Thomas Keneally, the wizard of Oz letters, on the consolations of creativity

A ‘ruined priest’ who clung to books like they were a deckchair after a shipwreck, Keneally has made the fact-based novel his own.

Thomas Keneally in his study at his home in the suburbs of north Sydney. David Gray / Reuters
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“The thing that’s never confronted is just how neurotic novelists are. While the rest of humanity is just getting on with things, we are worrying about the true nature of love and death, good and evil. Not because we are noble people – a lot of us are absolute b******s. We do it because of our neurotic obsessions.”

Thomas Keneally, arguably Australia's most famous living writer, has been worrying about the true nature of love and death, good and evil for exactly half a century – in his most famous guise as a novelist at least. His debut – The Place at Whitton, an autobiographical story of a young man losing his faith and leaving the priesthood – was published exactly 50 years ago in 1964.

Keneally's reputation for moulding real life into absorbing, highly intelligent fiction will doubtless be assured – some might say overshadowed – by a single work: Schindler's Ark, which won the Booker Prize in 1982 and seven Oscars a decade later thanks to Steven Spielberg's unforgettable adaptation. "Schindler is very much in the tradition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It's a brilliant plot and I had nothing to do with inventing it."

Even this seminal literary phenomenon cannot quite overwhelm the rest of Keneally’s diverse and prolific output, which includes children’s stories, plays and histories, largely on an Australian theme.

Now 78 years old, Keneally is celebrating his literary half century by releasing his 30th full-length work of fiction: the wonderful Shame and the Captives, which proves that his late style is every bit as compelling as that of his central masterpiece. His last novel, 2012's The Daughters of Mars, was reviewed as well as anything he has ever written.

“You fall in love with a subject, but you are always trying to write that good book you have never written,” Keneally tells me from his study in his beachside house in the Sydney suburb of Manly. “An American critic said: ‘A novel is a fiction of uncertain length with something wrong with it.’ I want to write a fiction of a certain length with everything right with it.”

This light-hearted self-deprecation proves to be typical Keneally, who seems, on first impression, the least neurotic, least obsessive writer imaginable. Signs of his good nature are everywhere. In conversation he is immediately affable and fond of a joke, even on the most mordant of subjects. “The great thing about imagining a death is that no one is going to come back and say that’s a fraudulent sentence.” He is also blessed with one of literature’s most ready and contagious laughs – think a small, vintage helicopter hovering throatily by your ear.

Keneally's evident sociability emerges halfway through our conversation when he discusses dinner plans with his wife. The actor Ralph Fiennes, who memorably portrayed the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, is in Sydney promoting The Invisible Woman, his film about Charles Dickens's tortured first marriage, and night-time drinks are on the cards. "He's a funny bloke, Ralph Fiennes," Keneally muses kindly. "He's made a very fine film. I think it's a knockout. I am glad it has got distribution. Most of the films I like never get released."

Arranging his date with Ralph Fiennes offstage proves to be the only time that the garrulous Keneally stops talking in a shade under two hours. His energy is enviable, his unquenchable intellectual curiosity evident from the capacious meandering of his conversation. A typical Keneally answer starts with a personal reminiscence, before weaving between history, contemporary politics, witticisms and ideas explored in his work.

Take Ralph Fiennes. Having praised his movie, Keneally swerves smoothly on to Charles Dickens, his failed first marriage, his subsequent relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan and then the sons he packed off to Australia, pausing only to note that Anthony Trollope did the same for one of his own children. “A novel I would absolutely love to write, though I don’t think I am equipped, would be about the two Dickens boys Charles sent to Australia.”

This sparks a favourite Keneally meditation: the feeling, inherited largely from Great Britain, that Australians were second-class citizens. This colonial inadequacy has dissipated but went a long way to shaping Keneally’s generation. “We grew up with a sense of inferiority towards the ‘Old World’. Many of us covered it with a gauche attitude, particularly towards Britain. We knew we were the rough trade of the south-west Pacific, not least because of convictism, but also because we remained a dumping ground for the economically, morally and scholastically unsatisfactory gentry.”

You could read Keneally’s entire body of work in these terms: as subverting, replacing and transcending this power relationship. Along with contemporaries Peter Carey, Germaine Greer and Clive James, he has gone a long way to establishing Australia as an international literary force during the second half of the 20th century. This was achieved, Keneally argues, by being twice as clever and working twice as hard for twice as long as their colonial “betters” – a word he employs on several occasions, spiced with heavy sarcasm.

“Our generation assumed that Europe was so cultural that its squalor when we encountered it, with our limited incomes, was a hell of a shock. As was the discovery that not everyone was reading Thomas Hardy. You read like buggery if you were bookish in the hope that you would be able to keep up once you were over there. Fellas like Clive James got over and found that they were a little bit ahead.” Keneally’s helicopter laugh takes off. “I think it’s a typical postcolonial experience. I’m sure that many bookish Americans had it too. This expectation that the Old World was wall-to-wall culture.”

Keneally's wonderfully vibrant recent books have righted this Old World-New World imbalance in other ways – by examining the global conflicts that defined the 20th century from specifically Antipodean perspectives. His superb 2012 novel The Daughters of Mars tipped the First World War upside down by following the travails of the two Durrance sisters, nurses in the Australian army. "The fact that these young women aged no more than 17 to 25 were able to deal with such a mass of damaged humanity, damaged flesh and damaged brains – that they were able to work in those clearing stations processing the trauma over the space of two days only to face another convoy of hundreds of young men without going crazy – is very interesting to me."

Eurocentric histories of the Great War were not the only orthodoxies Keneally wanted to challenge. Gender was another central concern. “One of the things that attracted me was how strong the patriarchy was. We were the super-gender in 1914. Therefore women had great struggle. The other things that fascinate me is how brittle is the pride of men, and how communities that are threatened all the time are held together by women.”

With Shame and the Captives, Keneally turned his attention to conflicts in the Pacific during the Second World War. The plot is inspired by a real-life prison break in 1944: more than a thousand Japanese soldiers and airmen tried to escape a prisoner-of-war camp in Cowra, New South Wales (re-imagined by Keneally as Gawell). In the ensuing panicked confrontation – some might say bloodbath – more than 200 Japanese lost their lives, as did four Australian soldiers.

Keneally exploits the realist novel’s ability to encapsulate the grandest of narratives in small, intense stories and vividly imagined characters. “We can see a relatively small incident, by the standards of World War Two, illustrating the entire contour of the war – the cultural incomprehension [between Japanese and Australians] which prevailed throughout the war and for some time later. I like it when you find these small events which enlighten the large, that tell the entire story. History is suited to the entire story. The novel is often suited to the marginal – the small wave rather than the tsunami.”

Shame and the Captives restores Keneally to his own childhood. He has described the prison break before, if briefly, as a formative memory in his autobiographical second novel, The Fear (1965). Something of Keneally's own family can be glimpsed in the portrayal of Alice Herman, the heroine of Shame and the Captives. Alice, like Keneally's mother, endured a lengthy and nerve-shredding wait for her husband to return home from war. Keneally's own father fought in Egypt and North Africa, though he was never a prisoner-of-war. "He was with the Australian air force for that whole period. If he hadn't been in the air force, he would probably have been sent to Greece and Crete, and would have become a prisoner because of that grotesque campaign we tried to fight there."

Raised as a Catholic, Keneally trained as a priest at St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly. Although he was ordained during his time there, his later decision – he might prefer compulsion – to leave the seminary is arguably the defining struggle of his life. “I was a fairly lost soul. Lost souls often make novelists because they have got plenty of time to write. I had been literary in the seminary and the Church didn’t like that. When I left I got two short stories published and that gave me ideas above my station. I was teaching high school but I felt very much a failure in my community. There is a term the Irish use about such people – ‘ruined priests’. And I don’t mean paedophiles, though they should. I knew I had to get out or I would go mad.”

When I ask what exactly drove him away from his religious vocation, another Thomas Keneally seems to reply. Gone is the genial, joking author. Present is an angrier, more vulnerable man whose religious disaffection remains undiminished after half a century.

“I would like to say it was a sultry girl beyond the tall walls. I simply cracked up because of a crisis of faith particularly about some of the more exotic areas of Catholic doctrine. The sort of thing that’s happened with the Church and child abuse is absolutely credible to me. They say they are about charity but they are really about covering their backsides, retaining property. I was very shocked when blokes had nervous breakdowns in there and they would be cast out and the Church would take no responsibility for them. Other seminarians were told to avoid them because they might become worldly and get infected. Their injustice really burnt a hole in me. I am not a virtuous person, but that rampant hypocrisy – reaching for lawyers and insurers rather than telling the truth – it’s all exploded in their face now.”

Similar turbulent emotions were poured into Keneally's first novel, The Place at Whitton. At the time, Keneally was earning a living as a teacher and also training to be a lawyer. "I have always been a lawyer manqué," he says. "But I wanted to write, however badly, more than I desired to be a lawyer."

And it was literature that gave this self-proclaimed “lost soul” some much-needed direction. Indeed, listening to Keneally reminisce, salvation may not be too strong a word. “I remember that the novel redeemed me from my failure. When it was accepted, this was such a miraculous thing in the Australia of 1963 that I thought this was my deckchair in the wreckage. If I could just cling to it, it would wash me to unexpected places.”

I ask whether he remembers the Thomas Keneally that published The Place at Whitton? "Very much, but I'm not the same writer." He proceeds to offer a metaphor that compares human identity to a game of quoits. "There's a central pole which is the continuous bit of us. We are still to an extent doing the same things we did as kids. We are still reacting in the same way. But then we are also successive rings. The rings are very different. We are not the same person and yet we still are."

Age is perhaps the fundamental difference between the pair. Keneally the revered veteran may be preoccupied by similar questions to Keneally the firebrand debutant, but his perspective has changed radically. Nowhere is this more evident than in the subject that arguably defines Shame and the Captives. Death is everywhere you look in the novel: from the ­fanatical Japanese convicts mourning heroic sacrifice in battle to the Australian soldiers who suddenly face their own fragile mortality when the front line moves to their homeland.

“I don’t want to offend people by denying the afterlife, but I think at this stage there is nothing there.

“Being 78, I’m a bit obsessed with what that final moment of consciousness will be like. Whether it’s from an internal trauma of a clot in a vein or an external trauma like a car smash or a murder. I have always been worried by that question of the final moment.

“I think it’s just part of the novelist’s standard baggage, the morbid interest in death.”

I ask Keneally whether, in the absence of religious faith, writing about mortality offers any form of consolation or insight? “I think it is a temporary anti-inflammatory,” he laughs. “What consoles me about death, and I think this is an original statement, I don’t think I borrowed it from Woody Allen, is that so many billions of people with no experience have managed to achieve it.”

In any case, Keneally adds, literature is not his only – or even his defining – concern these days. “My priorities are different,” he says. “Being a grandfather changes your priorities.” He then lovingly records a day spent with various grandchildren. He accompanied one to the Sydney Biennale. Another was taken tenpin bowling. The thought of Thomas Keneally playing arcade games with his young grandson is oddly touching.

“There’s a particular kind of grandparental infatuation which makes you take yourself less seriously. When you are young, you think the world needs your books. When you get older you realise you are the only one who really, profoundly needs them. I hope to get another few in yet.”

Indeed, Keneally is already on to his next project – one that again uses real life to link Australia and Napoleon through a renegade English family who were on St Helena when the emperor died. Whether this proves to be that longed for “fiction of a certain length with everything right with it” remains to be seen. But I really believe Thomas Keneally when he says he doesn’t care too much either way any more.

“I now know I am not entitled to write a great novel. Who said a colonial yobbo like me should have the right to write one? I am just lucky to have had a career.”

James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.