Australian Biography - Thomas Keneally

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THOMAS
The beginning of a novel is a belief that the world really needs this book. And I had that sort of belief that ... 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, ah, a Satanic assumption in all that.

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I was born prematurely. My father, although

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the times were tough, insisted on a private hospital, because there was talk of mix up

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WMS THOMAS

of babies in the public hospital system. And, ah, God knows he may have been

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better off with some other kid.

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But my mother and father were kids from Kempsey,

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and my memories are of ah, Kempsey

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and Taree and Wauchope, those

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three towns in northern New South Wales. And, ah

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having a bit of a ride in my grandfather's locomotive was, ah, really something, out over the Hastings River.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And in that household that you and your

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young brother grew up in, were there books?

THOMAS (OOS)
Oh, yes. Now my mother

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WMS THOMAS

and father had left school after the primary final, like most of Australia did, after sixth grade.

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But my mother felt very acutely having been deprived of further

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education, so there were always books. And she said, "read to your children. A child with a book is never bored."

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I suffered from asthma and so that necessity

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to spend time on the sidelines, away from the other kids

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gave me a chance to read, and I was a sucker for the ...

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WMS THOMAS

not only for the word, not only for reading books, but for the tricks that narrators played. I thought they were the greatest tricks in town.

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So I wavered between being a wimp and a muscular

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Australian, but I was also a brat. I wanted to be good at sport, above all.

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TI MCU THOMAS

And I wanted to be the sort of kid who could manage himself, or at least bluff his way through a confrontation of the "oh yeah?" "Oh yeah!" "Oh yeah" kind.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
How did you get on

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with your father?

THOMAS (OOS)
He was a very loving man,

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an affectionate father. He was a splendid footballer,

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apparently, except people used to say of him,

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MS THOMAS

'he'd come the knuckle' and he did have a disposition towards fieriness. And, ah, but we were temperamentally very different.

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And then when we did ultimately move to Sydney because of the war

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and because he joined the RAAF, that loss of the father

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for two and a half years was probably quite crucial. I was the ...

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TI MCU THOMAS

not the only one to experience that. I've sometimes thought that maybe we could take a class action against the Commonwealth of Australia but I ... all jokes aside, it was ... we were in a small

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but notable way amongst the victims of World War II.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
You were brought up a Catholic. What are your early religious memories?

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MCU THOMAS

THOMAS
Oh, ah, the mass, the necessity of going to the mass.

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Nuns telling you stories about kids who went to mass

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every day of their life and then skipped it

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for a picnic and of course were drowned

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MCU THOMAS

and went straight to hell. All the heavy stuff.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
You were educated in the Catholic system.

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How did you get on at school?

THOMAS (OOS)
I must apologise because I know

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all writers have memories of being on the outer, because it's

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MCU THOMAS

the children on the side of the playground who become the dangerous writers, and the children in the centre who actually go on and do constructive things with their lives. I, um, enjoyed school but I had great problems with ink. I still had great problems with concepts and I had great problems with wheezing and with, ah, discharge, which I couldn't deal with as an adult, you know?

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
A constantly runny nose.

THOMAS
Yes, constantly runny nose and, um, there is nothing that can evoke the contempt of a smart five year old girl like a continually ... who turns in perfect homework, ah, like the contempt that she shows for a sort of a mucus leaker. "Oh sister, look what's happened to his page." That sort of thing.

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I was not totally unhappy there, but I did feel on the outer.

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But then every writer says that.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
Who were your friends at school?

THOMAS (OOS)
I had a

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MCU THOMAS

strange and interesting set of friends. I was very lucky, particularly in high school, because I liked, as I still do, to kind of run with the jocks and with the er, intellectuals as well, the great minds as well. And

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I had a friend who was unsighted, Paddy Downey, and we studied a lot together.

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MCU THOMAS

And we used to go to athletic carnivals. He would run by the sound of braille print in nugget shoeboxes.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
You would run ...

THOMAS (OOS)
Beside him, yes.

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MCU THOMAS

It definitely had an altruistic streak, but it also had a vanity streak, because there were various Santa Sabina girls who might notice that Paddy and I were mates. I wanted his ambience, because he was a very glamorous figure. So not all is altruism. I think not all is altruism even for Mother Teresa, but certainly not for Michael ... Thomas Michael Keneally.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
Has sport always been important to you?

THOMAS (OOS)
Sport was

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the hero system in which I grew up and in a sense, I've never got beyond it. There's part of me that's still the seven year old that sees the

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sporting hero as A godlike creature. You know, "on your deathbed you remember the encounter with the divine passing being who said, 'gidday mate.'"

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TI MCU THOMAS

So my ambitions were dual, to be five eighth for Australia and to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Neither of these ambitions have been achieved,

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but I grew up with quite an inferiority complex which I began to get over in high school, through modest achievements and, ah, through reading, you know. I mean,

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reading is the grand liberator.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
Were there any books that particularly influenced you?

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MCU THOMAS

THOMAS
The biggest problem with ah, Catholicism is that it's always been rather against writing, you know. It can't wait to ban this book and that book. Writing and free expression carries with it the threat of heresy, you know. It's almost like the old joke about Methodists. Why do Methodists disapprove of sex? Because it could so easily lead to dancing, and similarly, why do Catholics suspect books? Because it could so easily lead to heresy.

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And I discovered a great poet called Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had been a Jesuit, and I took Gerard Manley Hopkins and wore it continually in my suit pocket.

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MCU THOMAS

And I believe that just by it being over my heart it would transmit its power to various young women I wanted to influence, you know, into such heady and exploitative hedonism as hand holding.

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And I was a weird, eccentric kid, but I did believe in the power

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MCU THOMAS

of the word and of the word being made flesh, I suppose.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
So how were you imagining your future?

THOMAS (OOS)
I thought I'd definitely be a writer,

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MCU THOMAS

whatever I did, and I was very interested in the priesthood.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And what was it that finally decided you

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to go into the seminary?

THOMAS (OOS)
I rather relished that

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drama of the church.

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It was very dramatic. Heavy magic

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for a kid from Homebush. I don't think the screening

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was very good. I think they tended to get a lot of kids like me,

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TI MCU THOMAS

rather innocent, rather um, unrealistically idealistic.

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So I saw myself as a celibate male and the celibacy

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MCU THOMAS

would be kind of easy, or so it seemed at that stage. I'd had no success with women anyhow, if sex is what you called success, of course. It's a very sexist way of looking at it.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
Had you tried very hard?

THOMAS
I don't think I knew what was involved.

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I was very attracted to women. But for the purposes of becoming a seminarian, I'd probably

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TIght MCU THOMAS

sublimated it into something, ah, something mystical and chivalrous.

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I can remember I had one day

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MS THOMAS

not an explicitly or ... or narrowly sexual feeling, but sexual in the broader sense of feeling suddenly that there was someone out there who was ... and I could feel it was definitely a she, I could feel her presence. I could not visualise her, but that she was the other side of my soul, which is very ... I mean, pardon me, that's a very shoddy image, and that there was an impulse in me to um, to find that person.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
I wonder how somebody like you dealt with

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the Church's requirement for obedience?

THOMAS (OOS)
You were told that of course

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the directors of superiors make no sense in terms of worldly reason, that they were to be

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embraced as a test from God, to see if you

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could be obedient enough. And, ah, ultimately,

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I couldn't do that. It just seemed

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MCU THOMAS

that ah, the world, my world, had been too narrow. I'd gone in as a sixteen or

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seventeen year old. The seminary had spent all its time trying to keep me at that level of development, and I had been willing to be left at that level of development, and now I was developing fast, you know.

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By early in the year I was supposed to be ordained. I couldn't move.

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TI MCU THOMAS

I couldn't go to mass, I couldn't get to the chapel, I couldn't study. Classic ... classic signs of a kind of crack up.

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And I got to that stage and that's why I left so close to ordination.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
After so many years of studying to be a priest, how did you feel

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MCU THOMAS

about giving it all away?

THOMAS
I was both guilty and enraged, and what made me enraged was that when I was leaving with no resources, and no money after more than six years, I asked the rector for a reference to say that I'd, you know, hadn't created mayhem, had been a good student, etcetera, etcetera. And he said, "oh, the Church doesn't give references." And at that stage, that Jack Lang Labor tradition in me surged forth and secretly I said, "well bugger you". You know, you are an unjust man.

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And that was a source of possibly too much rage

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in me. When you left and started going from job to job, teaching,

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studying law, labouring, how were you feeling about the world?

THOMAS (OOS)
I felt

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MCU THOMAS

pretty much more than at any time in my life a fringe dweller when I left.

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And went on reading and I started writing, and I began using

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MCU THOMAS

the name Tom when I began writing, because I thought they mightn't know it would be me. Thomas was my true name, but everyone knew me as Mick, and ah, except my mother who knew me as definitely Michael.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And how do you think of yourself inside yourself?

THOMAS (OOS)
Now, I'm definitely the Tom, because

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MCU THOMAS

I gave up becoming the pale monk and became the free thinker, the hedonist and the garrulous person, garrulous to a fault. I think in Australia only Gough Whitlam was more garrulous than I.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
So what did writing your first novel

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The Place at Whitton, do for you?

THOMAS (OOS)
The writing was important in that in two ways, (a) as a release,

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MCU THOMAS

as it always is, and (b) as a means of claiming a place in society.

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So it did give me social confidence when it was ultimately published and

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MCU THOMAS

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.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And, in fact, you had enough

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confidence to straight away write a second book, The Fear.

THOMAS (OOS)
I might have been thirty when

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MCU PROFILE THOMAS

The Fear came out, but I was beginning to feel, you know, I've got a future. And of course I'd met my future wife, Judy,

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and she was a very handsome nurse whom I met over my mother's hospital bed.

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MCU THOMAS

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

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Labor ... Lang Labor, you konw, devout Catholic but social justice

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sort of family.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
Did you feel

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

THOMAS (OOS)
Yes, I did.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
You had your two daughters pretty quickly. It was really a

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big change in your life. Did you have any problems adjusting?

THOMAS (OOS)
Well of course, it was very difficult.

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MCU THOMAS

Both of us had ah, what's the word, I s'pose you'd have to say scars, that we brought from our background.

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And maybe not as much with Judy but with me, still a

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unpersuaded, unallayed sense of some failure.

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MCU THOMAS

And that, ah, was very haunting. But I did

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like parenthood, and they will forgive

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you any imperfection. They don't worry whether you're a first class or a second class or a failed novelist. They just

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want you to like them. And this

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element introduced some

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sanity into my writing, because I'm an obsessive writer.

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Writing is an obsessive and solitary activity,

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MCU THOMAS

like meditation. And, um, the more you do it, ah, the more slightly mad you get.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
But did you feel that that obsession paid off when Bring Larks and Heroes won the Miles Franklin Award?

THOMAS (OOS)
That was

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MCU THOMAS

very much the so-called breakthrough book, the book that enabled me to become a fulltime writer. I also reviewed and wrote a few plays and so on. I was very much a journeyman

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writer in the sense that I brought this concept of as well as writing being something transcendent, I brought the idea that it was a job.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And you've been very productive

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ever since, with over thirty books. How would you characterise

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that early work?

THOMAS (OOS)
I don't know if you'd agree, there was a sort of haunted quality

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and that lasted until the early 1970s.

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MCU THOMAS

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, which is considered a sort of minor classic, was in that period,

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HA MS COVER OF NOVEL - 'THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH'

of some darkness before I was ... had got over my alienation

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MCU THOMAS

with the world and before I'd found that really, my truest character was that of a hedonist and a partygoer and a storyteller.

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And that my real nature

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was actually that I'd been suppressing all my life

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was sort of to be a lord of misrule, and to say

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the outrageous. So I see a clear divide

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in my work about 1973.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And in 1982, you won the Booker Prize with Schindler's Ark, which

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became the Steven Spielberg film, Schindler's List. What was it

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about Oscar Schindler that interested you?

THOMAS (OOS)
Ah, first of all,

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he was the great paradox that writers like to

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write about. The golden hearted whore,

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the rogue saviour, the ... the despised

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MCU THOMAS

man who ends up more virtuous than all the other men in the village. He was that figure. But ah, secondly, he provided a lens to what I'd never understood the way the Holocaust worked.

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Through his little factories, and his minor operations and his black marketeering, you could see on a human scale the way the

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whole ... the Holocaust operated.

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That's what really attracted me.

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MCU THOMAS

It's not my best book, but it's probably my most famous. In many ways, it's not my most characteristic.

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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
When Schindler's List was such a success, you became

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something of a celebrity. How did that affect you?

THOMAS (OOS)
Above

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MCU THOMAS

all, you don't believe it. And the funny thing is that you're not a celebrity to those who really know you.

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And I hope it didn't change my behaviour and

10:21:10:07
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indeed, after it won the Booker, I did a screenplay

10:21:14:22
147

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for Steven and, ah, he didn't particularly like it. He thought it was

10:21:18:12
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too documentary. So I just got on with my work.

10:21:23:03
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PAN RIGHT OVER BOOKS ON SHELF THEN DISSOLVE TO

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
What do you think is the best of your work?

THOMAS (OOS)
The best book is the one I'm

10:21:29:07
150

PAN RIGHT OVER BOOKS ON SHELF THEN DISSOLVE TO

writing. For every writer that's so. It's the one about which one harbours

10:21:33:23
151

PAN RIGHT OVER BOOKS ON SHELF THEN DISSOLVE TO

the most delusions.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And how far

10:21:39:06
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ARCHIVE: PAN LEFT OVER VIEW FROM CLIFF TO COAST THEN THOMAS AND FAMILY WALK THRU SHOT

do you think that living overseas and travelling has changed your view of Australia?

THOMAS (OOS)
You begin to mythologise how humourous

10:21:42:03
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Australians are. How upright, how strong and how vigorous, how unconventional, how

10:21:51:01
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ARCHIVE: WMS PROFILE CLIFF THEN THOMAS INTO SHOT SITS

forthright and you get an appetite. You remember the bush and all the beach and so on. And you decide after a time that you're going to go back and have all this. But of course, when you do arrive back, you realise

10:21:59:09
155

MCU THOMAS

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, ah, you forgot those while you were overseas. You mythologised those out of the ... out of the tapestry.

INTERVIEWER (OOS)
And what are those things?

THOMAS
First of all,

10:22:16:03
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undue reverence for what foreign authorities say, including the State Department. A head of state ... the lack of confidence to have our own head of state. And the ambiguity about whether we are robust or vulnerable.

10:22:36:21
157

TI MCU THOMAS

There are two self images of Australia. One is of the robust, rock jawed

10:22:55:16
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Australian digger or surf lifesaver who will tell any foreign tyrant where to go and is robust in speech and in vigour

10:23:02:17
159

TI MCU THOMAS

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.

10:23:15:08
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And she is going to be violated by all this strangeness, by Asians and Muslims and

10:23:38:09
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ARCHIVE: MCU FRIEZE ON BUILDING WALL

she has to be protected at all costs. And we're still playing

10:23:47:01
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this game, you know. And I mean, this scares me ... the fact that the people who

10:23:51:19
163

MCU THOMAS

were the diggers, and their wives in World War I and World War II have produced a people who can be so timorous.

10:23:58:12
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INTERVIEWER (OOS)
These days you're really enjoying your grandchildren. Can you imagine reaching a stage where you don't want to write anymore?

10:24:10:10
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THOMAS (OOS)
I could not live without writing. I am so pleased.

10:24:20:08
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I see neighbours who have been ... had important jobs and suddenly they're out

10:24:25:04
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TI MCU THOMAS

of the loop at sixty four, and they have to find something to fill the void. And I'm lucky that I'll always be able to fill the void. Very fortunate old sod to be able to think and ... of possible novels.

10:24:32:22
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Maybe through a bit of exercise and good luck I can keep writing for, um, some years yet.

10:24:56:07
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TI MCU THOMAS SPEAKS THEN SHOT FREEZES AND FADE TO BLACK

But I won't specify the years, because although, ah, as agnostic as one might be, they're listening, you know.

MUSIC 6 BEGINS AT 10 25 15 00
45 SEC

10:25:06:03
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10:25:19:03
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FADE UP TO FILM AUSTRALIA TITLE BOARD

10:25:56:03
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FADE TO BLACK

MUSIC 6 ENDS

10:26:00:00
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