Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' brought you international recognition when it was shortlisted for the Booker.

Oh yes that's right. Although the Booker then wasn't the sure-fire road to glory, or being shortlisted, but I don't think any Australian newspaper mentioned it. I'm not sure. But the Booker became famous around about 1980. It became - in the '70s people took it with some composure.

But the film at any rate made Jimmie Blacksmith a particularly celebrated work and your - a lot of attention was paid to you at the time. How did that affect your writing? Did it have any effect on it at all?

Look I'm not conscious of it having, having had an effect, because like most novelists I think that the novel is the big game in town. And it is a folly to try to craft a novel for the screen, to write a novel with a screen contract in mind. In any case there were so many fewer Australian films then. But it's interesting to me as an observer of those times that around about the time Fred Schepisi, the great Melbourne director came to me - he was, in those days he had a little production house called The Film House.

He wanted to make a film called 'The Devil's Playground' which was about his experiences in the church as a young trainee brother. And it was a film whose screenplay I thought was absolutely brilliant you know. He is a very good screenwriter as well as everything else. And I um, was invited to audition for a part in it. I was actually having my large sea journey. In this area of Sydney you've got to have at least one relatively long ocean going journey behind you with my typical tendency to try to fit the canons of Australian sportsmanship.

So off I was on a 37 footer travelling in storms to Melbourne and we - in a storm so bad we had to put in with all the trawlers into Eden. And Judy told me that there'd been a telegram from Schepisi asking me when I got to Melbourne on this boat to do an audition. I did an audition for this monk, typecast in 'The Devil's Playground'. And that was a very good film. It was made for $375,000. It had a great number of splendid Australian actors in it such as Nick Tate and the young Simon Burke and of course Arthur Dignam.

And it made Fred quite a name and on the basis of that he was able to raise the money to make 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith', which he'd always wanted to make. It's interesting, I met Fred a lot recently and he had been wanting to make 'Jack Maggs'. He had a passion for Carey's book 'Jack Maggs'. He has made Booker prize winning novel 'Last Orders' into a film.

But um, Fred was interesting in this regard, he came in a way from the same sort of background as me and yet he was well, he was Australian Rules whereas I was rugby league. He thought the greatest tricks ever pulled on earth had been pulled by cinematographers and directors. And I thought the greatest tricks were the tricks of writers. So I still - right through any film process, I preferred my bag of tricks as powerless as it was. Or the bag of tricks that I thought I was in possession of to his bag of tricks.

'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' then was developed by him and he made it in I believe 1997 [sic] for over a million dollars, which was considered an extraordinary, an extraordinary sum for a film then. And ah, um, did I say 1997?

You did and I was about to correct you.

Okay. It was made in 1977 for an extraordinary, what was considered an extraordinary budget of 1.3 million. And that film as a film demonstrated to me what the, one of the problems and shortcomings of film is. Um, in the book I'm able to trace um, Jimmie Blacksmith's anger and then the onset of self-questioning and the mental tricks he plays to protect himself against self-questioning because if he begins to question what he's done, he's finished. He has nowhere to go. He has to surrender himself.

And in the film you can't show that psychological transition. And the film thus probably had a slightly more episodic quality than the book. But let me say that Pauline Kael, the greatest critic of her age, said that it was a classic. And Fred had tried to um, make one of the great films out of it and he made a splendid film and so the Australian press was of course sadly willing to put him down because he had not made the ultimate film of it. He hadn't made 'Citizen Kane', an Aboriginal 'Citizen Kane'.

And so - but I think it's a film that stands up well um, but probably still has that problem of episodic nature. But people who see it even now, it is one of the favourite films of say Martin Scorcese, who was once going to um, direct 'Schindler's List' and I had a meal with him and he was raving about Fred and about 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. Um, and so I think the film has even been accepted in Australia as an important film.

Through your relationship with Fred and his films you also had a chance to um, get over your, your frustrated thespian ambitions and you played the part of the monk in 'The Devil's Playground'. How thoroughly did you relish giving that hell-fire sermon?

Yes it's interesting that I had to give a hell-fire sermon to the boys. Out of this jolly face I had to tell them how thoroughly damned they would be by the slightest deviation from the path. And that was written significantly by everyone Catholic in the crew the night before. Everyone threw in an image of what they'd heard as Catholic schoolchildren. Imagine the clods falling upon your coffin. Imagine when you've been dead for ten years but you are in hell and eternity has just begun, all that stuff. People threw in the horror images that they'd been given.

The ball of earth as big as a globe - that's the one we went with I think and every 10,000 years a sparrow brushes it with its wings. But when that ball is worn away by the recurrent 10,000 year visits of the sparrow you are still in hell and eternity has only just begun. Ah, I think Fred's indulgence of people like me in that it was a mutual um, arrangement. We came cheap and he had this belief that, a certain belief that anyone could act, you know.

And the act - in fact the actors in the cast like Nick Tate took me aside and prepped me and spent a lot of time. Um I, there is - it's a very minor ambition of mine to be a thespian however. It is, like much of the arts, potentially heartbreaking and very demanding.

Why do you think he cast you as the cook? In the 'Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' you were cast as the cook.

I think that was a bit of his mischief. He is [sic] a mischievous temperament as everyone who knows him is aware and - impish temperament. And I think that was a form of impishness because one of my tasks was to, to violate the dignity at least of Angela Punch McGregor. And um, to be - you know to paw Angela Punch McGregor. Very unsympathetic character. And then of course after that he went to Hollywood and he wasn't allowed to put his mates in the film. But they were um, splendid experiences but I don't feel a passion to repeat it, you know.

You enjoyed it but didn't want to repeat it? After 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' - you were in fact, when that book came out, it was actually quite well reviewed here in Australia wasn't it?

Yes it was great.

But, but there - there was a period after that where you didn't get such good reviews for your work. How did you feel about the fact that - that the Australian critics particularly were reluctant to give you the praise that you liked?

Well, a) there is the possibility my work had declined. b) there was the Australia thing, Australia versus the world psychology of the period. Um, and um, I suppose it is characteristic that if they think - gee it's a difficult question to answer. Let me, let me say this, it is characteristic of us, we're a great nation for encouraging the young and the hapless. And we start to get a bit stroppy perhaps when they get ideas of their own and stop being young and hapless.

And ah, maybe a bit of that, maybe the fact that the books weren't as good, that they were sloppier in some way, I was writing just as hard. But I think it was a feeling that I wasn't writing all my books about Australia. I think that had an impact on it as well. And - but I was still travelling well, you know. I had, I enjoyed - we spent over a year in America. I enjoyed being there and I wrote a book there.

Which book did you write in America?

'Gossip from the Forest' was the book I wrote in America. And another book about Antarctica, 'Victim of the Aurora' I'd begun in Antarct-... in America. And um, so you know life was, was good.

Why did you go to America?

I - curiosity. And I also wanted to make definite contact with American publishers and American agents, you know. Ah, there is a problem that any Australian writer will tell you about that agents have a lot in common with publishers. Agents in London, agents in New York. And their relationship is a more symbiotic relationship, than say the agent's relationship with a distant author, a distantly geographically located author.

And um, so it was a mixture of curiosity, ambition, to see publishers face-to-face and to see agents face-to-face. I was already published there and I'd made a couple of visits already but um, I thought it'd be a nice adventure, my children were about seven and eight and they could stand the change, or so, so we thought. They say it was great, they - to have a year's schooling in the United States. But that - they were the motives. I think the fact that we could do it was a powerful motivation for doing it.

Why did you come back? Peter Carey didn't. Why did you come back?

Well I came back because you know, I had parents here and it was, it was time. It was interesting that a leading agent said to me - this bespeaks the ah, the cultural insecurities of Australians then, even in the mid '70s, that he said, "Most of Sydney thinks you came back with your tail between your legs". That is you went over there, tried to make it and didn't and then came back. Well that's not the truth because um, while or during the time I was there I, you know, I did quite well. It, it's funny I've - it must be a personal thing that I've never been able to leave Australia permanently even though I've had opportunities.

And I think it's the after you've been - one of the problems I find with America is they don't have the same sense of irony as we do and you're pleading for a sense of irony. Um, they don't understand um - an American actor who um, was talking about the peculiar Australian means of discourse, told me that Fred Schepisi had put his arm around him one day and said, "Well so and so you old poofter, what I want from you is..." And he was - he thought this man is outrageous. Fred sort of puts his hand around Meryl Streep and says, "Listen Meryl, you old tart", you know.

That sort of discourse through insult. Expressing affection via insults, which is both a strength and a weakness of the Australian emotional life. But nonetheless it's something that's - they don't get. They get a tremendous amount, I'm not putting them down, but - and so you begin to mythologise how humorous Australians are. How upright, how strong and how vigorous, how unconventional, how forthright and you get an appetite. You remember the bush and all of the beach and so on. And um, you decide after time that you're going to go back and have all this.

But of course when you do arrive back, you realise that all that is there too. It is true that that's the truth of us but there are a few dark things that are also the truth of us. And you forgot those while you were overseas. You mythologised those out of the, out of the tapestry.

And what are those things?

Ah, first of all - and these things have very influenced the causes I've taken up in a lifetime and they're problems I suffer from as much as anyone. Undue reverence for what foreign authorities say including the State Department. Um, a head of state - the lack of confidence to have our own head of state. Um, and the ambiguity about whether we are robust or vulnerable. It seemed to me, and I use this image a bit lately, but it occurred to me in the '70s that there was a, there are two self-images of Australia. One is of the robust rock-jawed Australian digger or surf lifesaver, who will tell any foreign tyrant where to go and is robust in speech and in vigour and in youth.

And the other image, which is easily evoked by the arrival on our shores of even the faintest whiff of strangeness, is the image of the maiden. This delicate maiden which is our culture. And she's very white and Anglo Saxon. She's sort of a slightly anorexic virgin [sic], southern hemisphere version of Columbia. And she um, she is going to be violated by all this strangeness. By Asians and Muslims and she has to be protected at all costs. And we're still playing this game, you know.

We're alternating between "We hold the Olympics and we have the Rugby World Cup" to "God, we're in a dangerous situation and all these boatloads of strangeness are coming our way and we must for God's sake be protected". Ah, that indecision about whether Australia is robust or ah, so vulnerable that the slightest air of the alien could bear away all we've built up over 210 years. That is - that still plagues us. And therefore until we stop playing these mental games with ourselves we'll never be a grand community. We'll never be a grand community while we don't have faith in our own robustness to the point that we can take a few strangers in and to hell with their strangeness.

We should have the confidence of Sam Goldwyn who said when he bought Lillian Hellman's play 'The Children's Hour'. An anxious producer, executives said to him "Mr Goldwyn um, do you know that Miss Hellman's play is actually about lesbians?" And he said, "That's okay we'll make 'em all Americans". Now there's a naivety in that answer but I wish we could just say, "That's okay we'll make 'em all Australians", because we've been successful at that. We're denying our own success by being so lily-livered.

And I mean this scares me, the fact that the people who were the diggers and their wives in World War I and World War II have produced a people who can be so timorous, so timorous that they can't have one of their own as head of state, so timorous that they can't do this, they can't, they can't embrace a vision. And I'm as bad as anyone. So timorous that they feel that um, what Blair says is significant to us. The Labor leader in the last election saying, "I know Blair", and expecting the electorate to fall on their backs and say, "Gee, he knows Blair, what a wonderful thing". Not even knowing that most Australians consider Blair a spiv and a lap-dog.

Um, these are the tendencies that are very odious in our culture and I probably suffer from them as much as anyone. But they make me feel that the Australian Dream has not been completed yet and that we are still - actually, it's gone backwards. It's in - it's had a number of tonnes of cement poured over it in the last so many years.

Returning to your literary career ...

What a rant, hey? [laughs]

The next sort of peak in how you were perceived publicly - although, you know, books came out and so on - but the next sort of event, event on the world stage for Tom Keneally was the publication of 'Schindler's Ark'. Would you, would you tell us the story of how that all came about?

Well I was um, down in this office one day and I got a telephone call asking me, "Would I like to go to Sorrento?" Since I knew Fred Schepisi had film weekends in Sorrento I said, "No, I've been to Melbourne this year", or some other fatuous remark. But they, they meant Sorrento in Italy. And in the late '70s, early '80s , we were still amazed that the world was taking notice of our films. And ah, Sorrento was to be a film [sic] devoted, was to be a festival rather, devoted entirely to Australian product.

And all sorts of people were going over. Nearly everyone who could - Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Judy Davis, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown - in any case on the way home from that I went to America to promote one of my books, which was also shortlisted for the Booker. But in the days when the Booker wasn't as big as it later became with 'Midnight's Children'. In fact um, I think I know what made the Booker famous but that's another story that we might tell in a moment.

And I was coming back home through America. I had a busted briefcase and I went to buy a briefcase in a luggage store in South Beverly Drive, which was a normal shopping centre and there was a sale on in a place called The Handbag Studio. And a very muscular, chunky, Slavic looking man came out of the store and said, "So it's a hundred and five degrees on the pavement and you don't know enough to come into my air-conditioned store. Are you scared of me? Do you think I'll eat you?" And this man was a Schindler survivor. His name was Leopold or Poldek Page. His Polish name was Pfefferberg.

And um, because it took a long time for my credit card charges to clear we got talking and he told me about, started to tell me about Schindler. First he asked me about various former prisoners who lived in Australia whom he knew. But I hadn't had the honour of meeting them at that stage, I later would. And then he began talking about how he'd told a number of writers, generally journalists, about this story and um, his words were that this man, although he was - "he got Mila out of Auschwitz so as far as I am concerned he's Jesus Christ. But though he was Jesus Christ, a saint he wasn't. He was all drinking, he was all philandering and so on, all black marketeering".

And that sounded interesting because of - as you know paradox is the stuff of writing.

And moral ambiguity has always attracted Keneally.

Yes. And moral ambiguity - he went out into the luggage room, the repair room at the back where I met his wife Mila who was a much more restrained personality than Poldek was. She had been a medical student in Vienna when the war began and she had a scholarly demeanour even though she was repairing handbags. And he then took me to two filing cabinets he had at the back of the room and he selected various Schindler documents out of it, both original and copied.

The reason he had them was that in the 1960s MGM nearly made a film of Schindler's life and asked him to gather materials. And these were all materials that he'd gathered at the time, testimonies - some of them were carbon copies of documents that were, SS documents that were supposed to be destroyed, which were kept by a very brave prisoner called Mietek Pemper, who always slipped an extra carbon into anything he was asked to type up.

And um, I was given this material, I went back to my hotel and read it and I thought it was marvellous for a couple of reasons. First of all he was the great paradox that writers like to write about. The golden heart and whore, the rogue saviour, the um, the despised man who ends up more virtuous than all the other men in the village. He was that figure. But secondly he provided a lens to what I'd never understood - the way the Holocaust worked. Through his little factories and his minor operations and his black marketeering you could see on a human scale the way the whole, the Holocaust operated.

He was - that's what really attracted me. And I realised that I'd always been interested in Judaism, though I knew few Jews. And that um, I um, had never quite been understand [sic], been able to understand why you'd take ethnic hysteria so far. I was used to ethnic hysteria in Sydney. I remember when the first 'Balts' as they were called, and 'refos' arrived in Sydney and started to penetrate Homebush. And people said, "Oh, they'll never, why don't they bloody talk English", which was an absolutely ridiculous statement. "And they'll never be Australians like we are Australians."

So I'd experienced the phenomenon of ethnic hysteria. But it didn't go the extent of confiscating people's businesses, putting them on trucks, putting them in ghettos and then serially removing them from the ghetto and either working them to death or inventing a mechanical method of extermination, a technological method of extermination, a manufactory of death, which all genocidal people would like to have but these people, the SS and their collaborators actually produced that ultimate form of genocide.

And um, I'd always been fascinated why you'd take it so far, to the extent of devoting so much manpower, so many resources to it. And um, even though I was uneasy about modern Israel and about the Palestinians, the question arose, "Are you encouraging the Sharons of this world by writing a book about the Holocaust?" After all to the more extreme Israelis the Holocaust is the ultimate justification for everything. And it is a powerful justification.

But then I thought, and I've thought since, if you can't write about the Holocaust, you can't write about the Irish famine, you can't write about the Armenian crisis, you can't write about the Armenian Holocaust, you can't write about half of history if you apply that rule to this history. So all you're saying is that there was this group of people this time who were subjected to an extraordinary form, the most egregious form of ethnic cleansing that we know of. Now if you're a Ukrainian who was killed by Stalin, or a Jew who was gassed at Auschwitz, you're both as dead as each other and it doesn't - the, the distinctions don't matter.

But to the living there's something particularly chilling about the technological aspects of this particular near extermination - the deniability, the ultimate deniability which was in mind as well. That the Eastern Front would not fall, that the German regime would not collapse soon and thus there was time both to exterminate this race and other imperfect people and then to deny that it had happened because the crime had gone up the chimney. And that fascinated me. The fact that so many resources would be devoted to such an end.

But you were thinking about all these themes and all these possibilities, in the end though as a writer, is it that there was a terrifically good story here, that finally decided you to go with it?

Yes and I'm afraid it's always the good story. And that makes one abashed when people come up and say, "Thank you, your book started our parents calling [sic]". There are all these - talking - there were all these families that didn't know what their parents had been through. And that must be the impact of trauma on all human beings that the children - you don't want them to have the shadow of your having been an untermensch or an unterfrau, a sub-human fall on them, a sub-human by decree, fall on them. And it must be the - well, the reason that men who've been through, men and women who've been through all sorts of trauma and torture don't - aren't always explicit about it to their children.

Um, and when - however when they say, "Your book got my parents talking" or "my grandparents talking", you feel quite abashed because you knew that this was a publishable book. That's why you wrote it. I mean the fact that it was about a man who had been, who should have been the most conditioned of all men, to hate these people. The fact that it was about a man who was a peacetime scoundrel, and indeed a wartime scoundrel, but that values were so inverted, so upside down, language had been so perverted and morality had been so perverted that the only fellow who was of any use was this highly imperfect husband, this black marketeer, this operator who would, you know you had to depend on the positive power of his persiflage to save you.

You couldn't depend upon his virtue. That, that was very interesting and that's why I wrote that book. It's not my best book but it's probably my most famous. In many ways it's not my most characteristic but the question was, how to write it? Write it as a novel in which everything was checked and so on or write it as more like Tom Wolfe's 'The Right Stuff'. And I was reading two books at the time I came across this story. One was John Irving's 'The Hotel New Hampshire' and the other was Tom Wolfe's 'The Right Stuff'. And the question is do you go for more identifiable direct fiction or do you go for this factual or documentary novel approach?

A novel in which everything is as real as you can conscientiously make it in which things are not fiction. And I chose that path as the right path.

You don't think it's your best book and you don't think it's your most characteristic, but it was the one that won the Booker.

Ah yes. I mean when I say it's not the best it doesn't mean I'm denouncing it. It is, it is obviously in many ways a good book. But you see if Steven Spielberg then makes a very good film from it, then that's the one that's likely to be on the gravestone. But it doesn't mean that the others are not ... of equal quality.

But you'd won the ... you'd won the Booker before he made the film.

Yes that's right. 1982 and the film wasn't made till the early um, 1990s.

And by the time you won the Booker, the - that Booker - the Booker mattered.

Yeah it did.

And could I just make this - ask you this question? You'd won the Booker with it, then Steven Spielberg made a film with it that was hugely successful and you were turned from being by that stage a very well-known Australian author into a celebrity Tom. How did you feel about this celebrity status? How did the boy from Homebush feel about being a celebrity on the world stage?

Well you um, above all you don't believe it. And the funny thing is that you're not a celebrity to those who really know you. [laughs] And so it was - I'm not averse to it let me - but let me hasten to say, but um - I never, I hope it didn't change my behaviour. Um, and indeed after it won the Booker I did a screenplay for Steven and he didn't particularly like it, he thought it was too documentary. So um, I just got on with my work. A lot of my work is written on a table that's just out of shot here where things can be spread.

And I came back to Australia and just worked away at my fiction. And occasionally Steven's office would call and tell me what was happening. They were very courteous. And occasionally Poldek would call, more regularly Poldek. And he would tell me what he'd said to Steven and how he'd urged him to get on with it. Ultimately there would be four writers, or four or five writers on the screenplay. Um, but the final screenplay by Steve Zaillian was the one that appeared on screen.

[end of tape]

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