An interview with the fascinating and very eloquent author Tom Keneally, focusing on his latest novel Bettany’s Book .
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: Bettany’s Book traverses a very wide terrain, both physically (from the interior of 19th Century NSW to the modern Sudan) and metaphysically (from Stoicism to the politics of Aid, Christian missionary work, the Koran and the Big Bang, etc). Tell me about the kind of research you have to do for such an epic
Tom: I think what happens with novelists is that they aren’t as respectable as historians, who have specific aims, but they happen to be influenced by their present interests. I was always fascinated by the concept of the classic-reading squatter. I’m fascinated by two kinds of pastoralist. The convict, and also the gentleman squatter. I always had an interest in Latin – I knew a bit of Ovid and Cotallis but I began reading Horace and thought this bloke is a splendid poet and has this stoical edge. I then went on and began to examine Stoicism and found it was very much like a modern psychological theory Positivism and it stuck me that pietistic Christianity and was not like that at all – extreme Christianity was grovelling rather than brave, and I thought this gentleman convict father old Bettany could present this as the healthy religion which was supplanted. They are just examples of subjects – the poetry of Horace was quite a revelation to me. Until I read him I think that the only line I knew was Carpe Diem from Dead Poets Society. You can, in a novel have a grab bag of your interests. I’ve always been interested in the Sudan – the research I did with it – I’d been there four times, but I did a fair amount of reading as well. The Internet is very good in this in that while you don’t know the reliability of what is there, you certainly know what people’s passions are. The sermon on the Big Bang was one I picked up on the Internet – it fascinated me and I could imagine someone putting theory in a living room in Kartoum. That is the sort of the origins of the book – just a series of obsessions, and of course the film industry which interested me because my daughter is a bit of a Dimp, not the same sort of character of course, but she is in the film industry and has faced some of the same hurtles.
Magdalena: Were you worried that you might have tried to do too much?
Tom: It is a temperamental fault of mine, but then I like books that try too much. I’d rather have a book that tried too much and didn’t work. I’d rather read such a book than a little essay type book on a single subject which succeeded but did something small. I firmly believe that the novel is meant to be chaotic – look how chaotic Ulysses is and Melville’s Moby Dick is. Moby Dick would not survive modern editing. It would be trimmed down and all that boring information about whaling would be cut out, but something would be lost. I tend to look on the novel as a force of nature that may or may not work. I wasn’t sure until I got to the end that the two sides would come together. It doesn’t surprise me that some critics would think that there is too much. That is both my temperamental strength and flaw. My mother would agree with them. She always tells me that I try too much, so I suppose Bettany’s Book is a powerful example of that. And I wondered if I wasn’t in my old age trying to get everything in. I was pessimistic of the coming out of the book for that reason – having these two time zones, and there was no powerful focusing device. I was never sure that the two stories would end up in the same grand terminal. I’ve taken an oath now that Bettany’s Book is my last folly and from now on my novels are not going to be so inclusive. There are two ways of looking at it, either the vanity of the author in imposing his interests on the poor reader or you can look at it as a streak of generosity – having the whole world in there. The sort of book I like is a big book. I’m very attracted to Margaret Atwood’s book The Blind Assassin, and I was delighted that she won the Booker prize . In The Blind Assassin you have all sorts of brave stuff going on – she is trying to do too much, but perhaps does it better than I, after all she did win the Booker. I like books that try that stuff on. I believe firmly in what Jarrold said “A novel is a fiction of uncertain lengths with something wrong with it”.
Magdalena: What are some of the parallels between Prim’s story and Jonathan’s.
Tom: Given that I was raised a Catholic and studied for the priesthood, a doctrine that I firmly believe in is the imperfection of humanity and its imperfectabilty. The sins and follies of the parents are reflected in the children. Dimp is the hinge of the book and as Prim suspects Dimp is not only interested in Jonathan’s story as history, or because it fleshes out ghosts and adds this Jewish dimension which she never suspected, but she is interested in it because she has a conviction that the strengths and weaknesses of her ancestors will be played out in her children. This is one of Western culture’s biggest dilemmas – to what extent are we on the railways lines of folly and can’t get off, and to what extent to do we have free will so that we can get off those Deterministic railway lines. Even when we think we are off those we are often repeating ourselves. It is a banal idea, but in fiction ideas are often banal. The idea of the resonance and the accommodations which the great granddaughters make are something that echo between the characters and is what binds the book together with Dimp acting her enthusiasm for this material. It is a kind of a moral and deterministic enthusiasm as well as a historic – both for the story but a fascination with the idea where thou goest there I must go, especially in terms of the betrayals. The other thing which has always fascinated me is that sometimes in our lives we know we are being shits and soon work that out – those sins stay with us forever – but the other fascinating thing is the question of, when we are doing what we think is good, how much good are we really doing. How much good is Jonathan doing for the Moth people? How much good is Prim doing in the Sudan? Do the Sudanese need Prim or does she need them? The thing about the women is power – the lowest point of power for Australian women was the Female Factory. My wife’s great grandmother was there. As an institution there was very little room for power sharing and that fascinates me – you could say that the women who were being prostituted by their masters, under one light they were being used, but some of them actually married their masters, using the sort of leverage that Sarah uses throughout the book where she builds herself up and tries to use her power to liberate her beloved friend Aldread.
Magdalena: The destruction of Old Bettany’s book was one of the most poignant moments for me – when hero becomes villain. Tell me about this.
Tom: That is right. Sarah is willing, out of love, to be Jonathan’s Lady Macbeth, kill the old man’s book, and send it flowing into the interior. In the view of a European of that time the interior was map-less and without communication and publication – that interested me – at the start of the book I knew that old Bettany would write a heretical book which would embarrass Jonathan but I didn’t know how it would be dealt with and the idea that it should be Sarah which destroyed the book came later. We are bound to those we love not only by love but by shared crimes. By the way of course Brodribb’s father on whom the story was based was a convict of the same background as old Bettany and a lot of the information on the pastoral life came from him. He was my wife’s great grandparent’s tutor.
Magdalena: Does Dimp in part redeem her great-grandmother’s sabotage by leaving us with the film?
Tom: Yes there is that – it is instinctive that she would want to do that. What is unacceptable in one generation is acceptable in another. The interesting thing about the past is that its mores and culture, a part of which we have inherited, are like a third world country. I think of the past as a third world. My great grandparents lived in an environment in which children routinely died, in which there was cholera, small pox and even bubonic plague, and women routinely died in childbirth. Divorce was not necessary because you could depend on the next epidemic of cholera! There was a more stringent morality and a greater intolerance of heresy. If someone printed this stuff [Old Bettany’s book] now it would be hard to sell, but back then it would have generated incredible attacks. I’ve just been reading a biography of the African explorer Richard Burton – he was always finding out what was happening with the women – female circumcision, etc, but his books were always attacked as outrageous because he investigated such questions outside the proper purview of morality. The past is not only like the third world but we find paradigms for the morality of the third world. There was still heresy in our great grandparents day.
Magdalena: Are there parallels between Sharif and Felix? The “European” native?
Tom: Yes that is right – that is exactly right. A question of straddling cultures is something I’ve always been interested in, but also it is often those people who, when they’ve been through the furnace, they won’t leave – Sharif’s “I’m going to stick with this” because this is where their reality is. It is the home of my tortured body. When I read about political prisoners – I always think why didn’t they just piss off – but some of them stay there with a determination which is greater than the regime’s to extinguish them. Here are two separate people, one of whom leaves his country but the other never really leaves it – he is still battling the Sudanese while working for the national health.
Magdalena: To Long’s lament on Felix’s murder of Goldspink, Jonathan says “you know as well as I that these things are always the matter of an hour. It is the hours which determine how we travel through the years” (490) and later Sherif answers this by saying “one betrays oneself – not in hours but in seconds.” (503) It is as if Sherif is responding to Jonathan’s timely wisdom through his great grandaughter.
Tom: I think he is and I think it is also because you give your character your favourite lines and ideas. It is true that the things that mark our lives and define us are often a matter of seconds: a car collision, an impulse, a devastatingly cruel remark. I’m astonished how one lives with that for years. In Australia this is especially true. Australian’s have powerful memories. This is a terrible thing about life. I never realised any of this when I was younger – I thought you could take things back.
Magdalena: You’ve said in an interview that “You don’t know what you know until you’ve written it” (Guardian). Is the research part of the passion of writing for you?
Tom: Yes – I’m a sort of bush Jungian – a post colonial Jungian. I feel that the process of writing fiction is like the process of free association. It is subject to the control of the conscious parts of the brain which have to order the material but a great deal of my character’s feelings: the feelings of Dimp, the feelings of Prim, the feelings of Sarah, and even the feelings of Bettany, are things I was not conscious of with the front of my brain until I wrote. Writing is like sending a depth charge into the archetypal sea and where there are gods and myths and powers and principalities and nuances of evil and good that we don’t know that we know. That is why I don’t agree entirely with the concept of “write what you know”. It is good with many writers and ultimately you have to write what you know in one sense or another but that doesn’t mean you can only write about your own family or suburb. It is handy if you are going to write about a region to have been there, but in emotional terms you don’t know what you know until you’ve released the part of the brain which is beyond the horizon. You don’t know any of that until you have sort of started the process of writing and there is something about the brain that this level gets gingered up by the fiction. The conscious part of the brain knows it can’t provide every part of what a novel needs, and there has to be some enlightenment which comes from the gods, out of ether – the muse, but in fact it is from the unconscious part of the brain that the lightening flashes comes, because they often come without conscious effort. I think of a novelist as someone who is like one of those early Polynesian navigators – he sets off on one island and knows that way out there in a particular direction is another island and if you steer in a particular course you will get there. You don’t know what storms, what quarrels you will have with your crew, what whales will surface, what birds will follow, etc – all of that stuff comes from the seas of the unconscious which gives us the storms, the whales and other ships. I just like in writing classes to say that this isn’t an absolute rule but it is good idea to write about what you know, but if you have a passion about something, you should go for it, even if it may not work. In Crick’s and Watson’s mind there was the answer to the puzzle of DNA but they were not conscious of it until it came up like Venus coming from the waters. Not as a result of conscious striving from the frontal part of the mind but in the end after a great deal of striving it was the unconsciousness that gave them the answer.
Magdalena: Do you think that there can be a solely “Australian novel” or that it is useful to view novelists in terms of their contexts, either nationally or stylistically? (especially in this day and age when technically makes some of those distances or limiters obsolete?) Or do you see yourself part of a critical and relevant tradition of Aussie literature?
Tom: Yes – in my youth we were desperate for an Australian literature. There were many people who dismissed it – the sort of English academics were fairly dismissive, and I think we are a country that has had this great cultural hunger, and no sooner have we established this idea of an Australian novel than globalisation and the Internet are making us wonder. I think there are certainly novels by Australians, and that our culture is homogenous enough to give us a character, sometimes even a great pessimism, about the country – the remoteness of the human race and that section of it called Australians. I think there are still certain attitudes and fascinations which are distinctive imaginations for us, for example, Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. I think a book on Jesse James would simply not be the same. The American’s have used the Jesse James legend to sell the book, but this is only so that Americans who are in a phase of literary exclusivity will read it, but I think that there is attitude, yearning and location in the Australian novel. For example, you think of Australian novels which grow out of our particular attitude to Asia and if you read a British novel about Asia it is different. Out of our geographic consciousness, there is an Australian novel. Another sense in which there is an Australian novel is the relationship between us and the landscape. In the Australian landscape there are very few attempts to resemble the traditional European landscape of the soul. This has been a great problem of the Australian which we have only just recovered from – we first tried to find resonances of Europe in the Australian landscape, and then we said that this isn’t like anywhere else, and painted it as the Arabian desert of the human spirit, and that is particularly Australian – that relationship to this peculiar continent is one of the former influences on an Australian writing – the huge scale which is perversely unique to Australian character. We are formed by this and can never be fully culturally European. Think of Moorhouse’s book the League of Nations – our distance, our yearning of the world which is again a characteristic Australian preoccupation but then in the face of the increasing urbanisation of the world – urban uniformity it is possible for Australians to write novels which are indistinguishable from European novels, but largely I think Australian writing will survive as writing by Australians. We are still thinking in terms of the 50s and 60s where it was Australia and the world or Australia in the world and that is precisely right. We haven’t gone through our experience yet – our pre-global experience. I at the moment am thinking of subjects which are 19th or early 20th century subjects. I’m thinking for example of Dickens sending 2 of his sons to Australia – the British Australia being a void to which you sent boys who weren’t good at maths and Latin and at least they returned as something – sheep farmers. There is still that impulse in Britain – all this talk of sending those child killers over here – that is something that hasn’t been worked out – that Australia is not a void. It was always an illusion to think that Australia is not a place to simply become a sheep farmer. And yet the horses of globalisation – we can hear them trampling. In the Australia I grew up in if you were talking about Australian factory workers you meant one thing, and now in the case of BHP you are talking about someone in Indonesia or PNG. I take your point and I’m confused about it but I think there are still some issues that we haven’t worked through yet and some propositions that are specifically Australian. I was astonished to be introduced to a literary festival only 11 years and the brochure was introducing me and another writer by saying that none of our books was set in Australia, and there was somehow the implication that this was a cultural failing. The idea that to have an Australian book you have to have an Australian postcode – if that is what Australian writing means than it doesn’t interest me. An Australian book can be written as a relationship defined by distance and by geographic ironies and ironies of culture and they are specific to us. Here we are living on the most ancient fragment of Godwana but we described ourselves as a young nation. The Australian aboriginals have been here for 40 or 50 thousand years and we are still grappling with the power of that occupation and the stewardship it entails. Are we an old or young country? When I was young I was preoccupied with a Eurocentric view – I was told in the classrooms of my childhood that our country had a dead heart – it is unimaginable that Australian five year olds would be told that now, but we were in my day. No wonder we grew up with a chip on our shoulder and a desperate hunger for high culture including books with an Australian postcode. These desperations are gone but they are still questions which challenge the writer.
Magdalena: Bettany’s book is such a visual feast. Is there any talk of filming it?
Tom: I cursed myself when I was writing it because I knew it could never be a film. One of the few excuses people make is oh it is a period piece – the cash registers start ringing for costumes, big design costs and the rest of it. Also with the book set two time periods, that is a difficult thing to do. There was one great film called Heat and Dust which is set in these two time periods, but it is not easy. Last of all, having the book set on two continents really buggers it as a movie. So I would love to think that someone might make the film but I am not hopeful, and I was not hopeful throughout the writing of the book. The thing is though that you can deliberately write the most filmic book imaginable and it still won’t be made into a film. Books can certainly invoke an enthusiasm in producers but the hardest part of the process is finding an actor, director and producer – but even if you write a highly filmic book it will normally be years and the chances that it never will be filmed are still high. If you think too much about that you are not being true to this mess and all the subplots you can put in – there are so many subplots that if it were ever made into a film it would have to be simplified – film is a great medium but because it is time consuming you have to take a simple thread and often it is such a simple thread that it leaves gaps in logic and it is like an exalted glorious comic book. I’m very conscious of this every time I see The English Patient.
Magdalena: What are you working on now?
Tom: I’m working on a non-fiction book of a kind which attempts to be a little like Eminent Victorians. I’m also about to start a novel – I don’t think it will be the Dicken’s boys although I do want to write something about them. I’m really fascinated about modern Sydney, globalisation and the particular category of Sydney wealth which carries no responsibilities- there is no Murdoch museum of fine art, no society for the betterment of mankind- if you got it you’re in, and if you ain’ got it you’re out. I’d like to write about boys like Rivkin, although not directly of course since they’ve got better lawyers. There is this single tendency with an occasional interesting figure – Malcolm Turnbull is an interesting figure. I was thinking of calling this book Sydney Heads. I’d like to also write about the other Sydney – the Muslims in Lidcombe and the Vietnamese, etc. It would be somewhere between Bonfire of the Vanity and Ulysses.