Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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When did you get married?

In 1965, um in August and it was- I went back, we went back to the old St Pat's Chapel to be um, to be married. And ...

At Strathfield?

At Strathfield. By then they'd built a chapel there. And then we had a reception at Ashfield. And relatives from the bush and Judy's relatives so on. And an old Labor Minister called Billy Sheahan who was Minister for Health and who listened in to a football match for most of the wedding breakfast until they told him - on an early transistor - until they said, "Billy you're on, Billy you've got to make a speech".

And it was a case of going back for the honeymoon to the place associated with my background, Crescent Head near Kempsey, which happens to be one of the greatest beaches on earth with a connection of greatest beaches on earth between it and the Hastings. So it might have been an economy honeymoon but it happened to be better than the Riviera. And ah, I was reading Judy then 'Under Milk Wood', which was all the rage then. I was attracted again by the weirdness of language of Dylan Thomas.

And we would go for a walk every day along a Crescent Head beach. You could walk for miles. We'd fish for lunch, cook the fish and then I'd read 'Under Milkwood'. And decency draws a veil over other matters that might occur. But the - that was the honeymoon. But I think that both of us still carried, you know, our backgrounds with us somewhat.

Tom, that's what I was going to ask. There you'd been, really up until quite recently, a priest focused on resisting women, spending hours and days and years of practice at redirecting your thoughts away from women.

Yes.

And now you were in love, you were married. What - how did you bring it all together in your head?

Well of course it was, it was very difficult. Both of us had what's the word, I suppose you'd have to say scars that we brought from our background. And maybe not as much with Judy but with me still a [sic] unpersuaded, unallayed sense of some failure. And that was very haunting. But um - and then there was the normal shakedown period of marriage where you learn to look at the world through the other person's mind. And this is a process which can take sixty years to - or at least all marriages that survive are based upon this exercise.

Of finding out, "Oh, that's the way he sees things" or "That's the way she sees things". So um, given that we had been in institutions that try to freeze your emotional development in time, we had early difficulties but we also had with sort of Catholic - the much-rumoured Catholic fertility, we had within a year a little girl, called Margaret. And then another year and a bit we had a little girl called Jane. And they were, that was wonderful.

I did like parenthood. I did like - well maybe not the banal aspects of parenthood but I loved going places with children. And the wonderful thing about children is that - and grandchildren as I discovered later - is that they don't give a damn how well you're writing, what doubts are plaguing you about your novel. They just want to go to the park or the beach. And they will forgive you any imperfection. They don't worry whether you're a first-class or a second-class or a failed novelist. They just want you to like them. And this element introduced some sanity into my writing because I'm an obsessive writer.

And I will, the way I almost prayed myself into madness in the seminary, I'm capable of writing myself into insanity too, because writing is an obsessive and solitary activity, like meditation. And the more you do it the more slightly mad you get. You um, need the intrusion and abrasion of other people to deliver you from obsession. So I ...

What do you mean by mad? What do you mean by obsessive madness?

Well I think that you can - writers have always had a tendency to get depressed about the work in progress. And to measure the world, the whole world in terms of how the book is going. Now this is potentially very dangerous to the people they're married to or the people they love. The fact that, the fact that you - if you're married to a writer you might put on a splendid dinner, but he'll sit there saying, you know, "Maybe if I tried this you know ...", sullenly drinking red wine and considering options.

That is the downside of um, marrying writers. I think it's part of the satanic pride of writers that they think their work really counts. The beginning of a novel is a belief that the world really needs this book. And I have that sort of belief. And it's outrageous that some yobbo from Homebush, some failed priest from Homebush, is going to write a book that the world actually needs to read, or part of the world needs to read. It is um, a satanic assumption in all that.

Which you've never lost?

Ah, no, which I can never get over, yes. And ah, there are good things in there as well as the satanic assumption. But if you didn't have that belief that this book has got to be written because it's just great material and people will love reading it, if you didn't have that assumption um, then you wouldn't get through the book. You need that high octane fuel to get you through the book. And even when I was such a young writer and began to write, ah geez, and began to write 'Bring Larks and Heroes' um, you know, there's this sense that the book is essential.

And children relieve you of that. Because they want to go - we're living at West Ryde they want to go to Meadowbank Park, or they want to go and play with friends, or they want to be driven up to their grandmother's place. And um, thus they deliver you from what could be a spiral where you get - you work more and more but you're getting less and less out of it. There is a limit to how long a day you should write. It's hard to judge. It's different for every human being but - for every writer. But that is the peril of the writer.

The solitariness doesn't mean that the normal um, abrasion and company and comfort of your fellows is not available when you begin work. So that you can start the day if you work in a communal business like filmmaking, you can start the day feeling rotten but then the cameraman tells you a joke and the producer takes you aside and says, "Look I know you're having a hard time at the moment, are you feeling okay?" And you get those normal human comforts. The principle I was trying to follow in the seminary was Thomas à Kempis' principle I think quoted from Marcus Aurelius, 'the more I am amongst men the less perfect I become'.

But I found for me it was the opposite. The more I am amongst men, to certain limits, men and women, the more sane I become. And various habits of paranoia, despair etcetera, which are common to writers are accentuated by the process of writing, so you've got to be careful. Indeed I - when I was actually teaching writing - can you teach writing? No but you can coach it. You can tell young writers of talent what signals they should listen to and what signals they shouldn't. And I told them that the psychological aspects of writing are the most dangerous.

And the temperamental aspects. First, are you going to risk this loneliness and this rejection at the end of your season of loneliness? Um, of course there are rewards during the writing when you're really in contact with the characters and you're really writing, you feel you're really writing well. It's a great irony though that any writer will tell you often it's when you're writing with maximum angst and feel that things aren't going well that you write your best stuff. So you finish, you often get this experience of finishing a draft or a book and you remember certain sections with affection. And you think I'm not going to have any trouble with those on the second draft.

But you go back and the ones you wrote on the days you weren't feeling so well are the ones that don't give you a problem. And the remembered glory sections do. Um, so um, there is a certain danger that I was early aware of and I was early grateful, early in my career, grateful to have these two quite beautiful little girls. They took after a) my mother and b) Judy, fortunately. And um, they were charming company. And I became fascinated with the personality of children um, the fact that they declare who they are on the first day.

I had this view of childhood that it was an amorphous sort of blob of exploitation of breast milk and then nappies. But the assertion of a personality from the very start fascinated me and then many people talk about the delight of re-seeing the world with children. You know, when you have children you go to many museums, you go to many parks, you go to many open places. You go and see kangaroos and emus and wonder should you let your child pat them.

I erred on the side of taking the risk, but these I found very salutary. I used to take the girls to the zoo nearly every Saturday morning actually. And now I find myself taking um, my grandchild to the zoo and it's, in a way it's for my sake, to see the animals again, the way a child sees them. In any case that was what our early marriage was like. There were troubles which everyone has, but there were these, this communality over children.

And besides um, Judy was an enormously charming woman, and an enormously handsome woman um, but like many people the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens condition us to think of marriage as the end of the novel, where of course twentieth century novels indicate that it's the beginning of the novel.

Now you were then about to publish your third book 'Bring Larks and Heroes'.

Oh yes. Yes. And it was the make or break book for me. I knew in a number of ways, boy it shows how simple-minded in a way I still was. There was a Commonwealth Literary Fund administered by the Office of the Prime Minister, Bob Menzies. And it gave out an occasional grant, two or three grants to Australian writers. And um, I applied for a grant of 4,000 dollars, or 2,000 pounds, we were just crossing over from pounds to dollars.

And I felt that I wanted to write a book about the early colony. And the early colonies, one of the obsessions of mine, the fact that a place - well it is disputed whether we were a penal colony, I think we were definitely a penal colony, there's a certain revisionism about convicts. But it fascinated me that Australia began as a penal colony and then became an increasingly successful society by the 1960s. Um, with certain habits that I individually disliked such as looking to the rest of the world, even though I did, did it myself.

Looking, believing that in London there was a literary life superior to anything we colonial dolts knew about. Um, in any case I applied and I got a grant of 4,000 dollars, which was a living wage at that stage. You know it was an artisan's wage. And I was very delighted to have received it. But I remember saying to a friend of mine, a friend to whom I later dedicated - he died young - a friend to whom I dedicated 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. I remember saying this is um, revenue that's come from other Australians and I've got to write - they deserve the best possible book I can write.

And this showed again some of the virtues of the working class. That they take these compliments seriously. In any case, I wrote 'Bring Larks and Heroes' and I felt that I was - what is the term that sportsmen use? 'in the zone' - I felt that I was in the zone. That I was writing well. It was a book that was heavily influenced, a young book's [sic] young man's book very influenced by Patrick White and by, by ah - gee, I'll start that sentence again. It was a young man's book, it was very influenced by Patrick White and by Dylan Thomas. And I can see what I was reading at the time I wrote certain passages - if I went back and read it, which thank God I don't have to do.

But it was extremely successful. I had demanded, with huge determination, a good advance for it. I'd demanded one and a half thousand pounds, which was virtually the same as the grant I'd got. And I was determined that in that year, the year my daughter Margaret was born, I would become a fully professional writer, because I was still teaching part-time and writing at that stage. And um, I became, through 'Bring Larks and Heroes', which was published everywhere um, a professional writer.

And when you get - you know again this gives you ideas above your station, particularly if you've got no one to say ah, "Look you're still going to find it hard from here on". And um, that was very much the so-called 'breakthrough' book, the book that enabled me to become a full-time writer. I also reviewed and wrote a few plays and so on. I was very much a journeyman writer in the sense that I brought this in concept of as well as writing being something transcendent, I brought the idea that it was a job. And that you must be as clever as you can to make a living.

And I'm unapologetic about that. I mean this admission in some mind shows that you're not really a serious writer. You know, you're supposed to get tuberculosis through not being able to eat proper food. But I never took that attitude. I saw it as an industrial proposition. And maybe again I was influenced by my background as well as - but I felt luckier than everyone else because it was all so transcendent. And I didn't know what would come out of the subconscious and I, you know, the wonderful things would happen. Not wonderful things in the sense that you get to meet Bob Menzies, but wonderful fantastical things would come out of your brain. And you would be allowed to put them down on paper. And then someone would buy the book.

I was recently talking to Tim Winton and we were talking about an Australian writer who had said that he had wanted to be able to walk into any store and find his work in stock. And Tim said, "That's nonsense, everything's gravy. If anyone writes [sic] your book it's gravy. To be paid to do this, any sort of wage to do this, is gravy". And Tim is right. He's a very sane, youngish man and I felt some of that joy of being paid, however modestly, to do this.

And um, I also however felt very much influenced by Patrick White's alienation. I thought writers had to be thoroughly alienated. Now they do tend to be alienated in various ways. Because they spend a lot of their time imagining what it's like to be someone else, they're often you know - I notice that Australian writers are very concerned about the detention system for asylum seekers. They tend, not to be better people but because they spend all their time imagining what it's like to be someone else they tend to be empathetic. And ...

But you talk about alienation being a theme and it was definitely a theme in your early novels, but I imagine that that had come from your own sense of alienation that you'd had as a result of ...

There was, there was a sense of alienation that came from me but there was also the double alienation, first of all with the modern world, the sort of thing that Patrick White had, and then with philistine Australia as he tended to call it. And he really didn't like the modern world and he didn't - he was a genius but he definitely didn't like Australians very much. He saw us as rather in the, along the lines of AD Hope's great poem, second-class Europeans pullulating timidly on the edge of alien shores. And there's some truth in that. We're still pullulating timidly to this day.

But nonetheless - and so I felt to be a true writer you had to be doubly alienated. But there was a genuine alienation that came from my feeling, my struggle to assert myself and establish myself. And that was a struggle in which I was quite ruthless. I can't tell a story about ruthlessness but ruthless determination and there were probably scenes - writers are quite immoral when it comes to getting the book written. Filmmakers are quite immoral when it comes to getting the film made.

And ah, you know that willingness to work as an insurance collector, but not really - and get a pittance for that - but not really sell insurance the rest of the week. That's characteristic of the ruthless determination which I'm afraid goes into writing a novel, even a bad novel ...

Did that make for difficulty at home?

Look it only made - it made for difficulty in this sense that you tended to get absorbed in your writing to an extent that's very hard to practically - you wanted to get involved to an extent that's very difficult to manage in a house where there are two little kids. And um, naturally a mother who needs help with the two little kids. But, so sometimes I'd feel, when I was changing the nappies that I'd rather be somewhere else but - writing. But no. No I knew it was real life. I knew it was what had to be done, to an extent.

But I did have all the male attitudes that you know, it was heroic for a male to wash up. I wasn't quite the supreme Australian sexist that, who said that it [sic] - "Just not my job". But I did feel an undue merit when I did wash up. And I think Australian males still do, you know. "This is heroic of me."

When 'Bring Larks and Heroes' was such a success, and it won the Miles Franklin Award ...

That's right.

How did you feel about this success?

Oh I was, both at a sane level and a less admirable level, I was delighted. I thought you know, you're, you're getting there son. You're finding a place where people will listen to you and people were listening a lot. And to an extent I was unqualified to speak because I had not grown up adequately. My growing up had been delayed by um, well by forces that we're aware of. And yet I found it an extraordinary phenomenon that if you wrote a book that people wanted to read, people wanted to know what you think about everything.

And above all of course about Vietnam. And I was very uneasy about Vietnam, you know - I, from a fairly early time. I didn't particularly march because this has been my problem as a person who's occasionally activist - if you don't write all day, I was obsessively writing. I felt I didn't have to - the book was more important than anything. I didn't quite have time to march but I lent my name and spoke whenever interviewed about it. I just felt that it was the wrong thing to send young Australians there and I felt that it was the wrong thing for them too. I felt that they could be destroyed not only physically but ...

But I knew very little about, about war. However we were on the right track those who mistrusted. We mistrusted it actually on the lines on which I've spoken a lot throughout my life. A - that we are so slavish sometimes. We have this reputation of anti-authoritarian muscularity. And yet in many cases we are - fall over to help those that I think we see as our betters in some way. Ah, our masters. And that was already worrying me at that time. And also of course the blind adoration of the royal family was something that I - really upset me. You know I couldn't see why it had to be so.

You were thrust into the limelight and given a lot of publicity after the success of that book ...

And the fact that I'd been a seminarian and Judy had been a nun added to that.

Now I, in preparing for this interview, listened to a radio interview that you did as part of all that publicity at the time that's been kept, which you did with Ellis Blain and Clare Dunne ...

Ah yes.

And what interested me about that was that at that time you sounded like a very shy, rather hesitant, media performer. Now that was before you became the absolute consummate master of media performance that you've become. Did you consciously develop your public persona to deal with the kind of publicity that you began to attract?

Yes but each interview gave me more confidence and more knowledge. It - I also read Marshall McLuhan's book on the media 'The Gutenberg Galaxy' and was much influenced by it. But also in terms of performance that television is a cool medium, it's not like giving a speech. Or - yes it's a cool medium, he said. And other, radio is a warmer medium because people speak in a more declamatory way on radio. So there wasn't a conscience [sic] attempt to become, to become better at the media, but there was a certain awe.

After all people like Clare Dunne, she was a goddess to me. She was this exquisite bone-structured Irish woman who was beloved on the media in Australia and she was, when I was an obscurity and a nothing - not that I was any more of something than I was to begin with, but I saw it that way. At least I had more confidence. Um, so I would have been awed by people like Clare Dunne.

It wasn't the awe, it was the shyness and the seriousness.

Yes.

The seriousness that was there. And I suppose what has become your well-known public persona now is a much more sort of genial, relaxed character.

Yes. Yes.

And um, and yet I felt in some ways that the writer that you are was more revealed then. And so I wanted you to talk a little bit for us about the way in which the demands of the media upon you have shaped a public personality for you.

Yes, I think that I was - I'd been in institutions in which you were to deny your personality and to be garrulous and egregious in the seminary. It was not - it was somewhat frowned on of course. Um, and um, I was a haunted young writer when I was writing these early books. I did have a kind of a theological seriousness still about - I was still a priest, I was still in a strange way I was still writing about good and evil, redemption, everything. Christ figures, you know I was still very seriously theological in a non, a less dogmatic way than before. But I was still that lost um, um, priest looking for um, obsessed with the state of the world and depressed by the state of the world.

Ah, but I'd - there was always this gregarious side to me, the capacity to be, you know, very talkative and to go to parties and to perhaps occasionally drink more than I should and um, tell tales. And I think I got that from both my father and mother who were great party animals. My mother still is. They love a party. And um, also I lost awe, lost some awe for the people who were interviewing me. Not in the sense that I thought they were despicable people but I thought they were ordinary people who happened to have an autocue or a list of questions. And so that was simply a maturing thing.

But it's interesting you talk about this seriousness and this, if - I, I don't know if you'd agree - there was a sort of haunted quality. And that lasted until the early 1970s. 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' which is considered a sort of minor classic, was in that period of some darkness before I was getting over my - had got over my alienation with the world and before I'd found that really my truest character was that of a hedonist and a partygoer and a storyteller. Um, and that my real nature was actually - that I'd been suppressing all my life - was really to be sort of a lord of misrule and to say the outrageous.

And so um, I see a clear divide in my work about 1973. Pre, the pre area was an area of considerable alienation - and the post - and darkness, and there has been an almost wilful celebratory character in my books from then on. So '73, up to '73 I had this Patrick White view, the gnostic view that there were a few saved souls in a mass of stupidity and philistinism and so on. So the heroes were always up against the mass of people in those books.

And certainly Jimmie Blacksmith is the - even though he's a terrible criminal - he's the enlightened man amongst all these people of no enlightenment. From the early '70s I became - my natural democratic - I hope I'm not flattering myself - democratic tendency to exalt the despised person and give them a value began to kick in. And, as I say, an almost wilful celebration of life. And it's round about then, the same time, that Australia began to give up mourning its isolation and its philistinism, so called. Many Australians were the most cultivated people you'd ever meet.

Um, its separation from the centres of culture and began to celebrate itself. It was about then that that alienating concept, the dead heart of Australia, began, came not to be pushed upon schoolchildren. No wonder we felt a sense of inferiority when in our childhood we were told that Australia had a dead heart. What a demeaning reverberating, awful Euro-centric, Anglo-centric if you like, view of Australia. And it was about the 1970s that you got in the work of someone like Brett Whiteley. You know, Brett Whiteley's Australia was a lush place. And Sid Nolan's was a space of alienation in which the trees were stunted and the earth was bare.

Even the lush foothills of the Victorian Alps were rendered into a desert place in Sid Nolan's 'Ned Kelly' series. And I think we all began to wake up to the fact that we were on to a good thing really here, you know. A lot of us had been to England and been subjected to bed-sit misery, and the actual philistinism of many of the English. And ah, so around about the time I shifted there was also a shift in Australian culture and Australian self-perception.

And um, it wasn't because I was on the national - it just happened. It was a coincidental [sic]. And it was - we had worked through our problems, a great number of them, Judy and me. I hadn't worked through all my problems and probably never will. But um, our lives were actually very good. We enjoyed life and we were lucky in that the girls never became alienated from us. In spite of our - well you know about the stupidity of parents I suppose. When my daughter was little she used one of these mistakes that was a sort of out of the mouths of children comes wisdom mistakes.

She called all adults 'dolts'. And I was delighted to see that under Judy's intense tutelage, Judy told them everything about life. They became - they were more mature then [sic] they were eighteen, when they were eighteen than we were when we married, you know. And ah, we were delighted to produce these girls who were not thoroughly alienated. And they've since written in various collection [sic] of essays about how [sic] their life was like. And they're so flattering that I accuse them of being in denial. They leave out the fights and all the rest of it. But I'm delighted that their view of their childhood is as it is. And I attribute that to the fact that Judy was such a good instructor in what lay ahead in life.

[end of tape]

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