Best known for Schindler’s Ark, which American audiences know as Schindler’s List, Thomas Keneally is an Australian playwright and author of both fiction and non-fiction, who has won numerous accolades for his writing, among them the Mann Booker award. Considered to be a national treasure in Australia, Keneally will be introducing American audiences to his newest novel, The Daughters of Mars, this September. Here in San Diego you can meet him at Warwick’s on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 15. Recently, Mr. Keneally responded to a few questions about writing:
1. You write both fiction and non-fiction. For purposes of process, what do you find to be the commonality between the two; and what is the biggest difference?
With fiction you can do what you wish, steal incidents from real life and give them fictional existence without attribution. With history you have to try to tell the truth based on the record, but on that record you can make psychological surmises about characters who really lived, so both history and fiction are character-driven. The best way I can explain it is that in fiction you try to tell the truth by telling lies, and in history, you try to tell the truth by telling the truth. But even in history it’s a matter of selection and the sort of person we are.
2. History and historical fiction seem to be your genres of choice. Why do these genres appeal to you? And you once said in an interview that historical fiction is most valid as it reflects on the present. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Historical fiction is wonderful because one is driven to it by hearing, in a journal or biography, a voice that’s utterly modern. It’s that thrill of identifying someone in the past as if they were in the next room and not impossibly removed in time — that’s the kick I’m looking for. That’s, for example, what I heard from the nurses’ journals I read. And you can find events which reflect absolutely what’s happening now – crazy war, obscene trauma, the struggle of young women for status and the drive towards medical innovation under the pressure of frightful damage done to the flesh of young men. You might be writing about 1915, but the better way of saying it is that history has permitted you to write about universal experience and the present through the lens of 1915, ‘16, ‘17, etc.
3. While you have been a prolific writer, the quality of your work has maintained. What keeps writing fresh for you?
When you write you become ageless. It’s the same process for me as a 77 year old as it is for a 28 year old. It’s an experience I very much like. The bit I’m not addicted to is reading the proofs and finding the book is not as good as you thought. But then you can always write another one that hits the golden standard. So it’s a bit like being a habitual gambler. You always believe that this time you’re going to really hammer it down. The experience of writing keeps you fresh and, one hopes, it confers that quality to the writing.
4. What is the common thread in your writing?
There are always people separated by different cultures and conditioning in my novels. Well, not in absolutely all, but in most. Fraternity or love across the lines that have been drawn for us by demagogues and propagandists and ayatollahs. Schindler crosses that line, but it happens in other novels about Australian Aborigines or wars in Africa and so on. We are all subjected to conditioning when it comes to religion and culture and race, but I’m interested in the occasions we rise above the conditioning. I’m also fascinated by war and the overriding question – why we do it. We can explain it in terms of ambitions for territory and resources, but explaining why so many of us will sign on for the experience, as my father did in WWII – that’s very interesting.
5. What would you like readers to take away from experiencing your work?
I’m not sure. I am not convinced books always change the world morally, and, mind you, given the scoundrels most of us writers are, that’s not surprising. I would like them to take away from this novel a sense of the world enlarged, a confirmation that there was humanity and folly in 1914-1918, there is humanity and folly now, and there has always been a commonality of human experience, and the hope we can grow out of folly in the end.
6. Would you please give us the best advice you have for aspiring authors?
Only begin. An enigma: You have to write to engage the part of the brain you need to engage to be able to write. And never let the fact you can’t write stop you producing literature! Lack of apparent talent is no excuse. Just write the bloody thing. And don’t feel you need just another writing course before you start. Edgar Alan Poe didn’t. ONLY BEGIN…