Thomas Keneally — An Interview

Samuel Elliott

There are few authors like Thomas Keneally. Author, historian, playwright, producer of untold essays, assorted critical writings and historical texts, he is indisputably one of the pioneers of contemporary Australian literature. Likely best known for his 1982 novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’, later adapted into Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning ‘Schindler’s List’, Keneally has continued producing a vast, disparate range of work over the past five decades. He has rightfully — and always humbly — earnt his status as a luminary and virtuoso, along with countless other accolades.

Lately he has been penning a crime thriller series set during Australia’s colonial years. For this, Keneally is collaborating with his daughter, Meg Keneally, an author highly regarded in her own right through a long, illustrious career in journalism. Together, they bring to life ‘Monsarrat’: a sweeping series exploring the life and times of convict-era Sydney. The novel chronicles Hugh Monsarrat’s extraordinary life as an essentially ‘good’ person, despite branded as a convict. We first meet him as a scribe for the Major of the Port Macquarie penal settlement, entrusted with many sensitive matters. Life in the settlement is tough and cheap, and such a lawless place proves a haven for brutes, scoundrels, and the occasional sadist or two — like Monsarrat’s arch-villain, Diamond. Through all of this, Monsarrat is not totally bereft; he has kind looking but tough-as-nails Ms Mulrooney — the Watson to Monsarrat’s Holmes. Tragedy (or is it treachery?) soon strikes in the form of an untimely death, and it is left largely up to Monsarrat to determine who is responsible for a murder most foul.

The new novel in the series, ‘The Unmourned’, has moved from Port Macquarie to Parramatta’s infamous Female Factory. It continues to centre on the eponymous Monsarrat, and features recurring characters — or at least those who survived. Yes, the Keneally duo abides by the ‘Kill Your Darlings’ philosophy.

Keneally is a wonderful storyteller and is his earnest, candid self throughout our exchange. His shirt-off-the-back affability can be traced back to his modest beginnings in working-class Kempsey, on the mid-north coast of NSW. Still hugely proud of the place he grew up in, Keneally confides, “I came from a working class family… from terrific and noble people.” He accredits his pursuit of writing to their selflessness and generosity of spirit. His provenance has bred someone who chats in a sun-dappled conference room in Penguin Headquarter’s the same way they do onstage in front of some five hundred enraptured people, including filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. No attempts were made at concealing their adoration for each other. Keneally laughs at the mention of that — a rich, infectious chuckle I have come to notice dovetails lighter points and observations.

Clarifying how such an accomplished, impassioned historian can avoid the dilemma of putting too much into a novel and losing the reader, Keneally says, “It is [the] great peril of a researching novelist.” Why? “Because research is such good fun.” Although an author of a library’s worth of Australian non-fiction history texts, Keneally reveals that much of the history that informed the ‘Monsarrat’ series actually came from his own proud heritage. And the rest, in all its sweeping glory, stemmed from there.

It was during the drafting of the first novel, with an eye cast forward to the next instalment, that Keneally found he needed a fresh pair of eyes authorial hands to fashion a slice of Australiana thriller pie. Keneally had already compiled a first, rough-as-sandpaper draft of ‘The Soldier’s Curse’ when he consulted Meg. He pitching the series as: “I’ve begun writing a detective story, even though I’m not a writer of detective stories.” Initially Keneally meant to pass the series onto his daughter, whereby he could then focus on other projects while she remained solely at the helm of ‘Monsarrat’ series. The draft Keneally bestowed upon Meg already contained all major developments and he was to defer to her judgement on where the series would go. And that was, ostensibly, that.

However, the original Keneally was drawn back to the series, and from there flourished a collaborative process between the pair. As he himself describes it, “We went for long walks and worked out the rest of the characters and the story, and she wrote a draft from that. And then we wrote a second draft together and the third. We sit across the table and we can work fast, we can do a whole draft in a couple of days.” Keneally is quick to praise his daughter’s abilities. “The good thing about Meg is that she has good narrative pace. She has a capacity and an eye for the weird in history.” He dives into impassioned anecdotes revealing Meg’s creative flair, a talent which has crafted standout scenes in the final novels. Of one in particular, Kennealy exclaims, “That was Meg, that was Meg’s idea! That’s her mind.”

Keneally stresses that it was not only Meg’s succession of superb ideas but also her remarkable ability to articulate them, putting pen to paper in rapid succession. “…She has that old journalist capacity to turn out 3,000 words a day. She’s dynamite.”

Perhaps then it is Meg’s brevity-focused, journalistically-calibrated mind to thank for the smooth flowing of one of the largest and most inherently complex aspects of fiction — the dialogue. “That [ease] is something Meg has, she’s good with dialogue.” He adds that they relish having their characters interact with each another through a good old Aussie chinwag. “The unexpectedness and the shock of the unexpected is what’s fun to work on with characters.”

Given Meg is his daughter, some might think this a difficult collaboration; that those bound by blood might not be able to work on a feat as mammoth and solitary as the writing of a novel. Keneally immediately clarifies that misconception, asserting, “Meg is like me, she’s emotional. Meg and I are appeasers, and we work by cooperation. We work well together and fast together.”

An attitude of appeasement or not, Keneally makes it clear that they don’t stick to general, ‘safe’ topics in order to pen captivating Australian tales. “We had a discussion about the most important thing: that killers have complexities, there have to be causes. We discuss how to make them three-dimensional villains.”

Keneally briefly shares the three-dimensional villains currently occupying his life, outside of writing. “Two tumours were discovered and they were fortunately dealt with,” he explains. “I didn’t need an operation, which would’ve been the beginning of the end. Now I’m currently writing about a man my age — 81 — dying in modern Sydney. He’s a cameraman actually, a well-known documentary maker. But also 42,000 years ago, another man is dying — Mungo Man — buried by his fellows in a ritual grave. He’s the first case of our species being ritually buried.” He reveals that his new novel is one of his most ambitious projects to date due to the way he is penning it. “I’m trying to recreate his life, which is murder; because I’ve had to create a whole new language, due to our metaphors being inappropriate. Our language is very much the language of city-dwellers. I’ve had to form a whole new language.”

Even the mere thought of undertaking such a monumental task would be utterly beyond some writers. So how then does Keneally feel about such a bold form of narrative, and does he feel like writing it in such a way should be classified as liberating or constricting? “It’s slow going, like writing poetry.” He says, accompanied with a trademark chuckle. “Combining extreme history, with extreme present.”

Keneally has dozens of projects on the go at any one time; and whether penning them with a partner or writing on his lonesome, it is clear he will continue to shape the future of Australian writing for many years to come.

Both volumes of the Monsarrat series are available in all bookshops nationwide.