Australian Biography: Thomas Keneally
Thomas Keneally (b. 1935, Sydney NSW) is one of Australia's most popular and prolific writers, having published more than 30 novels, dramas, screenplays and books of non-fiction.
He is also one of its most distinguished, winning numerous prizes including the Man Booker Prize for Schindler's Ark (1982), later made into an Academy Award winning film by Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List, 1993).
Founding chairman of the Australian Republican Movement and an obsessive rugby league fan, he talks in this interview of his Irish Catholic background, his abandoned studies for the priesthood and his life as a writer.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Could you begin by telling me what kind of a household you were born into?
Ah, my mother and father were kids from Kempsey. They were definitely - in coastal New South Wales - and they were definitely very influenced by the Depression. And at a stage when we were down here, we were renting - they were renting a house at Bronte. And it was from that house that I was born. I was born prematurely. My father, although times were tough, insisted on a private hospital because there was talk of mix-up of babies in the public hospital system. And God knows he may have been better off with some other kid. But that's why - how I was delivered by a famous old patriarchal obstetrician called Dr John Honour and that was in October '35.
And how long did you stay in Sydney?
Not long because all my memories are of Kempsey and Taree and Wauchope that - those three towns that are on neighbouring rivers in New - northern New South Wales. Ah, my grandparents lived in Kempsey and my granny - my father's mother who was a little squirt of a woman ah, with a sort of immigrant um, rocket up her spine. In that she was - had been determined to succeed um, even though she'd been a child of itinerant workers back in, back in Ireland. Ah, she lived in Taree and so we were commuting between these three towns. My father was a postman in Wauchope for a time and then transferred back to Kempsey.
You said the family had been very much affected by the Depression. How?
Well in a number of ways. Um, they were what you'd probably call Lang voting ... Lang Labor voting Rerum Novarum Catholics. Rerum Novarum was a famous social encyclical of Leo the Thirteenth. And it was on social justice. And it talked about the exploitation of workers.
It offered Catholic activists a way out of communism. Ah, a way out of not being communists. Ah, it involved um, you know, a dedication of the church combined with a powerful sense of social justice. And I know my maternal grandfather Mick Coyle, who was an engine driver in Kempsey was horrified by what he saw on the railways during the Depression because of people - men trying to travel on trains illicitly from place to place looking for work. Men riding the rattlers, literally.
The suspension mechanisms or mechanisms that were near the suspension and were under the carriages. Um, a man he was always haunted by was a man who was sitting on his train without his knowing it - on a freight train - and was facing back towards Sydney. And the back of his head collided with a, with a bridge. So the Depression affected us both in terms of the fact that my father couldn't get work for a time, but also - and he was the sort of man who felt very demeaned by not having work, and it was characteristic of Australia then that people did.
Um, and ah, it affected us because of all these stories of horror and want and um, the man whose head was knocked off by the bridge - ah, that my grandfather's locomotive inadvertently put him into contact with. My grandfather also remembered the wife coming up from Sydney to go to the husband who, whose condition was hopeless in the Macleay District Hospital. So the Depression, I suppose in terms of mythology and of true stories out of which certain mythologies grow, um, was very powerful. And my father would never understand my spendthrift profligate ways with money. And indeed with materials. My mother too, extremely provident. Not in a parsimonious sort of way. They were both actually very open-handed people. But they valued every object in their world.
You say that your early memories are of that northern New South Wales district. What are your memories?
Well, the exquisite Macleay River. Um, having a bit of a ride in my grandfather's locomotive too - in the engine room was really something - out over the Hastings River near Newcastle [sic], near Wauchope. Um, memories of my maternal cousins who were two little girls, who my first experience of this - of the gender divide were these. And I noticed that - early that women had great psychological power. I had sort of the normal masculine bully power over them.
It's interesting actually their name was Bulley. B-U-L-L-E-Y. But I could get one of them to go berserk by saying, "Gwennie, there's a tarantula on your back", you know. About the age of three I could get her to do somersaults and get hysterics and so on, and I had all the fun of watching this drama. And um - but she told me that there were special bananas available from the truck of the Chinese market gardener that came round Kempsey. And that they always gave her the banana - when we would get a banana off, each off the Chinese market gardener's truck - and she's [sic] always had a special hole in it.
And I believed this and I could virtually see this special hole that made her banana top rate and special and mysterious, whereas mine was just a plain old banana. And so she beat me in terms of psychological subtlety. And indeed psychological ruthlessness. [laughs] And I've always been fascinated by that side of women. I hope it's not gender stereotyping - but that particular power.
Freud ... Freud would have been thrilled with the images she chose.
[laughs] Yes indeed. That's right. Well, out of the mouths of babes.
And in the house that you were in with your parents as their first child, were there books?
Oh yes, now my mother and father had left school after the primary final, like most of Australia did, after sixth grade. And um, they were - sixth grade then however provided good students with a remarkable degree of literacy. But my mother felt very acutely having been deprived of further education. She felt it very acutely. So there were always books. And indeed years later on some television show they - the commentator asked her, "What would you say to young mothers?" And she said, "Read to your children. A child with a book is never bored".
So I can remember even when I was at my most bored, in the eminently boring Homebush after we moved down from the bush, that if I used, or my brother used, the word 'boredom' she would say, "Don't you have a book?" And indeed I got through many sort of um, potentially ennui-ridden Christmas holidays, with books like - well books that took you into a grander world like - I was particularly attracted by Scott's works. 'Ivanhoe' and, I - oh, 'Lucia di Lammermoor' was one of the favourites when I was an adolescent too.
Um, and ah, um, - or was that called 'Lucy of the Lammermoors'? I think it's got a different name. The opera has a different name than the book. But um, yes she was from a, an early age, from cloth books up, that was an aspect of my mother's um, impact on me. But I was also - had a lot of um, congestive illnesses from an early age. And um, I suffered from asthma very much. And in those days the doctors not having a remedy, blamed the mother. You know, they would say to mothers, "You're being hysterical". And the mothers in those days never said back, "Of course I'm being bloody hysterical, my child is dying for want of breath".
Ah, and so that necessity to spend time on the sidelines away from the other kids, you know, um, gave me a chance to read. Once I started reading about the age of - once I started reading novels around about the age of eight I was gone. I was a sucker for the - 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.
Going back to Kempsey, when did you start school?
At five um - and another of my memories before beginning school was of course of the presence of Aboriginals in that town, which had a strong impact on me because the - I was always fascinated by the other. Um, there were good reasons why you didn't mix with Aboriginal kids in Kempsey in this sense, that Aboriginal health was appalling then. Um, and yet the lack of contact was a tragedy and was of course based on good old-fashioned Aussie um, Euro supremacy.
But um, that had a big impact upon the imagination. Um, it purchased in the imagination for some reason. And um, generated - ultimately would generate a number of books which dealt either directly or tangentially with the um, with Aboriginal Australia. Even um, in recent books there've been important Aboriginal presences and I'm simply interested in the gulf between Australia as perceived by them and Australia as perceived by us. And the way those two, the closer we get to their cultural outlook, then the closer we get to being Australians. That fascinates me.
I'm not being sentimental in saying that and I can defend it later on. But the - at that stage um, there seemed to be - even though they lived just up the street in Greenhills in Kempsey - there seemed to be an extraordinary cultural void between us and them. And it was made very um, subtly interesting because I don't know if I'd heard this term by the time I was five but the common institution in country towns was the man who had either a black mistress or more commonly preyed on black women - took booze out there and there was a particularly offensive name given to these, to such men - but this created an atmosphere of strangeness in the town.
These people were so remote, but they were so close that some white men made love to them. You know, and um, so I remember being fascinated in an inchoate way by the Aboriginal kids coming down River Street going to, past our gate, going down into the town. Um, now I began school in Kempsey at a um, ah, parish school. And at the night of my first day I suffered what was either - was diagnosed as diphtheria - um, and ended up in Kempsey Hospital. And this was in the early days of immunisation and there were kids all round me with diphtheria.
Many of them had to have the tracheotomy in their throat. I spent a lot of time in an oxygen tent and it was while I was recovering that my father went to Wauchope. So I really - and they would visit me, come up in the train to visit me - and then I began school properly in Wauchope. Again at a little school and indeed the sacristy of the church, the robing place of the church, was the room in which I really began um, my schooling and we were under the care of a young novice nun from Ireland, who in the great drought of the early '40s had us singing these songs about hail glorious Patrick dear saint of our eye, on Erin's green valleys look down in thy love.
Um, and of course there was no relationship between Erin's green valleys and that terrible drought that broke about 1942. Um, beyond the, the windows of the sacristy birds were falling out of the trees with heat exhaustion, but um, you know again like any immigrant group and there were many immigrants in Australia then, or children of immigrants, or grandchildren you brought the iconography of the other place with you and I suppose in my case it manifested itself through these strange hymns about greenness and emeraldness.
Um, we had slates and the first, the first letter - and this is a terrible confession - I learnt to write was an 'I'. Um, and I learnt to write the capital with a great flourish and I filled my slate with capital 'I's. And the young nun said, "Do you think you want to have a go at some other letters?" Anyhow that was a good place to start school properly. But I remember even then there were um, children who came to school barefooted, wearing singlet and brown trousers. Two or three of them riding on a horse with a sugar-bag over the back. And they were generally the children of poor timber getters or poor dairy farmers.
And all along that coast there was great poverty on these small dairy holdings. And that degree of poverty um, was interesting. And I can remember in Wauchope ah, trains stopping outside Wauchope station and the police, the railway police going along and getting fellas out from underneath it. So I saw with my own eyes a little bit of the Depression. And that's the most graphic aspect that I remember. Um, yes. I suppose.
Were there - were there Aboriginal children in the school with you?
Yes there were some in the Kempsey school. I'm not aware of any being in the Wauchope school.
And you mentioned something that I hadn't heard before. Did your mother put the idea that they were a source of infection?
Ah, no it was just - you know my mother as I said - an extraordinary woman who has um - but because I was ill she was scared of cross-infection from anyone. And it was not - she had a very mild - she was a woman of her time but she had a very mild version of the common attitudes towards the people of that time. But she's always been in her advanced years, you know, a reconciliation person and, so she didn't quite have the characteristic bush attitude towards Aboriginals even then at the stage when they had no civil rights and went to - could only sit in certain parts of the cinema.
Um, and could - were not allowed to drink. And the fact they were not allowed to drink - of course drink has been apparently a terrible thing as it is for some of us. But it exposed Aboriginals in town to whatever anyone was willing to sell them, such as rosehip syrup and meths and so on. So.
I suppose what I was after was what you remember as a child absorbing the attitudes from around you and deeply intrigued by this camp of the other...
What you were thinking about them, what your thoughts were, if you could remember?
Oh I think I had an impulse one day when I saw three kids go past the um, the gate and one of them had a very bad eye, you know. Well in those days we would get very bad eyes too. The sty was a common schoolyard problem and boils and all the rest of it. And I think - I hope I'm not being revisionist or speaking from hindsight - but I think I was far more fascinated. I wanted I think to play with them. Because children aren't - the fact that your mother says that terrible chest infections - you know you shouldn't play with that particular child. Ah, most children don't even listen to that sort of stuff. [laughs] And ah, so I believe I was more fascinated that fearful.
So you were an only child for quite some years.
Um, what did that mean for you in the household? How were you treated?
Well because of being in delicate health I was treated um, ah, very protectively by my mother. Not that I wasn't allowed to go and run round, but my running round - I remember I was extremely allergic to paspalum. I would bloat up if I ran around in paspalum with the other kids. But she let me run around with other kids and these two girl cousins were a big influence upon me.
Um, in our house in Kempsey - our house in Wauchope was near the railway line - and our house in Kempsey was in Sea Street Kempsey and I recently visited it with my mother and it had been flooded. Um, the people who lived there had us in and showed us where the flood waters had come to. And I can remember Sea Street in particular for its intimations of war. Because in the showground, the Kempsey showground, there were many um, militia men camped.
And my father and a cousin of his, a nephew of his who - my father at that stage wasn't a volunteer but he intended to become one - and my - whereas the militia were conscripted and my um, a cousin of his was - sorry a nephew of his was a lieutenant in the Australian Army. And they used to get me, when I was two or three, to go out on the verandah and cry out "chocko" to these militia men returning from the pub or the town. And my father always felt that - chocko as in chocolate soldier - my father said he said he always felt guilty at having used me for that purpose because these were the men who stopped, fought on the Kokoda Trail, these militia men.
And um, I therefore begin to remember the intimations of war. I can particularly remember the fall of Singapore and the impact that had on women in particular. Aunts of mine sitting around one of these large cabinet radios. And um, as for school I rather liked it but it was interrupted by ah, occasional illness.
I cracked the role of Captain Baby Bunting of the Rocking-horse Brigade in the school musical extravaganza at the end of the year. I think this would have been about '41. In any case I'm afraid I got sick and the role went to another kid. And with it my beautiful quasi-military Captain Baby Bunting of the Rocking-horse Brigade costume. So from an early age I was a disappointed thespian I suppose.
Um, I had plenty of friends at Wauchope because my father's brother was there and he had five or six kids. And um, ah, they were good lively wild kids and so I had a fairly good life in Wauchope. I remember it with pleasure.
What was your relationship with your father?
Well it was very - he was a very loving man but um, you know the problems came, any problems came later and they were not quite the predictable problems of the adolescence [sic], adolescent. But yes he was um, he shared my mother's determination that we'd, my brother and I would have an education. Their belief was that doctors and lawyers didn't go out of business during the Depression. And they wanted to ah, buffer their children against the threat of economic downturns by ensuring education.
So my mother and my father both shared that passion. But my father was very indulgent and very funny. When he ultimately died, his coffin was carried out of the church by, or accompanied out of the church by all these grandchildren. And they loved him because he was graphic in storytelling, slightly improper in language, ah, you know, if they primed him with liquor he'd tell them stories about mad people in Kempsey, eccentrics in Kempsey. Such as Chicken Weeks who played in the silent movies, played the piano. And also had a way of stealing chickens by some form of hypnosis, and also used to make-up Kempsey women who came down to go on the job, to put in a session as a prostitute in Sydney.
And ah, he would tell all these improper and improbable stories. The mad horse, the retired um, racehorse that my grandfather had, he was called PD. I would later put him in a book called 'A River Town'. Now PD was like a Romanov duke in exile and he knew that pulling a grocery cart was beneath his attention. And my father was the youngest child in the family and hence the chief conflict between - it was his job to get PD to behave - and the chief conflict between PD and the family ah, was um, went through the line - lay directly with my father.
So he had many stories of horses, bullockies, timber getters, ships that came up into the Macleay because until 1917 there were no um, railways and even so shipping remained an important part of the coastal scenery, and particularly with timber like native cedar coming down from the hinterland. And so he was a good storyteller, a maker of improbable rhymes, rather profane.
Um, he was a splendid footballer apparently, except people used to say of him, he'd come the knuckle. And he did have a disposition towards fieriness. [laughs] And - but we were temperamentally very different. And you know, one is often faced with the problem of dealing with a child who seems to have come from another planet. And um, therefore, as close as we were, the temperamental difference became greater in ah, adolescence than it did in childhood.
How would you characterise that difference?
Well um, I'm getting, I'm getting ahead of myself but...
We'll talk about it later then.
While you were still small, did your father tell you stories then?
Oh yes absolutely. Yes. He was very, very much an affectionate father. Um, and ah, was much liked by everyone. I remember when we left Wauchope someone did a big drawing of him, big public drawing of him, postman's uniform, because he used to go around from house to house and twinkle and flirt and tell stories. And when he was social - there was a strong depression in him, based on the fact that when he was a boy various people made him feel inadequate. Something that often happens in adolescent boys, particularly wild ones.
And so he ah - all that was hidden when he was the social man and the absolute charmer, you know. And it wasn't that he was not an absolute charmer at home, it was more that his truer melancholy came out. Now I've got the melancholy myself, you know, that behind this apparently gregarious um, untroubled exterior I have the same dichotomy as my father. But I think he found it more disabling.
And then the great - when we did ultimately move to Sydney because of the war and because he joined the RAAF the, that loss of the father for two and a half years was probably quite crucial. Both in my relationship to my mother and in the, that lost two and a half years, when the father comes back and you're on the edge of adolescence, you're no longer a little kid, you know, you can't be treated like a little kid. And I think that that lost two and a half years had some impact on our relationship.
Um ... and I was not the only one to experience that. I sometimes thought that maybe we could take a class action against the Commonwealth of Australia. [laughs] But all jokes aside, it was - we were in a small but notable way, amongst the victims of World War II.
How important was religion in the household?
Quite important. Um, the - my father was a very rebellious Catholic. He was a typical Australian larrikin. And yet he practised Catholicism and tried to live up to its nearly impossible um, standards. And um, you know with my mother, she was not a stupidly devout woman but she was a devout woman.
And I could remember scenes such as we were invited - after we came down to Sydney, to Homebush - we were invited to a relative's wedding in Hornsby and the relatives were that terrible class, non-Catholics you know, and we were - my mother talking about which priest she should go to to avoid - to get permission to go because you weren't supposed to do that without the permission of the priest.
So I remember both medicine, because I frequently sick, particularly with asthma for which there was no proper treatment then, and in religion I had a strong sense of there being a patriarchy. It's a term I wouldn't have used then but these were the two castes, the power castes, if you were just a girl down from the bush with a sick child and her husband about to enter the air force. And so they took religion seriously and they believed in um, the major mysteries.
Um, although I remember my father getting very stroppy about confession, because when he was in the Middle East ah, you could - priests would absolve before any conflict or danger. They'd absolve whole regiments of men just like that. And he, I remember him later saying, "Why have we got to go to confession and tell a sky pilot all these sins?" And you know, "I swear all the bloody time and I've got to tell them about that, when during World War II we could just get done, you know because of danger of battle. And we didn't have to say anything".
So he was um, sceptical. What was - remained most notable was this sense of the fair go. Lang was much praised in my household specifically because he wanted to put a moratorium on homelands and of course he was like Gough Whitlam later, sacked by a viceroy. And um, so um, you know there was a bit of republicanism even in the '30s because of the way Sir Philip Game had treated John Lang.
What are your early religious memories?
Oh, ah, the mass, the necessity of going to the mass. Nuns telling you stories about kids who went to mass every day of their life and then skipped it for a picnic and of course were drowned. And went straight to hell. [laughs] Ah, all the heavy stuff. The ritual, the chasuble, the vestments in general, and the inapproachability of the instruments of consecration, the chalice and the pattern and all the pieces of hardware involved in ...
Oh I did. But one was always terrified of them because one was told they were such potent elements. So the question of what happens if the communion waper [sic], wafer sticks to the roof of your mouth, was a huge cosmic question that had to be worked out, you know.
Well you were supposed to ease it off your - the roof of your mouth gently with your, with the point of your tongue, but very gently. And if that didn't work I think you were just to try to moisten your mouth. And if that didn't work you had to, you were left with prayer. But worse still what happened if the host dropped from the priest's hands and was on the floor beside you. You know, this was the body and blood of Christ and so, and it was on the carpet.
So there were all the normal, very well-documented, many Catholic writers have written stories about this. Most recently Frank McCourt perhaps and the fact that on top of the demands of religious um, service there was the awe of the mysteries. Um, it - of course, it puts a drama in your life, a cosmic drama. It makes you think in cosmic terms, that's the - you know, you come from Kempsey, a little dairy town on the north coast, or from Wauchope or from Homebush, a less than savoury, or stimulating suburb on the western line. But you have power over the divine in a sort of way.
The host is put into your mouth and if you were malicious enough you could chew it. And this would be a cosmic profanation of the world order, of the order of theology and cosmology. And so um, ah, I rather relished that, the drama of the church. I think it's one of the reasons I'd ultimately study for it. It was very dramatic.
The two most dramatic things in my young life were the war, and that was very dramatic because when my father was shipped out, the trainload of men sang 'We'll Meet Again'. And my mother said to me, "It's as if they don't know that some of these men won't come back", you know, it seemed to be a celebration. And in any case the war, and it seemed to be a battle against supreme evil to us, and it was Japanese militarism, but of course even um, the ah, attitude of the press was such ...
How conscious were you as a small child, when you were still up north, of being Irish?
Oh, um, to the extent that a great number of the nuns were Irish so they gave you their version of history, more in my parents' generation than in mine, but they still told you ah, that in penal times the priests were chased, not ... - C-H-A-S-E-D by dragoons that they told stories from their own remembrance in some cases of the black and tans, who'd be outside the church with their armoured cars yelling abuse to people going in and out of the church.
Ah, and they gave you a particularly Irish version of Australian history in which you were definitely part of it, but you were - also received the news, if not from them, from other people that you were not quite considered fully part of it in those days. Because of the doctrine of papal infallibility which many people chose to read as a civil - giving the Pope civil authority over citizens of dominions and of the United States rather than moral authority - ah, Catholics were still suspected.
And I noticed that in my World War II and World War I - relatives of mine were very motivated as Catholics to show what they're made of. You know, they had no idea at the point of enlistment what, quite what that meant. They had a very naïve version of what it meant. Ah, but that's certainly palpable in Uncle Johnny, my father's eldest brother, in his um, war motivation.
And interestingly my wife's elder brother was in bomber command and a war hero and it was very much his motivation to show a) what Australians were capable of doing - that was a powerful motivation - and b) as a rider to show bigoted people what, that tykes were willing to um, serve also. And so one was aware that although you felt very Australian, not everyone believed you were.
My mother, who went to the same school as I went to for one day before I got ill, tells me that on Empire Day the convent school kids marched to the showground with the Australian flag, and the state school kids marched with the Union Jack. And that this was at that stage of Australian history a distinct symbol of a slightly different definition.
You speak as if being Irish and being Catholic is the same thing to you.
Yes many people of that heritage do tend to, but I think in a way it was because in my upbringing, because of the dominance of Irish clergymen in the Australian church. Now early in Australian history the first priest of course was an Irish political prisoner, a United Irishman, Father Dixon. But apart from him various fairly civilised English Benedictine gentlemen like Ullathorne came to Australia and there was a time when the Benedictines had great power in Australia.
Ullathorne was the man who heard the confessions and gave absolution to the Norfolk Island um, rebellion people in the 1830s I believe. And stood by them while they were hanged. And they were all Irish of course, they, the men who were hanged. Um, the - this perhaps urbane rather Cardinal Newmanesque [sic] kind of English tradition was borne away by the arrival of very ah, hard-headed um, tough, muscular, no doubt sexually repressed Catholic, Irish Catholic tradition with its heavy overlay of intense Manichaean prudery about sexual matters, which has not vanished to this day.
So there's a sense that even in the United States where you had Spanish Catholics, German so on, and here we had Irish and Germans, the occasional Italian family in every town and so on, the Lebanese family. Nonetheless the church was a very Irish institution. And um, in its - doctrinally and in its mental habits and it sensed that we may have been downtrodden back there but we can show our presence here by building a convent on every hill.
There was an element in my maternal grandfather of showing the other side what could be done when you donated to a convent or when you donated to the building of a convent, or the building of a church. Ah, that you may have been despised where you came from but you are not going to be despised here. That sort of race memory stuff was - well I don't know if there is race memory - but that - tales your granny, and particularly your grandfather, told you, tales which were also part of the inheritance of your parents, created an interesting kind of Australianness.
It was a later generation, I think, who became more socially conservative, the generation that 'made it' in society in general. And at the time of the Cold War I think there was a considerable surge of loyalism to the Crown from the Catholic community. But of course I was, began my schooling before that when we were still being told about the evil persecution of priests and the way the Irish were allowed to starve and all that stuff.
Yes definitely anti-English stuff, which chimed in well with the fact that the Australians were anti-English in their own peculiar way anyhow. And, you know, I realise now that anti, the anti-English passion of Australians can be a sign of um, emotional immaturity. But we didn't see it then that way.
I'm not sure of all the details but I think employment and the fact that my father joined the armed forces. I think that's - I've always understand [sic] they are the two major. Because we - all through the war we used to go back to Kempsey and see everyone. And my parents always seemed very emotionally attached to Kempsey. It was from there that the stories came. And it was there that um, they knew who everyone's grandfather was. Um, whereas Sydney was of course, even then - though an immensely smaller city than now - was more anonymous.
Um, it was interesting though because I remember one of our neighbours was a um, fellow who'd been a British Army PT instructor in Singapore. And he and his wife had had servants up there and suddenly they escape on a boat and they're stuck in a little block of flats at Homebush [laughs] - rather a comedown. And that drama of the war was very interesting in Homebush.
I used to like to watch the occasional reunion where some fellow would come back from New Guinea and his skin would be atebrin yellow and he'd have all his gear on - his 303 rifle and his gaiters. He'd look a very heroic figure. And his young fiancée or wife - he'd be coming from Homebush station, no grand, you know, no trucks laid on or anything like that. Men came home from war on the electric train, on the red rattlers. And his wife would burst out of the gate in Loftus Crescent and go running up towards him and there'd be this huge reunion. As good as any reunion in the movies, you know. I,I liked witnessing scenes like that.
And I remember one day ah, Homebush was chosen as the depot where the Australian Lighthorse would be given their horses and take over their armoured cars and tanks. And over the hill at Flemington came seven or eight hundred men on horseback with plumes, walking down amongst these little - um, riding down amongst these little Federation cottages with their lances and their pennants. And it was such a grand and unreal and absurd sight. There were, there was a lot of - I was aware of the drama of war and I didn't fear it as much as, as adults did of course, because I didn't understand what it meant.
Um, my memories of um, of the air raid shelter practises are very strong. And I think I put them in a book recently. I don't believe the book has been published at this moment but ah, again there was no ...
What happened? What happened? What did you have to do?
Well um, the nuns decided with the help of the chief air raid um, warden for Strathfield, that there was a suitable air raid shelter under the high altar of the church. At the back of the church there was a little door and if you opened it and you went in you were under steel-reinforced altar in a space possibly five and a half feet, six feet tall, very dark, very dank, full of old furniture, old benches and so on.
And I hated that place. But we all took our linen bags in there that we had to carry with us in case of Japanese invasion. [INTERRUPTION]
This dark, dank place had a sort of forbidding air to me. And I think to all the little kids who were ...
Let me ask you a question so we get a nice clean lead-in to that. Where did you go for air raid shelter practice?
Well. It was a space under the high altar of St Martha's Church in Strathfield. And the nuns believed that God would not permit the high altar of St Martha's to be hit. And as well as that the space under the high altar had the space that we were to occupy, which was accessed by a little door in the outer wall of the church. It was reinforced to take the weight of the altar. So um, it was an approved air raid, air raid shelter.
Into it we took our bag that every kid in Australia was issued. Our mothers actually made the bag and um, I think a few of the things in it were issued by air raid wardens. What was contained were two halves of a tennis ball to put over your ears in case of detonation to stop your ear-drums being burst, a plug to bite on to prevent biting your tongue, a can of salve and a bandage and a whistle.
And um, we would go into this dark and dreadful place and get a solemn talk to by the nuns and the air raid warden about, you know, the possibility, but it was nothing to be worried about because we'd be safe down here. And thank God it never happened. We would have been totally unprepared. And then to show that we could stay there for a long time, that we were really responsible kids. We were told to put our tennis ball halves over our ears and sing 'Faith of our Fathers'. [sings] "Faith of our Fathers" etcetera. And no, [sings] "Faith of our fathers living still in spite of dungeon soil, dungeon fire and sword". That was the Irish bit. You know, dungeon fire and sword.
And ah, the - there was a morning when my mother who knew an air raid warden, our local butcher, she came all the way up to this little primary school and said, "I'm going to take Michael". The reason I was called Michael is something I haven't mentioned. The story is that my mother wanted me named Michael Thomas after her engine driver father, Mick. She - my father, possibly due to celebration of my birth, got it the wrong way around. Possibly due also to the fact that his father's name was Thomas. But in any - whatever was the cause of the mix-up I was registered as Thomas Michael. But my mother called me Michael and still does - all my life [sic].
And so did everybody else in your childhood, didn't they Tom?
Yes and I began using 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, except my mother, who knew me as definitely Michael. He who is like unto God. It's a, it - goes the translation from Hebrew. I think it was a more hopeful name than a realised one.
And um, so my mother turned up at the air raid shelter and said, "I'm going to take Michael home because there are Japanese planes over Sydney". They were only reconnaissance planes but no one knew that. The ordinary people didn't know that. So I was in the delightful situation of getting off going into the, into the pit. And the other little kids were rather - I felt a bit of a wooz but I was a grateful wooz. And all the way down Homebush Road my mother and I were the only figures on the road and she was looking for Japanese planes. I was just delighted to be away from school.
How old were you when you came to Sydney?
I think I was about six or seven. Seven. And um ...
He went away in ah, late '42 or early '43 and he didn't get back till October '45.
So he was with you for a year or two before he went?
Yes that's right. He was coming and going on leave and so on. He was stationed at Deniliquin for a long time and he'd come home for occasional leave. Um, his sister came down from the bush and lived with us. Aunt Annie, my Aunt Annie who was a great character with his verbal felicity and his capacity to tell tales. But she was a very eccentric woman. But she was great company to have around the place.
And my mother's sister Marie, came down from the bush to be a welder at Burwood, at Burwood in Sydney. And so I was in a household of, very much in a household of women at that stage.
And when did your brother arrive?
My brother arrived some months after my father left. Um, and he ah, was thus eight years younger than me and it was um, you know, it was such a time that my mother probably had people wondering was it his. But it is his I can tell. He's got all the same strange eccentricities as my father. Absolutely trademarked eccentricities, which I of course don't have.
Um, and that was tough because the baby was a big baby. Women then, soldiers' wives had an ice chest in the house, no in-house phone, the phone was on the corner, in those days it was never vandalised, thank God. You needed tuppence for the phone if you were going to call some government department. There were no cars. You knew a few important people who had cars.
And so women then were in many ways like soldiers' wives, rather like third world women. You know, I mean they remind me of some of the Eritrean women I've seen who do remarkable things. For example, my mother had ordered a cab for going into labour. She was going to splash out on a cab, which her generation never did except in such emergencies. The cab man got sick on the day she went into labour, so she walked a mile and a bit to the hospital herself. And then that was what that generation was like.
When I see the third world - there were important difference [sic] between us then and what we call the third world, but I think if we go back to our grandparents and then our great grandparents time, they were third world people. And that is why they were able to come to Sydney and catch a wagon to Gilgandra and not die of nostalgia or self-blame. Just get on with living because third world people I notice are not very neurotic. They're not like us.
And I think the past is the third world too. And when I tell young Australians about the life that women led then - soldiers' wives - with one of them always occasionally coming into the kitchen with a telegram and saying Alf's been taken prisoner in North Africa or in Crete. You know you - there was a different attitude. There was no, "Oh let's sue the government instantly for misplacing my husband". It was a far more, in a way, simpler world. And there was genuine, there was a genuine nobility in the working class. I mean the working class get a bad press as being rugby league followers, as being wife beaters and drinkers and so on.
Um, well you know, I didn't see - I certainly saw a certain amount of squalor which I wanted to escape. But what I'm aware of in these women is a kind of nobility. Uncomplaining nobility. And they were not dumb. They understood the politics and they listened to everything that John Curtin said. They thought John Curtin was Christmas, or the sort of women that my mother mixed with. And even so of course the war had its, as I was saying earlier, its element of racism.
Curtin wrote an open letter to the Australian people in 1942 um, which had a slogan attached to it, perhaps by the advertisers, perhaps by him - 'We've always despised them, now let's smash them'. So that was the Australia of my childhood. But I, on reflection, of course at the time I just thought this is the way everyone lives. In America they put on tuxedos and go to the Copacabana in the movies. And everything American is immensely more glamorous than us. But we, we get the job done.
And yes, we have endurance. And that generation had prodigious endurance. But I mean they had a strange over-imaginative kid like me and they were always - what I find remarkable as I'll say later, we'll talk about this later, how tolerant they were.
Now you had had your mother's full attention. Your father had gone away to war and she had been there taking care of this sickly child.
And then at the age of eight you got a brother. How did you cope with that? Do you remember his arrival and do you remember the consequences of it for you as the king of the house?
Well I became more the man of the house. I used to - when I say I was a sickly child I did get very sick at various times. But I was also a brat. I used to belong to a gang that went looking for fights with other gangs. It was all very innocent. And we had in our gang a boy who lived next door to us with muscular dystrophy. And he, I remember him with great affection. But if we got in a fight with kids who were beating us up, we would say to the other people, "Go easy with Jimmy Coy because he's going to die when he's thirteen. He's got this muscle thing". And they'd pull up and say, "Are you going to die mate when you're thirteen?" He'd say, "Too right!" [laughs]
And so I was not entirely a sick child and I remember fighting many a fight over comic books, chewing gum and money that sentimental American GIs threw from the train at Homebush. We would run into the street every time a troop train came. Sometimes we would be unlucky. It would be Italian POWs or the Luftwaffe POWs. But sometimes we'd be - crack an American troop train. And they would throw, if you waved to them, they'd throw stuff to you. And, but there'd be a last two bob that two kids would simultaneously go for.
And so I, you know, I wavered between being a wimp and a muscular Australian. I'd already got very strongly through my father's footballing exploits that sport was the way to Australian glory. Um, I'd met, when we were living at Bondi, I can't remember it, or Bronte rather, we'd met the great Eastern Suburbs test player Dave Brown. And I'd been photographed beside a big white lion that Dave Brown had brought back from a tour of England. And so I did pick up - I wanted to be good at sport above all. 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.
So how did you deal with the confrontation of the little boy, of a little baby in the house, the brother?
Well I was looking forward to a little brother because I was so much older. And I can remember being very excited. I was being looked after by an aunt when it happened. There must have been some sibling rivalry thing occur, but I was not conscious of it because I was so much older. And I just wanted to bring up this little creature as a model of myself. You know, and teach him how to bat and give him things, you know.
Indeed he was a very different character. He's a strong character. And he was, he had great stubbornness like my father. And so he was a challenge to raise. But since I had to carry the nappy bag all over Sydney, wherever we went, I never felt superfluous. But I think the closeness with my mother was um - had a potent influence on me. But I don't know, it didn't make me a feminist. That was to come later. [laughs]
Now, when you came to Sydney, where did you go to school?
We went to - lived in Homebush and we went to the convent school at, or I went to the convent school at Strathfield, which was a mile and a bit perhaps away. And then after I'd progressed to the end of second grade I went to St Pat's Strathfield.
What are your chief memories of that first school that you went to? Do you have any incident or things that you remember from there?
I must apologise because I know all writers have memories of being on the outer because it's the children on the side of the playground who become the dangerous writers. [laughs] 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 great problems with wheezing and with discharge, which I couldn't deal with as an adult, you know.
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 - like um, the contempt that she shows for a sort of a mucus leaker. [laughs] "Oh Sister, look what's happened to his page." That sort of thing. But it was - I was not totally unhappy there. Not totally unhappy. But I did feel on the outer. But then every writer says that.
Um, again I remember when Mother Beningus who would have a part in my later life, drew a chalk mark around the urinals and told us that any boy who piddled above that line would be um, inviting the wrath of God and the shame of the Virgin Mary. And so once again even though Australia stood a good chance of um, falling to the Japanese, which would have been - or being bombed by the Japanese at least - which would have been really a cosmic event, we were fixated on this whole thing about, you know, not peeing too high, not having peeing contests. And God, you know, the thunder of God. So we grew up in - the Australians then and Australians of my background were in a doubly cosmic universe.
And when you went on to St Pat's, your high school, your secondary school, what affect did that have on you?
Well again in my primary school years I found it very hard. I think every child has their fuse, you know, when either intelligence kicks in or speech kicks in, and the fact that speech say, or an understanding of Pythagoras' Theorem kicks in at an early stage, is not necessarily a guide to the way the child will ultimately perform, as a great brain of the earth. There are quite brilliant people who, who don't get it until much later and, you know, there are all these stories of prodigies not beginning to speak until they're six years and so on.
So I had a very long fuse, which disappointed by parents. I was conscious of disappointing my parents. They um - and it was not a good feeling. And when I got to sixth grade I really began, found a means to focus on performing well. Obviously things became possible. I didn't spill as much ink as I used to. My nose was under control. I had learnt not to misspell various words. And some concepts were coming to me.
I can remember as a little kid really understanding, really understanding that two and two were four and that there were various other epiphanies, that there really were four. It was not just something you said. That two and two were actually four. And then I can remember the day I understood Pythagoras' Theorem in first year. But again there was the heavy, you know, religious conditioning of the kind that um, Ron Blair so humorously portrays in the ah, 'The Christian Brother[s]', in his play 'The Christian Brother[s]'.
Um, what I found though about the Christian Brothers is this: that they were certainly muscular. They were generally working class, lower middle class blokes themselves. They came from the same sort of pool that much of the police force came from. And they were thumpers, but the whole of society was [sic] thumpers, were thumpers then. Um, and what their social significance was is this: that there was a great possibility with the bitterness that grew out of the Conscription Referendum in 1917 and the whole thing of Catholics being against conscription and many others being for it. And thus Catholics being seen as disloyal.
And there was an Irish working class that stood the risk of becoming an underclass. When I say Irish, Irish descent much of it, but some of it was Irish. And the Christian Brothers went to rough areas of Sydney, like Homebush, which was a hill in those days. And they took ordinary kids. Um, even then the parents found it hard to pay the fees. Um, and they told them that they were to be members of the professions. They had the same working class belief in becoming members of the professions and doctors and so on. And the education was very skilled in terms of preparing for exams. It wasn't as great in creating humanists maybe. But it was very good at exams.
Who were your friends at school?
Um, my - we've still got some hey?
The um - I had a 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 intellectuals as well, the great minds as well. And so um, I had a wide range of friends, but my preferred company were, was a very eccentric boy from our suburb who ultimately became for a time a Trappist monk. And who looked very Byronic and used to compose poetry. Um, he would, he appealed to the side of me that wanted to be Wordsworth.
He was a very Wordsworthy [sic] and Coleridge type of figure. And we were both reacting to the plainness of our suburb by pretending to be somewhere else, in the Middle Ages, or in our own version of the Middle Ages. And um, I had um, then a friend who was unsighted, Paddy Downey. And we studied a lot together and we used to go to athletic carnivals. He would run by the sound of Braille print in Nugget shoeboxes. And um ...
Run beside him yes. And he was the first um, unsighted boy to get the Leaving Certificate, which was considered almost an impossibility. He was a very brave and determined fellow Paddy Downey, and I still see him at school reunions. And um, he laid down a path of amelioration for people who came later, for unsighted people who came later. Because in those days you couldn't get a job with the public service. You could hardly get employment. And Paddy went to university and I wasn't there at that time. But he was very good company.
Why was it you who ran with him sounding the Braille box? Why was it you who was his friend?
Well we lived in the same suburb. It was a mixture of altruism and vanity of the kind that is characteristic of thirteen or fourteen or fifteen year old boys. Um, it was um, 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.
And but, I suppose then I had girlfriends in the sense of girls who went to the local schools. I remember spending a lot of time with a family called the Raffertys - one of whom later became a nun. And we would go in a group, we were just finding our identity in adolescence and we'd go for - as a group into the um, Town Hall for the Sunday afternoon orchestral concerts. And that was a great outing. It allowed a little bit of transcendence and a little bit of muglair-ising and a little bit of sort of protean sexuality. At least in the emanation of those chemicals that we say we now emanate to attract partners.
But it had very banal outcomes in all regards. But um, that was - adolescence was great because I started to get good at sport and play in a couple of school teams and I'd left my respiratory problem...
What about your ambitions as a sportsman? Were you able to emulate your father?
Yes. With the remission of asthma in my adolescence I very much desired to be a member of one of the school's five rugby league teams, to be a member of the athletics team because we were the Yale to Christian Brothers Lewisham's Harvard. And ah, I was able to do that through pure desire. I was a very ordinary runner. And I can remember when a young woman that I was keen on was sitting in the back straight, in a four hundred I was running against Joeys, and I knew I could beat this bloke but I went too early purely because this girl from Santa Sabina was sitting in the back, the back straight.
So I put it all on in the back straight. And then just hoped that my sacrifice of infatuation would hold, hold me up in the bend and in the home straight. And to my horror, not only did the boy from Joeys pass me but our second runner passed me. I ended up third and the Brother said, "Young Keneally how often have I told you not to put in all you've got in the back straight". But I did it for at least infatuation and so, sport was important to me as a means to woo girls. Something that, at which I had no success at all, either as a sportsman or in any other way. And sport was important to me above all as the hero system of Australia.
I've often said that in our Australia we had a sort of dominion set of roles. One was fighting in - at Gallipoli, and in World War I and World War II etcetera. Another was producing fine wool. And the third form of heroism of grandeur, and being grandeur - was sport. Don Bradman, you know, every boy, every little kid knew that Don Bradman used to hit a ball against his water tank. So little boys with bats hitting nondescript balls against nondescript surfaces were simply the commonplace of my childhood.
I was never any good at cricket thought I love it as a, as a sort of mystery. It is a mystery religion more than a sport even though they've spoiled it with sponsorships and advertising and so on. It's still more a mystery sport of the kind that was played by the ancient Aztecs. They had a game that was part of religious observance and cricket always struck me as being very close to religion. But um, in any case sport was the hero system with which I grew up. And in a sense I've never got beyond it.
So my ambitions were dual, to be five eight for Australia and to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Neither of these ambitions have been achieved. But I saw no reason why there could not be the sort of renaissance man international sportsman. And it was a fatuous and sort of innocent expectation that this combination could be achieved. And I've seen it achieved in a few men, but a very few men.
So nonetheless given the importance that was placed on sport in Australia, I wanted to be part of that scene, particularly since I had felt very strongly in my early schooling being marginalised even in the Catholic school. And the whole Catholic school being in turn marginalised, or suspected. And so um, I did feel that very intensely. I grew up with quite an inferiority complex which I began to get over in high school through modest achievements. And through reading, you know, I mean reading is the grand liberator.
And when I did honours English, Brother McGlade, who was a notable Christian Brother, a non-flogging Christian Brother, who had brought his noble soul out to Homebush to teach the great unwashed like me. He introduced those of us who were interested to Mahler's sympathy [sic], ah, symphonies, to um, Shostakovich. Stuff we'd never known existed.
And at the back of the room was a special press of books under lock and key, most of them had been condemned by the Vatican. And they were for the honours English boys. And they included Auden and Eliot and Graham Greene and Virginia Woolf. People - I mean most kids went through school in those days thinking that the novel stopped with Dickens and poetry stopped with Tennyson. And there was no awareness of the modern possibility of writing. And on top of that of course um, Douglas Stewart's 'Ned Kelly' verse play, which showed that it was possible to write poetry in Australia.
And ah, this was a great liberation for me - I mean it gave me ideas above my station. And ah, ideas that never let go of me. Um, and um, so ...
Can you remember when you first thought, when you first thought when you were reading, I could write this way?
Oh yes, well I've - the great writers write so easefully and with such apparent control over their narrative that the first thing any good reader thinks is "I could write this if I had time, if I was desperate enough, one day I will". And that was so with Graham Greene who appealed enormously to me because of that Catholic underlay and that Manichaeism, in that hatred of the flesh, you know. There's no - there's a lot of sex in Graham Greene's novels but none of it's happy. You know, people are dammed. The girl in - the woman in 'The End of the Affair' gets blown up by a German bomb. Everyone gets punished.
And this really appeals to you?
Well it was the idea that it fitted in with Catholic doctrine, um, that everyone got punished for any sexual deviation. But it sort of put, it put an adventure story in the context of Catholic theology, which I found very interesting. And of course he is the most easeful of writers, Graham Greene and you think "I could write this, this is easy", you know. Similarly Evelyn Waugh, very different sort of Catholic from the sort of Catholics we were, but were introduced to him. All in the name of Honours English. We became heretic humanists in the name of honours English. God bless it. But of course I was by then already considering becoming a priest.
But before you got to that stage your interest in literature had been kindled by other experiences. Before honours English, hadn't it? You had thought about writing poetry. And in fact had started writing some poetry.
Yes I wrote terrible knockoffs of eighteenth century narrative poetry and of - particularly I was attracted to Tennyson, who I remember as a sort of maple syrup of verse, great maple syrup. 'Loxley Hall' was a poem which had a big impact on me.
Ah, before encountering the moderns it was probably Wordsworth. But on occasion Shelley and on occasion Keats. I loved Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'. The idea of a bloke - no one in Australia then was high - the idea of a fellow writing a poem while he was high on opium and all these fantastic images like a dream, like a dream landscape in it. I love that. 'Through caverns ... measureless to man'. Yes.
... measureless to man'. And but you were also drawn to a Catholic poet.
Oh well, above all the way I naively thought that running four hundred metres or playing halfback would inevitably give me success with the houris of Santa Sabina Dominican Convent, I also thought that verse would - the common mistake made by bad poets. And I thought that verse had its own almost sacramental power. And I discovered through Brother McGlade a great poet called Gerard Manley Hopkins who had been a Jesuit and a poet.
Now the biggest problem with 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. 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".
And it seemed that Gerard Manley Hopkins had a genuinely sacramental view of the world. An authentically sacramental view of the world. One that made the world not less sensual but somehow more sensual and certainly more dramatic. And with his weird verbal inventiveness. I thought that this was the greatest um, the greatest poet I'd ever come across when I was sixteen and I took Brother Jimmy McGlade's copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins with me and wore it continually in my suit pocket, so that it bulged the coat out.
And I believed 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. And um, I was very taken with the inventiveness of um, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The fact that he wanted all this glorious poetry destroyed upon his death and asked his executor, who I think was the English poet Bridges, to do it, to destroy this. Um that did raise a certain uneasiness. You know, how horrible the world would be if he had been obeyed and his poetry had been destroyed. And then I wouldn't have anything to wear over my heart.
You know, so I was a weird eccentric kid but I did believe in the power of the word and of the word being made flesh I suppose, which again I suppose came from my temperament as well as my upbringing.
You had this very close friendship with another boy who loved poetry and literature, as you say the one who later became the Trappist monk. In that relationship was there a leader and a led?
Oh yes, I certainly I think wanted to be like him in some regards. Um, but then in his relationship with the wider world I may have been, I'm not sure that I can boast that I was his liaison officer. But he found it hard dealing with the real world of big muscular Brothers who got upset if you were an hour and half late in the morning. And you couldn't, you couldn't tell them, although he would try to tell them, that it because he was composing a rondel.
Ah you know, he was unabashedly not of this world. And indeed to the extent that one of the Brothers, not Jimmy McGlade, when he was quite a senior boy, had him up on the dais by the blackboard where he could be easily shaken out, or even by more muscular means, distracted from his fantasies.
Well he ultimately trained to be a Trappist and then he left that and I believe he became an expert in foreign affairs on Japan and married a Japanese woman. That's the last I've [sic] heard.
Now what did your parents make of this boy who was emerging as a, as a would-be writer, poet, football hero ...
Delicate soul, etcetera, etcetera. Um, I think they could see that there was an innocence, a gullibility, a naivety there that could be dangerous. And they would have hoped that going to university would have - and meeting good looking heretics would sort of make me, give me the worldliness that I needed. Um, and ah, they - my mother was very proud of me. My old man didn't know quite what to make of me. Or, or me him. We were not hostile to each other but here was this weird kid who wanted to talk all through dinner about sprung rhythm.
Um, and as one of my mates wrote when they gave me - I was so famous for being a fancier of Gerard Manley Hopkins that they gave me a birthday present - my friends including Paddy Downey, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And wrote in it to the Professor of Hopkinsean Idiosyncrasy. [laughs] So you know um - but my father and mother confidently expected that I'd be going to university and um, my mother was increasingly proud of me, which was a nice feeling, because of my um, gradually increasing academic attainments.
My little brother was extremely precocious intellectually and he was um, always dux of his class from a very young age. But I had looked to about the age of eleven to be a mucus and ink strewing write-off and I think they were pleased I came good. [laughs] And I loved world history. I think that what happened there was important - and later - was important in this regard that through the church and through experiences like honours English I thought of Australia as being in the world and not apart from it.
The universal church where the priest had the same office in Tasmania has he did in Nova Scotia or in Belgium, that idea was appealing and I suppose gave a sense of the world. My father's adventures in World War II gave a sense of the world too. When he - that the world was very big. And then the - encountering all this literature from Gerard Manley Hopkins to DH Lawrence to Norman Douglas to TS Eliot, that gave one a sense of a big world too.
And I was excited by the big world because although everyone had a job in Menzies' Australia and although the Prime Minister of my day, John Howard ,seems to think the '50s were the greatest time out, they were a time of I think considerable stagnation and were a time when we were struggling, as we still are, to decide to what extent we're our own people, our own particular community and what extent we're not. We belong to other people.
And I found both literature and the church very dramatic presences in the world of the 1950s. And I've met many people, not only here, who've said that um, when they were, that when they read Gerard Manley Hopkins they wanted - and other people like GK Chesterton - they developed a subtle longing to be a Catholic. And the - so there was, the church was one of the more dramatic elements in Menzies' Australia. And then of course belief in the Cold War set in and um, in the peril of Russia, and there was peril from Russia and so on.
So how were you imagining your future? This boy with this expanding universe that he was experiencing in his head in high school, what - how did you see your place in it?
I thought I'd definitely be a writer, whatever I did. And I was very interested in the priesthood. In every school you were, in every class you were told you know the, we turn out doctors and judges and lawyers, and we've just - the Knights of the Southern Cross have just captured the Department of Agriculture so you can get a job there, but of course the biggest thing is those boys who go to be Christian Brothers or go to be priests, you know. And ...
The mystery. The possibility of being a pastor. The, sort of the theological subtlety of the church, which is prodigious you know, often to the peril of its members and of other innocent bystanders. And the rituals, the rituals. The arcane language of Latin. The spectacular nature of high mass. I couldn't understand why they didn't have a high mass every morning because it was so theatrical and dynamite. The music. I loved playing chant, you know, singing, playing chant.
And um, so I saw myself as a celibate male and the celibacy 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 call success of course. It's a very sexist way of looking at it.
I don't think I knew what was involved. I think that the young of the late 20th century and the early 21st, when they're looking back on us, they will never by - go wrong by overstating our sexual naivety. And I think my sexuality was heavily repressed by the church, by the, you know, the design of the mortal sins. I was very attracted to women but I'd sublimated - for the purposes of becoming a seminarian I'd probably sublimated it into something, something mystical and chivalrous.
If you look back to the golden age of the church and look at the code of chivalry, the code of chivalry looked pretty good to me, you know. It looked like a decent substitute for marriage because, you know, you look around your suburb and marriage didn't seem a very glamorous thing. The tired women coming home with their string bags full of canned food and butter, it didn't seem such a great reward for living your life. And so um, on top of that I was heavily influenced by the church's Manichaeism.
There was a book I read about my last year of high school called 'Brighton Rock' in which there's a gangster called Pinky in Brighton. It's a great novel. And he has a disgust for the physical. He has this strange Manichaean - Mani was a man, a heretic who said that the world was divided into spirit, which was good, there was a dualism and the flesh, which was absolutely driven by principles of evil. And ah, therefore was a duality on earth. And it ...
That idea was very much in um, the Jansenism of the Catholic church, which is still there. Still worries about, you know, minute matters that should be beneath the regard of great mystics. And it um, it showed that there was something disgusting about the flesh, you know. And that was very common in Catholicism. I think it's St Anselm who says if ever you're attracted to a woman, think of her after she's dead. And then he gives a graphic description of what she'll be like. You know ...
Yeah. And you know, just think of that and then you'll take a cold shower and you'll be right. So um, yes there was something in my - both my naivety and my sexual naivety. But there were also good things went into the intention to become a priest. There were also good things. The idea of the priesthood that was cast to us was not the idea of a fat and comfortable bloke living in a sterile big brick house, driving a Dodge and playing golf every Monday. It was very much the Irish clergy whom de Tocqueville praised who lived in a ordinary house and shared things with their people. It was very much Karl Malden in 'On The Waterfront'. It was um, very much the priest who was the leader of the community in Ireland who ...
The engaged priest. The activist priest.
Yes that's right. Activist priest very much. And of course, the - I suppose in our day Frank Brennan, the great advocate of conciliation and of um, and of proper treatment for refugees, he is a model of the activist priest. And it's hard for me to say that because this relates to my childhood. The Jesuits only educated the people who'd already succeeded. Whereas the Christian Brothers educated the great unwashed and that's why I've got a weakness for the - or at least flogged the working class up an economic layer or two.
Now you remember the floggings at school. Were you ever flogged?
Oh I think everyone was. I, but as I said, there were some Brothers who never did it. But it was a consistent - I mean this was a period in which fathers routinely used the razor strap on boys and girls for their own good. This was um, a muscular period and there certainly some of the Brothers were muscular to - some obviously to a fault.
And of course the Christian Brothers have now - we've become very conscious of the fact that they were involved in sexual abuse. Did you ever observe any of that?
I had one incident where a Brother would take his favourites on his knee for a time. It was quite innocent, well I mean, I didn't see anything that was grievously wrong but I, I think me and the boys around me felt icky about it. You know, they felt "Thank God I'm not as bright as he is so I don't have to sit on his lap". And that happened only occasionally but it did happen. And that was the only sign I saw of it.
In the 1950s of course and late 1940s there was an extraordinary sectarian newspaper called The Rock published in Sydney. And it was full of stories about pregnant nuns, um, priests running a seraglio in the local convent and of the um, violation of boys. And it was - I mean, it didn't know that it was actually right in a few instances. The idea of the tunnels between the presbytery and the convent, there's no such thing, but maybe, maybe we'd all be a lot happier if there had been. But I won't reflect on that.
Um, The Rock then gave us a sense of being embattled. People would, neighbours would buy it and say to my mother "Are you sure Michael should go to that school because he could ...?", you know, read this.
Even though this was put out by fundamentalist Protestants?
Yes that's right. And ah Racobites - so the man who put it out was called Campbell and he's a very interesting study. And so we tended in those days to defend any behaviour that was questioned by others and to keep scandals in-house. I'm quite sure that if there had been such a scandal the priests or the senior Brothers would have said "Look, don't make any fuss about it". And would have sent the offender on a retreat, a reflective time and a time of prayer and then sent him to another school where he would have inevitably, ultimately fallen again.
But you didn't see any of that?
I didn't see that no. I only had the football coaching side, I remember Brother Markwell would tell us - he was a coach - and like many coaches he would use every motivational trick in the book, and he would say, "Over there ...", particularly if we were playing in state championships against state schools. You know he'd say, "Over there is a team of state school boys and their coach hasn't put into them what I have put in because he has the cares of a family. So you're going to just, you know, play your game because you're going to beat them and by the way let's say three Hail Marys to Our Lady of victories and it will just show, you've got to show them what Catholics are made of and basically Henry the Eighth was wrong. And you're to show that on the scoreboard".
And so I didn't see that, I saw a bit of eccentricity of that nature but I didn't see any scandal. No ... we used to - I mean, there was heavy protection of people then to avoid scandal. I'm sorry I interrupted you.
No. At a day-to-day level, what did you boys at St Pat's think of Protestants?
Well they were non-Catholics and it was an unfortunate thing to marry them. This sectarianism - um, I met a priest recently, an Irish priest when I was on QEII giving lectures and he said that the separate school system was a great aid to sectarianism and I have to say it was. And maybe it would have been better if we'd all gone to state schools. It would have been better for the social fabric, because there was a great deal of sectarian bitterness particularly - actually in the early colony you know, many of the governors were wiggish Protestants who were all in favour of Catholic emancipation.
But after the shooting of Prince Alfred at Clontarf in 1868 and then after the conscription battles of World War I, there was great suspicion of Catholics, so I've forgotten the question you asked me now.
Well I was talking about your own experience of this because - how did you regard Protestants and did you ever play with them?
Yeah. Yes I did. I, that's the whole thing about Australia. Australia integrated the - brought on the ships and unleashed in the society the dogs of sectarianism, which had existed in other places - in Glasgow, in Liverpool and of course in Ireland, north and south. And um, we thought, we were told that we were the chosen people that's why they despised us. And there's a great challenge to pluralism in telling a child that, you know, you're the one who has the real truth. And your little friends out there with whom you play in the street don't. You know, they might be well-meaning and, but really if things were proper they'd all be Catholics too.
But in practice Australia - the pluralism of Australia - sorry the sectarianism to an extent stopped at the time you took your uniform off after coming home from school. There were a few Ulster-style stone throwings between state school kids and Catholic kids on the way home. And many a state school brilliant Australian whom I've met tells me how scared he was as a little kid, or she was as a little kid, by these great roaring freckled Irish gangster types who'd be yelling abuse across the street and hurling rocks. And I had to tell them I had the same experience of big, solid Protos you know, yelling things at us and being just as scared. And it was a pity that that divide existed.
But once you got your school uniform off then you played, unlike Ulster, you played promiscuously in the street with people from - whose fathers were communists from the meatworks with, you know, kids from the state school. And that was what saved us from the worst demons of sectarianism, I think. It gave us, the Catholic school system gave us a strong identity and many good stories to tell, but whether it was positive socially in a very bigoted society, I don't know. [INTERRUPTION]
When it came to the point, what was it really that made you decide to go into the priesthood?
I don't know. It was a general - these decisions are not always made on the basis of "I am making the step because ...". Even if you say because, you can't be sure that that's the reason. One of the attractions was the dramatic character of the church. Another attraction was that Sister Beningus who had been an Irish teacher of mine when I was a little kid, she was dying and she asked a girl I was very interested in to become a Dominican name [sic], nun and take her name. These nuns were very obsessed with who would take the, their name on for the next generation.
And ah, my friend - we used to - in the group I used to knock around with, was head prefect of Santa Sabina and a very splendid olive-skinned Australia girl and she said yes. And she became a Dominican. So there are all these asexual relationships in the history of the church. The supposedly asexual - Mary and Joseph, Christ and Magdalene, Francis - St Francis and St Clare.
Heloise and Abelard although they actually brought the relationship down to a too earthier level in the view of the church. So they are not saints. And so I thought, well, you know, this is destiny. This girl for whom I'd lost the 400 metres is going and you know, I had this sixteen year old's - particularly then, had ridiculous concepts in their brain. They do even now. And then there was the idea of the sacraments, of administering the sacraments. Of administering confession and saying mass. Mass seemed an incredibly dramatic thing to me.
And I really believed that I could change the substance, by my word, divine forces would change the substance of the bread and wine. The substance in the strictest philosophic sense of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Heavy, heavy - I won't - I use the word in a non-pejorative sense - heavy magic for a kid from Homebush. And um, they were kind enough to take me into the seminary. I don't think the screening was very good. I think they intended - they tended to get a lot of um, a certain number of kids like me, rather innocent, rather unrealistically idealistic.
But with, with the - those came a certain number of robust kids from the bush with earthy sense of humours [sic] and people from tough neighbourhoods and so on. So it was basically a - what you got in there - a spectrum of Australian society. It was the same sort of crowd you get in a police academy or maybe in first year Arts or Agriculture at Sydney Uni. And um, I - my parents were very disappointed but they went along with it and the most remarkable thing about my parents, and my mother to this day, is that they will go with any shift. They've had a son who becomes a Gerard Manley Hopkins fanatic and then becomes a seminarian and then ultimately, then ultimately leaves and becomes a misfit and then starts publishing novels.
And that's all okay with them. Of course you can publish a novel. You know, they don't say, "Oh do you think you ought to get a safe job in, in the state bureaucracy?" They put up with all my weirdness and I admire them in that because my father was in one sense a very complex human being. But on one level he was your average sceptical Aussie rugby league playing, politician running down, sort of a bloke, you know. And I admire the flexibility he showed over the years. He showed perhaps more flexibility with me than he did with his wife.
Because he was the sort of bloke who wanted - thought dinner should be served at six. And if dinner was served at quarter to seven he'd say, "Why are we having bloody breakfast?", you know. So he was an old-fashioned boy and he had hoped that I'd go to university and become one of those whom he thought of as unassailable - a doctor or a lawyer.
But wasn't a priest also highly desirable?
Ah it was. But it was hard for him to accept that everything he'd put in, you know, there were - he would not drink, he loved a party but he would not drink to pay our school fees. And he would not drink for months, except at Christmas, to pay our school fees. And um, that um, you know he did that with an earthly triumph in mind. Not a heavenly one. Ah, but they - again, they accepted it and I think the screening process, as I say, should have involved an independent psychiatrist or counsellor but I looked like a good bat because I was biddable, had a certain level of intelligence and um, you know, looked as if I could handle the studies and go on.
You were going in to embrace these things, these mysteries, this magic, the potency ...
... and the power of the priesthood. But you were also giving things up for it. And um, were you very conscious of that? Were you aware of the fact that - and what had been your relationship with girls up until that point?
It was totally virginal. I had tried to take it in certain directions but had not ...
In what directions had you tried to take it Tom?
Well to hand holding and beyond. Um, but um, I - girls are very hard-headed and they thought I was rather eccentric, you know. All these intelligent - they were very affectionate towards me but they thought I was a bit of a weird bloke and how right they were. And ah, I didn't realise what I was giving up. I also didn't realise that what is suppressed will one day come out and to have all this suppressed will one day come out and do its best to kill you, you know to destroy you. Ah, I um - so the price seemed light for what I was getting.
But you were also going to be involved in entering something where you had to be obedient and that didn't sound like the adolescent boy you'd been?
Ah, this indeed was a problem. And it was a big problem for those who were a little bit obsessive in the seminary. Australian society was a very sceptical and anti-authoritarian one. In a very conservative way it was anti-authoritarian. It was not reflexly anti-authoritarian but it was - we were taught to be sceptical and not to take dumb orders from people like NCOs in the army or whoever.
And ah, you were supposed to take an absolutely fascist level to go from that value of scepticism and disobedience and take on obedience to an utterly fascist level, where okay if your superior tells you to do something stupid you'll do it because your superior is the voice of God. A very handy, a very handy belief for the church, you know. A lot of such beliefs are based on organisational convenience rather than on any doctrinal basis. But in any case that was ultimately a problem. And it was a problem for a lot of young men who ultimately left. And it remained a lifelong problem for many who stayed.
Um, and various of them came to various options um, in dealing with, or distancing themselves from, the sometimes crazy directives of bishops. And indeed one who has perhaps done that with some success and is still a priest was the man who had perhaps the greatest influence on me in the seminary and that was Father Eddy Campion, the historian and bon vivant and critic etcetera, etcetera.
Eddy had had more experience of the world than us and he was, he'd even been a journalist on The Sun and ah, he brought Graham Greene books into the seminary and - which was considered the height of worldliness even though they were confiscated. You know, it was a gesture those of us who were interested in Graham Greene approved of. And of course people like Eddy had the capacity to deal with this divide between being a citizen of the profane and pluralist Commonwealth of Australia and then being a citizen of the church. But if you believed us with the sort of naïve thoroughness that I did, then you had to - this was God's test to you.
If your, if your superior told you that something was necessary and it made, it added up to craziness on a rational level, you were told that of course the directives of superiors make no sense in terms of worldly reason, but they were to be embraced as a test from God to see if you could be obedient enough. And ultimately I couldn't do that. Ultimately, in various ways I'll talk about, um, this was a problem. And this indeed maybe a bigger problem for some seminarians than the question of celibacy.
Could I go back though and ask you about the time that you actually entered, we got into talking about this because I was asking you about your motivation at that time and whether you were conscious of what you were giving up. And you've explained that you weren't. Could you now just tell me the sort of narrative of how you went in and what happened to you once you'd made that decision?
Well there was a um, a meeting with the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Gilroy and the seminary superiors in the presbytery at the - or the chancellery at St Mary's Cathedral. And I went in there by train of course, by red rattler. If you came from Homebush all your meetings were destiny, with destiny were via the electric train. And love, reunion, cosmic events and episodes of destiny were all mediated via the electric train.
And I did an interview and was accepted. I received a letter saying that I was accepted for seminary training. The chancellery was full of great, boofy, half pimply Aussie kids of that sort of freckly Celtic tradition. From all the schools - Marist Brothers schools and Christian Brothers schools, blokes you'd played football against and so on. And um, each one of them was interviewed for suitability. And you had to have various references from the Brothers and from priests and so on.
And I had done nothing, I had not been given the opportunity to do anything that would bring a scowl to the face of a parish priest. And um, I think they made - actually some reference was made to my involvement with being Paddy's mate, Paddy Downey's mate. So that seemed to kind of prove a certain suitability in their minds. Whereas I think a independent psychiatrist would have said, "Listen, go away and find out and then if you want to come back". But we were specifically warned against this of course. "You'll go to university and you'll hear that terrible Professor Anderson telling you that Thomism is the philosophy underpinning Catholic theology. It's all nonsense."
And you'll hear about existentialism and you'll meet good looking Protestant girls and you'll you know, things will follow that course. And suddenly you'll give it all up. You will have lost your vocation and you will be damned of course.
[laughs] And I think a psychiatrist would have said you need a bit more world experience than you've had. And that would have been good for both the church and me to have that. Um, that opinion enforced upon us. But in any case, then at the beginning of 1953 I went to the minor seminary in Springwood and ah - a big population of seminarians in those days.
It's interesting so many of my friends have been through this including the great Australian director Fred Schepisi, who trained to be a Brother as a young man, until the Sicilian hedonist kicked in in Fred. The Sicilian hedonist mode that made him a great director and stays with him to this day. And so it was probably a peak of um, Australian Catholic political influence through the Labor party and a peak of vocations. Australia was still protected enough not to have - the new post-World War comers from Poland and um, Spain and Holland and so on and from the Baltic had not made their presence, and of course from Poland, had not made their presence felt yet.
And so um, there was um, again a very Irish feel to the minor seminary. I found the minor seminary very hard. An Australian judge who was in there with me called Chris Geraghty has written a book on his experience in which he mentions a number of us. And um, what I found most difficult was this obedience thing, which I nonetheless followed. And the fact that men who lived without women become pernickety in a particularly neurotic and self-centred way and there was an old monsignor ran the seminary and he was, had obsessions with boys who blew their nose, young men who blew their noses.
And so I was in trouble immediately. The bell at mass had to be rung in a particular way. If the bell slewed round the inside of the steel then - and made a sort of slewing sound - then you were in big trouble. You know, this was um, a very Stalinist place. And um, one was aware very early of the peculiarity and gradually you worked out it was due to psychiatric problems. But the idea that priests needed psychiatry was not - it was taken for granted they didn't.
I mean after all Freud was a filthy, Jewish - actually they never mentioned his Jewishness. I never encountered anti, explicit anti-Semitism in the seminary except for one instance and that was important informatively upon - formatively upon my life and writing. But one of the professors had a nervous crack-up in there. A very brilliant philosopher. A man who would have been an academic in the outside world. He had a doctorate from Leuven in Belgium. And um, we began to notice that he was, had lost it because he was looking at a picture of St Jerome in the hallway. And when we'd troop in to breakfast, have breakfast in silence he'd be there. When we'd troop out he'd be there.
When we went to class he'd still be there staring at minute details of this painting of St Jerome. And um, so one realised that some of these blokes were very strange. I mean I loved the man. He was the most - the one who was looking at the painting of St Jerome, he had a most subtle mind and he was the exciting teacher in the place. But um, it was the early indications that there's something unnatural about an all-male cast. Um, something you know, Monsignor Dunne needed a wife to say, "Stop being such a silly old bugger", you know. And many of them did.
Um, and I found it hard, again still, you know, my sexuality was well-suppressed and I found it hard in terms of obeying Charlie Dunne and of the capacity of Charlie Dunne to humiliate people. And ah, the um - the sort of choices that people were made [sic]. I was very shocked when a boy from the bush was late getting back from a relative's funeral. He gave him time off to go to the funeral and he - the rector was very angry with the boy for being late back. When I say boy I mean men of 17, 18, 19.
And um, he said to the boy a quote from the Bible, "Let the dead bury the dead". Everyone out there is dead except us. Let them look after all that. You have a higher calling. And yet though they, we believed absolutely that we had a higher calling, again um, there was the problem of the weirdness of some of the people, who had achieved this great boon of the um, of the priesthood. And yet who didn't seem to have been transformed by it.
What was the incidence of anti-Semitism that you saw?
In the seminary I have to say, as in Australian Catholicism, there wasn't the strong classic um, European style anti-Semitism. There had been some historically in Irish Catholicism. And indeed one, a priest who instigated or incited an attack on Jews in Limerick um, Frank McCourt said he was sent to Western Australia as a punishment and lived apparently a quite saintly life in Western Australia.
But I had, we had a scripture scholar called Professor Davis. And Dr Davis had studied at the Ecole Biblique and he had a very strong sense of Christianity being continuant with Judaism. He'd been excited by the Red Sea Scrolls that seemed to indicate the area of Judaism from which Christ came. And so I, my only memory of explicit anti-Semitism in the seminary was on Good Friday when in the litany we had to recite this um, this Latin litany response, "Dear God deliver us, or dear God help us".
One of the um, canticles said, "Let us pray for the conversion of the perfidious and heretical Jews". And we're all supposed to say, "Lord hear our prayer", at that. And I always thought, "Wonder why that's in there?" You know given that it was contrary to - it didn't seem a big - the conversion of Jews didn't seem a big issue, you know, in Australia. And I really didn't know why they got such a special mention. Except I knew about the - his blood be upon us and upon our people.
But I was more fascinated by Judaism than I was even then repelled by it. And I think part of the credit goes to this fellow who was Maurice Byers' brother-in-law, Sir Maurice Byers the great jurist, Charlie Davis, who also had a - sorry - this brother-in-law of Sir Maurice Byers, Dr Davis, I'm not sure if his name was Charlie. He also had a wonderful automatic capacity for spoonerisms. He was like a spiritual son of Dr Spooner. Instead of speaking about the biblical cities of Tyre and Sidon, he'd call them Syre and Tidon, which would bring some gales of laughter in the class. But that was the only instance of explicit anti-Semitism. Now in the general community I was aware of the occasional Ikey joke, you know.
Why did that incident influence you? You said it had an influence on you later, that it worried you.
That ah, the prayer.
Yes the prayer worried me. I thought it was demeaning to Catholicism. But ultimately the Pope did cut it out. A couple of thousand years late, but [laughs] ultimately I think this Pope abolished it from the Good Friday liturgy.
Now you were living in this community that was closed and where people were able to exercise a sort of absolute, certainly uncontested power. And this had an effect on them which you observed. What effect did that observation have on your psychology, on what was happening to you in that situation?
Well over time I began to resent this absolute authority which did seem to an extent to corrupt them. I don't mean that they were vicious men, but some of them were narrow men who did inhuman things. You see I always thought that priests were full of charity. Well one of the indications they weren't was their capacity to send to hell anyone who wasn't a Catholic. And half the Catholics anyhow who happened not to go to mass or looked at someone's breasts. They went to hell too.
So um, the second - but the practical issues that worried me were the blokes, the young men who had breakdowns in there and when you have a lot of silence and a lot of obsessiveness and the boys who kept the rule best, the rules of silence, the young men who kept the rules of silence and the rules of everything best were most likely to um, to crack up. And when they did they were looked upon as having somewhat failed and were sent into the community. And their parents were left to carry the bill, their families carried the bill of what had happened to them.
Both the damage that had been done to them, ah, psychiatrically and - mind you they were - probably had tendencies towards melancholia, but the seminary almost encouraged these um, crack-ups. And similarly I had friends who caught tuberculosis in Australia in the 1950s. And um, every time the X-ray van visited someone would fall in love with one of the nurses or become reminded of the opportunities for congress that lay on the other side of the wall. And there'd be a number who'd leave after every X-ray machine visit, compulsory chest X-ray.
And tuberculosis incredibly was a problem in that drafty old gothic pile on the hill. And we were not allowed to have too many visits from the X-ray truck. But when these men - some of whom were wrecked for their whole lives - when they contracted tuberculosis, again they were considered under the text, "Let the dead bury their dead". They were out there, they were not to be distractions to the rest of us, they were - and their parents picked up again the medical bill and the further bill of um, of um, trauma that came from their often - in some cases operations to remove part of their lung wall.
So in a community that was supposed to be based on the love of Christ, I was by about two or three years into Manly - that is four or five years into the whole process ...
How long were you at Springwood ...?
Ah, two years there followed by five at Manly. That was the normal course. And I was quite genuinely scandalised and shocked by it. But I began to become obsessive myself and get that remarkably neurotic Catholic disease scruples, where you feel responsible for everyone. Now I'm a bit like that anyhow temperamentally. So the seminary just increased that tendency. So I was talking to another seminarian who understands these things - Chris Geraghty - the other day, and I said that at one stage, obviously off my nut but still a practising seminarian, I um, saw that many of the cups from which we drank were cracked.
I knew from my upbringing that cracks harboured germs. And therefore I felt bound to go to the bursar - the bloke who bought the cups, who was a priest - and urge him to change them. I felt a moral responsibility to take this burden upon myself to get new cups in. I felt responsible for everyone that got sick. So by then I was in a dangerous, to myself, psychiatric state. And of course I began, I can remember the sort of thing that must happen to many a seminarian. I had one day, not an explicitly 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 um, 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. And actually my sexuality was so suppressed that I imagined us walking on the beach together. I didn't imagine any more intimate connection. And that was, that's an experience I remember very strongly.
So as I went madder and madder - well I don't think that's fair to say madder and madder - as I became more and more depressed and neurotic and scandalised by this lack of social justice - you see I, as I said I grew up in a family with a strong sense of social justice. He thought - a family that thought Mr Chifley's light on the hill, which really came from Rerum Novarum, was the way to go. That Mr Lang's compassion had been thwarted, but his compassion was the way to go.
And so I had a strong sense of what is just and what isn't. And I felt these, some of these seminary professors had a very narrow view of it. Even the cracked cups was a sort of diseased way of realising that perhaps we were being undervalued. Um, and um, I remember climbing to the rickety top of that tower at Manly one evening to look down on the lights of Manly. We were not supposed to climb that tower but I was - you know, I wanted a break from study. And until now I'd been a perfect student. And I climbed the tower and looked out on Manly.
And Eddy Campion was up there. And the difference between Eddy's healthy attitude and my neurotic one was that I said, "I come up here because I feel um, you know I feel very shaky in my vocation". But Eddy had been held back a year and he was in a more rebellious mood and he said, "Oh I often come up here and piss on the place". And ah, so that was the - I think his attitude was a healthier one than mine.
So I was very close to ordination. I was delighted to be ordained a deacon, which is the last step between, before becoming a priest. But then it all fell apart. By early in the year I was supposed to be ordained I couldn't move. I couldn't go to mass, I couldn't get to the chapel, I couldn't study. Classic signs of a kind of crack-up, you know other people have described these symptoms to me as happening to them. Scholars and writers, you know. Can't answer an email, can't answer a letter, can't write a sentence. And I got to that stage and that's why I left so close to ordination.
And then I went out into the world for eight months and I was then to come back and go on with ordination. And I encountered pluralist Australia again. And I liked pluralist Australia. I got a taste for pluralist Australia. I like, I like Australians and I can't believe that they're going to go to hell because they tell a good dirty joke, you know. Anyhow one of the - an uncle of mine took me on as a kind of roustabout out in Hay. And he was a constructor and he would go out and knock down old soldier settlers' homes and build new homes on them. Often the station owner's son and daughter-in-law were going to live in the new home.
And he had a motley crew, one of whom I'll never forget, his name was Packy and he'd been a prison of war in northern Italy and he'd escaped and lived with a partisan woman. And then been liberated and come back to the centre of the universe, Hay, to work in the building industry. And Packy I remember - my uncle said to them, "My nephew is a seminarian so you blokes have to watch your language". Well that lasted with the best of intentions about 25 seconds, you know, until the first of them dropped a hammer or banged his thumb or whatever.
And Packy knelt in cement with this terrible leg gash, untreated leg gash he had, knee gash. And then suddenly he had this awful abscess of cement and pustulent matter. And he operated on it with a knife. And then after work we'd all go to the pub, you know, and it just seemed that the world, my world had been too narrow. I'd gone in as a 16, 17 year old. The seminary had spent all its time trying to keep me at that level of development um, and I had been willing to be left at that level of development. And now I was developing fast, you know.
And I definitely wanted to be a writer, but I felt a duty now, having used up those educational resources, I felt a duty to the church and my parents to become a priest. The local milk bar owners, two devout Catholics, had given me a beautiful chalice and that chalice still pains me to think of because you know it was, it would have cost them a bit and it was supposed to be used by me and ideas like that depress me hugely because I knew using it was beyond me. But I had to go back and try to become a priest.
And I went back and I was very severely unhappy and by then sexuality was really kicking in. Was less suppressed than it had been earlier. I suppose the experience of being out in Hay and other places. And so um, I knew that I really didn't want to be a priest and didn't want to be a celibate, though I could probably manage it. Um, and um, ultimately I left. I was very quickly back in the condition that I was in before.
And um, so to everyone's - I think everyone gained the day I left. But that problem made it difficult for me to be a Catholic. That I've never got over the contrast between the rhetoric of the mysteries of the church and the sacraments, which still attract me in a strange sort of way. But the fact that they claim the charity of Christ drives them but as soon as they're in trouble it's a PR company and a lawyer they go to. And this is totally - everything that's happening now is totally systematic of the way the church saw itself and ran itself then, and as a formalistic, legalistic, corporatist kind of organisation.
And all that has now gone close to destroying the church. All that. And yet one is aware ... there was a time I was travelling in a coastal area of Donegal called The Rosses and I came across one of these tokens [sic], totems that the Brothers had told me about when I was at school. They were, are mass stones with the hieroglyphic 'IHS' written on them, which I believe stands for Iasos Christos Soter, which is Greek for saviour. And it was these stones that the shoeless population ... [END OF TAPE]
When you were in secondary school at St Pat's, Strathfield, what impression did you get from the Brothers about what your attitude to women should be?
Well, I remember one quite nice Brother speaking, probably out of depth of his own ignorance of women, saying that, um, if we ever got a girl in trouble, ah, it was our fault, because women weren't interested in sexuality and they only went along, out of generosity. In a way, it was a very flattering picture of this generous girl who would do what she hated just to be nice to a fella, but of course, it was inaccurate information, and not a good preparation for the world.
And did they ever do anything to try and assist this group of adolescent boys to have relationships with girls that were a little bit more natural?
Yes. Well, of course, there was a local convent school and a number of very, ah, er, very good schools that were of Protestant denomination, and state schools. And it was remarkable how many, ah, good looking heretics there were, also. But there was a tendency to - for us to do everything with the Santa Sabina girls, who were generally a better class of girls than we were of boys.
And, for example, we would go to benediction with the girls from Santa Sabina, and what adolescent boys liked best was that incense on a hot day was known - and all this cramped movement in the pews, of, you know, standing up, kneeling down, was likely to make adolescent girls, um, er, faint - at least one.
And so all the St Pat's boys waited for some gorgeous 14 year old to faint in the pews. At that stage, the Brothers would - from the impact of heat, incense and cramped movement - and, ah, at that stage the Brothers would leap from their pews and go along and the - our rows and make sure that no one was taking improper delight in this spectacle, and similarly, the nuns got up and helped the poor kid out.
Why was it exciting to see a girl faint?
Look, I don't know why. It was sort of a combination of male camp supremacy, "ha, ha, ha, girls faint at incense", and it was partly, you know, in a way, maybe it made femininity seem closer. Ah, more - I think a lot of us were scared of girls, and this, this confessed their vulnerability.
And they became quite passive once they'd fainted.
Yes, indeed. I, I don't know what it was, but it was a favourite event for boys. And I don't know why and whether it was healthy or not, but it was.
And was there ever a school dance?
Oh, absolutely. We used to have dances with the Santa Sabina girls, and the Santa Sabina girls used to come and watch our football games and so on. And I remember a glorious day, when, um, there was a girl I quite liked who was watching a football game we were playing against De La Salle Ashfield, and for some reason - I was no great player - but I um, ah, hammered her or sidestepped her brother and scored a try.
And I felt so delighted, I, again had this naive belief that this was - had somehow demonstrated my, my fibre. But a dance at Santa Sabina, when we were in fifth year, we were beginning to get - some of the boys were starting to get ah, quite, um, ah, you know, advanced sexual feelings, and, um, ah, there were - it was overheard that one short boy had said that it was wonderful to dance with one of the Santa Sabina tall basketballers because you could fit your head in exactly under her breasts.
And this was considered an outrageous statement from a Catholic boy and it led to an inquisition into our behaviour throughout the dance, which had been largely - you know, I doubt if there was one carnal act that derived from that dance and yet, of course, these feelings, these exploitations of women were to be stamped out at base.
And it wasn't so much because they didn't want women objectified - because the ethos of the church was an ethos of suspicion of women, particularly in the seminary. The only safe women to a seminarian were the Virgin Mary, your mother and any sisters you had. And sadly, I didn't have sisters so, um, um, the, ah ...
The inquisition, the inquisition that was held at school. Who conducted it and what were you asked to do?
We were asked under pain of, um, conscience, to write a full and frank account of what we and others did at the dance. So um ...
Typically, my account would have been very dull reading, because I - Paddy and I went to that dance, and, you know, we spent all night trying to line up dances for ourselves. And, ah, I took a girl that I particularly liked and even bought a - at my mother's insistence, my first time in a florist shop - since then, florist shops have become one of my favourite places - bought a little corsage and presented it, and that was about the most exciting thing that happened all night.
I wish I could say other - otherwise.
Did you try at any stage to 'make a move' as they used to call it in those days?
Yes, indeed. I tried to hold hands on the way home, the long walk home. Ah, and no dice. Fleeting contact, I suppose you could call it. But there was something enormously exciting about, um, ah, un - what would you call it, ah, unresolved, unre- not unrequited, but, ah, this suppressed fantasy side of, ah, of, um, infatuation. There was something very, ah ...
Yes, that's right. It is the stuff of, um, ah, of literature, indeed, and I remember a time I was in Eritrea, and ah, the - there was a, an afternoon shelling going on above us. We were in an eight foot bunker and the shelling was intermittent because shells are expensive, you know, and third world countries can't afford quite the barrages that first world countries can.
Anyhow, the Eritreans in this deep bunker were listening to the BBC African News, and then, ah, to Anita Brookner's 'Hotel Du Lac', which is all about unfulfilled desire. And an Eritrean came up to me after the reading was over, ah, in this bunker eight feet down into the earth, and he said, "If that English woman likes that English man, why doesn't she just tell him?"
And, ah, I said, "Well, you know, maybe Africans operate in a different way from the English". And so - that's the, ah - I remember the ah, inquis- ... sorry I've lost it. Um, my ah, reply to the inquisition, my, ah, my report would have made very dull reading.
It was a very romantic view of women, though, that you had, and there was this longing and you had to do heroic acts to attract their attention.
Yes. I think that's coded in our genes, though, that you've got to kill the mastodon.
Did that - you said that at the seminary it was even more strongly, um, represented to you, that relationships with women were a disturbing and really unwanted thing in your life. How did that come out in the seminary?
Well, ah, the celibacy was all-important, and thus, ah, there was a terrible shift in celibacy which was supposed to be a devotion of the self to Christ and so on. It was supposed to be a thing of love, but it became, um, a thing of denial for most ordinary humans.
And so there was, ah, an attitude that there were very few, ah, safe relationships with women. Older women were probably safe. Ah, um, a fellow seminarian of mine was reminding me the other day that the canon law said that a housekeeper should be a women of over 40 years, of - a practical Catholic of impeccable character, you know.
So even in the choice of a housekeeper, there was a, an edginess about women, particularly in the northern European church and particularly in the, um, Irish and Australian and American church, um, and Canadian and New Zealand of course. Um, and, ah, women thus became something of ah, an enemy, because they were the ones who would take advantage of the strong susceptibilities that heterosexual priests had.
Um, and, ah, the extent of the denial of the value of 51 percent of the population could only be achieved by ultimately unhealthy attitudes, and, ah, a sort of suppression, which would then express itself in various quirks of character, and various strangenesses and obsessions. And I remember even when the um, statuesque Baroness von Trapp, who was a far more sumptuous figure than the rather, ah, ah, rather slim, um, Julie Andrews, in 'Sound of Music', she came with her strapping daughters to the, to the seminary and because of her good standing with the church, she had her own chaplain, etcetera.
She was allowed to sing on the high altar, and of course I think that day you could feel infatuation breaking out amongst, for these lovely girls in dirndls, breaking out amongst the, the pews of seminarians, and afterwards there was a kind of mass infatuation with these young women. And a number of fellas left and interestingly, we pitied them as having failed.
We didn't see that they were responding to something basically healthy in their, in their natures. Ah, so even in the case of the Baroness von Trapp and her saintly daughters, with their own chaplain, there was suspicion. No woman had eaten in the refectory. It was a men's business place.
Um, no women had eaten there since 1894, when it was opened. So that even after they had sung angelically on the high altar, the rector set up a special room for them to dine in with their chaplain. But I remember the Baroness saying, "Oh no, I want to eat with the young men". And so for the first time in history, the devil in a dirndl entered the refectory, and, um, and ate and of course, no silence at table that day.
We all talked and were rather grateful to the, ah, ah, to the Baroness. But you see, even a woman in such good standing was an object of suspicion and, you know, we've got to save the boys from some of the things that her presence implies. Um, and her daughter's presence, in particular.
So afterwards, you - that - I'm sorry, I messed that up. I think that terror of women, ah, that hysteria about the presence of women, is characteristic of, um, the male clergy and ah, it hasn't changed because a friend of mine in America who's a priest tells me about the sterility of, of presbyteries.
And often the acute loneliness of um, of priests. Um, and the methods of denial of the value of women by which um, they keep um, the possibility of falling at bay. Of course, the truth is that many, um, are, are not - the church in Australia and elsewhere identifies celibacy with total virginity or total abstinence. Even that is - has fallen - falling by the wayside in an unofficial sort of way.
And of course, there are practising or non-practising homosexuals in the church, but all this is denied in the interests of maintaining the practice, in many cases, and in some cases the myth, of celibacy. But whether it is, um - whatever form 'celibacy' in inverted commas now takes, it is based on denial, and, I suppose, the ultimate expression is the denial of, ah, the priesthood to women.
Now why a woman would want to be a priest, I don't know, but some of them do, and of course, they get nowhere.
Your description of the seminary and how it worked -it strikes me that not only were you having to deny sexual feelings, but that there was also an absence in a way of other forms of love, that all the many different forms of love were not really properly available to you.
That's true. Um, even um, I'm not the only one, I might have been the first, but many former seminarians including Judge - Justice Chris Geraghty has written about the fact that you were not to 'PF'. PF stood for particular friendship. Now you went for a walk every day, and had a chat with another seminarian.
But you were not to go - if you went more than four or five times with the same man, you were considered to be PFing, and the peer pressure tended to make you then choose someone else, even someone, as a penance, that you didn't particularly like. And, um, the ah, whole PF rule, which existed in convents and in um, and in seminaries and ah, to an extent in monasteries, it was based of course on a terror of the other great sin, homosexuality.
And, um, I mean how can you - if you're a liberal democrat who believes in the liberal democratic tradition - how can you say that the homosexual is damned? And um, how can you really say that the homosexual has chosen his bed, you know? I mean it's a great thing to do, to come out in schools. Archbishop Pell says there's homosexual propaganda in schools. Well what a wonderful thing for a kid to do, to say, "Look, guys, I really like boys", you know.
So then the whole first fifteen beat you up, your head is put down the toilet and flushed, you are ostracised, you know. All this is the glamour of being a homosexual at school. So the idea that someone would choose this hard road, or have it promoted to him and thus become one, is, is a fantasy of certain church men, and it's a sad fantasy.
Um, Archbishop Pell says that most - there are very few cases in which homosexual tendencies are not reversible. Now ah, that's a sad view, and of course, it's a view which disenfranchises, um, a great part of the population, amongst whom there are some wonderful souls. And I, ah, er - you know how can you believe in liberal democracy and the dignity of the individual, and then make an underclass in religion?
And this is precisely the problem. This is why there are fewer priests than there used to be. These are the sorts of problems. It's not only celibacy, it is um, it is the, the fact that the authoritarianism of the church is in conflict with the liberal democratic tradition.
But it was also in conflict with someone of your kind of spirit, because you obviously had already developed as a boy, as a very warm, loving, outgoing, connecting sort of a human being, and you were placed in an environment where this was punished. And so at what point did you become clear in your mind that this was having a damaging effect on your personality?
Only when I virtually cracked up. Because the thing about ah, mental sickness that's so dangerous is that people in it, it's dangerous to this day, the people in it think that they're thinking normally. And it was only when I couldn't function any more that, um, I, um, er, my failure, as I saw it, but then combined with the scandals that I'd seen, um, this matter of the ah, kids with depression or psychiatric illnesses and the kids with ...
Yes, that's right. Ah, the old, ah, Latin tag, ah, caritus christie orgednes [sic] which is the charity of Christ, or the love of Christ is what drives us. Ah, these - at the institutional level, at the level of the church apparatchik, the charity of Christ didn't drive us.
So it was a bit like - I mean it wasn't as bad as Stalinism - but it was a bit like Stalinism which was meant to be for the people, and, ah, and was not. Ah, and, um, that um, combined - I, I - all this coalesced with me only late, because, you know, you - in life, you react and react and react, and you start to get doubts and so on, but ultimately the doubts coalesce, and, um, and come into focus.
Um, I don't like dramatic moves in life, but there's something in me that when I make them, it is, um, ah, I, I have the determination to, to do that.
And this happens with your fictional characters too.
Ah, yes indeed. Most of my fictional characters are fairly ... ah, confused by some authority. The state, the international community. And then some demand is made of them, which is enormously extreme and yet they have to adapt to it.
Either it's a demand of conscience - well, it's generally a demand of conscience, actually, such as the man who goes to Eritrea and would rather not be there, and is increasingly drawn in by responsibility to others. I'm ah, writing a book now, which may never be published, but it's set, it is inspired by the refugees out in Villawood.
And I set it in a fictional Iraq, where a man is asked to write a masterpiece in a month. He's given this task. He's a writer, and he's given the task of writing a masterpiece in a month. And he says - his wife has just died - so he says, "It's, it's a perfectly simple arrangement. I will suicide, you know, rather than, ah, accommodate the tyrant". But then he discovers that his friend, who is a cultural commissioner, the equivalent of one of the apparatchiks at the Australia Council, who are, who are much nicer apparatchiks than the ones in Iraq ...
Um, his friend's life is dependent upon this. His friend, who is in charge of the project, will be definitely executed. These sorts of things happen in Iraq. I don't know if it's a basis for invading Iraq, but they - ah, responsibility claims him, and he has to do this impossible task of writing a masterpiece in a month.
And, ah, that is typical of the tests that are set the people I write about.
And you, at the Manly Seminary, experienced a situation where you'd been placed with a test that you felt you were failing at.
Oh yes, and I still ...
And then there was another test, which was what would you do about it? How would you handle it? Now whose idea was it that you would take that time out?
It was mine, and the - once I started talking to the professors, they could tell I was as mad as a cut snake, or certainly as - a burnt out case would be more accurate. As much as I would like to claim lunacy, I think it was more a case ...
Yes, that's right.
An anxiety depression, would you say?
Mm, I don't know what you'd call it in exact psychiatric terms, but ah, it had - when I've heard people talk on ah, in radio interviews about how suddenly they can't do anything, then it was like that. A total ineffectuality, and a great need of relaxation, a great need of going away and doing something stupid, you know.
Something fatuous like building a model aeroplane or, ah, or reading really, ah - not, ah, not, ah, Graeme Greene, he's always good - but, ah, but reading, you know, a thriller or the stuff I didn't normally read. And, ah, so, ah, I was very grateful for this job in the bush or this ...
But you came back with the intention of ordination, and you'd had a break.
Was it a more considered decision that you made to leave ... then?
Yes. Then I knew for a couple of months that I couldn't, ah, continue, but I kept praying and hoping it'd work. But I fell exactly [sic] into the same hole, where I was totally ineffectual. Then I went to the rector of the seminary, a Monsignor Madden, and told him that I couldn't in, you know, in conscience proceed.
What did he say? This was two weeks before your ordination.
Ah, this, this time it was some time before the ordination. The year before it'd been two weeks before. And he, ah, um, well, his attitude was a mixture of sympathetic and high dudgeon. He told me that I had shown a lot of irresponsibility in the past year, you know. Ah, he cited a football match in which I'd played, in which, ah, he, you know, he - if you were going to be ordained, you shouldn't play football and get injured.
And I'd been heavily tackled and I wasn't in great health, and I'd been heavily tackled and I landed on my hip, and it was so sickening that I was sick on the side of the paddock. And he'd seen this, and he thought it was very irresponsible of me to have put myself in the way of such tackles. So of course, since I was irresponsible, I was probably not fit.
And, ah, he said it would be very difficult to get a dispensation, because you acquire, when you become a deacon, you acquire the obligation of celibacy and so on, so I was still under that obligation, and was conscious in the past year, out in the bush, of being - and elsewhere - of being conscious of that obligation.
And he, ah, sent, um, to, to Rome and got a dispensation, which dispensed me from having to say the Daily Office, and from celibacy, and, um, I went forth. Now you'd think that the first thing you'd do is, um, go to some great orgiastic party, but in fact, that's not what happens. You, you are so demoralised that, ah, there's going to be a few years of readjustment.
How did you get over it? Did you get any sort of psychiatric help, or did you just recover?
Well, the seminary didn't, ah, ah, approve of, of psychiatric help, but they did ultimately, ah, send me, ah, at my expense, to a, um, Catholic psychiatrist. And I had a few sessions with him. And he, he was a bloke who'd been through all the conflicts that I'd been through, so he gave me a little booklet, written by some sane theologian, and it was about the ultimate ineffectuality of the will, you know, the - there's great stress on will-power in overcoming everything.
Will-power plus grace equals omnipotence, you know. Um, and, ah, it, it was a revelation, because it showed me that, ah, my whole approach had been based on an undue belief in the will, which is a kind of, um, of arrogance. It, it is, of course, the will is enormously important in writing fiction no less than any other occupation on earth.
But, um, it's good for getting jobs like a book written, but it's not necessarily the way to recover from um, the, the scrupulous obsession, or from alcoholism, which I didn't have, but obviously will-power doesn't work with ah, alcoholism and so it ...
Or what sounds like a total existential crisis that you'd been through.
Oh, abs- ... yes, I suppose it was. It's a very flash way of describing my problem, but I suppose it was, yes. And, ah, so ah, I, I felt that I'd - however that I'd failed the church, and I felt that I'd failed my parents, and I pretended to be a full believer for longer than I actually was, because the tides of belief ran out, too. Um, the belief in, um, the sacraments and so on, because they came, in my view, they - at that stage, they came from ah, merely functional hands, not from the hands of people who, um, ah, well, not from loving hands, you know.
So I, um, I, I became ...
Disillusioned. You were thoroughly disillusioned.
Mm, yeah. And of course, indulgent, as all - self-indulgent, as all people with obsessive tendencies are. But, ah, I remember what - 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". And, um, that ah, was a source of possibly too much rage in me. Um, and of course, the rage may have been self-indulgent too, because it might have, um, it might have masked my own ah, failures of temperament and of, you know, mind.
But, ah, in any case, um, I, I felt pretty much, ah, more than at any time in my life a fringe dweller when I left, and, and, you know, you were a bit - and the big question is, do you get a job immediately - and it was important psychologically for me to get a job immediately - or do you study? Do you go to university as a - you know, six years behind everyone else?
And I'd - at that stage, didn't have the resources to go to university. I went on reading, and, ah, I started writing and, um, I got a couple of short stories published by ah, John O'Grady ah, it's the, it's the O'Grady who now lives in Italy and, ah, in The Bulletin -
Under a pseudonym, and this made me very - this really gave me ideas above my station. This gave me hope.
Yes, that I could find a place on a fairly, at that stage, uninhabitable earth.
Did you get anything positive for the rest of your life out of your time at the seminary?
Oh yes and I'm very grateful for it. Ah, of course ultimately I got to the point of sanity when you say you can't deny what took up so much of your life. You must live with it. And I got a familiarity with Latin. And of course I got a view of the world as a place where huge dinosaurs of good and evil tussle. And the other thing is it's curious that two groups in particular, the Irish and Jews, argue moral points all the time that are stories.
In the shtetls of Europe - no wonder America and Australia and Canada are full of Jewish writers - because in the shtetls of Europe they used to argue points such as if a man's barn catches fire on the Sabbath, should he attend to it? Should he - is he allowed to put the fire out? And of course then the, this was debated by Jewish divines who said, "Some say yes, some say no". Ah, and ah, that is a novel that question. Imagine the man who is the absolutist and the dreamer. And he's got a little farm and he's got a debt to the money lender and the barn is burning down and he stands there accepting God's judgement on his barn. But his wife who's more hard-headed is saying, "For God's sake save the barn. Save the barn".
Now that's all a novel. And similarly it sort of is a novel in capsule. Similarly in James Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', the young men whom Stephen Dedalus goes around with discuss the point of if a man steals a pound and then becomes rich, what does he have to give back to expiate the sin - one pound, one pound plus interest, half of his fortune or the whole of his fortune? And again imagine a situation where an old Irishman who has bought a mill, built himself up from that stolen pound, and bought a mill.
And he decides in his seventies that to save his soul he's got to give it all back to this hapless shoeless creature from whom he stole it all those years ago. And again wife and children saying, "Are you crazy?" So these moral questions that we discussed in, in class um, are themselves novels, are themselves dramas in capsule. And of course morale, moral questions are the great um, material of novels because so many novels are about marginal people who are put in - under extraordinary moral - put in an extraordinary moral impasse.
And so that contributed to the ah, to the seminary - that contributed to my later life. And of course many friends like Eddy Campion and like Brian Johns who was in there, the future head of the ABC. And well, a capacity last of all my daughter was asked if she would get me to translate certain common football sayings like "Don't spit the dummy" and "He's been doing it all day ref" into Latin. And the Latin came in very handy at that stage. And I was able to Latinise these normal sayings, "Keep him on side ref" etcetera.
And that's no small benefit. The Latin and the Greek enriched my sense of the language. And I don't know - I realise that a lot of the young now - and I'm not, Im not making a claim on behalf of the, on behalf of the classics - but they,they don't quite know where words come from. And thus words come to them without a history, either Anglo Saxon or Latinate. And so there were, there were benefits from the seminary.
You have a phenomenal work habit now too. You are tremendously disciplined in the way that you go about your work, which has contributed to your astonishing productivity. Does any of that come from the disciplinary [sic] - the discipline of the seminary or does it go back further?
I think it comes from the discipline of the seminary and further, you know. It comes from that - my daughter said to me recently um, "You and mum are so task-oriented, it's so working class of you". [laughs] And ah, the - there's probably truth in that.
So after you left, what was it do you think that actually cured you? Was the writing of the whole mental crisis that you'd been through, was it - was the writing important in that or was there something else?
The writing was important in that in two ways: a) as a release as it always is and b) as a means of claiming a place in society. I began studying law and I've always been a lawyer manqué. If I had five lives I'd spend one of them as a lawyer because I'd love to be in a [sic] front, front of a judge arguing nice points. He'd probably tell me to stop fancying myself and "Mr Keneally one more sentence like that and you'll be expelled from the court", but I've always been interested in constitutional issues. Passionately interested as a layman.
And I've got a lot of friends who are lawyers and I love law stories and so I've got a natural attraction to the law. But when I was working as a sort of school teacher at Waverley College and I wrote - my little brother was now studying medicine and I was delighted that at least there was one son who was a consolation to my parents, because my parents were uncomplaining when I left. They stuck with me - extraordinary, you know. This is why I think when you use terms like 'people from the bush' or 'working class', you know, these terms smother ah, an ocean of particularity. Of - they don't take account of the individual dignity of people who have actually paid for the ordination breakfast.
And there's not going to be an ordination breakfast, but there's still no reproach. This is - it's only with time that I've got to honour that acceptance because I didn't realise there were parents who said, "If you do a) or b), that's it". I didn't quite realise it. There were such parents in novels but I didn't think they were in real life. But in any case I was interested in writing. But Australians in those days um, weren't sure whether we could quite write. It was not amongst the job descriptions of Australians. It was um, the - again, the fine wool, the fighting in foreign wars and the sporting prowess, that we were known for.
The idea that we would ever be known for anything else wasn't on the radar screen at that stage. There were a couple of lonely nunataks of um, of excellence like Sidney Nolan and Drysdale and of course Patrick White. Although I didn't read Patrick White until I was in the seminary on seminary holidays. But I ah - it wasn't exactly, there wasn't a kind of mother fluid of a culture that there is now.
Um, and um, so I really wanted to write and one Christmas holidays as I say when my brother was studying medicine, I sat down, we shared a room at home in Homebush. That was the other thing - I hadn't left home. Um, to an extent it was timidity, to an extent it was a belief that I had a responsibility to the home, because I'd wasted their time and money. Um, I wrote a novel and sent it to an English publisher. Now one of the great things I always tell people as step one in getting published - it's amazing they don't notice it.
Inside the copyright page of every book there is in small print the address of the publisher. The publisher keeps it in small print and obscure because they don't want unsolicited manuscripts. But I very much wanted to be published by Faber and Faber. They publish a lot of writers I like. But I thought this book isn't good enough, so who would publish this sort of book and I decided Cassell would. They published Alec Waugh, Auberon Waugh's brother and sorry, uncle. And of course Evelyn Waugh's brother, and they published a lot of um, middle brow writers in those days.
And so I sent it off to them and it was um, ultimately accepted. But in the meantime I'd been a fairly um, lost sort of figure, but I made a lot of strong male friends amongst other teachers and other fellas. I quite liked the male companionship, which I still do. I mean there's something good about mateship as well as something sinister. Mateship can be the extermination of a minority. It can also be a kind of solidarity. But it's shortcoming is that, as I realised early, is that you can't confess anything.
You are in mateship. Everyone is funny and a character, everyone is getting on well in the world, everyone is having top grade associations with women and everyone has a string of profane jokes. But no one says, "God I feel lost". And that's the limitation of mateship. But ah, I quite, I quite liked it. One of the things I like about women is that obviously they come out with what is on their soul very readily with other women and - so I'm told. Even very readily with other men in some cases they come out with things that men would consider it inappropriate to confess when they're all together.
I think Australian men are getting better at the confessional. Ah, the social confessional, not the old confessional in the church. But anyhow I was a fairly lost soul. I trained, sublimated some of this into training rugby, the polite version of rugby league. And I'd never played it as a kid but I took to it with a passion and it was my Saturday morning and afternoon recreation and it lit up the week. But I was very um, to an extent socially inept, and again was haunted by the sense of how could I um, get out of my situation because I was aware that in many Catholic schools there are men who were formerly brothers or formerly seminarians who became these lonely, continuingly celibate old men. Very good teachers but sort of - they weren't able to make that second breakout.
You were studying the law part-time, you didn't see that as the way out?
I did see it as the way out until I started to write. To be published in The Bulletin was a fantastical experience for me. I was up at the - I remember catching the train to work from Homebush Railway Station and looking down at the people about to enter the train and thinking some of those people are going to read my short story and this was a miraculous feeling to me. This was - this gave me a, it gave me a sense of a possible escape from the ignominy of what I saw as the ignominy of my position.
I still occasionally went to football games in particular with some of the blokes who were damaged whom I'd been in the seminary with. Some of them would never come out. They would - one of them has been a lifetime patient, you know. Um, and ah, these were um, kind of bittersweet associations. They were good men. I'm quite sure that they would have had the normal stresses in their lives had they gone elsewhere, but I'm also quite sure they wouldn't have been destroyed in the way they were.
So my companionship was still chiefly male and often with men who had been raised in the same tradition of suspicion of women as I'd been raised in. And ah, but my social life was gradually expanding, gradually expanding. And gradually becoming more and more fulfilling. But I wanted to escape this second circle of the fate of former seminarians. And many of us were - I had many friends who were in that second circle. Many of them were studying law. Many of them became future lawyers. One of them well, reached great, great heights and um, I - Brian Johns had gone straight into journalism, which was a lucky escape for him.
I didn't think of journalism because I didn't think I could be employable. And I definitely thought that the law was a way out for me but ...
So you had two strands of possibility. You were studying the law.
You kept that up. But then when you got this short story published you thought I'll write something and you wrote this novel and sent it off ...
From Homebush, not the sort of place you send novels off [sic].
And you sent it off to London.
Yes, definitely. Ah, I wanted to be for - and look it wasn't cultural betrayal. I've always wanted to be published in a number of markets. You know I'm a um - the idea that it would be published in Australian and Britain was important for me a) because I was ambitious but also I wanted to make a living. I'd already decided I wanted to make a living and I was determined to make a living. And I found through my experience in the next couple of years of being published here, in Britain and in America, sort of going broke in three markets added up to a living in Australia. And um, I um, therefore sent it to this company, which had Australian distribution and was in Britain.
This book was 'The Place At Whitton'.
Yes, which had a lot of the - it was a technically impossible book. But you know in technically impossible it was very poorly crafted but it had a lot of passion in it. Now the interesting thing was in those days, unlike now, publishers would take a book like that and they'd say well maybe this isn't too flash but ah, his next book might be better. And they would bring people along in a way that since the accountants have won out in publishing doesn't happen now. And a book like that would be three years on the shelves and would be three years before it went into paperback. And now of course for all of us it's about three months on the shelves and then the paperback within about nine months or a year. And if you're lucky the paperback sticks around.
So um, the - I've often told young writers that their books would have been published in the'60s and '70s. It's no consolation but there - many publishable books now don't get published because it's much harder. But I got a letter, a telegram from them, saying that they were going to pay me 150 pounds and sort of binding me to them for life. And that was okay. I - again I felt liberated. And it gave me social confidence, you know. If you go up to a girl at a bar and you say "I'm studying law, I'm a schoolteacher who's studying law", that's rather ho hum. You know, particularly when you were my age. But to go up and say, "Have you read my novel?" was entirely another and more extraordinary thing.
So it did give me social confidence when it was ultimately published. And 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.
It was about the seminary. It was about um - it was a kind of psychological mystery. Ah, it involved a murder in the seminary. Um, but it wasn't a typical whodunnit. It was above all a reflection on what a weird place the place at Whitton was. Whitton was a fictional name that was a kind of Manly.
How was it received by the critics?
Very warmly. I remember there was - oh if only it was so now - there was a book show rather like the famous SBS film show that's around now, where people discussed three or four books and um, although one critic, Leonie Kramer didn't like it, Max Harris loved it and gave it a big review in his Australian Book Review. And um, it attracted a bit of attention. And I loved that. Writers say they don't like attention but I mean of course they like attention to their work.
And I loved that phenomenon of being published and I've got to say quite frankly of being praised. Writers never say these things. They never say I wrote it because I wanted to be praised. But it's one of the chief motivations. I'm writing it because I was the kid who was marginalised in the playground and now I'm going to get even with all those dumb kids who haven't written a book. That's one of the chief motivations for writing a book. I mean it's like the priesthood - a combination of banal and glorious motives. It's - and literature is a bit like that, a combination of banal and glorious motives.
Which bit of praise for that first book meant most to you? What did you most want to be praised for?
Oh for being - having language skills and narrative skills. And so that - I knew it was an imperfect book. In fact when I read the proofs of it, preparatory to publication, I realised that it was a very imperfect book. And so, and yet one always wants to get away with that imperfection. Randall Jarrell - it's very hard to write a perfect novel and even a perfect grand novel or classic novel. Randall Jarrell said of fiction that it is - of the novel rather. That it is of fiction, of uncertain length with something wrong with it.
And sometimes if you get rid of that something wrong, you end up with a nice ruled margin, A-plus technical novel but you - the fury has gone. And so um, the intensity is gone. And so it's almost impossible to write a novel that doesn't have some original sin in it, some essential sin, some essential imperfection. And yet 'The Place At Whitton' abounded with essential imperfections. It was, it took essential imperfections to a new level and yet it was my life-raft.
Having produced this first book and got praised for it, were you worried about what you were going to do for a follow-up? That's often a problem isn't it?
No because I was young and stupid and well, unworldly, and because there was no one 'round to tell me that writing fiction is the last card in the pack. If you want a good, stable living don't go near it. There were no literary festivals of course, except Adelaide every couple of years and it was a fairly remote event. [coughs] I am sorry. There were no seminars at [sic] writers to which, of writers to which an ordinary citizen could go and hear about the evils of publishers.
The fact that an Australian book published in Australia by an English publisher earned the writer a lesser royalty than the same book published in England did, sold in England did, this was the situation we were in. Australian writers were paid a colonial royalty. A debased colonial royalty believe it or not. Ah, and ah, this was one of the issues which led to the founding of the ASA by brave people like Dal Stivens and Morris West and Barbara Jefferis and umpteen other people. There's great dispute about who founded the ASA. But the colonial royalty was one of the issues that they took up.
But you were still a young writer not worried about these things, what did you do for your second book?
I took a job collecting real estate - collecting insurance in Newtown and Enmore. Ah, there was a job the - I'm afraid I was rather unscrupulous about this, writers are. I wanted time to write a second book. I knew what it was going to be, it was going to be an account of World War II from a child's perspective of growing up in Homebush. The novel everyone writes about their childhood. And ah, it would prove to be technically imperfect too. But that's another story.
Um, I heard that you could get a job collecting insurance for two days, that is you went around - the poor used to pay, including my family - well they weren't poor but they weren't rich. They used to pay their insurance by instalments. And you needed a fellow, a man or a woman to go around with a little booklet and record that they'd paid their one and six. Ah, and the rest of the week the people who did that were meant to sell insurance. Well I am an appalling salesman, so there was - I made a couple of attempts but I, I felt, you know, that a lot of the people couldn't afford what they were paying anyhow, so.
And I went 'round - my supervisor was an old DLP candidate from Ashfield. And he took me 'round a few times and tried to sell insurance in homes in Newtown, and he'd say, "What does hubby do?" and the woman would say, "He's a labourer". And this fellow would say, "Well, we're all labourers". But you know, you could tell that these people couldn't afford any more insurance. So I just tended to collect the insurance for two days. Walk 'round the streets and take the money and then study law but write the new novel above all, for the rest of the week.
Now this was a shameful admission, but that's what all the other people who collected insurance were doing. They all did it for two days and had other jobs - one as a dancer, another as a waiter and so on. In any case, I - Newtown was a rough area and um, I had an extraordinary experience there one day. I'd bought a little car, a Vauxhall Victor. And it was not a sure-fire starter. You know, you had to argue with it and have a discourse with it before it would start. And I parked it outside this woman's house, a little terrace in Newtown. A woman to whom I was to return part of her payments because she had abandoned the policy and I was to give her one pound ten, thirty shillings.
And I was at the door giving her thirty shillings and she was very twitchy. And from the back of the house a door slammed and in the hallway was this huge bloated-faced man with his - engorged with rage. And he saw me giving his wife thirty bob, which was around about the price of certain human services in those days. And he came raging at me. And I had to run and jump this wrought iron fence that had the normal spikes. I cleared the wrought iron fence and I got into my Vauxhall Victor, but I was already despairing because I knew it wouldn't start. So I was going to be beaten up by this fellow.
And I turned the key and it started. And I was out of there. And I didn't have to go to that house again because he had, they'd given up the policy. But I wrote a book called boy, 'The Fear' it was ultimately called. It was terrible [sic] title suggested by the publisher. I used to think that publishers knew a lot in those days. [laughs] And it was about this World War II experience of separation from the father, of being the man of the house, in theory. And of the fear of women for what was going to happen - the loss of their husbands, the whole thing of invasion.
And it was two novels in one really. It incorporated something about the outbreak - the Cowra outbreak. And I think it was a bit too much to put that in. And that's always been one of my faults as a novelist. Some people have called it generosity - plot generosity. Some people have called it packing too much into the one book. And even as late as 'Bettany's Book', you know there is modern Sudan and modern Sydney melded with nineteenth century Australia pastoral industry and the Female Factory. Is this too much? Well some generous people say, "No", but others say, "Yes it's too much" and ...
Oh no, I think it's just my temperament and I can't escape it. You know, if you, if you have a party you pour the wine, if you write a book you pour the wine copiously let me say. And if you write a book you might as well be copious in ...
You give it all you've got at the time.
And so was 'The Fear' as well received?
Yes it was considerably well received because it was the um, sort of book that matched the experience of Australians who were young then. Um, who were in their late twenties. And I now had two books before I was thirty, so I was pretty - I might have been thirty when 'The Fear' came out but I was beginning to feel you know, I've got a future. And of course I had met my future wife Judy and um, I was courting her while I was, while I was writing 'The Fear'. And she was a very handsome nurse, whom I met over my mother's hospital bed.
My mother had an operation and Judy was one of her nurses. And Judy was so - such a splendid woman of the same background as me so we had a shared subtext.
In what way was she of the same background?
Well she came from big Catholic family, she'd been to convent schools and she had in fact tried to become a nun. She's a most absolutely - she was like nuns in the movies, you know, Audrey Hepburn. She was a very good looking nun and she had the same problems. She had left because of the same problems exactly. The lack of charity, the - she told me stories of how she and another young nun were required to eat their meals off a floor, off the floor. She was nursing and she was often accused of fraternisation, undue fraternisation with the doctors.
And she was a lively um, Australian girl who came from the same sort of Labor, Lang Labor, you know, devout Catholic, but social justice, sort of family.
Did you feel you'd found that other half you'd longed for?
Yes I did. I certainly did. And I um - mind you she had huge indulgence for my strangeness. For the strangeness in late 1960s Australia of being told that I wanted to be a writer and that I was going to make a living as a writer. Most sensible women would have run a mile. But again she had that, again it's that working class thing. The working class are often put down as people of no spaciousness. And she had that spaciousness that said "Oh" - that my parents had - "Oh, if that's what you want to do, let's give it a burl". She never said, "You'll never make a living, why don't you get a job in the public service?" or ...
Maybe she thought it was an heroic act?
Ah yes. I think she was - she came from an heroic family actually. Her elder brother, who I saw [sic] met , soon met had flown nearly 90 missions for bomber command. He was multi-decorated and his motivation was to show what Australians were made of. And he was - but she had that same bravery that was in him.
And what do you think she really saw in you Tom, at that stage? Were you socially more confident?
Yes. I had a natural gift that probably came from my father to compliment women, not as pure nonsense. I've always loved, I found that I loved women's clothing, not in the obvious cross-dressing way because I'm actually not a cross-dresser. I'd tell you if I was. And I'm a bad dresser. I'm a bad dresser. Good clothes on me die of shame. I'm about marginally better than Fred Hollows was as a dresser. But I love women's clothing and women's jewellery. And these are - I've got a, had a passion for jewellery all my adult life.
And so um, my father had a capacity to charm people and I obviously got that from them [sic]. He would go up to people, women in the street and talk to them and they'd say to me, "Your father's a lovely man". They didn't know that when he walked away from them he said, "What a bloody old headache wafer". But he liked them but he exercised this charm with great ease. And I was beginning to get the confidence to do the same thing. Um, to compliment women in a real way that doesn't demean them, you know. And um, that I think was attractive for some reason.
I, I still don't know. Judy was - had come from the convent some years before and she had a very active social life. There was a doctor chasing her. There was a bookmaker chasing her, and the bookmaker had a huge income. So, you know, women are very wrong-headed when it comes to love. They don't do what's good for them. What's obviously good for them. And ah, yeah I was um, I think in the [sic] early '64 when I had 'The Fear' all finished, I um, proposed to her.
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. 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.
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.
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 ...
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
'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.
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.
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.
I notice at the beginning of 'Schindler's Ark' there's a very elaborate acknowledgement of your sources, more so than you'd normally expect in a book like that. Is there any reason for it?
Yes it was because in the mid to late '70s, I forget the exact year it might have been 1977 I was accused of plagiarism in relation to a story set in Yugoslavia during the Partisan era. I'd spent some months in a house that belonged to a fellow who'd been a young English doctor amongst the Partisans in World War II and there was a pre-existent book by a man I think called Bill Strutton. And I um - based on talking to the doctor in the house and reading Strutton's book I wrote my book.
And I was accused of plagiarism. And I don't know whether - I've never gone back and read the two texts because the accusation is the worst accusation any writer can get. Um, but I certainly didn't want to have a long trial on the issue so I did settle as fast as I could. My, the - I'd already written a number of books without any such accusation and the idea that I would deliberately violate another person's copyright and steal their words was the worst that - and it was - if there was any truth in it then I was not consciously guilty.
And so I - my reaction was - it was very [sic] grievous time - it's a, it's [sic] happens to a lot of writers and it's a period of - it is 'A Season In Purgatory' is the title of the book calls it [sic]. But my reaction was, "Okay I've written a number of books to which no accusation attaches um, and now I'll prove I'm not a plagiarist by writing umpteen more books, which ..." However one of the things that journalists said to me at the time, "Why didn't you acknowledge Strutton's book in an author's note?"
And so I thereafter studiously mentioned sources, even sources that might have been, whose copyright had, had passed. And that's, that's not entirely why I mention all those people and sources at the start of Schindler. I did want to acknowledge the living survivors who had given me information. I did want to acknowledge the staff of the Yad Vashem who had put up with Poldek telling them that we were going to take documents home and photocopy them. But certainly whenever I've had a heavy reliance on a book of non-fiction I always mention it.
'A Season in Purgatory' was a work of fiction, when you write fiction set in an historical period you often read background non-fiction works. What is the protocol for acknowledgement?
I don't - this is one of the problems, I don't think the protocol is absolutely fixed but it is obviously the very safest thing a writer can do if there's been a heavy reliance upon the material rather than on the words, I mean the accusation was that there was a similarity of words, my argument was that of course if you're telling the same story there will be a similarity of words. But that was never resolved. Thank God. I am delighted that argument was never held, you know and in - because it is easy to prove to the public plagiarism by saying in A's book you've got this incident and in B's book you've got this incident, thus B must have stolen it from A.
It's an accusation easily, and in some cases falsely, proven to the public very - with great facility. Um, so I think if you do rely heavily on information it's, it is a courtesy to mention it. But you know every writer like every university student writing a thesis enters - well they instruct university students now very clearly on what copyright is and how to acknowledge things. But you know you can overestimate the writer's understanding of the law of copyright. He learns the law of copyright as he goes along particularly by grievous experiences like this.
What did you feel when the first accusation came up? I mean what were your own personal internal thoughts about it?
Well I thought that the accusations didn't take into account the fact that I'd, I didn't need to take anyone's material in an illicit way because I'd already written a lot of books. The idea was that I'd gone out and plundered because I wasn't, I was, you know, too lazy to get my own material. But most writers who have written a number of books don't operate in that way.
Did you only use that book as your source? I mean did you talk to this, to this man about whom the book had been written and whose ...
Yes. Yes I did.
And did he give you an account of his time there?
He gave me accounts of what it had been like and the extreme and improbable conditions under which he'd operated and so on.
Can you remember whether you were using what he'd told you or what you'd read in the book? What I'm really trying to say is ...
Yes I was certainly using what I'd read in the book. But my belief I was using it licitly. The way you say if you're writing a book on the French Revolution you would read, you would use Schama's great book on the French Revolution citizens. There are legal - and of course you'd mention the pages you'd quoted from later. Even if you'd put them in your own words you'd credit them. And um, I learnt about that crediting process in the, you know, in - the learning curve was very steep from then on.
At the time there were critics in Australia, writers who were sort of politically opposite to you, who were delighted that they had an opportunity to ... to have a go at you on something as grievous as plagiarism. Um, what was your - did they make any marks? Did they land any punches on you as a person at the time?
Well of course it - they did but I um, I feel that the only vengeance is to not go away, ultimately. I've tried other vengeances like face-to-face confrontation and so on. None of that, there's nothing you can do except the long and slow response of writing another book, which doesn't suit an impetuous nature like mine. But ultimately it's the only response not to be, well not to say, not to be silenced is a melodramatic sort of writer under Stalinism statement. But we, we all, there is such a thing as um, people who adopt a role in any literary community of being the arbiters.
And often their - sometimes their arbitration is based on politics. But it was interesting about that time it didn't affect the Governor-General Sir John Kerr from offering me a Commander of the British Empire, which I of course politely declined. So fortunately it did pass. But I was very careful from that point on.
What did you choose to be your next book?
Boy I wish I knew.
Actually I'm trying to remember. I mean what I'm saying that in the course of your work you've done novels which were historically based and you've done novels that weren't historically based and you've also done non-fiction. I was just wondering whether in your answer to these you had any particular kind of choice to make about which of those genre you'd choose.
No I was - I was not influenced by the experience as to what subject matter, I just went on as I continued - I just continued as I'd begun. There's another pattern in my writing other than the alienation, post-alienation period. It is a typically Australian pattern in this sense that I begin with Australia then I go overseas and try to work out the Armistice and events like Antarctic expeditions and events such as the war in Yugoslavia. And then I increasingly return to Australia and my work through um, 'A Family Madness' and 'Woman of the Inner Sea' and so on. 'Bettany's Book', um, a book that I'm writing at the moment, which will be out by the time any one looks at this, 'An Angel in Australia'.
So I've done what your average Aussie backpacker does is, you know, start here, go away, look back at Australia from that distance and try to interpret it. Um, even through the lens of the Armistice. And then largely return home with an occasional overseas vacation.
And even when you go overseas for your subject matter you usually have somewhere in it a link with back home don't you?
Yes. A non-fiction book I wrote recently about an extraordinary American scoundrel called Sickles. The reason I wrote the book 'American Scoundrel' was to attack the conservative idea that there was some golden age in which um, decent values prevailed, there were no special interests and um, values were rock solid. This is a proposal put up by many of our politicians too that there was a golden, a golden age. They forget that it was pre-antibiotic. They forget that it was characterised by child labour and child prostitution and galloping tuberculosis.
By um, marriages which were inescapable but were often marked by economic want and misery. Um, and they want us to return to this world of unsupervised venality and rampant social disease and tuberculosis, you know. And I've never wanted to go back there. Um, and I think any Australian listening to this would be able to nominate the politicians who beat the traditional values drum, you know. I think what they're really saying is that everyone goes to church and they don't wash their dirty linen in public.
Ah and - that is, they're hypocrites. And there is a connection between Dan Sickles and his extraordinary career of having killed his wife's lover and then redeemed himself through the Civil War and through his association with Lincoln. But his wife, his young brilliant wife never being able to redeem herself. Not even being permitted to visit the sick and the widows and the children. Um, this tale however does derive from the fact that Sickles was a close friend of an escaped Australian convict, an Irish nationalist, Thomas Francis Meagher. A really large figure in world history who of course gets no coverage here at all because he you know, he wasn't a loyalist.
And yet Thomas Francis Meagher was one of the lawyers, this undischarged British convict who escaped from Tasmania, was one of Sickles' lawyers. So there generally is - and a friend of his and a general with him - so there generally is a, some strange submerged Australian reason for writing the book. But I don't say that, I would not for a moment say that a book that doesn't have some Australian connection is verboten and shouldn't be written, because primarily we're members of the human race. We're not Australians. We are homo and mulier sapiens. And um with this overlay of specific experience and specific tribalism which is part of the experience of being Australian.
Tom, when you come across a story like that, what makes you decide whether or not you're going to treat it as fiction, non-fiction or as historically based fiction?
Well I can't, I can't fully answer that but I've got a few clues. I think that fiction is suited to the peripheral figure who's on some interface between two cultures, a fault line between two cultures. There are two cultures rubbing up against each other. Aboriginal or European, Muslim or Christian, um, white or African, white or Aboriginal, and these are lines that are always shaky, you know. And there are always interesting people living and often straddling those lines as Jimmie Blacksmith did, trying to live in two worlds both of which were moving in different directions doing the cultural splits.
And you can tell those stories best, I think, through obscure people. Um, through the obscure aid worker in, in 'To[wards] Asmara' or through the, you know, the wealthy but obscure young mother in 'Woman of the Inner Sea', or through an obscure Jewish, Anglo-Jewish woman in the Female Factory as in 'Bettany's Book'. Ah, there's something about the novel even though Gore Vidal has disproven this point many, many times by writing about captains and kings, writing novels about captains and kings such as 'Lincoln'.
Ah, there's something about the novel that attracts as subject matter people who are the, the subjects of history. People to whom history is happening, people who are obscurer people as in say to quote another writer, Ishiguro, the butler in 'The Remains of the Day'. He is the fascinating study and yet he's not in any history book. And so I tend to think that if it's a big, bursting, complex story involving people who knew Lincoln and commanded armies and were friends of Presidents and so on, something simply tells me that that is better as a kind of new journalism biography.
Not a, not a - the old fussy biographies you know, that begin, "The first Sickles to arrive in the new world was in ...", you know they start in 1653 and they take ten pages to get up to the birth of the subject of the biography. Not that sort of biography but ...
But you apply to biography - those sorts of biographies - your novelist skills and so you arrange it in that way. I'm just interested in why it is that obscure characters straddling two worlds fire your imagination. Could it have anything to do with other themes that preoccupy you when you are in imaginative mode which have to do with moral choice?
Ah, yes. And I think it has to do with my experience as a child was of such people. You know, obscure people who were as, as the old orator said, "Better than their masters and nobler than their lords". You know I was as a child aware of these events occurring to obscure people like my mother and myself and so on, my father. And ah, there is simply - the novel in a strange way exists to exhalt the humble. To take the person who is marginalised in some way and then prove that they're non-marginal.
That they are really a lens through which you can look at a hold [sic], whole age. And so this is the way the novel has worked, the modern novel has worked you know, before Dickens. But Dickens did it too. Take in 'Great Expectations' a very obscure blacksmith's boy. So there's something about novels which doesn't favour captains and kings. Gabriel García Márquez's great novel 'Love In The Time Of Cholera' you know a fairly prominent doctor in a town, but a man of no international or national importance, who is obsessed with a woman.
Um, the novel seems to favour this obscurity. It, it gives, it asserts the humanity of marginal people. And I don't know why that's so but there's too much in the Sickle story to deal with in the, with the intimacy of the novel.
But you were able to do it with 'Joan of Arc'.
Yes that's - well, see this blows my proposition out of the water. But Joan of, Joan of Arc was also a marginal person. You know she was born on the edge of France, she was a peasant's daughter, she was also you'd have to say there were signs of sexual marginalism. And she was also marginal between Christianity and some weird old witchy thing from ancient Europe. And so um, again there are qualities of marginalism to her.
A figure that I think you could put into a novel. I've often thought wouldn't it be great to write a novel about a Rasputin figure who turns up in the White House and has huge psycho-sexual impact upon the President's you know the woman who is married to the man who rules the earth. It's the story of, of course the Tsarina and Rasputin but we have had - in a way Sickles was a slightly Rasputin figure because he used to take Mrs Lincoln to séances. He was trusted by Abe Lincoln to take Mrs Lincoln to séances. And the idea - people in grief will embrace any crazy idea if they're stricken enough and will turn to any crazy man or woman if they're stricken enough. So I think Rasputin could make a novel.
Talking of your American connection, when you wrote 'The Confederates', which was a sort of sprawling American novel, was that inspired by your interest in America or was it as some people suggested at the time with an eye to the American commercial market?
Well if I did have an eye to the American commercial market it only partly worked. But no, 'The Confederates' was actually at one stage described as one of the best novels on the Civil War. It was purely out of interest. And it was purely out of this bloody mindedness of mine that said um, you know, "Why should I be restricted?" If an Englishman writes a novel about, about um the Armenian massacre do people say, "Oh, he should be writing about Shropshire"? If Thornton Wilder writes a novel like 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' set in South America do people say, "Oh why did he? ... obviously he's lost his interest in Ohio and he's trying to go upmarket"?
It is only in places like Australia, because of our developing cultural trend which is at a much healthier stage now than it was, I mean it is well on the way to, it's well on into its therapy. But it's the sort of stuff that you know, Australians used to say. And I think it's crazy. If you examine that statement what it is saying is that anything written about Australia will not sell, which 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' had already disproven to be untrue in America. And which as I say the novels of um, Peter Carey demonstrate to be untrue.
You've relished in your fiction imaginatively placing yourself in a position of people from cultures very, very different from your own. But you, and you did that in many people's view including many indigenous people's view very successfully with 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. More recently you've said that you don't feel you should have done it with Jimmie.
Well I, my position is that I was young and reckless and we weren't as culturally sensitive then and there weren't as many Aboriginal writers visible as there are now. Now one would not dare do it I think for this reason that um, generally unless you're part of a culture it is hard to put yourself in another culture. I don't say that you shouldn't do it and there are many good books that show it can be done, but I felt that if I was writing 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' now I would not pursue[sic], I would not presume to put myself in the mind of a tribalised half-Aboriginal half-European.
Because I would have now tell [sic] the story from the point of view of an observer. And very deliberately some years later I wrote a novel about a white manager of an Aboriginal dance troupe. And very few people saw that it was connected with 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' because I was, I was in that situation talking about the impact of observing the dance troupe on a white man. And that's the way I would have done 'The Chant' now. And there are so many splendid Aboriginal writers around now, Leah Purcell and so on, that you, I would - it's simply a matter of courtesy.
But ... but there are many splendid women writers around now but that didn't stop you writing from a woman's point of view. There are many splendid American writers around but that didn't stop you writing from an American's point of view. Do you feel given that you want to embrace the humanness of everybody that Aborigines somehow or other are outside that?
I think Aboriginals have been so mistreated that they warrant our cultural courtesy. I'm not a ...
You don't consider it a cultural courtesy though to enter into trying to imagine what it must be like to have been in the position of Jimmie?
That's right. I, well, I mean it was a well-meaning intention at the time but I wouldn't do it now because of the stage we've reached and the - I mean when I began to understand a little, a fragment about the Aboriginal cosmology, the planet, there are two planets Australia. There's the Aboriginal planet and the European planet which is partly stuff we brought with us. And they are getting closer and closer through goodwill on and generosity on the Aboriginal side and on and I hope on our side.
But this world of which the much criticised and equally criticised writer for writing about Aboriginal things, Bruce Chatwin, he spoke about Australia as a, a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys expressed in geologic terms. I think the people who can best do that, I think we're still on the way to finding out exactly what that, those Iliads and Odysseys are. And I think that should be left to the emergent Aboriginal writers. So I think that I don't have the same responsibility to other nations.
But again you notice that I don't presume when writing about Eritrea, Fred Hollows' country of the heart I suppose and to an extent my country of the heart. Um, I don't write from the point of view of Eritreans. I've lost the sort of bikie confidence I had in 1970, the early 1970s to do that. But on the other hand I'm not in favour of rules that say men shouldn't try to write from the point of view of women, that, you know, one culture shouldn't try to write from the point of view from another culture. I don't think there are any rules. I think, or if there are, they're the sort of rules that are there to provide a creative spark in the direction of their violation.
Um, so um, the American culture is, is very close to Australian culture with some remarkable, remarkable defining differences, so - but we are Europeans you see so we all know what we're into, real estate, marriage, um politics. You know we're all into the same stuff because we are European derived. And it's much easier to write about people who are European derived than it is um - I would be very reckless I think to write from the point of view of Latin American writers living in the US, some of whom I know and respect greatly including the person who said what they call magic realism is only magic realism because their dead don't appear to them. And they don't have visions. And they - but this is all normal stuff to us.
But Tom, one of the great pleasures of your work comes from the fact that you have been very much drawn to the different.
Ah, yes indeed. And again that was with women. I - through having daughters and through having worked my way into a successful marriage - what is now and has been for many years a successful marriage - I became fascinated with that difference in similarity. It is interesting to me that we make such a wall out of male and female. And one of the by-products of feminism, of which I approve, I approve of feminism, but one of the by-products was to accentuate the difference.
But fellas had it, good old Aussie sexists had it anyhow. As my old man used to say, "Queer cattle, the sheilas", in his unreconstructed full-flowering Aussie sexism, a man of his age. Now um, I think the difference is enormous, but I think it's also very close. And yet when I, I heard from a woman in America to whom it had happened. The story of 'Woman of the Inner Sea' which is the story of a young woman who is wealthy and privileged who then loses her two children in an unspecified way and is so full of self-blame and self um, self-doubt that she goes into the centre of Australia and tries to make herself even on a cellular level into another woman.
She used to eat pasta and um, wholegrain bread, here she eats steak and white bread with lashings of butter. And she is accompanied of course by this totemic kangaroo called Chifley and she is an ally of a dynamiter called Jelly and so on. Now the capacity to write about loss from a woman's point of view was something, I delay- ... I thought you can't do that. And indeed if you do you know, I was afraid I suppose like everyone of Germs, of Germaine Greer, perhaps through viewing it and damning to hell.
But ultimately I increasingly began to realise that men and women are the same sort of poor pilgrims on this earth and also to suspect that without any scientific evidence that everything men needed to be women was already laid down before that Y chromosome kicked in. And similarly everything women needed to be men, if the chromosome went the other way was implanted too. And then once the chromosome decided the direction, well there certainly were psychological tendencies which went in different directions.
But that there was femininity in men and masculinity in women to varying degrees. But the femininity in us got cemented over by, you know, playing rugby league and being blokes. And so I've always, I had a - began to have a suspicion that psychically if you release that, that part of yourself which fiction does release, the process of fiction releases information that you didn't know you knew, the process of writing fiction. Um, it certainly releases what you knew you knew but it releases all sorts of material you didn't know you know.
And so ultimately I bit the bullet and wrote 'Women of the Inner Sea' and I've never stopped writing from the point of women since. No one has chastised me yet for it.
Well you used to write about women but rather less well and you've just explained why.
Ah yes. Well we all grow. It's funny though that people think, and I suppose they do it with politicians too, people think that something you said when you were in your twenties you still believe.
Well ah, I was interested in the question of whether famine is produced by drought or politics. Famine when it occurs has to be attended to because the people suffering from it are innocents. But is it an act of God or is it an act of politics? And someone said to me, "You ought to meet this Eritrean bloke that Fred Hollows knows". I mean this is a special case of politics and famine. And that's how it began. It's very rarely that a book begins with an idea - is famine caused by politics or by, by God? And it's - I've never had another book that began with a concept and then worked from the concept up.
But, are we running out of time?
No you can - you've got time to tell me about Eritrea.
So Eritrea proved to be a remarkable lost country ignored like the dark side of the moon, for obvious reasons that there were no telephones, there was no fax you could send out. And it was relatively difficult to get into from Khartoum to Port Sudan and then by truck into Eritrea. You could only travel at night, you could not send despatches out. It was like, a little bit like nineteenth century travel, but the point was all aid agencies were impressed with what the Eritreans were doing. And I wanted to see that operation first hand.
And how did that translate into fiction for you?
Well I - again, this novel was written as a story. The story is all but it did have a political purpose and books that have a political purpose are dangerous because the politics can swamp the um, the veins, the arteries of the narrative.
Some critics have said that that's true of, of 'To[wards] Asmara'. Did you - what did you feel about it?
I think they only said that because it's a passionate book and they're not used to passionate books. You know, the, I don't come from say the Anita Brookner end of fiction. It was certainly a passionate book but it was a just book because a war was raging that everyone was ignoring and it was an unjust war.
Did it make a difference politically?
Well when - one of the proudest things, times I've been proudest to be a writer was when Eritrea got its independence, and this is a very boastful statement but all the UN observers for the referendum had to read 'To[wards] Asmara'. And the Eritreans would take it round to politics [sic], politicians in Washington and give it to them. [END OF TAPE]
You said that novels or books vary rarely start with a theme. How do they start, for you?
Oh, with a story, with a young woman telling me about what it was like to lose her children. Ah, with - a novel I've always wanted to write but I've postponed it because of the urgency of the times we live in. Um, I read that Charles Dickens had two boys whom he sent to Australia. And they were supposed to come because they were to do a Magwitch, as in 'Great Expectations' so had become landed gentry, Australian style.
They were boys who were, liked racing and cricket and were no good at the classics and geometry. So it's a -given that we're, Australians are all ah, either the dumb children of the gentry or economic refugees or convicts. It's a wonder we can use a knife and fork. But it is a glorious triumph for us. Ah, but this idea of Australia as the oubliette into which um, Europeans disappeared. I notice even on television, on British soapies or British crime shows they say, "Ah, does the deceased have relatives?" "Oh a sister in so and so and a sister in Australia." That means a sister in Australia means as good as dead.
So even in Ackroyd's great biography of Dickens um, Ackroyd doesn't pursue the boys who come to Australia. Um, because Australia is this mass into which ... I'm sorry I'm just going to wipe my eye ... Australia is this netherworld into which Europeans descend and enough said. So Australian literature of course has all been about defining that void called Australia. And I would love to write about the two Dickens boys and their struggles. One of them was less than seventeen when he arrived at the station where he was to be a roustabout, eighty kilometres north of Wilcannia in 1868.
He was five days short of his seventeenth birthday so he is the antipodean version of many of um, of Dickens' English heroes - obscure boys who aren't as gifted as many of those around them. And there was a time when Trollope's son and the two Dickens were members of the Wilcannia cricket club. And one can imagine them all padded up ready to bat. They've just bowled. And they're sitting round discussing their fathers' work. And discussing ideas that they might have sent their father in, for colonial, novels about colonial matters ah, late in their life.
Now there's a novel in that. As soon as I read that Dickens had two sons, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens and Alfred [d'Orsay] Tennyson Dickens in Australia. I - something said you've got to write about this. This is 'Orpheus in the Underworld'.
Tom I have to think that they failed for you still to be so interested in them.
Oh yes. This is a very interesting thing - our passion for failure, isn't it, for poignant failure. Um, that is very Australian. I think we get it from the people of northern England who are used to valiant failure. From the Scots who are used to mythic failure - look at bonnie Prince Charlie. As well of course as acquiring real estate, they're used to mythic failure. And from the Irish who have had no choice but to glorify failure for the last eight hundred years. And ah, but the - I say in the introduction to 'Schindler' that fiction generally concerns itself with the predictable failure of grandeur or moral grandeur against the forces of history.
And these boys only failed because they came too late. They were industrious and they were - or industrious enough. Um, but they were restricted to land beyond the Darling, which was rabbit infested and drought stricken and yet they tried to live like English squires. And, and well Australia ...
Now we have got off the track and I'll have to pull us back, because the question that I asked was what do you begin with? And you said usually it's with a story. And then you thought of a story that you wanted to illustrate that with ...
And that I went on too long.
Now is it, is - when you say it's usually a story, for you is that always the case? And is it a story that's told to you or you come across in a book or is it ever one that you just imagine out of nothing?
Sometimes it's one I get from my reading. But most commonly it's a story I hear and then research. Some - one interesting trigger for a book called 'A River Town' which is about my immigrant grandparents in 1900 in Kempsey. There is a picture upstairs in this house of my grandfather's store in East Kempsey which still stands and it was taken on a day in 1911, you can see that the butchers [sic] next door has gone around and got his horse and he's sitting on his horse ready for this plate that is going to be taken and the photographer is saying "Nobody move". And my father is sitting on the step as a four year old kid and ah, my aunt's upstairs and my grandfather is on the balcony.
But um, the, the banner on the store says 'K. Keneally General Store'. Now my father [sic], grandfather's name was Tim, his wife was K for Kit- ... Katie. She was a little dumpling efficient woman and she, her name was on the store. And I've always wondered why that's so and I interviewed my father about it and got some ideas from him. And what it did to their love life, they had nine kids, but why does it say K. Keneally instead of T. Keneally? Well the whole ah, novel of 'A River Town' explains that change of initial. It is to explain that change of initial. And this as a source of ideas is not uncommon.
Some novelists use character. Have you ever used a character?
Ah, one could, let me see. Not as the primary trigger, no. Not as the primary trigger. Although I've often been tempted to write a little book about my friend Leopold Page, Poldek Page, who was such an overpowering character.
Yes the man who told me about Schindler.
But normally for you it's story that, that wins out.
Yes it's a story, a situation ...
But then there's also often in your novels a very strong theme, a very strong idea, an issue, a political position. Does that come later?
That, yes that comes later. That simply imposes itself. I tend to look on people as political creatures. It's part of their - everyone is a political creature to a greater or lesser extent. And in different ways. The way everyone's a moral creature and everyone has poetic ideas and everyone wants peace and justice and an ability to raise their kids, you know. These are - the politics comes automatically out of the story. But I suppose I've got a considerable interest in the politics of the story. Um, but not for their own sake, for the sake of the story. For the sake of the story.
So that in, again to talk about 'River Town' you've got people who are for or against the um, Boer War. And this is a great divide both in 'A River Town' and in 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. And I had experience of that during the Vietnam era when there was a similar divide in Australia. And it was a very serious - again a fault line. You could, you see love across the fault line, whether it be fraternal love or a romantic and erotic love is always a story. There's always a story in that. The um, the white woman who falls in love with the Aboriginal or vice versa, the English paratrooper who falls in love with a paddy girl in Belfast, which is a novel I haven't written but there are many novels about that.
Ah, the um, Caucasian who marries the Muslim or the Christian who marries the Muslim, it's a - it's these heroic gestures which contradict conditioning ah, which are interest me [sic], obscurely heroic. And I suppose I've always been - the seminary gave me I suppose what you'd call a gutful of conditioning. So I've always been interested in people who despite their conditioning go in a different direction.
You talked to us earlier about the change that occurred in the mood of your writing somewhere at the beginning of the '70s when, which you felt was matched by the change of mood in Australia from one of alienation, a little bit of despair, a sort of downbeat view of life to a celebratory one.
And you started writing celebratory sort of novels. One of the things that's striking when you look at that divide is that themes or subject matter that you used in that earlier darker stage, you revisited.
Yes to put a new spin on it. Yes.
So you mentioned 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. Now with 'Flying Hero Class' it wasn't just the point of view of the narrator that changed, it was the whole mood of the thing, wasn't it?
Yes um ...
And there were other examples of that. Does - does that strike you?
Ah, yes. Um, in 'Bettany's Book' for example there's a rather different view of the tragedy of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. There's a group - Bettany is a pastoralist and there's a group of people whom he calls the Moth people who come up from down around Canberra, where Canberra is now, in the spring to eat the Bogong moth, which is supposed to be like a sort of an animated protein bag from which you pluck the wings and they taste like a combination of chicken and cashew. Not that I've ever - I'm merely reporting what early settlers said.
And these people are, are - you know they're going to be destroyed by the pastoral ah, enterprise of young Bettany. And he tries to be kindly, you know. He reports an Aboriginal massacre by a neighbouring pastoralist. And it's a terrible massacre. And yet um even he, even he being a conscientious Englishman from Tasmania ah, by his very heroism and expectation he is also a blight upon the Aboriginal nomadic life. The idea of the valuing of this piece of stock, a sheep, over that other animal, the kangaroo.
The kangaroo is free in the landscape for anyone to shoot or spear but the sheep are sacred. The expectations that Aboriginals who have been in that ground eating the Bogong moth since the last Ice Age are going to immediately latch onto this just because the sheep has a brand on it, or some marking on it, ah, is grotesque. And yet he believes it and it's reasonable to him. And so I'm interested now in the way one culture can be a virus on another. I've not stepped back from the idea that we were more than a virus. We were willing to shoot, exterminate, poison, give social - give sexually transmitted diseases and bootleg booze to them and so on.
But um, I am [sic] become more fascinated in the way one virus - one civilisation can be a virus on another. And indeed Jared Diamond from University of California, San Diego has written a brilliant book on this very subject called 'Guns, Germs and Steel' which I don't think most of the people who pontificate about how well we've looked after Aboriginals at the end of day, have read somehow.
History has been an incredibly potent source of ideas for you and for your writing. One of the debates that's happening now is to do with the fictionalisation of history that when you actually come to fictionalise history sometimes that masks the accounts of the time and distort forever in the public view what actually occurred. Is that a responsibility you feel as a writer who's drawn so heavily on history?
I would like to say that I felt that responsibility from the beginning. But I felt a responsibility to finish a book from the beginning, to finish a new book. I, I can see what you mean and I was conscious of it from an early stage. In - and the reason I was conscious of it because, was because I'd read books about Bligh and about Macarthur. George Mackaness' wonderful biography of Bligh showed how you could give um, a man who was a relatively reasonable man a bad name and then Hollywood makes a film which places that view in cement. And then every subsequent version of 'Mutiny On The Bounty' cements that misrepresentation or that, that lack of subtle judgement in place.
Um, and um, so I was aware of it from an early age and have always been a bit of a supporter of Captain Bligh actually because the Macarthurs had no - and the others - had no right to depose him as Governor of New South Wales. And Fletcher Christian had no grounds other than his appetite for island girls not to obey his captain. Ah, but um ...
I deliberately write books. I approach the question from the other end which is when I write books I'm trying deliberately, perhaps wrong-headedly, but sincerely trying to clarify history. To show where Joan of Arc came from, to show where Jimmie Blacksmith came from, or Jimmy Governor, to show what things were like. So I have, however wrong-headed, a belief that I'm recovering history which has been stereotyped in various ways and stereotyped in a way that makes it seems distant and irrelevant.
Well yes of course for non-fiction far more than for fiction. And I'm writing less historical work now anyhow. But ah, you get leftover material from one book which you put into another. Some years ago when 'The Chant of ...' - some years ago when 'Schindler's List', based on my 'Schindler's Ark', made me temporally affluent, not being content with just settling back I felt very strongly a duty to um, the um, various um, prisoners - this obsession with prisoners probably comes from being locked up at Manly - but various prisoners of the Crown in the nineteenth century, both obscure and famous ah, who um, were involved in some gesture against the Crown that had a political cast to it.
English Luddites, Irish Ribbonmen, the famous young islanders like Thomas Frances Meagher and William Smith O'Brien. And um, now just remind me of the question so I ...
I was asking you do you do a lot of research. And could you just tell us how you go about doing the research.
Well now with, with a book like that Irish one I had to spend time in the Tasmanian State Archives reading the letters of all these people, wonderful letters. In the National Library of Ireland ditto, in the National Archives of Ireland, in the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library um, I had a researcher in WA doing the Western Australian archives because Irish dissidents of considerable fame were sent here to Western Australia.
So I had a mass of material. Thomas Francis Meagher becomes a union general and this escaped undischarged convict, and that's how I came across the story of his friend Dan Sickles and Sickles' murder. So sometimes it's leftover material.
But does it matter to you, does it matter to you that you be - where the historical record is used as history, that you're absolutely faithful to it? Do you think that's important?
Not necessarily in what people did because in a novel the person - in 'The Great Shame' yes, it's crucially important. In a novel you can have a woman composed of all the women who were in the Female Factory, you can jam two women together and make them the one woman.
But what they do in the factory, does that have to be accurate?
Yes indeed. Yes. I mean but it's merely accurate in the novel 'Bettany's Book' because I'd already researched it for my wife's great granny, Mary Shields, so I knew a lot about the Female Factory already and thought as well as being an historic record the Female Factory has to be also in fiction as a metaphor for Australian gender relationships because - well I'll put it in less jargon. It was a - it was an image of the relationship between male and female in Australia, the idea of locking women away both to protect society, them from society and to protect society from them.
And ah, so in 'Bettany's Book' - which is a novel - I have a woman who's in the Female Factory who's totally fictional who comes from Manchester, not from Ireland, unlike my wife's great grandmother who was also in there. But I know all about the Female Factory from um, writing 'The Great Shame'. Bucket loads of material have been edited out of 'The Great Shame' which I can now use. Secondly ah, Judy's great grandparents, my wife's great grandparents, her great grandfather was a quasi political prisoner. He was what they called a Ribbonman - a peasant who was a member of a rural activist anti-landlord society.
And there were 70 Ribbonmen on his ship. So it was a common crime. It was counted as a crime against property but it was, as was the crime of the Luddites, but it was actually in its way a political crime. And these two convicts, the Mary Shields who was in the Female Factory and um, Judy's great grandfather formed a liaison when she went out to the property beyond where Cooma is to become a housekeeper or a maid. But they had a master called William Brodribb, who left an account blessedly of the pastoral life in New South Wales. And thus I was able to base the fictional character Bettany on Brodribb.
And very accurate historical facts.
Well yes I, Brodribb gives you a lot of detail on how a sheep property beyond the limits of location was run in the 1840s with convict labourers and so on. So I think the distinction is that in um, non-fiction you try to tell the truth by telling the truth. You can't escape the person you are, that's the only problem with non-fiction. It will always, the material will always be squeezed through this cookie cutter which is you. This nozzle which is you.
But in the novel you feel the freedom to tell the truth by creating divine lies. You can mess around with the characters. You can basically if the chief aim of the novelist is verisimilitude. And particularly the novelist in good historical fiction is trying to talk about the present too. Let's not forget that. And so um, ah, I hope this answers the distinction between fiction and non-fiction that you asked me.
In relation to your life, politics - and your work - politics has played an enormous part. Um, you've been very, very interested in your writing in political issues. Now you told us earlier that you didn't get engaged in the early part of your writing life publicly in things like the Vietnam War because you felt it was more important to write. What changed your mind about being publicly politically active?
I think age. There's something that kicks in in older people that makes them good demonstrators. It's a [sic] almost chemical subconscious um, fear for the world the young are going to inherit. Ah, I was of course vocal on Vietnam, but um, I suppose I became more publicly a commentator when Neville Wran asked me would I be Chairman of the Republican Movement. And I was Chair of the Republican Movement until Malcolm Turnbull, who was very generous to the Republican Movement, took over.
The interesting thing about the Republican Movement is that we were at a stage when it was an appropriate movement I believe. We were still hanging on to the social values of the fair go that are expressed in the most important word in the Australian Constitution, 'commonwealth'. We were an outwardly looking country that looked to have, seemed to have got over some of its fears. We were looking for alliances, and still are of course, but it seems in a more begrudging manner, in our region. Ah, the people like Keating spoke a lot about the region. Keating wasn't - was a far from perfect man of course but he was certainly a visionary man. He could see a future for Australia in the region.
And he advocated a lack of fear. He had that attitude that the Chinese have when they talk of um, risk or danger as um, as a kind of opportunity, a risky opportunity. Ah, and um, so this outward lookingness, this apparent embracing of the world, this consciousness of having been rendered a different mob by the, our shared experience of this strange continent which is an extraordinary place to find Europeans, but which we had come to feel more and more at home in.
Ah, it seemed that becoming a republic would be the icing on the cake. It produced in our community primal emotions on both sides. And the most difficult thing was to prove that you were still interested in other um, in a range of issues. That, as the Americans say, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Ah, and um, I was um, very interested in this whole reconciliation thing and um, because I felt um, on good grounds that you can't be legitimate by denying the legitimacy of other people.
Indeed one of my Irish prisoners who was a prisoner in Western Australia with my great uncle and who went to America and became a famous literary figure, read from the same platform as Mark Twain and so on. His name, this famous convict was John Boyle O'Reilly. He escaped on a Yankee whaler. And he wrote in New York, "Freedom is not a proposition. He is not free who is free alone in a community". If he's free and other people are repressed, then you're not free. And so I, that sentiment resonated with me and I felt that there are two ways of approaching this enormous tower of Aboriginal pre-occupation [sic] - pre European occupation.
You can either deny it, because you have not come to terms with it and it's difficult to come to terms with, so best to just swamp it with your own occupation. Ah, or you can ah, acknowledge it as a way of acknowledging your own legitimacy. And um, therefore there is a stain of illegitimacy in Australia, which I feel very passionately arises from this um, foundation. Now you know I was raised a Catholic as we've gone into ad infinitum and the priest says, "hoc est enim corpus meum" - this is my body and the host is said to change into the body and blood of Christ. And people find that hard to believe.
Yet they find it easy to believe that um, in early February at 1788 Captain Phillip by the words he uttered claimed what had been converted, transubstantiated what had been the property of some 500 tribes to around about, he only claimed around about as far as the Western Australian border, around about London to Moscow. Ah, transubstantiated that into Crown land instantly. And this is a big thing to believe. [laughs] This is even harder to believe than transubstantiation.
So you know, the republican movement though was based on this failed lawyer side of me. And it seemed that since we were so diverse and were coming to a maturity that it would be the icing on the cake. And now late in the - or early in the twenty-first century I feel we've gone so far backward that it matters but it doesn't matter like it did in the um, early '90s. It was going to be the crowning glory of a nation coming into its own, a community coming into its own. Um, I don't like that word nation. It's a little bit Stalinist and fascist.
Now of course we have the - we are the only liberal democracy imprisoning asylum seekers and using an American subsidiary of a company that doesn't even have a policy on children, and which is a penal, a private penal company, to do the work. Ah, we have um, resisted the United Nations, we have not signed Osaka [sic - Kyoto], we've become, we have um, with a humiliating alacrity gone along with the requirements of our more powerful western nations. And it seems that that independence of spirit and that vision has shrunk and we have 800,000 Australian children whose parents are on some form of welfare and are generally impoverished and who cannot be sure of a place at the common table of the Commonwealth. And so it's a - we speak to each other in the midst of a sad time.
When you think about that sad time and when you think about the energy and work you put into the republican movement with public speeches and so on, which do you think is more effective in changing society in the directions you want to go - writing fiction, writing, producing books or being publicly active?
I think the only book which has had a huge impact is 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' maybe, the only work of fiction. Ah, I think fiction is a very dubious way of changing the world even though I tried it with 'To[wards] Asmara'. Um, WH Auden said, "Poetry isn't political it exists in the valley of its own saying", 's-a-y-i-n-g'. And fiction exists in the valley of its own saying. And the people who make the decisions don't visit that valley nearly enough [laughs] to get informed. And so they visit all sorts of other valleys but they don't come into that one.
And the safest way is activism. And I'd say to all Australian citizens ah, through my involvement in both refugee activism which hasn't succeeded yet in its purpose, but through the republican movement that it's remarkable that a body of citizens with determination can influence to an extent politics. I think that Australians feel a certain impotence now and I'm not sure it is um, quite yet justified. I wish that our kids were taught the distinctions between our levels of government and where you go to kick up a fuss.
Too, too many of us grow up just thinking "they ought to do something about it" but we don't know how to get to those "they". And it's almost as if therefore education neglects this for the convenience of politicians so they won't be too disturbed. Ah, every child should know who to complain to about their phone bill or their light bill, who to complain to about their roads and kerbing, who to complain to about undue process in the legal system. Who to complain to about the fact that we're still taking oaths to a foreign monarch.
And maybe how to complain effectively.
And how to, how to organise. And I think this would make a far more cohesive society because the important thing for human beings is not that their proposition be upheld. It is that their - but the most important thing is that they be heard.
Oh it's an addiction. It is, it is one of the things that makes me most happy. Um, and this is a terrible thing for the family because they know that you're desperate to write. Not all the time, um, but that it is the, a big thing, such a big thing in your life. And um, I feel although it's sometimes tough I could not do without it. I'm reaching a stage of life where I have had a few respiratory episodes and suffered from exhaustion and so on. Um, and um, I um, am back a little bit to being the slightly sick child I was when I was a little kid.
But I spend a huge amount of time with my grandchildren now. And ah, I'm beginning to think what people in the '70s wanted me to think. Maybe I should just stop writing, enough already. And say to the books, "Okay you're my children you go out and earn a living for me". But still I could not live without writing. I am so pleased - I see neighbours who have been, had important jobs and suddenly they're out of the loop at 64. 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 of possible novels.
And I pray, you know, I hope I keep my marbles. When my father was elderly a doctor said, "He's still got all his marbles" and my brother said, "Yes, but their not necessarily the same set that the rest of humanity is playing with". But I am happy that both my parents, my mother is still alive at an advanced age and doesn't have one of these degenerative mental diseases, so I'm hoping that maybe through a bit of exercise and good luck I can keep writing for some years yet. But I won't specify the years because although as agnostic as one might be, they're listening you know.
What would you do without football?
Oh I'd be um, fine without football but it is a, it was one of the sort of ritual religions of my childhood. My father played it apparently very well. And it was my hero system. Because we didn't have culture heroes then we had sporting heroes. And some Australians are still fixated at that level. But the, my - there's part of me that's still the seven year old, and my wife can attest to this, that sees the sporting hero as a God-like creature that if you touch the hem of his garment, if he says "G'day mate" to you, you know your life is enlarged in ways that are imponderable but definite. You know so the end of your - on your deathbed you'll remember the encounter with the divine passing being who said "G'day mate".
And um, I um, simply enjoy it as a break from um, from writing. I tell um, I tell, I like the argot of rugby league, I like the emphasis on not spitting the dummy even though I've been a dummy spitter myself at various times in the past. I got one of my greatest statements of multiculturalism from a Manly Warringah rugby league second rower who was Greek. And they - we'd just won a big game against Brisbane and I said to him, "Jimmy, I thought we'd rise from the dead last Sunday, Easter Sunday and - but you chose today a week after Easter". And he said, "Oh mate, you picked the wrong bloody Easter, today is Greek Easter".
So ah, I like the folk wisdom of - I once took the splendid English novelist and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare to a rugby league game and afterwards one of our trainers said to him, "Nick" - with a lot of interspersed profanity - he said, "Nick, rugby league is like booze. It makes heroes out of ordinary men and bloody ordinary men out of heroes". And ah, Shakespeare thought that this was a wonderful aphorism. He said in his highbred British way, "Do you mind if I use that?"
And so I like it as a social phenomenon. You know that old Lang Labor thing - rugby league has been transformed - but it grew out of a sense of justice. It grew out of the fact that rugby union was the game of the dilettante and the amateur, but what happened if you were a working class player and you broke your collarbone and you were out of work for four weeks and your family was put in a situation where it was close to the bone. So rugby league began by paying the - for the injuries of players and playing [sic] them what was originally a pittance for every game.
And for most of its history until television and Murdoch, it was like that, it was a game played by working men who were not um, as luxuriously placed as to be able to afford to be injured and not work. And so again it's got a strong - well no this is just justification giving this social history background to it. I really just like the game. But there are, it is not, it is not the biggest thing in my life but I really love the community of going to the ground and talking to blokes who for their whole week they haven't been worried about how their novel is going. They haven't been - and you're bound to them by this tribalism, but it's a kind of benign tribalism.
You wouldn't go forth and kill another tribe. The boys of course do that for you ritually on the paddock. But I loved the game when I played it as a kid and a seminarian so I suppose I've still got that. And the other thing I would say ah, talking to cultivated people, it is very much a social phenomenon. I said to you in relation to the seminary that we were drawn from the same classes that provided the cops and the pub owners. And I do meet many former seminarians at the um, at the football. It is one of the rites that still means a lot to them.
Now of course when we played it too it had a cosmic significance. I don't know if I've said this already but the ...
Brother coach would say to us, "Over there is a state school crowd you're going to be playing and their coach doesn't care as much for you as I do because he's got a wife and kids to look after, and besides, you know, you have the advantage of having the one true faith, thus virtually you are to beat them to show that Henry the Eighth was wrong". So I suppose this idea of rugby league as a map of the world is something that's stuck with me. I do notice that terrible conflicts arise from awful refereeing mistakes that it's a little bit like the chaos theory that says that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can create a hurricane somewhere else.
A falsely called forward pass that prevents a try, particularly by your own team, quickly has a knock-on effect which leads to conflict in the Balkans. Or so - so one primitive part of me believes.
Is it in any way a substitute for religion, going along each week to a community of people?
It certainly is. I'm very fascinated by the um, connection between sport and religion. How they are, there is a process, there is a liturgy. Um, I - and then of course as a substitute for warfare which has become a cliché to say it's a substitute for warfare, but it is. Um, but it was - football is inevitable because someone was going to take the bladder out of a pig and either try to run with it or try to kick it between two sticks. One or the other was going to happen.
And I notice with my grandson he runs around the living room belting a football and yelling, just, I mean the football hasn't been forced on him, it's just amongst the things in the house. And he says, "Fall on the ball, fall on the ball" or "Kick the ball". So there is an innate tendency to do potentially destructive things like kick the ball and kick other men's heads and so on. And so sport was codified to deal with, to make it less war and more a just exchange. It is interesting - games are fascinating to me because they are an expression of cultures, as much as ballet and opera is [sic].
And I've once referred to rugby league as the grand opera of the proletariat. And to an extent it is. It's no excuse for not going to the opera however.
As far as I'm aware you've never written a book about a football player.
Well there is a character who is one in, in um, 'A Family Madness'. There is a family that's come to Australia from Belorussia, which brings all manner of ghosts with them from the Second World War. And they interact with a security guard out in Penrith to whom politics is not questions of fascism and anti-Semitism. Politics is his game.
He lives, this has been something that we've been fortunate um, with that for a lot of us we can go on being lazy because our politics was kind of benign enough to be, to look after itself and for a large part of the populous, benign enough to look after itself so that they could concentrate on sport. Ah, I think increasingly that's not true. I think increasingly no matter how many world championships or gold medals we win we are disgraced by a number of our present policies, and that that disgrace is more profound and more indicative than our prowess.
Can I now ask you to look back in hindsight and trace some of the things that have developed through the course of your life? Religion. You started off intending to be a priest, absolutely devout. How has your attitude to Catholicism, to God, to the whole concept of religious practice evolved in the course of your life?
Well because of that what I think of as being genuinely shocked - and I'm speaking as genuinely as I can now - genuinely shocked by the uncompassionate nature of many of the senior clergy. Um, I found it hard to then say, "Well that's okay because over here are these mysteries which, the mystery of communion, of reconciliation, of baptisms, which still belong to me". I mean in that church that I was in all this belonged to the Bishop and the Pope. And it didn't really belong to you.
I haven't, I haven't found a means of going on to be a fully practising member of that community while saying, you know, my Archbishop is a lunatic but that doesn't matter. I'm not talking about my Archbishop as we speak, but a hypothetical Archbishop. Um, and ah, many can. My brother can. But - and he's a very intelligent man, a very advanced technocrat. He runs the Anaesthetics Department at the big children's hospital out west. Um, he's a source of great pride to all of his. And he, although he has - he's an intellectual, sophisticated ideas, he is able to separate the absurdity of some of the senior clergy from the ultimate sustaining mysteries.
I haven't been quite able to manage to do that. And yet I like to do it. Um, another person who does it is the great historian from ANU, a former priest, John Molony, who is able to go to - he took me to mass recently in the bush in Victoria and a bloke came in and said, "Hey, you're Keneally aren't you? What's happened to you, you seen the light?" [laughs] And ah, I ah, that's - I find it hard to see the light.
But I was guided by a few theological revelations that came to me while I was writing 'Schindler's List' [sic]. One is that God might be - the problem of evil is the great problem of God, a compassionate God of the universe. Because if he exists why does he let children die, why does he let Afghanistan happen, why did he let the trade towers happen? The answer is free will. He gave us all free will and you can either crash a plane into the trade towers or you can't. You can either imprison innocent asylum seekers or you don't. And that's your free will.
But um, it's a lame - you know it seems a pallid excuse to someone who's lost a child or lost a relative in an unjust way. And um, I notice that the Jews, some Jewish survivors looked on God as a kind of overimaginative - in this intimate way of someone you argue with - and like an overimaginative screenwriter. Um, a Jewish prisoner, a former Jewish prisoner said to me about Mauthausen he said, "When I got to Mauthausen I saw that great cliff and the SS throwing people off the cliff of the quarry. I said "God, this is too much"."
Sort of editing, trying to advise God to edit things, to be a little more, a little bit less obscene. Whereas we looked upon God as an omnipotent person who um, intervened regularly but if he didn't intervene it was his obscure will that you would suffer in a particular way. Ah and so the idea of God the screenwriter I found a very important one that helped me deal with the problem of evil on earth. The second idea was this idea the Jews have that they mightn't believe everything. But they observe certain high holidays for the sake of those who are not there, the sake of the ancestors.
And particularly when I look at the sort of anonymous people from whom most Australians of my background are derived. People like Hugh Larkin, my wife's convict ancestor and so on, who waited for the priest to arrive in the bush before he'd get married. I mean before he got married, they had a child before the priest arrived but as soon as the priest arrived peace was made. And when I think of those historic Catholics who were persecuted, um, in their home nations, then I feel an identity with them too. And you think you can't throw it all away because they suffered so intensely for it.
And so the idea of tribal observantce - after all the most enduring religion on earth, the one that makes the most sense to the most humans is pantheism, the idea of God [sic], gods in the geography. And that's one of the reasons that brings me back to Australia. There are different gods that have more to do with me than gods anywhere else in the landscape. There are gods in this landscape and you can feel them. At least I think you can feel them. I can feel them.
Secondly, ancestor, reverence for ancestors. And um, um, you know you have to - if you don't know what your ancestors went through, if your - whatever your background, then you know, you are deprived of a story of yourself that's important. Um, I know conservative people say that "You should - you know the day you arrive in Australia you're an Australian and you ought to forget all that old stuff". But if you forget all that old stuff you lose your third dimension. You have to, when you arrive in Australia, observe the pluralist compact. If you're an Armenian and you become an Australian, you don't have the right to bump off the Turkish Consul General. But the idea that you're supposed to immediately forget the Armenian language, Armenian writing, Armenian religion, Armenian ancestors, is just ridiculous.
So you were in a situation where you miss aspects of your religion like the ritual and the opportunity to join with those who've gone before.
But your concept of God is really now nothing like the concept of the Christian God.
No, I mean the concept of my God, of God when we were kids was very much a vengeful God who would um - we were told he was a God of love but we were also told stories about the girl who went to mass every Sunday and then there was one Sunday she didn't. They asked her to go to a picnic, her non-Catholic friends, and she went with them and she drowned and of course she went to hell, despite the ... That was the God that was depicted for us. And one of the reasons I think there's the phenomenon of the wild Catholic girl and the wild Catholic boy. And J.F. Kennedy was the wild Catholic boy.
The reason I think they go so mad and become erotomaniacs is that if you harbour the faintest sensual thought then you go to hell. And if you have an affair with Marilyn Monroe you go to hell too. So you might as well be hung for Marilyn Monroe's boyfriend than for a mere sensual thought. And ah, so it was a God who was likely to put you in the pit.
Do you believe in God now? Do you believe in a God? Do you have a God you actually believe in?
I don't believe there's a personal intervening deity who has a personal interest on - you know, if I drop to my knees now and say, "Please let me be shortlisted for the Booker prize next year", I don't think he's there. But I find the idea of some sort of principal of - hard to shake. Maybe it's atavism but I feel that um, ah, you know I know how that there is an initiating spirit and an underpinning spirit but I don't think it's the kind that makes virgins [sic] weep, statues of the Virgin weep in Western Australia.
You know I wish it was a personally intervening God. The universe is a cold place without that personal deity but ah, so I suppose I've become a deist which is a [sic] terrible according to my childhood upbringing, is a terrible thing to be. But a deist who often goes to Catholic masses and requiem masses and marriage masses and so on.
How often do you go? How often do you go?
Well because I've got an extensive clan, quite often. And ah, but I don't think that means that ...
Oh no. No, no. I do occasionally receive absolution from the heretical priests who don't require absolution. Not all priests - you see there came to be a time when the right of reconciliation could be administered by a priest to a whole group. This was, this practice came in the '80s and the early '90s. The Vatican stood on it again and said no there has to be a personal confrontation. But what I like about - at sea, occasionally I'm asked to give lectures on posh boats and occasionally I go on them. And the priests on the boat generally snaffle me and get me to read lessons at mass. And they are empowered to give general absolutions.
And I think of it in these terms which are typically heretical terms that Bishops and Archbishops wouldn't like. But um, Hess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, made a full confession to a priest before he was hanged and received communion. And if he can receive communion I can. Father Sean Fortune, a scandalous paedophile in, in Ireland molested a boy before saying mass, recited a mass at which the boy was present, and then molested him after the mass according to the evidence and the boy, evidence that was accepted in court.
And if Father Sean Fortune could say mass then I can - after all, the sacrament was called communion, which is about communion between maybe people of similar background, maybe people of similar values. Um, so there is still, you know, a kind of yearning for the sacraments there. But ...
Will you be calling - will you be calling for them on your deathbed Tom?
I don't know. It's quite possible. I know, I'm hoping Eddy Campion will last that long. I would call upon Eddy Campion or upon a few other priests who are maybe not models, considered episcopal material, bishoply material.
One of the things that interests me about you is this issue of identity. You've been concerned with issues of identity in a great deal of your work, especially ambiguous identities.
Mm. All identities are ambiguous. Because all identities carry with them a satanic temptation to - they have, they have a beautiful face and we all need them. We all need this self-definition. We seek self-definitions by the religion we belong to, by who our ancestors were, by the football team we support, by who we vote for. We are continually seeking these identities. And they are nourishing to us. But they have an evil baboon backside attached to them and that backside says, well okay, you've built yourself this beautiful identity you know, just look forward and you'll see this exquisite identity. But this means that you're entitled to excrete on the rest of the human race who don't have this beautiful identity.
And people say how remarkable that the Holocaust and other, other terrible events in history come from cultivated people. From people, the same people who um, created Chekhov and Tolstoy, the same people who created Schopenhauer and created Mozart and Beethoven. And of course it's going to come from there, this extreme reaction. Because people will become so enamoured of their own cultural identity that there is an immediate temptation to dismiss the validity of other identities.
And that satanic temptation is obviously in America and is frequently succumbed to. And it's obviously in Australia and it, it frequently feeds our myths of identity.
And you yourself started life named Michael. You grew up named Michael. The first thing you wrote you wrote under a pseudonym.
Yes, that's my mother's name.
And then you became Tom and you were happy for people to call you Tom.
Yes, yes I liked that word.
Do you feel that you yourself have had identity crises in your life?
Would you like to talk about them?
Well of course, I mean I think in a way I already have. I've had to um, decide whether I would be joyous or terminally depressed. I've had to decide um, my politics, my - but above all that one - the tension between failure and the huge appetite for success, to make up for the failure I'd been in the seminary. All those um, issues brought me to crises and I've had a crisis as recently as two years ago because I was a workaholic until two years ago.
And I went to Eritrea when the Ethiopians last invaded it in 2000. And it was an - I don't know where these impulses that make us adopt this cause and not that cause. It's very mysterious. It's a different proposition for every human. But I saw some footage on SBS of the damage that had been done to a cotton mill - deliberate looting, a cotton mill in a town in western Eritrea by the Ethiopian army. And a rage rose in me because this cotton mill represented sophistication and it was partly - when I actually got there and saw it, it had a message written on the wall to the President of Eritrea and it read "Dear Comrade Afwerki, Isaias Afwerki ...Dear Comrade Isaias, we have taken great joy in destroying this plant because we know it hurts you so much".
And um, so I didn't want this to happen to Fred Hollows' very sophisticated lens factory which is now run by Eritreans in Asmara. And I said to my daughter, "I think I'd better go to Asmara and ...", you know, as if I'd make any difference but I had this idea that I wanted - if the Ethiopian Army captured Asmara I wanted to be there to say there's Australian money in this you leave that - well I probably would have spoken very timidly and with the greatest respect. But I got viscerally angry.
And um, indeed a million and a half people were on the road. They'd been displaced from their farmlands and the farming towns of the south by the invasion and barely a word in the world's media. This invasion was an invasion like Hitler into Poland, like Saddam Hussein into Kuwait. Not a word, except from that heroic Irish woman Robinson, Mary Robinson. Anyhow I, my daughter and a young filmmaker called um - well my daughter and a young filmmaker that I went with, we were shaking hands with a lot of these people who were coming up from the south, who were living in the open. Most of whom had severe gastric problems and a lot of respiratory infections.
And so I got - started to get sick in Eritrea. And I got back and continued to get heavy chest infections and went back to the pattern of asthma I'd had as a small child actually. And ah, became very exhausted. And then grandchildren - a grandchild was born and I said, "It's ridiculous working like this", you know. Less is more and to hell with writing and I'll write in the interstices of time that real life gives me. And I began to be more casual, I'd even go to lunch with people. I'd, I'd go and have coffee in the middle of the day in Newport.
Still continued to walk the beach a lot. And indeed I did find that less is more because ah, the periods that I did work I worked with greater efficiency and less frenzy and anxiety. And so um, that was my crisis. Every man in his late sixties or early to mid sixties will have such a crisis. It will be a heart attack, it'll be the wake up call that he's been a nerd all this time. And it has been a very fruitful time since I came to that wall beyond which I couldn't work any more.
And I spent two and a half months off work. But I was so ill and so down that I thought that I mightn't ever work again. And that really panicked me, the idea that I wouldn't work again. And naturally that passed and so that was an identity crisis. What was I going to be more, grandfather or writer? A great New Zealand writer ...
Whom we won't talk about now ... because we've got to go back and look at the first identity crisis.
And, and - because I was very interested to see that you embraced, along with your new life, a new name. And I wanted - if you could characterise the difference between Michael, who you were through all your childhood right up through, through the seminary you were Michael. And then you became Tom. What happened to Michael?
Well one of the things that happened was of course Michael had been a total failure. Ah, but one of the chief objectives in writing under an assumed name was that people wouldn't at once know it was me. I wanted to go on being this Michael for the time being and I wanted to use this other name Tom purely for writing. And I did not expect to become as notorious. I was in part hiding the fact that I'd written racy short stories in the Bulletin from the principal of Waverley College, Mad Mick O'Connor as he was called.
And - however the word, the word got out. And I continued to use it because it was my real name. There's something that appealed to it perhaps because my father had been Tom. Mind you his first name was Edmund, so there's a tradition in our family of using your second name. Anyhow ... but I thought, I can embrace this Tom is the writer, Tom might save himself where Michael couldn't. I suppose that was running in my mind too.
And how do you think of yourself inside yourself?
Now I'm definitely the Tom because 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 is more garrulous that I.
When you write though, you're quiet, on your own?
Yes indeed. I find that as much as I go amongst people the better I am in my head, to an extent. And balancing the communal life against the - the communal life can swamp you, you know. And even the communal life of going to literary festivals. Now on earth one could go from one festival to another, they're like stepping stones in the river of the year and you could go from Sydney to Melbourne to Byron Bay to Adelaide to Western Australia to Edinburgh to Belfast to the London - I'm even going to the London Literary Festival in a couple of months which is a new one.
But um, even that delightful communalism can absorb your life. And because there's a suspicion that writers who get published have some special knowledge, you tend to get asked to speak about a lot of things. So ah - and yet it's, it's so invigorating and enriching to have this community with other people, particularly in a cause, particularly in a cause. Like the republic, like liberating the asylum seekers, like saving Mona Vale Hospital. You meet, you meet very noble people in these causes and I'm sure you meet very noble people in the groups that oppose these causes too.
Um, but um, that feedback is um, that um, human rubbing up and down of one personality against another is, is very important and thus I've found over time that you don't write yourself into um, a spiral, a downward spiral. Um, and also spend more time with other writers because writers get very paranoid about publishers and other writers and so on as well. And um - but only if they, you know, you um - we are a fraternity, we are all parallel pilgrims.
And when I 'taught' in inverted commas at the University of California Irvine, I said that envy is the greatest disease of writers because you're so on your own and the book takes forever to write. And it will poison you. It will make you um, a savage person and it will, it will demean your own writing if you - and I said every dog, every writer has his day. And every - there - you know the literary glory is not a finite amount. There can be only one Prime Minister but there can be umpteen splendid novels. So don't think that one writer's glory in any way diminishes, diminishes yours.
Where does your energy for all of this come from?
I don't know. I need a lot of sleep to write. I'm not a, one of those people who can sleep four hours a night. Ah, I can function, in a general sense, on a communal level with less sleep than that, but to write, writing demands that you be fairly well rested. And um, the ah - I wasn't aware when I was young and wasn't aware until recently that I had a lot of energy of a kind. It doesn't extend sadly to carpentry, to useful things like reconditioning an automobile motor. Um, it doesn't extend to many useful things at all but it's ah, it's definitely there.
There is a drive um, to write. Interestingly one of the times I don't feel the urge to write is, is when I'm cross-country skiing. Now that sounds very flash but cross-country skiing is like hiking on long planks. And my wife and I do a certain amount of it down in the Australian Alps. And it is like hiking except you go faster downhill. And it so absorbs every nerve and every um, the total concentration of the front of the brain, the conscious brain, that I barely think about writing when I'm out there. [END OF TAPE]
[When we talked about your season of purgatory] your response was very robust, very strong um, you thought back and you handled yourself without there being any apparent really deep problem for you. Now given that you'd had that crisis so early in your life where, when you left the seminary, that interests me because I would have thought that an episode like that would have echoes later in life when emotional problems might have created moments of really big self-doubt again. Did you recover completely from that or do you sometimes still now have times where the robust Tom gives way to the doubtful Michael?
Oh yes certainly that um, that ah, dead-beat Michael is still around but it's - in a long lifetime you learn not to live or die by these issues. You learn to be calm about them and you - I wrote and studied a lot about the Stoics. I actually suggested to a publisher that I write a book on the Stoics and um, Epictetus the Stoic. And I think the Stoics are heroes actually. They had a bit of a problem in that they only had one sacrament and that was for the high class ones who incurred the Emperor's um, the Emperor's judgement, that was suicide.
But the - and Stoicism is identified unjustly for that reason with suicide, with Socrates drinking the hemlock and all the rest of it. But it's there in the New Testament too - "Consider the lilies of the field they neither spin nor do they ...", sorry I've forgotten. But the idea is, you know, cool it. Ah, and Epictetus wrote "Instead of devouring your life um, wishing that things and people were different than they are, begin to wish they were exactly as they are".
Because people are not going change and you're only going to change in so far as you can change your direction consciously and the world is the world. And so your chief revenge on events that seem malign is to celebrate the events, wish that things were exactly as they are. Now there are obviously places at times at which that breaks down. If you lose a spouse or you, God forbid, lose someone younger in a family but um, it's still my mantra and I came to it too late, but it's, it's very much the way I try to live now.
So if a critic really gets stuck into you, you say "Oh, isn't it wonderful that this critic is getting stuck into me".
No I kind of ignore it. Yes I ignore it.
Well that isn't celebrating it.
No. Ah, but there is something you can celebrate. You can celebrate the fact that that critic is not going to write another book and you are. So that is the, there is a kind of benign vengeance because too many good writers - all writers have wanted to be praised. And because of the sort of temperament that is attracted to fiction they want to be praised exorbitantly to make up for - well I suppose all humans want to be praised exorbitantly and uniformly. But it cannot happen and um, it um, may as well be lived with, the fact that all manner of writers had their psychological life tormented, and in some cases their life shortened, by criticism.
Um, Herman Melville dreading the publication of 'Moby Dick' because he knew the American critics were going to give it to him in the neck and they did. Ah, so I'm not saying that my work is 'Moby Dick' but there are many instances in the lives of remarkable writers where um, they have been damned, almost, and damned almost like a pack hunting a rabbit. Um, and this is characteristic of literary culture and the rabbit should refuse to die.
Have you ever got your own back by putting people that caused you some offence into your fiction?
Ah no, I - for some reason, it would be nice to do that but for some reason it doesn't quite work. Although naturally if you're writing about confrontational issues you do draw on um, people that you have known. But what happens in fiction is that unlike non-fiction you give people a different colour hairstyle, two boys instead of a boy and a girl, um, slightly different suburban setting, and this is a small compass deviation from reality.
And by the time you've finished a novel, which when you're writing it seems as big as the Atlantic and you're in the rowboat, small compass deviation at the end of even an 80,000 word novel is enormous. So the person you were setting out to punish has kind of asserted his or her identity in the book just by the changes you make so they won't sue you. And so um, I haven't found it a device that works. And also I think that writers are generally trying to get even in a different way in their writing. They're trying to say, "Look this is an important story told in a way that I think will interest you. And will change the way you think".
So they've, they've got a bigger ambition. Ah, I don't know too many writers who've set out to do that. Evelyn Waugh was one I believe. He put - he used a university don and sent him up in a number of novels. But um, well of course he was a picaresque and comedic writer in his way and works best with the picaresque and the comedic. But you find that the characters quickly become other than the character you're either, you would - the living character you most, you would most want to praise and the living character you might most want to denounce.
So your friends don't have to be afraid that you're going to use them.
No, no. That's right. In fact characteristic of male writers of my generation, we tend to write about anything but the personal. Ah, because Australian men don't have personal. You know they don't have inner vulnerability so you tend to, there is a tendency with me to mask myself behind some huge event like the war in Eritrea. Ah, not knowing um, that in everything you write anyhow you betray everything about yourself and it is a - you're doing the full monty even though you're trying not to. [INTERRUPTION]
In life outside as opposed to fiction, when you do come to these dark moments that happen to all of us, and continue to happen to you despite your success ...
... and the, and the praise that you've got. Do you feel confident now that you're going to have, by these stoic techniques you've developed, the ability to overcome and get out of it?
Yes I am um, I know that there are absolutely genuinely disabling griefs that happen to some human beings but barring those I feel okay. I feel okay. I've also woken up to the fact that there's nothing written in heaven or earth that says that someone who comes from Loftus Crescent, Homebush via the Macleay has to a be a great writer. So I've even given up worrying about whether my work is good, bad, splendid, terrible, deplorable. There are people who have said all manner of - all those things about it. It has been all things to all men and ah, I don't, I don't care anymore. I would prefer my work was good than bad but um, it doesn't haunt me as it used to.
People have nominated you and your work, your novels um, in fact there've been more than one critic who've nominated different works to be 'the great Australian novel' that you were asked to write early in your career. The demand was put on you that you would write the great Australian novel.
Yes, yes that's right.
If you had to nominate any of your books, not as a great Australian novel, but as the best of your work, what do you think is the best of your work?
The - I'm not being evasive but the problem in answering that question is the problem we're [sic] been talking about of being all over the literary map and so different works for different times.
But I liked um, 'A River Town' because it had magic realism, it had - which just means the dead coming back and talking to you - which is what my parents, my grandparents believed they could come back and talk to you. And it had um, it simply seemed to me to have vibrant Australian material in it. It was fed that novel directly from the pages of the Macleay Argus and the Macleay Chronicle in a vigorous Australia that was arguing over becoming a Federation or not. And people were saying, "Can you believe it, if it ain't broke don't fix it". You know, "We're getting on perfectly well".
And um, that um novel with its delineation of the racial divides in a small town in an enclosed valley, which is itself an image of the sort of place Australia is. Australia doesn't know whether it wants to be an open valley or a closed one. Um, that you know, I enjoyed working through all that and showing that if you shut out the river, the coastal steamer Burrawong, which is full of rats, but also full of books and newspapers delivering them to town.
There are risks in contact and Australia has never quite made up its mind whether it wants to take the risks of contact or whether it wants to fine [sic], define itself in a stagnant way. And I enjoyed exploring all that, that stuff. And trying to explain about my dreamy, tall, melancholic grandfather and my small, hard-headed um, dumplingesque granny. And um, so that's one book I'd nominate.
No, I'd nominate also maybe - there is a big question in my mind as to whether 'Bettany's Book' is two novels or one, but I think 'Bettany's Book' even though narrative is all, the story is everything, I think 'Bettany's Book' is such an omnitechnicon [sic] of such an encompassing of modern and ancestral questions that it might be a good book, it might be a good book too. But the best book is the one I'm writing. It's, it's the one about, for every writer that's so - it's the one about one which [sic], about which one harbours the most illusions.
Now obviously in the course of your life you've overcome all sorts of things. You were - you've described how you've, how you,ve managed to live your life in a way that gets you through the hard times and so on. You've also referred to the fact that your marriage has evolved. Could I ask you now to move into the personal and tell us about how your marriage - what it's meant to you and how it's fitted in the person that you've become?
Well I am in the situation of many men my age that I don't think now I could've done without Judy. Sometimes in the middle of an argument when you're a young couple you could, you think you could very easily do without each other. But Judy um, she worked for a time as a nurse but this is something I heard Frank Hardy say when I was young and heard him read and he said, "One of the greatest problems that writers have is correspondence". And I thought he was just putting on airs as we writers do, and Frank was not above doing.
But in fact it's the build up of correspondence necessary and kind of relating to your readers and publishers and so on. It's the dealing with the backlist, books you've written in the past which keep on demanding little things um, to be done. Some blessed person in Czechoslovakia decides he wants to bring out a new edition of a book you published twenty years ago and you know these things have to be signed and letters have to be written. Um, and um, then there is of course the fact that being a writer is like having a small business and then of course relations with the press.
And so Judy has over time assumed all that. Um, if I had to employ someone um, to um, I claim a certain amount for her work but at least to employ someone who would cover all those areas so competently and with such skill um, would require a salary of a hundred and twenty, a hundred and fifty thousand dollars really a year. And so we are bonded by that. We, we've got to that glorious stage where we understand each other so well that there's not a cross word. We are companions in many adventures.
Judy came to um, Eritrea with me a couple of times and it was interesting how much more rugged she was at all this than I was. There was an evening in a - actually the evening is recorded in a documentary that we made for 'The South Bank Show', Melvyn Bragg's show where we encountered a nomad girl who'd had her, both her legs damaged by a mine and the wounds were old wounds.
It was a tragedy to me of course when Lady Di, Princess Di died because not only was it a personal tragedy for her but it was also sad that she was, had made a certain progress on this mining issue, this matter of mines all over the earth from East Africa to Cambodia and so on. Anyhow Judy was able to handle this woman and this girl and comfort her. And - whereas the soundman and I were out under a tree being sick. And I was fascinated to realise that what upset Judy was if one of my daughters had an untidy room, but a war was no trouble to her.
She just organised things and it is her incredibly competent um, person. And sometimes we've had a talk about whether I've crushed her as Germaine Greer says Mr Blair has crushed Mrs Blair. Whether you know I took her nursing career away from her. And she says "No, but of course you'd expect me to say that wouldn't you?" And um, but we've had remarkable travels together and ah ... Now there's too much subtext. Couples get to the point where they have so much subtext between each other it would be unfair to go off with someone else because the other person would be clumsy about the - there'd be too much to explain. It would take them the next twenty years to get them to understand you.
And so um, there is a great deal of dependence there because there are, there are things that I'm good at that Judy, that Judy, that stress Judy and then vice versa.
You have an optimistic positive sort of outlook on life that's got you through all sorts of things. Do you feel optimistic and positive about Australia's future?
I'm worried about a few things that we're, we're willing to be um, you know we're not leaders in technology and the new technologies. That might disadvantage us. I've heard various takes on that. Um, of course I was very influenced by Barry Jones' um, book on all this 'Sleepers, Wake!' and it was um, I am concerned about that. That we - you know, will our future be that of a technological 21st century country or will we become a nation of waiters. Will we become a nation of hospitality workers?
Ah I'm worried, everything that's happened in the world, the growth in ethnic hatred. Um, in the early '90s we believed we had nearly worked ourself beyond that. But all over the western world people who are um, have the same position as Pauline Hanson had here, have arisen with considerably more success than Pauline had politically. And it seems that the beast is slouching to - is in heat again and is slouching towards Jerusalem to give, to give whelp the beast of um, tribal and ethnic hatred.
Um, then there's the conflict for us between - which I think is one of the biggest conflicts we've got um - between the idea of commonwealth and the idea of globalisation of the new economics. I believe that globalisation is inevitable, let me say first of all. But Alfred Deakin when he had helped create an Australia that had high tariff walls and high wages and an Australia in which there was not a great gulf between the technocrats and the, or the professionals and the workers.
He said um, it is our desire to build an Australia, I forget the exact quote, which is so full of equal opportunities of um, vigorous and competitive industries, um of fair human conditions that people will want to become Australians. Now that old dream - and Deakin was not a, not a socialist by any means - that old dream of commonwealth is of course, has of course been influenced by globalism and by a philosophy that says let the market work it all out. It will look after everything. It - there'll be a trickle down effect.
Well there's been very little mediation of the effects of globalisation upon um, Australia. And I've read experts who say that there are many other societies that have mediated the impact of globalisation. This inevitable stage of the development of the community of the earth - have mediated it better, the effects of it better to their people. And even the Americans have mediated and the French mediate it through these great farm subsidies. They want a globalised world but not just yet, you know, not over here.
"Fred might lose the congressional seat if we, if we ah, bring it too quickly over here." And we haven't done a good job of making people feel they're still part of the 'commonwealth', that they sit at a common table. Now in our Australia, in the Australia I grew up in, we were, had this good fortune that however poor we felt we were a community. And we felt um, that we were a community of opportunity and this is why my mother was always forcing books upon us because she knew it could work. That she might have been a girl from Kempsey who left school, you know, earlier than she would have wanted. But there was an Australia that would permit us to go further.
And um, that sadly has, has disappeared, that Australia, and I wish it had been, the effects had been mediated more. So the question is will we be a commonwealth or will we be a winner of losers who can afford electronically to protect ourselves against the underclass who have no place in the common wealth and at the common table? I think that's a big Australia because one of the things that always brought me back was that that sense of commonwealth existed here. And it's still there.
They've tried to make Australian health as American as they can but there's still a resistance at the most apolitical level or bipartisan level, there's still a resistance to doing away with public education, for downgrading them. And yet there's been a tendency to downgrade them. And we're also told that, of course, pensions, that great vision that was introduced here nearly anywhere, anywhere else [sic]. We're told that we're all getting too old and we're not fertile enough so, you know, you fund your own retirement.
I think this excuse that we're all getting old is just another political excuse. I don't think that it should be the basis, the exclusive basis, of all policy. And it's typical of the new, it's an argument that's typical of the new economics. It's not um, it's not Deakin's argument that we must provide a minimum dignity to every Australian. It is, "Sorry folks the demographics don't make the fair go possible any more so go to hell".
Ah, and this challenge from the new economics and the [sic] globalisation are up against the traditions of commonwealth which are very much entrenched, and which Bill Bryson praises in his book in Australia. It's going to be the biggest conflict. And if we don't look after commonwealth we're going to have a divided society.
Tom, coming back to the personal, how would you like to be remembered after you're dead and gone?
Um, you know that used to be important to me. I would like to be read for a while. At least till my wife dies. Anthony Burgess once said, "Your ambition with any book is to be in print for ten years". And ah, that's where you should start both as a journeyman and as a creative artist. And ah, I would be, like to be - you know, a few little editions to be around at least till Judy dies a happy widow in advanced old age.
But I don't really care about it because I won't be here to say, "Wow I've been remembered" or "My God, my publisher's let me go out of print". I will be a very quiet spirit when it comes to going out of print after death. And you can't tell. There are many, many writers who have been remarkably applauded in their day or have been considered significant who go out of print very easily. I mentioned that former convict from Western Australia, John Boyle O'Reilly who had a large part in American history. Um, he was considered an equivalent writer to Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. And yet his star has faded. And there are many such cases.
So you don't expect immortality through your books. What do you think about death?
Um, look I don't think of a - you're putting me in a position where more and more congregations of the Holy Sea are going to disapprove of me. But my um, belief is that our concept of person is a concept and it may not survive death. But when my father died with all that particularity of character and all that, all those sayings which still float round in my head, all his Australian aphorisms, all his roguishness, all his irreverence. Um, it's hard to believe that all goes.
So you know I'm little bit - as I've often said in the position of that Irish woman to whom they said, "Do you believe in the little people?" And she said, "Of course I don't I'm a civilised woman. But they're there you know". And in some sense I'm sure my father's still there. Even his nunc dimittis, "Now let thy servant depart in peace oh Lord", was a very Australian nunc dimittis. He, he said the 'Our Father' with a young priest whom he'd asked to bury him. And it was terribly poignant to see an absolute Australian larrikin like my father saying the 'Our Father'.
And no sooner was 'Amen' out of his mouth then he said to the priest, "Well Gerard, I think I'm bloody rooted". Now I can't believe that all that particularity is going to be, is going to just disappear into - it's got to appear into the pool of humanness that - of, or of the surviving spirit that's out there somewhere in the universe. It's, it's very hard to talk about this without sounding as silly as Shirley MacLaine, but it's, it's hard for me to believe that all that just stops.