An interview with Tom Keneally

By 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 founding fathers of contemporary Australian literature.

Likely best known for his 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark, which was later adapted into Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, Keneally has continued producing a vast, disparate range of work throughout the past five decades, rightfully earning both a luminary and virtuoso status along with countless accolades the world over.

Lately, the inimitable author has been penning a crime thriller series set within the colonial formative years of this nation, collaborating with the ambitious undertaking with his daughter, Meg Keneally, highly distinguished in her own right through a long, illustrious career in journalism. Together they bring to life Monsarrat, a sweeping series drawn in part from real-life figures that Keneally has encountered throughout his lifelong research. It bears mentioning that Keneally is one of the country’s preeminent historians, having dedicated much of his scope of research not only to the formation of Australia, but also to other nations, such as North America (then-president Barack Obama was gifted a signed copy of Keneally’s biography on Abraham Lincoln during a visit).

With Monsarrat, the author has seamlessly blended his encyclopaedic knowledge of our convict forefathers and combined what he dubs daughter Meg’s ‘sharp, journalist mind’ to craft the world of the titular Hugh Monsarrat, the Keneallys’ answer to Sherlock Holmes. The novel chronicles Monsarrat’s extraordinary life, an essentially ‘good’ (though indelibly branded as a convict) protagonist. We originally meet him as a scribe for the major of the Port Macquarie penal settlement, entrusted with many sensitive matters pertaining to the running of the site. Life in the settlement is tough and cheap, with such a lawless, godless place proving to be a haven for brutes, scoundrels and the occasional sadist or two, such as the series arch-villain, Diamond. Monsarrat is not totally bereft, he has the kindly-looking (but tough-as-nails) Ms Mulrooney, who Keneally delineates as ‘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 potential murder most foul.

Without revealing too much, it can be disclosed that the new novel in the series, The Unmourned, also centres around the eponymous Monsarrat and features recurring, surviving (yes, the Keneally duo abide by the Kill Your Darlings philosophy) characters. Now mainly set in and around the infamous Female Factory in Parramatta, which Keneally is quick to point out – ‘It probably sounds like a factory where females are made…but the reality was anything but.’

Keneally is a veritable storyteller and one that remains his earnest, candid self throughout our exchange. Perhaps his shirt-of-the-back affability could be traced back to his modest beginnings in working-class Kempsey, on the state’s mid-north coast. The author is still very proud of the place he grew up in, confiding, ‘I came from a working class family and came from terrific and noble people, nobler than those that sniff at the working class now.’ He adds that their selflessness and generosity of spirit was integral to his undertaking of the writer vocation after some time spent in a seminary.

His provenance has bred a person that chats in a sun-dappled conference room in Penguin’s HQ’s identically to onstage at the Australian Grindhouse double last year. The event was held before some five-hundred enraptured people, including another esteemed guest of the evening, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who made no attempt at concealing his fan-boy adoration for the man he was conversing with. The author chuckles at the mentioning of that. He possesses a rich, infectious chuckle, one that embodies all the best traits of the Aussie larrikin and usually dovetails some of the lighter points or observations Keneally makes.

We begin with his clarifying how such an accomplished and impassioned historian would avoid the dilemma of putting too much into a novel as to bog it down and lose the reader. ‘It is a great peril of a researching novelist,’ he concedes. ‘Because research is such good fun.’

He asserts that good, cold editing is an essential in a writer for an easy-to-read and arresting tale for all readers, adding – ‘Meg and I have a rule, which she’s pretty natural to being from a journalist background, that if it’s organic to a character’s story, then it fits and stays.’

Although an author of a library’s worth of Australian non-fiction history texts, Keneally shares that much of the real-life history that formed the basis for the Monsarrat series actually came from his own proud heritage.

‘I have convict forebears and so does my wife. I had a great-great uncle who got ten years for sedition, god bless him. I like that, sedition to white collar crime, he was Irish, so you can imagine what he had said to the British. From that I had a good working knowledge.’

And the rest, in all its sweeping glory, stemmed from there. In delving into the reasoning for setting The Soldier’s Curse in Port Macquarie. ‘That was the first convict place I’d ever went to – as a little kid. Port Macquarie was this little fishing village on the coast, barely populated and very quiet.’ He acknowledges that it was a lesser known locale, as far as Australian history goes and, in the same breath, divulges a juicy allusion to the future of the Monsarrat series. ‘Maria Island [off the East coast of Tasmania] is obscure too and that’s where our next book is set, with Diamond returning as the overseer of the site.’

It was during the drafting of the first novel with an eye cast forward to where the next instalment would lead that Keneally found he required a fresh set of eyes and authorial-gifted hands to fashion a timeless slice of Australiana thriller pie. Keneally had already compiled a first, rough-as-sandpaper draft, of The Soldier’s Curse, when he consulted with Meg. Pitching the series as, ‘I’ve begun writing a detective story, even though I’m not a writer of detective stories, set within Port Macquarie.’

Initially though, Keneally meant only to pass on the series to his daughter, whereby he would then focus on other projects and she would remain solely at the helm of the Monsarrat series, which she agreed to. The draft Keneally bestowed Meg already contained all major developments, including the murder and culprit, whereby he would then defer to her judgement as to where she would take the series, including if she was compelled to make any major changes.

And that was, ostensibly that.

However, it soon developed that Keneally the original creator, was drawn back to the series and what flourished then was a smooth collaborative process between the pair. As the man himself described 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.’

The author dives into an impassioned anecdotes revealing Meg’s creative flair that has largely crafted the final novels. With one standout featuring in The Soldier’s Curse, during one of the novel’s most graphic scenes, that of the barbaric flogging. After he conducts the flogging, beyond the outrageous amount already decreed, Diamond approaches the unresponsive, prostrate convict and spits on the wound. ‘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 her remarkable ability to write them, putting pen to paper in rapid succession. ‘We wrote the third draft together and it’s been great, because 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 any work of fiction – the dialogue shared between characters.

‘We have a principal.’ Tom explains. ‘If it doesn’t serve the plot and the character, then it’s not in. You can’t have a character sitting down in the middle of an murder investigation and say, “By the way, did you know last week the government issued an edict that said, etc. etc.”, that would derail the story.’

Keneally is quick to attribute the novel’s successful exposition-free dialogue found throughout the two current volumes of the Monsarrat series to Meg. ‘That easefulness is something Meg has, she’s good with dialogue.’ Adding that they relish having their characters interact with one another via a 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 that a difficult collaboration, that those bonded by blood might not be able to work on a feat as mammoth and ostensibly solitary as the writing of a novel. Keneally immediately clarifies that misconception, asserting that ‘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 quintessential Australian tales. ‘We had a discussion about the most important thing, is that killers have complexities, there has to be causes. We discuss how to make them three-dimensional villains, instead of villains out of a melodrama.’

Now that the nuts and bolts of the operation have been addressed, the matter remains as to what projects are currently occupying Keneally’s time. He addresses this by first mentioning a recent major incident in his life.

‘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. I didn’t have my oesophagus removed or anything like that. So, you never waste an opportunity for more. Now I’m currently writing about a man my age, 81, dying, in modern Sydney and he’s a cameraman actually, a well-known documentary maker. But also, 42,000 years ago, a man is dying, Mungo Man, buried by his fellows in a ritual grave, he’s the first case of our species ritually burying.’

The author also reveals that his new novel is one of his most ambitious projects to date, due to the way in which 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 such an undertaking would be utterly beyond some writers. So how then does Keneally himself feel about such a bold form of narrative, and would writing it in such a way be classified as liberating or constricting?

‘It’s slow going, but like writing poetry.’ He allows, 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 that he will continue to help shape the future of Australian writing for many years to come.

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