'm a schoolteacher who's studying law", that's rather ho hum. You know, particularly when you were my age. But to go up and say, "Have you read my novel?" was entirely another and more extraordinary thing.

So it did give me social confidence when it was ultimately published. And it gave me the sniff of a career. It was like, it was like a life-raft. And I was determined with that weird determination that I get in extreme moments to cling to it and make something of it.

What was the book about?

It was about the seminary. It was about um - it was a kind of psychological mystery. Ah, it involved a murder in the seminary. Um, but it wasn't a typical whodunnit. It was above all a reflection on what a weird place the place at Whitton was. Whitton was a fictional name that was a kind of Manly.

How was it received by the critics?

Very warmly. I remember there was - oh if only it was so now - there was a book show rather like the famous SBS film show that's around now, where people discussed three or four books and um, although one critic, Leonie Kramer didn't like it, Max Harris loved it and gave it a big review in his Australian Book Review. And um, it attracted a bit of attention. And I loved that. Writers say they don't like attention but I mean of course they like attention to their work.

And I loved that phenomenon of being published and I've got to say quite frankly of being praised. Writers never say these things. They never say I wrote it because I wanted to be praised. But it's one of the chief motivations. I'm writing it because I was the kid who was marginalised in the playground and now I'm going to get even with all those dumb kids who haven't written a book. That's one of the chief motivations for writing a book. I mean it's like the priesthood - a combination of banal and glorious motives. It's - and literature is a bit like that, a combination of banal and glorious motives.

Which bit of praise for that first book meant most to you? What did you most want to be praised for?

Oh for being - having language skills and narrative skills. And so that - I knew it was an imperfect book. In fact when I read the proofs of it, preparatory to publication, I realised that it was a very imperfect book. And so, and yet one always wants to get away with that imperfection. Randall Jarrell - it's very hard to write a perfect novel and even a perfect grand novel or classic novel. Randall Jarrell said of fiction that it is - of the novel rather. That it is of fiction, of uncertain length with something wrong with it.

And sometimes if you get rid of that something wrong, you end up with a nice ruled margin, A-plus technical novel but you - the fury has gone. And so um, the intensity is gone. And so it's almost impossible to write a novel that doesn't have some original sin in it, some essential sin, some essential imperfection. And yet 'The Place At Whitton' abounded with essential imperfections. It was, it took essential imperfections to a new level and yet it was my life-raft.

Having produced this first book and got praised for it, were you worried about what you were going to do for a follow-up? That's often a problem isn't it?

No because I was young and stupid and well, unworldly, and because there was no one 'round to tell me that writing fiction is the last card in the pack. If you want a good, stable living don't go near it. There were no literary festivals of course, except Adelaide every couple of years and it was a fairly remote event. [coughs] I am sorry. There were no seminars at [sic] writers to which, of writers to which an ordinary citizen could go and hear about the evils of publishers.

The fact that an Australian book published in Australia by an English publisher earned the writer a lesser royalty than the same book published in England did, sold in England did, this was the situation we were in. Australian writers were paid a colonial royalty. A debased colonial royalty believe it or not. Ah, and ah, this was one of the issues which led to the founding of the ASA by brave people like Dal Stivens and Morris West and Barbara Jefferis and umpteen other people. There's great dispute about who founded the ASA. But the colonial royalty was one of the issues that they took up.

But you were still a young writer not worried about these things, what did you do for your second book?

I took a job collecting real estate - collecting insurance in Newtown and Enmore. Ah, there was a job the - I'm afraid I was rather unscrupulous about this, writers are. I wanted time to write a second book. I knew what it was going to be, it was going to be an account of World War II from a child's perspective of growing up in Homebush. The novel everyone writes about their childhood. And ah, it would prove to be technically imperfect too. But that's another story.

Um, I heard that you could get a job collecting insurance for two days, that is you went around - the poor used to pay, including my family - well they weren't poor but they weren't rich. They used to pay their insurance by instalments. And you needed a fellow, a man or a woman to go around with a little booklet and record that they'd paid their one and six. Ah, and the rest of the week the people who did that were meant to sell insurance. Well I am an appalling salesman, so there was - I made a couple of attempts but I, I felt, you know, that a lot of the people couldn't afford what they were paying anyhow, so.

And I went 'round - my supervisor was an old DLP candidate from Ashfield. And he took me 'round a few times and tried to sell insurance in homes in Newtown, and he'd say, "What does hubby do?" and the woman would say, "He's a labourer". And this fellow would say, "Well, we're all labourers". But you know, you could tell that these people couldn't afford any more insurance. So I just tended to collect the insurance for two days. Walk 'round the streets and take the money and then study law but write the new novel above all, for the rest of the week.

Now this was a shameful admission, but that's what all the other people who collected insurance were doing. They all did it for two days and had other jobs - one as a dancer, another as a waiter and so on. In any case, I - Newtown was a rough area and um, I had an extraordinary experience there one day. I'd bought a little car, a Vauxhall Victor. And it was not a sure-fire starter. You know, you had to argue with it and have a discourse with it before it would start. And I parked it outside this woman's house, a little terrace in Newtown. A woman to whom I was to return part of her payments because she had abandoned the policy and I was to give her one pound ten, thirty shillings.

And I was at the door giving her thirty shillings and she was very twitchy. And from the back of the house a door slammed and in the hallway was this huge bloated-faced man with his - engorged with rage. And he saw me giving his wife thirty bob, which was around about the price of certain human services in those days. And he came raging at me. And I had to run and jump this wrought iron fence that had the normal spikes. I cleared the wrought iron fence and I got into my Vauxhall Victor, but I was already despairing because I knew it wouldn't start. So I was going to be beaten up by this fellow.

And I turned the key and it started. And I was out of there. And I didn't have to go to that house again because he had, they'd given up the policy. But I wrote a book called boy, 'The Fear' it was ultimately called. It was terrible [sic] title suggested by the publisher. I used to think that publishers knew a lot in those days. [laughs] And it was about this World War II experience of separation from the father, of being the man of the house, in theory. And of the fear of women for what was going to happen - the loss of their husbands, the whole thing of invasion.

And it was two novels in one really. It incorporated something about the outbreak - the Cowra outbreak. And I think it was a bit too much to put that in. And that's always been one of my faults as a novelist. Some people have called it generosity - plot generosity. Some people have called it packing too much into the one book. And even as late as 'Bettany's Book', you know there is modern Sudan and modern Sydney melded with nineteenth century Australia pastoral industry and the Female Factory. Is this too much? Well some generous people say, "No", but others say, "Yes it's too much" and ...

What do you think?

Oh no, I think it's just my temperament and I can't escape it. You know, if you, if you have a party you pour the wine, if you write a book you pour the wine copiously let me say. And if you write a book you might as well be copious in ...

You give it all you've got at the time.

Yes. Yes.

And so was 'The Fear' as well received?

Yes it was considerably well received because it was the um, sort of book that matched the experience of Australians who were young then. Um, who were in their late twenties. And I now had two books before I was thirty, so I was pretty - I might have been thirty when 'The Fear' came out but I was beginning to feel you know, I've got a future. And of course I had met my future wife Judy and um, I was courting her while I was, while I was writing 'The Fear'. And she was a very handsome nurse, whom I met over my mother's hospital bed.

My mother had an operation and Judy was one of her nurses. And Judy was so - such a splendid woman of the same background as me so we had a shared subtext.

In what way was she of the same background?

Well she came from big Catholic family, she'd been to convent schools and she had in fact tried to become a nun. She's a most absolutely - she was like nuns in the movies, you know, Audrey Hepburn. She was a very good looking nun and she had the same problems. She had left because of the same problems exactly. The lack of charity, the - she told me stories of how she and another young nun were required to eat their meals off a floor, off the floor. She was nursing and she was often accused of fraternisation, undue fraternisation with the doctors.

And she was a lively um, Australian girl who came from the same sort of Labor, Lang Labor, you know, devout Catholic, but social justice, sort of family.

Did you feel you'd found that other half you'd longed for?

Yes I did. I certainly did. And I um - mind you she had huge indulgence for my strangeness. For the strangeness in late 1960s Australia of being told that I wanted to be a writer and that I was going to make a living as a writer. Most sensible women would have run a mile. But again she had that, again it's that working class thing. The working class are often put down as people of no spaciousness. And she had that spaciousness that said "Oh" - that my parents had - "Oh, if that's what you want to do, let's give it a burl". She never said, "You'll never make a living, why don't you get a job in the public service?" or ...

Maybe she thought it was an heroic act?

Ah yes. I think she was - she came from an heroic family actually. Her elder brother, who I saw [sic] met , soon met had flown nearly 90 missions for bomber command. He was multi-decorated and his motivation was to show what Australians were made of. And he was - but she had that same bravery that was in him.

And what do you think she really saw in you Tom, at that stage? Were you socially more confident?

Yes. I had a natural gift that probably came from my father to compliment women, not as pure nonsense. I've always loved, I found that I loved women's clothing, not in the obvious cross-dressing way because I'm actually not a cross-dresser. I'd tell you if I was. And I'm a bad dresser. I'm a bad dresser. Good clothes on me die of shame. I'm about marginally better than Fred Hollows was as a dresser. But I love women's clothing and women's jewellery. And these are - I've got a, had a passion for jewellery all my adult life.

And so um, my father had a capacity to charm people and I obviously got that from them [sic]. He would go up to people, women in the street and talk to them and they'd say to me, "Your father's a lovely man". They didn't know that when he walked away from them he said, "What a bloody old headache wafer". But he liked them but he exercised this charm with great ease. And I was beginning to get the confidence to do the same thing. Um, to compliment women in a real way that doesn't demean them, you know. And um, that I think was attractive for some reason.

I, I still don't know. Judy was - had come from the convent some years before and she had a very active social life. There was a doctor chasing her. There was a bookmaker chasing her, and the bookmaker had a huge income. So, you know, women are very wrong-headed when it comes to love. They don't do what's good for them. What's obviously good for them. And ah, yeah I was um, I think in the [sic] early '64 when I had 'The Fear' all finished, I um, proposed to her.

[end of tape]

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