Thomas Keneally: “My Life Would Be Empty If I Couldn’t Write”

We are thrilled to be welcoming Thomas Keneally, Australian author of Schindler’s Ark (later adapted into Academy Award winning Spielberg film, Schindler’s List) to Listowel Writers’ Week 2013. A prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, his works include Three Famines: Starvation and Politics and his recent novel The Daughters of Mars. Thomas will be joining us on Friday 31 May at 7.30pm at The Plaza Centre for our Gathering forum on Mapping The Irish Famine. He will then take part in an interview and reading on Saturday 1 June at 1.30pm at The Arms Hotel.

Thomas agreed to be interviewed for our Blog earlier in the week.

Thomas KeneallyJG.  You entered a seminary to train as a Catholic priest but left just before you were ordained. What happened?

TK.  So much of what has been the curse of the Church is the legalism and intolerance of the clergy who ran the show. This sort of legalistic intolerance has also been a real problem for many Catholics in Ireland and since we in Australia inherited Irish Catholicism, I’ve had the same problems.  I kind of fell apart – had a nervous breakdown.  There was a sense of profound disillusionment and a challenge to my faith.

JG.  You were also a schoolteacher before your first book Place of Whitton was published in 1964.  Was there a particular catalyst for writing this book?

TK.  I’d always been a literary lid and seminarian and now, like most failed monks, with no social life to distract me, Ithree_famines_ARTWORK:Layout 1 wrote a novel – technically, but otherwise it was imperfect.  Its acceptance, however, gave me a sense that I could use writing to escape and assert myself.  Without it, I would have long been gone, like many ex-seminarians in the Irish mould – of homelessness, alcoholism or mental disease.

JG.  You have a very keen sense of social justice, which are imbued into all your writings. Where did this originate?

TK.  My parents were left-wing in the sense they believed in the principles of Rerum Novarum, the Social Justice encyclical of 1891, as strongly as others believed in Das Kapital.

JGSchindler’s Ark, which was later adapted into Academy Award Winning Schindler’s List started out as a result of a chance meeting in a luggage shop.  Explain what happened and the circumstances that inspired you to write the book?

TK.  At the end of a festival of Australian films in Sorrento in Italy I met, on my way home, Poldek Pfefferberg in a Beverly Hills luggage store. He was the holocaust survivor who inspired me.  The American publisher insisted on List, and I asked Spielberg to change it back, but he said he wanted to use List because he wanted to use lists as graphics in the film.  I think he did.

JG. You are a prolific author, with some forty books under your belt, including works of non-fiction. What propels you?

TK.  It’s the only thing I’m halfway good at, but above all I’d feel my life was a bit empty if I couldn’t write. I’d find it considerably empty for the reason that writing is a form of agelessness, a form of escape. You can escape the fact that you’re seventy-seven. You can write a novel full of people in their thirties or twenties and as you write, you’re going through the same process as you did when you were twenty-seven or twenty-eight, writing your first book.

I love that agelessness and I love the joy of it.  You get hooked on the transcendence of it. You keep on hearing a tale which would make a novel, and you’re deluded enough to think that the world needs to hear the story, so you go ahead and start writing it. It’s a ridiculous delusion. It’s akin to a form of infatuation, but there you are. I’m amazed I even started. Who needed to hear from an Australian from way down there in the south? And yet I thought I had something to say. The delusion is still with me.

The Great ShameJG.  Your marvellous book The Great Shame chronicles 80 years of Irish history through the eyes of Irishmen who were shipped to Australia and tried for sedition. One of whom, John Keneally, was your ancestor. What became of him?

TK.  He was from Newmarket in Cork and he had a job as a dry goods salesman which took him to Britain and Scotland, where he’d hold meetings with other Fenians.  For this, he was sentenced to ten years.  After he’d served his sentence the Eastern States of Australia tried not to let in convicts from the West, so he went to LA and started a dry goods business there.

There’s a story in your National Museum about a Yankee whaler called the Catalpa, which went to Western Australia. An Irish organisation raised the money to buy it, and sent it on a whaling voyage. The whaler ended up rescuing a number of men who were life-serving Fenians in Western Australia, and brought them to the USA. John Keneally raised money in places like Sacramento and Nevada City, which in those days was a mining town and massively Irish, so he got down to the work of rescuing some of his fellows once he went to LA.

JG. Your most recent novel, The Daughters of Mars, has been described as one of your most ambitious novels yet and possibly the best, containing your traditional qualities of meticulous research, great storytelling and compassion for the suffering. Why did you decide to revisit the First World War?

TK.  I’ve always been fascinated by First World War novels because I had an uncle who went all the way from New SouthThe Daughters of Mars Wales to participate in the Western Front, and I possess his letters at home. I’d been writing these social histories of Australia and I thought instead of telling stories of battles, tell the story of the damage that was done to young men, and how they were treated by nurses and stretcher bearers.

So I started to read the journals of nurses and I sort of fell in love with their toughness.  I thought, no-one except Pat Barker has written about shell shock, certainly no-one has covered this extraordinary story of the damage that came from the trenches.

It was the story of female toughness that I was interested in, because women’s toughness is different from men’s and women’s weaknesses are different from men’s. One of the things women are good at is dealing with damaged young men night after night – the gas injuries, the shell shock and all that chaos of damage and trauma concentrated into boys aged between seventeen and twenty-five. The fact that they could process all that interested me greatly.

And then there’s an English noble woman who started an Australian voluntary hospital in France. She really existed, so I turned her into a fictional figure and I gave her a lover. What else do you do with a novel?

The two girls, the sisters who served as nurses – it’s funny the characters the subconscious serves up.  I make them come from the same town as John Keneally came from in Australia, and I make them these aloof Methodist girls. They’re partly motivated by a desire to see the big world from which their parents and grandparents came. They come from municipalities that are only eighty or so years old, and so they’re astounded to encounter Paris.

Then they have the conundrum that Europe is so full of hatred.  W B Yeats said about Ireland, ‘Great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start’ – but the whole of Europe’s like that. Europe is such a small continent, and historically there’s been so much fury, terror and horror exercised, and that’s always interested me.  That is something that I think fascinates Australians.

JG.  Do you have any writing tips for our emerging writers at Listowel Writers’ Week?

TK.  My aphorism is ‘only begin.’ It’s hard to do if you have a job, but if you can find the time to write a number of days or nights a week, even if it’s just five hundred words – that process will help free up your subconscious. And that’s where so many good ideas come from, so many good characters, so many good connections between characters, so many great plot ideas.  You’ve got to use your conscious mind to refine it all, but a lot of good material comes from the unconscious, and to engage the unconscious you have to write a number of times a week to get the sub-conscious stirred up. I’ve got this idea that all the great stories are in our subconscious somewhere and they’ll come out if only we give them a chance.  Getting it published in the present climate is the heartbreak, but there’s always Amazon.

JG. Thank you very much Thomas Keneally. We look forward to welcoming you to Listowel Writers’ Week.

For more information, or to book either of these events please click on the following links: Mapping The Irish Famine     Interview and Reading