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Books by Thomas Keneally:
- The Place at Whitton
- The Fear
- Bring Larks and Heroes
- Three Cheers for the Paraclete
- The Survivor
- A Dutiful Daughter
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
- Blood Red, Sister Rose
- Gossip from the Forest
- Season in Purgatory
- A Victim of the Aurora
- The Cut-Rate Kingdom
- Schindler's List
- A Family Madness
- The Playmaker
- To Asmara
- Flying Hero Class
- Woman of the Inner Sea
- A River Town
- Now and in Time to Come
- The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey to the Southwest
- The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World
- Ned Kelly and the City of Bees
When Steven Spielberg made a heart-wrenching and widely acclaimed film based on the novel Schindler's List, it hardly qualified Thomas Keneally as an overnight sensation. After writing a book every 12 to 18 months for nearly four decades, the jovial Australian writer could claim a considerable body of highly respected work. Schindler's List had won the Booker Prize and been given the Los Angeles Times Book prize in 1982, the year it was published. Keneally himself is an officer of the Order of Australia, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
So the astonishing success of the film version of Schindler's List added only marginally to the internationally known writer's reputation within the literary community. However, it did give him the financial freedom to tackle his latest book, The Great Shame, an epic 712-page tome on the, "Irish Diaspora in the English-speaking world."
The Great Shame has been a departure for Keneally, a writer whose work has been characterized by departures. An accomplished play and screenwriter, Keneally has written non-fiction articles for noted international magazines; many novels; a children's book and a handful of travel books.
According to Keneally, the film success of Schindler's List -- and the new sales the movie brought to the book -- enabled him to invest the four to five years it took to research and write The Great Shame, a book that clearly has been the most ambitious project of his career, and perhaps his life. "I'm going to write fiction now until they pull my plug."
While Keneally thinks of himself as a novelist, he left little to invention in The Great Shame. A great deal of research went into the project, something that's reflected in the extensive bibliography, notes and index that are included in the book. "The biggest problem was getting it down to that size, with the wealth of documentary material that there was in various places."
What brought The Great Shame to life for Keneally was the inclusion of a couple of ancestors -- one of his own and one of his wife's -- who play relatively small but pivotal parts. "They are a means of being introduced to many more famous political prisoners," as well as adding a highly personal element for the author.
Born in New South Wales in 1935, Keneally lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Judith. The writer is articulate, expansive and occasionally fills all available space with great bursts of joyous laughter. When he talks about his writing or potatoes or Fenians or anything he does so with such complete passion that you can't help but be swept away. An entirely acceptable quality in a novelist.
Linda Richards: I didn't know you could live on potatoes.
Thomas Keneally: Yes! It's a bit like rice, although rice isn't as good as spuds. As the scientists say, it's one of the only crops which can sustain a peasant's life when fed exclusively. When it's the exclusive item of diet.
Oh really? It has protein and everything?
I did not know that.
Many times the daily intake of calcium and iron that's required.
Did you discover this in the course of research for The Great Shame?
Yes, I did. I read up on the spud. There are a number of books on the potato as a European phenomenon. Some of them attribute the expansion and the explosion of population in the west to the arrival of the potato. It enabled many families to sustain themselves and therefore have a stable environment for breeding. And, of course, it didn't produce the diseases that corn does. In the Mississippi valley in the 19th century there was pellagra, which is a dietary disease. And rickets. The spuds prevent pellagra and rickets. If you can get them. The big problem became getting them.
That's sort of salient to your book, isn't it?
Yes. That's right. What I try to do in the book, as you know, is tell the story of the Irish Diaspora in the English-speaking world using Australian political convicts as a lens. Now obviously, with a working-class convict like my wife's great grandfather Hugh Larkin, you can't tell the story of two places: Ireland and Australia. Because he [Larkin] never had the means to get out. But my political prisoner uncle, John Keneally, was interesting because he enabled you to look at why there were young men who believed that there was no parliamentary or constitutional solution to Ireland's problems and this was the beginning of modern Irish Republicanism. They believed there was only physical force and the gun left. But he comes to America. He does his time in Western Australia. He's pardoned by Gladstone. And he comes eventually to Los Angeles and settles in Los Angeles as a dry goods merchant. Dry goods were a big thing in trade: it was the way they raised the money for their various activities. But he found it within his definition of being an American citizen to raise money -- with thousands of others, though he was a considerable figure within the operation -- to buy a Yankee whaler to go to Australia and rescue the last of the Fenians. It's like buying a 747 and fitting it out. The money for that operation was raised everywhere. It was raised in California. Chicago. New York. Montreal. Queensland. So through him you get a good sense of the internationalism of Irish Republicanism.
Hugh is a bigger figure in the book than John Keneally is. But they are a means of being introduced to many more famous political prisoners who came to North America: to the U.S.
The Australian convicts are there not really primarily because they're related to me -- although it's very handy that they are, and indeed I was in receipt of certain information specifically because they are -- but they're there as sort of readouts of the grievances of Ireland and the marginal nature of life in Ireland [at the time] and the great, deep population of Ireland in the 19th-century which continued through the 20th, of course. And so, that's the way the book works.
Is this the first of your books to use your family as kind of a lens?
Yeah: it is.
Did that make it more fun? Did it complicate things? Or...?
They were used insofar as they're a guide to the marginal nature of land tenure in Ireland. The awful condition of the ports. The fact that 3,000,000 people who would be the victims of the famine were living on a very narrow band of foods, of which the chief one was the potato. The only one they didn't need money for was the potato. So when the potato putrefied under the impact of this vampire fungus, they were in immediate trouble.
Anyway, the ancestors were primarily of value because they were representative.
But did you feel more connected because they were your ancestors?
Yeah. I did. The fact that my wife and my daughters are descended from these two. And the fact that there's a tradition of Republicanism in the Keneally family, I found very interesting. Particularly since I didn't know it when I set out as an Australian Republican that I had a real Republican in my background.
The Great Shame must have been mountain of research. Years! How many?
I started writing it in 1994. Since I was in my late 20s, I've been trying to produce a book every year or 18 months. Because of it being a necessity. But also, I have an impulsive nature and spending four or five years on a book I found an agony. Particularly since my own self definition is that of novelist. You know, my last novel was a little novel called A River Town about my immigrant grandparents settling in New South Wales. I was aware of novels -- including the one I've just finished -- queuing up outside my window like cats, ready to take me to happier places while I was wrestling with this damn thing: with the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
It is big!
The biggest problem was getting it down to that size, with the wealth of documentary material that there was in various places.
Anyhow, it's very interesting: what the new country does. And [what] its values do to the Irish Republican proposition. When it's incarnated into various men and women.
You mentioned a novel that you've just finished. What stage is it at?
Well, it's at the editorial stage. I'm actually editing it for British and Australian publication. I'm glad to be back with fiction writing. I'm going to write fiction now until they pull my plug.
What's the book called?
At the moment it's called Betthany's Book and it's about three women. One of them is a Jewish convict -- you see? I can't get away from convicts -- from Manchester. And her two great granddaughters. One of whom is a Sydney filmmaker. The other is an aid worker in the Sudan. So you're dealing with two dry countries.
Schindler's List opened some doors for you. You'd already had an illustrious career to that point, but that started a different chapter, I think.
But I had worked in the Australian film industry when it revived in the 1970s. Particularly with a bloke called Fred Schepisi who made Roxanne and Russia House among others. So I'd had some experience with filmmaking.
Fred let all his friends act in his early films. The Devil's Playground which was about Fred's childhood. I was allowed to play a Franciscan retreat master, telling the little Fred how to keep his sexual urges under control. Then the next film he made was The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith , which was based on a book of mine. In that I played a lecherous English cook on a shearing station in New South Wales. So I'd had a fair amount of experience with a number of films I'd been involved with. And I knew, for example, that the director considers himself an auteur and is going to play merry hell with your book one way or another so you might as well enjoy it. All that you can ask of them is that they behave with integrity. And I've been lucky in that. Another book of mine, Gossip from the Forest, which was about the three days the allies and Germans had to live together in this area and come up with a peace, which proved to be catastrophic. And that was made into a film for television.
In fact, when I got the idea for Schindler I was on my way back from a festival on Australian films in Sorrento in Southern Italy at which The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was one of the films. I was supposed to go back via Singapore like all the other boys and girls, and I came back through America to see publishers. And that's how I came up with the Schindler story: by buying a briefcase from a fellow who owned a luggage store in Beverly Hills who was a Schindler survivor.
So, I'd had a considerable amount of experience of films. I've written a few films and I wasn't a film virgin for Schindler which is good because I think a lot of writers expect the film to be merely a colored comic of their novel. And there are a number of reasons why it's not. Including the studio system as one of the main reasons.
What year did Schindler's List come out?
I didn't realize it was that long ago.
Yeah. I still had hair. Spielberg bought the rights early the following year and it took 10 or 11 years to make.
Now, once the movie came out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle about it. I mean, that's an understatement, but...
Oh, absolutely. There was two kinds of kerfuffle, see? Can he make a film on the Holocaust? And there was also Mrs. Schindler from the sidelines saying that she'd never been given anything and that she was the true hero. And in a sense, that's true. And Spielberg did film scenes which showed her heroism but the rest is untrue because I consulted her. I spoke to her in 1981 during the writing of the book and you see that in the book there's quite a bit on her. But the idea that she was the driving force behind his altruism is not the case because she wasn't really with him in Krakow where he was for most of the time.
That's the problem with stories like that. Because you hear the kerfuffle and then when everything is set right no one's listening anymore. They've gone on to something else.
That's right. The film created a kerfuffle. The book didn't create a kerfuffle, because books are despicable artifacts that only demented people have recourse to. But movies always create this noise.
But the film treatment of the book made a difference in your career.
Oh yes. Particularly since it was a good film. Basically, what it did above all was make the writing of The Great Shame possible. Because there are many plane tickets in that book. There are many hotel rooms. There are many reproduction rights. If I'd just gone on and written the same little novel with a little magic realism in it and a few tormented people and the boy gets the girl in the end, then I would have been better off in the short term but fortunately this book is doing splendidly.
Is your work ever compared to James Michener's?
No, I don't think so. Because I've never used a research assistant until this book. And I'm going to go back to writing novels. It's just that I see myself in those terms. The world doesn't need the novels. The novel doesn't need me, but I need it. The material was so portentous in that book that I felt it had such gravity that I couldn't turn it into a novel. That I had to write it according to the best of my ability and interpretation: straight and put in footnotes and all the rest of it.
But now you're using some of that research in your novels.
Yes. Some of the stuff I can use in there.
Isn't being a writer great? You get to do stuff like that.
You know that story about the bloke who goes and stays with a pig farmer? He has trotters for breakfast. He has tongue for lunch. He has pork for dinner. The next morning he has bacon. And so it goes. He receives a cup of tea and he tastes it and he says, That tastes strange. What is it? And the pig farmer says, Oh: it's just bore water. And he says, Well, you don't waste much of the pig, do you? "Bore" water in the sense of B-O-R-E or B-O-A-R. But I think writers are people who don't waste much of the pig. | December 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.