Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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You'd had a great success with 'Bring Larks and Heroes' and it had really established you as a novelist. Was it all up from thereon, or did you encounter setbacks?

Oh, certainly, ah, I had chosen to become a full-time professional writer, so there were both economic setbacks and there were critical setbacks. Some of them were absolutely my fault, but I would say this. Australia then, ah, was desperate for cultural icons.

We felt we didn't have enough of them. And so if you er, wrote the books that weren't ex- ... expected, or wrote books about other places, they were not treated with the same seriousness as the books that were about Australia. So we had a, a culture of postcodes. Alright?

We felt that there should be, ah - every writer was precious and ought to produce what we thought of as an advance to our culture. We were probably always wrong about what that was. So, ah, I - with my background, I, I think you might be able to see from my childhood and, and training why I'd be interested in the broader world, and, ah, that was something that didn't go down as well with the domestic market here.

So the ah, better I went in other places, to an extent, I had a bit of a shadow here. But it was merely a shadow. I was still a very lucky human being to be able to pursue this, um, obsession with, with writing. I really now see that everything was, was, ah, right for, um, for me.

But sometimes I felt - it's curious, the attitude towards, um, the reception of books. [INTERRUPTION]

Sometimes I felt a particular book should have got a better reception on industrial grounds, you know. People were saying things which stopped other people from buying the book and that this had an impact on income, fortunately never a terminal one.

But I felt in that whole Lang Labor way they shouldn't be telling this - what I felt obvious untruth. But then criticism is all about ah, ah, untruth. I mean, we, we really - there's something nasty in our human nature, including that of writers, which enjoys a bad review better than a good one, and the reviews are - and terribly, we enjoy an argument about a homonym.

That is, a critique which is actually a character analysis, like the critiques that came the way of Salman Rushdie's book, 'Empire', when he moved to America with a new wife, etcetera. These, um, are, um ...

You experienced some of these sorts of reviews?

Oh, I felt I did ...

What sort of things were said about you under the guise of criticising your books?

Well even ... even - I don't like to talk about this now, but even relatively recently, um, there was a piece in Quadrant, ah, which ran, ah ... 'Thomas Keneally, My Part In His Destruction'. And it was a particularly good year, so I felt like asking the author if he'd write a, another one the next year, along the same lines.

But yes I did, I did rightly or wrongly and probably wrongly, get about a sense that I was being reviewed, ah, and the books were [sic]. But of course, I say that tentatively because every writer feels that, and it is the nature of reviews, and it's been going on for centuries, and ah ...

But you hadn't ...

I shouldn't have felt like that. I would not feel like that now.

You had the curious situation, though, didn't you, with your reviews, of getting almost uniformly good reviews for all your work overseas, at the same time as you were receiving criticism from home that said, "Keneally showed early promise and now he's lost it".

Yes, that's, that's right. And I felt, um, rightly or wrongly - I'm talking about my subjective perception - I thought I was making advances, both technically, but that the sins in my books, the original sin, the something wrong that's in every novel, that, that I was getting past that, that I was dealing with the novel with far more technical expertise than there was in, say, 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'.

But let me again say, if this is the worst thing that happens to a person in their lifetime, they're extraordinarily lucky. But I did feel, ah, just on grounds of sort of - like a man who makes a cabinet and then everyone comes in and says, "That's not a cabinet", I felt that sort of disappointment.

You also experimented by moving outside the normal bounds that you'd adopted in your early novels, so that you, you extended both in terms of geography - that is, sort of going elsewhere as you mention - but also in terms of style. When you wrote 'A Dutiful Daughter', for example, you seemed to move into a completely different genre.

Yes, 'A Dutiful Daughter' is a mad, early novel of mine that ... I'll say the sentence again. Um, 'Dutiful Daughter' is a fairly eccentric early novel of my mine, but it had a definite purpose. I was trying to create an allegory of adolescence, and it's about a young girl who reaches puberty and immediately, her parents are turned into cattle. Um, and she has the tending of this herd of parents.

It is a good, um, metaphor for what happens to many adolescents. When they reach adolescence, their parents, who have been gods and succourers become the greatest dolts on earth, become swinish, stupid people. And that was the allegory that I was trying to incarnate in 'A Dutiful Daughter'.

Ah, and I suppose I was, um - I've always been attracted to that writing. One of my favourite books is Gunther Grass's 'The Tin Drum', the German book, in which there's a man who is a dwarf - is reduced to dwarfism. From the age of three, he chooses dwarfism, and he grows up in this um, in this shortened, abridged form of himself until the day his father is killed by the Russians during the last days of the war.

And his ah, dwarfism is a metaphor for the, um, for the dwarfism of the German soul under the impact of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic and then the embracing of Hitler. Ah, and I love books that, that carry an allegory of that nature in them, and have experimented with this sort of thing in some novels, as in 'Woman of the Inner Sea', where you've got a woman who has a totem companion who's a kangaroo called Chifley.

And, ah, I, I like that, um, the allegorical, what they call the magic realist, where the dead return and talk to people, and visions occur - sort of thing that occurs in Gabriel García Márquez, although I have to say and it's the truth, that a lot of Latin writers that I know have said, "This isn't magic realism, having the dead come back. In Latin terms, it's a social realism".

Do you feel that you're discouraged when you move too far away from the idea of the traditional, the more traditional storyteller into a world of utter imagination and fantasy?

Ah, I, I realise, ah, that the utter fantasy is hard to achieve. I'm writing one now, set in a fictional Iraq which could be - and relating to - based on things I heard out at Villawood. But, ah, it, um, is hard to sustain a fable for sixty, eighty thousand words. Realism is always trying to break in and undermine the fable.

Okay, it's a good enough allegory to have a girl who turns her ah, parents into cattle, but then there's the question, the realist problem of what do you feed them, you know? How do you protect them from bovine tuberculosis? And so on. What do you say to the agricultural, um, officer who comes around?

Ah, all these practical, realist questions, and it's hard to produce a seamless fable, but I'm very attracted to the form. You - I think you can see in the work that I've tried nearly everything from Tom Wolfe's the New Journalism, as in Schindler, um, all the way up to magic realism or allegory or whatever you call it.

But I am attracted to, um, experimentation. However, I'm also attracted to linear narration. I'll tell you why. Ah, that's what we got around the campfire, when we were, um - there's a character is Celtic culture called the shanachie who was no good in faction fighting and tribal warfare, but he made up stories about it all.

And he - that's how he got his place at the fireside. And he was a linear narrator. He got - he arrested his audience by the graphicness [sic], graphic nature of his narration and by the fluency and inventiveness of his prose. And, um, so I've also written straightforward novels and all sorts of stuff.

Um, I'm still experimenting and I'm glad that I'm um, at 66, have not been forced out of my office by a younger man, as most 66 year olds are. And um, um, still have the option of experimentation. At least in my own mind. Um, God knows what my work's worth, but ah, in my own mind, I see it as, um, it's - entire series of possibilities.

When you moved - the first big move out of the themes that you'd been using at the beginning of your career, where you were drawing on your experiences in the priesthood, you were drawing on Australian history, was - came out of a trip to Antarctica, and, and the Antarctic became a place for you to write about, subsequently. How did that all happen?

Well, I, ah, had always been fascinated by Antarctica and had also been fascinated, or attracted to, all male societies. Ah, you know, I went to an all male school, all male seminary. Ah, and it - I began to read the ah, journals of Scott and other Antarctic explorers, and I just didn't quite believe them that there was this seamless fraternity amongst them.

And I wanted to examination [sic], examine the kind of the inevitable flaw ah, in the Antarctic expedition. And I was interested in going to Antarctica and asked the American Embassy. And the American Ambassador was - at that time was a very quite Anglican reverend person from, ah, Episcopalean - practicing Episcopalean, very wealthy, like many of our um, ambassadors from - a man from Texas.

He was going to make a around about a two week or ten day reconnaissance of Antarctica. And, ah, he asked me would I go. And um, of course I said yes. Ah, I, um, er, told Judy about it when she got back from shopping and quite reasonably, she said, "Well help me bring the shopping in first, before you tell me you're going to Antarctica and to the South Pole".

And, um, I was interested, both for it - both in terms of its being another state, almost another state of being. It was not like any other place on earth. At the Pole, there was 7,500 or 8,500 feet of ice on top of gently rolling downs that were about 1,500 feet above sea level, and, um, it had been seen as another state of being.

And so it seemed an arena for, um, moral conflict, and perhaps an arena of secrets between men. Um, and I was overpowered by sheer graphic grandeur, too. And so we set off in a plane flown by an American officer who later went to, on to the staff of President Nixon, and who let, accidentally let, the, um, Watergate investigation know that there were tapes.

And, ah ... that was ... that whole trip was due to the generosity of Bill Crook, who was the American Ambassador under John Gorton's government, a good Democrat, a man of great conscience who's since died of a parasite he picked up in, um, in Ethiopia, when he was working as an aid volunteer, ah, in Ethiopia.

And, ah, ironically, his daughter has become a novelist, so it can happen in the best of families.

And Antarctica had a big influence on you.

Yes. Maybe it was an attempt to flee - one of my consistent attempts to flee the real world, but it was, um, so absolute. It's so - it was one of those landscapes that, um, ah, imposed contingency upon the onlooker, that - well, a non-fancy way of that is to say it put you in your place.

And of course, Australia has much landscape that puts you in your place, too. Um, yes - I still dream about, about that trip. Even though I've not been back to Antarctica, I still dream of landing in McMurdo Sound and ah, all, all the, ah, splendour of the midnight sun above the Royal Society Mountains.

And, ah, I can't quite call myself an old Antarctic hand, but it's certainly in terms of the impact upon the imagination, it was very powerful, and I wrote another book on the same theme, and it's, it's actually dedicated to Bob Hawke. Um, it's, um, about a classic expedition, again, all male.

I'm interested in the sins that break out amongst males, or I was then. I don't mean, you know, I don't mean, er ... any liaisons. I mean the lies men are capable of generating and hiding, which of course is the stuff of all politics. Generation of lies and the hiding of deceits and mysteries.

And, um, that, um, ah, second book, I really enjoyed writing.

But that sounds as if you didn't enjoy writing 'The Survivor'.

I found, with 'The Survivor', I, I think there, there were technical problems of joining the Australian part of it to the Antarctic part of it. Not too bad, but an acceptable book maybe, rather than a splendid one. Ah, and, ah, people enjoyed reading it. It fitted the irreverence of the age, when we - Vietnam was on, we'd stopped believing that our betters knew what was best for us.

And I suppose the book was ah, very much in that spirit. That first Antarctic book, 'The Survivor', was very much in the spirit of that time, when we've stopped believing in the seamless perfection of fraternity, when there'd been too many lesions to, to, um - made in human fraternity for us all to believe in it absolutely.

You drew on your experiences on staff at the University of New England, for the campus part of the novel ...

Yes, that's right.

What had taken you to New England and to that job?

Well, I was offered a place on the, um, ah, Faculty of External Education. I was very lucky to be offered it, and, ah, so we spent about a year and a bit there, in New England, and, um, ah, I - you know, I, I was trying to write, er, the urbane and sort of also at the same time scathing, ah, picture of academia that had become fashionable then, through 'Lucky Jim' and, you know ...

Half the - half the British, um, ah, novels of the day seemed to be about, again, this thing of secrets and betrayals and so on, under an urbane exterior. And, um, I sup- ... I imagine I was influenced by that, but, um, I haven't read it since 1960, ah, 1967 or 68, so I'm not quite sure, ah, what its problems are, but I, I remember that when you'd finished it, I was aware that although I'd done as much as I could think of with it, it hadn't come out as seamlessly as 'Bring Larks and Heroes'.

I believe that that was your first example, though, of an adaptation for the screen. Was it? Was that the first one?

Ah, yes, that's right. The ABC made a mini-series of ...

What does it - what does it feel like as a writer to see what you've written turned into something for the screen? [INTERRUPTION]

It feels like being a spectator. Er, it's a different entity so you forget that it's your material. It's only occasionally that you remember that it's got something to do with what you, um, wrote, and it's great, though to - I remember taking the two little girls along to see it all shot. It was shot partially in Frenchs Forest, or along the Wakehurst Parkway, which has always been a great standby location for Australian television.

And, ah, it was great fun. I liked the communal aspect, again, of the fact that, um, you got to talk to so many people while working, not that I was working there, but, ah, you got - there were so many, ah, electricians and, um, and, um, ah ... cameramen, and, and focus pullers, and lighting men, and, ah, actors of both genders.

And I felt that it would be great if novels could be made cooperatively like that. But sadly, fiction is like dying. It's something you can only do on your own, and, um, ah, but I, I was attracted to the communal activity. Ah, I never - at no stage of my connection with films, did I see myself as a director.

Ah, I would have - or a potential director. I wouldn't, I don't think, have had the certitude about what to do that I have in the novel. Ah, there's something about the novel that gives me certitude and there's something about film that confuses me. You know, how can, how can you tell what's happening? It, it seems more like a military campaign than an individual effort.

And as a general can't always be sure how the campaign's going, neither can the director, or producer, or that glorious species of person, the camera operator, ah, director of photography. So, um, although I was er, attracted to the medium and wrote a few things for it, nonetheless the novel remained the main game.

By then I'd had a - around about then, I'd had a play out which was a basis of [sic] - based on 'Bring Larks and Heroes', and it was called 'Halloran's Little Boat'. And it was found to be rather verbose, and it is true that it's hard to make a transition to um - from, ah, the novel to the stage, because you tend to want to put too much in for the realities of an evening at the theatre.

It was funny, though. I came up against the, the fact that, um, modern writers for the theatre have - are in a difficult position. If they write like their favourite playwrights, say JM Synge, or Shakespeare, they would be considered totally unproducable. It's only because Shakespeare is Shakespeare that people produce him now.

And they make a great fist of it. But these days, with dramaturgs and intrusive producers, he would have been told to cut out the longueurs, and, you know, get everyone back on their bus by ten-thirty. And, ah, I noticed that the language in 'Halloran's Little Boat' is very rich, but really, richness of language is only permitted in the occasional Irish import and in classic plays from the past.

And I think that's a bit sad, but it's the reality of the modern theatre. But I think it's a bit sad.

You have seemed to demonstrate a need to keep reinventing what you do. You've moved your - you've moved from Australia to Europe to America, thrown in the Antarctic, Africa, different places.

In the writing, yeah.

Yes, and you've also found many very different themes. A lot of writers find a last and stick to it. What do you think it is in you that needs this constant renewal?

Yes, I would like to be the, the person who found the last, and stuck to it. I, ah, I don't know. It's, it's a um [coughs] ... if you wanted to be a critic, you could say that it's a certain flibbertigibbet tendency, a, um a ... a butterfly tendency, a literary butterfly, or a literary bikie driving up every alley there is.

Or - and it could demonstrate a fundamental lack of seriousness. Or it could um, be the case of a lifelong discovery, self-discovery, discovery of material, and, um, I think it's probably both. I think it's both temperamental, both the - it , it is like so many of our virtues and our vices. It's two-faced, ah, in that there are disadvantages to it, an evil side to it and a good side to it.

Ah, and, ah, I think there's a good side to this curiosity and this tendency to find stories in - all over the place. Ah, but there probably is a fundamental lack of serious - flippancy, too. But then, um, flippancy is an important human quality, I think. Um, however, it, um, um, I, I found it - always found it hard when I was a young writer to write about the present.

I find it easier now. The present seems to me, whether it's - this is so or not, it seems to me to be more interp- ... interpretable. Once you've seen a few captains and kings come and depart, ah, exude their vision, tell their lies and fall, um, the - you know, you know what to look for in contemporary society.

But in my early writing, I tended to go either to an allegory or to times past to find a model of the present. For example, in 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith', 1900 was a time when we were redefining ourselves and considering Federation. It was a time we were involved in a foreign war, called The Boer War.

Ah, another unjust war in my opinion, but there you go. Who would want to see southern Africa to continue to be run by some of the Afrikaans - but it was a very ambiguous war. And there was great debate about it in Australia as - at the time, as there was in - during the Vietnam War. And even in Kempsey, ah, when I'm looking for a story I go to the two Kempsey papers which are on microfilm in the New South Wales Library, the Argus and the Macleay, and the, the Argus and the Chronicle, rather.

And the Chronicle was against participation in the Boer War, and the Argus was for it. And so you had a mirror of what was happening over Vietnam. And, er, you, er, had a referendum on, um, civil ri- ... or allowing the Federal Government to legislate the rights of Aboriginal Australians, obviously to give full and civil voting rights, at least in theory.

And, um, so, ah, in 1900, you had the state of the Aboriginals being debated and very soon it would be debated in the House of Representatives, and it would be decided that they shouldn't have the vote. And so, ah, it seemed that nothing had changed, in a way. We're still considering wars that were not our business, except psychologically, and - they were our business psychologically because of our sense of either cultural heritage and cultural duty or because of our sense of dependence upon others.

And the Aboriginals were still in crisis, as they still are. And so this story, of the man who is offered a chance to become a token white and takes it and finds that the means by which he takes it itself condemns him to rejection, and he then goes mad and he then, ah, decides to take vengeance upon farmers and their women. Um, that seemed to be a very modern story to me.

So when I wrote about the past, I always wrote about um - I was really writing about the present. Ah, when I wrote about Joan of Arc in an early book, 1974, I think, ah, I wrote a, about - I was really writing about feminism and ah, I was taking a whole new line on her - a controversial line.

But sadly these - when it came to the cover art of those days, the cover artist just heard 'Joan of Arc' and they put a maidenly figure in the middle with cloisters and so on, but the book was not like that. It was really about feminism. It was really about a woman who, ah, was an uncomfortable, determined, in some cases ... um, un- ... well, largely unpolished woman who spoke - who thought she was related to Christ, and who spoke to men, often in their own language.

And the force of personality. And she was not some delicate flower. She was a woman warrior. And I'd always been fascinated by her, um, but again, I felt that she was a model for the woman who emerges from nothing, politically, and has a voice. She's a model.

For example, by then, I'd seen women do that. A young convent schoolgirl from Melbourne named Greer had suddenly become the seer of the age. And, ah, she too had an uncomforting voice and an uncomfortable delivery and people hid their heads from her oratory, and she was a sort of prophetess, who was not comfortable to listen to at all, who used profane language and so on.

And I wanted to write about that, that sort of woman has always fascinated me, and that's why I wrote about Joan of Arc. And again, you know, this, um, it's a book I'm pleased to find is still around, in the little edition.

And you liked that book a lot, didn't you?

I did like, ah, ah, what's it called?

'Blood Red, Sister Rose'.

I did like that Joan of Arc book, and, ah ...

What made you decide, at that point in time, to write a book about feminism?

Well, I didn't see it explicitly as a feminist book, but I saw Joan as the vehicle for this sort of - these ideas, and, and of course, this story. She made her own improbable story. And I just wanted to take her up to the point of the crowning of the king, because after that, her voices left her, her strength left her and that's another theme in my books. Um, people operate, they have their golden season, they operate with certainty, with grace, with authority, and then the tide leaves them. Their voices leave them, as they left Joan.

That certainly happened with Schindler, at the end of World War II, when his grandeur simply ran out like a tide, like wine from a bottle. And, um, ah, so I had been reading about Joan of Arc since the, ah, seminary days, and I - it struck me as ironic that she had not been - I noticed even as a seminary [sic] ... seminarian, when I was coming [sic], becoming a pluralist, atheistic thinker, under the guise of my cassock, I noticed that it took till 1921 for her to be canonised.

Now she's the great hero of France, and France is the eldest daughter of the church, and it took her 500 years to get canonised. What does this tell you? There were some suspect aspects to her, and amongst the aspects that, um, that, that - there are a number of anthropologists have written about her, and see her as a kind of ah, incarnation of various fertility goddesses that were still, um, still part of European culture at that time.

And, um, that, that she spoke - and this was a discomfort to the church - of Christ as her brother. So she didn't always see herself as a necessarily God- ... Christ as divine and herself as less than divine. She saw herself as a force of nature, a divine force. Some of her rhetoric indicated that and that interested me ...

She was absolutely the woman you'd been taught to fear most in the seminary.

Oh, yes, absolutely, yeah. And er, you know, it's no, no - not a surprise that priests found her burnable. [laughs]

Now when you turned to these stories, like Joan of Arc from France, and then you also started writing about European wars and so on, and you were looking overseas and away from Australia, um, how did people here react to that?

Oh, not bad. A lot of people liked, um - I mean, I didn't get the glowing reviews I did before, but a great number of people liked that book about the Armistice, 1918. I mean, here we have, in every Australian town, a statue of the Digger. It was - it is a symbol of Australia's, one of Australia's most dramatic interactions with the big world.

My father participated then in a war, and I was a bystander in a war, ah, and I was a bystander not entirely without cost, to, to myself - in terms of I lost my father for two and a half years or more. Um, and it struck me that of course, as a - you know, the orthodox historians said, the seeds of Hitler and of World War II were in the peace that was made in that carriage.

And then I began - I went to the Imperial War Museum in London, once when I was in London, and began to read about it. And I was astonished by the obscurity, the relative obscurity of the, ah, delegates we sent to that carriage in the Compiegne and I was already fascinated by Compiegne because that's where Joan was captured.

Ah, and so um, I, I was interested to think of this forest, which was the sort of harbourer of all that is sinister in European folk tales, ah, and in the middle of it a little railway carriage. And obscure Germans negotiating with Marshal Foch. And I think that this is a matter of equal significance to Australians as to anyone else.

[end of tape]

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