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March 17, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Writing Schindler

His face reddens at the first sign of emotion. There is a bristly and greying goatee affixed to his face. He chuckles heartily from his stomach. Thomas Keneally, at 78, the man behind Schindler’s List arrived outside Fidel’s. I talked to Mr Keneally over coffee and a cookie about a life lived writing the past.

Duncan: Your first book, The Place at Whitton, was published in 1964. That was about 50 years ago now. Why did you choose writing and not priesthood which you also had an interest in?

Tom: Well, having been a rural priest, I was losing my faith in the system. I was also very exhausted mentally by sustaining that monastic life; that very unnatural life. Above all, I was scandalised by the sort of thing that was happening with child abuse in the Catholic Church. I was scandalised and I am no moral saint. But I was shocked by their lack of charity and the extent to which they would put the interests of the institution and particularly the financial interests of the institution ahead of the love that they espoused. I felt I betrayed people. And then I got a couple of short stories published and I wrote a book and it was accepted. It was easier then. Because fiction was king, and now non-fiction and cookbooks and stuff is king. I take my hat off to any young person who gets published by any mainstream publisher now.

T: Would you like a bit of oatmeal cookie? I think you would like to try it. [Duncan graciously accepts a generous morsel of said cookie.]

D: I was interested by one of the things you said: that in your day, fiction was king. Lots of your work was fiction but historical fiction. Why the interest in the historical narrative?

T: I am one of those weird people who think the past is what we are and also that it’s the extra dimension of the present. I am attracted to stories that illustrate the present in some way. For example, a couple of years ago, I wrote a book on WWI nurses from Australia. I made it very deliberately anti-myth-making and tried to make it a pro-feminist book. Those issues are still around, and in fact, the way WWI is going to be used by Australian politicians over the next four years is going to be, well, invalid.

And I have forebears in WWI and my father was in WWII, so I am not speaking as an enemy of remembrance. I think there is so much in war that isn’t mentioned. That’s why old men who have been commemorated always say simple things like war is terrible. So WWI is the present. We are still living it. We are still living it in the repeated conflicts that have grown out of the wars.

D: You wrote an article for The Guardian and you talked about myth-making and racial politics. You wrote: “I hope no one says Australia was born at Gallipoli”. What did you mean by that?

T: I don’t think it should be [said] from your politicians or from ours: “NZ shows the world what it was. The men of ANZAC were the forerunners of the All Blacks.” It is true that they were remarkable young men, but, if a high explosion fell among them, their degree of panache went for nothing. The war is more complicated, and it would be good if we could put some of that complication into our commemoration.

D: Lots of your concerns are about history and the way it is retold. How do you manage to tell the story and not tell your own thoughts about the story?

T: History is always unreliable. I was interested in how my European betters were able to do something that we couldn’t quite manage. Why, in the country of Heidegger and Kant and Goethe, did you get that contrast between high culture and extreme barbarity? So I was fascinated how the Europeans were able to engage in that extreme form of anti-Semitism.

The idea that my European betters would do this fascinated me. So I wade in. I have always been fascinated by how nice we can be one on one, but when ideology comes between us, we become enemies. That’s always been a big preoccupation of mine. We have always been such suckers for ethnic fear and hysteria, and we’ve got it now in Australia with our detention centres with our boat people.

D: Would you draw a parallel?

T: Oh look: I wouldn’t say that our detention centres are as bad as Auschwitz, because we’re not deliberately doing it, but by neglect we are, and our level of neglect is very high. And we are name-calling, which is how the Holocaust began. It began with name-calling. We’ve got a long way to go and I hope its reversible. And those who speak up against it in Australia are, thank Christ, not imprisoned.

A wonderful novelist lives in Australia called Rosie Scott, a New Zealander. She and I have just bought out a collection by Australian writers about asylum seekers. It’s called A Country Too Far, and is an attempt to get beyond the rhetoric and put a human face on these people. This is to try to counter the terms that we are using like “queue jumper” and “illegals”. This is just crap. They are not breaking any law. They are just turning up. This name-calling is very pernicious.

D: On a new tack, Schindler’s Ark became Schindler’s List in a movie by Steven Spielberg. Many writers, when the movie is made of their book, are frustrated by what is created. Were you?

T: I worked through the ‘70s in a couple of Australian movies. The director was Fred Schepisi. I knew from Fred that filmmakers look upon the original text as their diving board. They are the show ponies. They are going to jump up and do the twist on the way down and win the Olympic medal. It’s just the way film is. By the time we got to Schindler, and having tried to write a screenplay for Spielberg, I knew that (a) there are economies in film that don’t operate in books, and therefore it is very hard for a film to be as good as a popular book. But secondly, that the director is going to treat the material as his own. After all, he has ordered, and so I was prepared for the fact that he would have to leave out some of my favourite bits. Occasionally, you see a movie that gets the subtext of a book, but most writers feel that they are happy to get a film deal but they feel that their true meaning hasn’t been conveyed. One who was very happy with his movie (and I’ve seen it since – it’s quite melodramatic) is Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient. I think that if the writer is a halfway-rational person, then it is wise for the director to have them round so they feel included, and that’s what Spielberg did. He didn’t just have me around. He invited in Schindler survivors to just talk to him on the set. To watch the filming and talk to him on the set. The man is a nerd. He is very imaginative. He is always asking people questions. When you give over your novel, it’s good if you’re aptly rewarded, but it’s also good if someone works on it with integrity. And I think both Schepisi and Spielberg had good intentions. I mean, there is stuff that you would change. It’s a very ruthless form.

D: At Vic, we have lots of aspiring writers; do you have any tips for them?

T: I think there are some very good writing classes, but I think the ultimate way to learn to write novels is to write novels. It’s hard to begin. But when you do begin, things you couldn’t think of before begin to click. The subconscious is engaged and begins to supply everything from language to archetypes who you dress up into your own characters. So beginning is very important. And I don’t think you should delay beginning by saying I just think I will take one more writing class and then I will start. And then, if you have a job, see if you can write 500 words a night, five days a week. That’s 2500 words a week, so after a year, you’ve got a good lump of stuff you might be able to turn into a novel.

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