In this exclusive interview, Matthew Kneale talks about the making of English Passengers, some of his main characters, winning the Whitbread, racism, fiction versus reality, and his next book.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Compulsive Reader: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you conceived of English Passengers on a bus in South America? Did you have the period or basic concept in mind already or was it truly an epiphany?
Matthew Kneale: I had already written a book about the Victorian British being abominable at home in London, and from there it was a logical thing to think of the Victorian British being abominable elsewhere, and I suddenly remembered a documentary that I’d seen at about the age of eight on what happened in Tasmania. It was an old black and white thing which surfaced, and haunted me a lot, and had never quite gone away.
Compulsive Reader: Was the history the impetus for the book, or did you have the fictional concept first and then work the history around that?
Matthew Kneale: I didn’t know enough about the subject to have an idea about how I’d do this. The real problem I had was that I had spent a long time reading everything I could about the subject. It took a long and frustrating time for me to digest all this, and work this into a story.
Compulsive Reader: Were you already familiar with the Anglo-Manx dialect, or was that part of your research?
Matthew Kneale: My father comes from the Isle of Mann so I was long interested in the place. I went up there and found the Vocabulary of the Anglo-Manx Dialect by A.W. Moore, and it was an extraordinary book. As soon as I found that I just knew I had to incorporate the dialect.
Compulsive Reader: Has winning the Whitbread and being nominated for the Booker changed your life as a novelist?
Matthew Kneale: I think in a good way. Awards don’t make you more arrogant, but I think what it does do is it gives you a confidence that this was something worth going into. At the same time you feel that you still have to write book that are readable. You’re still worrying that you are going to write something which might be difficult or not clear for the reader. You still have to ensure that the work is entertaining and enjoyable.
Compulsive Reader: Your parents are both writers. Did you always plan to write yourself?
Matthew Kneale: I always liked the idea of it, but I didn’t actually start to write until I was in my early 20s. Up until then I didn’t see myself as a writer. I flew to Japan, and lived there for a year, and during that time I decided to have a go and started writing short stories. As for the history, I studied history because I liked it. I just felt it was the right thing to study, and have never lost my interest in it. I didn’t have a specific reason though, and I liked the idea of writing fiction, but initially the history did not feature in my work. It was only later on that I started writing fiction about the past. I don’t see myself as a historical novelist at all. I’m a fiction writer primarily, even though much of my material has a historical context.
Compulsive Reader: Tell me about Peevay? You place him in an historical context from the first page of the book. Was he wholly fictional, or were you able to find a parallel in history for him?
Matthew Kneale: There were several character that were real, and some that I had in mind, but to a large extent Peevay was a fictional invention. I was thinking of a number of characters: one who became very able in reading, and another one who was his own individual and quite took on the authorities. I was thinking of several people at once and blended them into the Peevay character, which I think is a fairly common thing to do in fiction.
Compulsive Reader: Although Peevay is portrayed sympathetically, were you nonetheless nervous about putting words into an Aboriginal’s’ mouth, of being a “whitefella” speaking through the mouth of an Aboriginal? Did you feel the need for example to consult the Aboriginal Arts Board?
Matthew Kneale: I was very sensitive to the fact that this was a slightly dangerous thing to do, but I felt that there was no other way to go about it. The rest of the book consists of individual narrators, and if I made an exception of Peevay I felt that this would have been flying in the face of the whole style of the book, and would have almost been a kind of apartheid within the book. Also, the main subject was the English and the terrible things they did in Tasmania, and I was never intending to write a definitive book about the perceptions of the aboriginal people, but it was the only way I could portray that. Without that the whole book wouldn’t have worked. So I felt that it was an essential thing to do. I was expecting there to be some trouble, and I was surprised that the book was received so well. It didn’t prove to be a problem.
Compulsive Reader: I love the twist in the end; the “presumed Tasmanian aborigine” label. Do you think that there are people who still believe in Eugenics, or Type theory?
Matthew Kneale: Yes I think there are. In the last 20 years there has even been a kind of comeback. It is a mind thing, rather than a science, although for people with these kinds of views, a scientific backing is like icing on the cake. There are always people with this racist mindset. It would be a better world if we didn’t have people thinking like this, but I imagine we always will.
Compulsive Reader: One of the more interesting conflicts which occurs in the book is that between the do-gooders, who try to teach the Aborigines Christianity, change their names, and put them in western clothes, eg Robson. Is this simply another form of racism?
Matthew Kneale: Absolutely. That form of behaviour was at least as monstrous as the actual aggression. It also seems a more modern phenomenon in a way. A very English form of torture.
Compulsive Reader: In the Epilogue, you say that “All fiction and non-fiction changes and concentrates what it portrays. This is one of its first purposes.” Tell me a little more about what you mean by this.
Matthew Kneale: I think it is inevitable. In the very process of trying to write something down in a limited space, you have to choose your priorities. That is not going to be the only truth, but you have to concentrate on something. Fiction does it no more than non-fiction. The important thing to try and get some kernel of reality. I think if you can sum up the spirit of the moment, and perhaps capture the truth of the past in that way that the detailed factual accounts perhaps don’t. I supposed I’m concerned about the history. I love history and take it seriously and don’t like the idea of messing around or distorting it, but in some way the ability to alter the truth is part of being human, and a critical part of fiction writing.
Compulsive Reader: Is there any talk of filming English Passengers?
Matthew Kneale: I am a bit out of touch, as I’m living in Canada at the moment, but my agent has discussed this and I’m certainly open to the idea.
Compulsive Reader: I’ve read in previous interviews that you are currently working on a Marxist novel. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Matthew Kneale: It is a novel about an inventive soviet satellite regime/state. It is not so much a Marxist approach, but rather how a Marxist state works. I’m particularly interested in the people who are just doing their day to day living. Not the refusniks, but those who believed in it as quite a few did, and how they managed to work through those ideals in the reality of normal life.