It is a typical summer’s day in Sydney. The sun is high and scalding in an azure sky, and I am waiting in front of a pretty stretch of beach next to the ferry for Thomas Keneally – Australia’s most prolific author – to pick me up.
I am a little intimidated. This is the man, afterall, who has been nominated for the Booker Prize four times, whose name provokes awe from most Aussies I talk to, and who is celebrated for writing the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark (later adapted by Steven Spielberg into Schindler’s List). This is also the man who has been invited to the White House for dinner and whose biography of Abraham Lincoln was presented to Barack Obama as a state gift by Australia’s then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009.
As soon as Keneally clambers out of the car to wave me over, I know I needn’t have worried. He is a genial fellow, with a small paunch and a white beard that juts out jovially over his tummy. Above all, the man is an out and out Aussie: the one condition for our interview is that it doesn’t clash with the Ashes. ‘The only red coats I would like to shoot from behind a hedge,’ he growls, ‘are Strauss, Cook, Anderson and Prior.’ I stare blankly. ‘From the English Test team!’ he roars, slapping the table with a great laugh.
Keneally grew up in a family of Irish-Catholic descendents in the town of Kempsey on the Macleay River, New South Wales. Although he harboured desires to be a writer, instead, aged 17, he entered into a seminary to train to become a Catholic priest. Six years later, he abandoned the calling after ‘a great crisis’ as his belief in the strict hierarchies of the church faltered.
Ironically, Keneally’s home sits on the old grounds of the seminary where he once trained. The shadow of this past life – Keneally is now 75 – seems barely to register: we chat on the terrace over a pot of especially strong coffee (‘It has bite,’ Keneally cackles gleefully). Meanwhile, his wife Judy – herself an ex-novice nun – bustles around, looking after their granddaughter’s hermit crab, which sits between us on the table and stays stubbornly in its shell.
The author is aware of the quirk that a non-Jew and non-European wrote the most famous account of redemption to emerge from the Holocaust. He notes: ‘People always say: how did someone from Australia write Schindler’s List? Someone had to write the bloody thing!’
Keneally is referring to the tale’s genesis. In 1980, the author walked into the LA luggage shop run by Leopold Pfefferberg, a Polish immigrant who survived the Holocaust under Oskar Schindler’s wings. Pfefferberg showed Keneally a carbon copy of the infamous ‘list’ credited with saving over 1,000 Jews from the death camps by sheltering them in Schindler’s factory. The Pole had tried to tell his story for years; in Keneally, he found deliverance. ‘It is a story for you, Thomas,’ Pfefferberg had said. ‘It’s a story for you, I swear.’
‘It makes sense that an Australian should write it,’ reasons Keneally. ‘We are, to our more elevated European brethren, rednecks. Yet our metropolitan betters – the people who read their Schiller and studied their Mozart – committed this huge crime. So that is what fascinates me about Europe: it is the centre of our souls but also of our most savage impulses.’ He stops and calls out to the kitchen: ‘I’ve been pounding the table, Jude. I hope we haven’t traumatised the crab.’
The tale of course left its mark on the author. Was it hard to write? Almost subconsciously, Keneally draws his hands to his eyes and holds them there a long while. In researching the book, he travelled to Europe to interview survivors and to visit the camps. ‘Being a journalist, you would know that you think you can get in and out of the story without losing your soul,’ he says. ‘But the story always takes a bit of flesh out of you.’
Right now, Keneally is working on the second volume of a history of Australia; the first covered the events of the 19th century, including the migration Down Under of many Chinese before the White Australia policy withered diversity on the vine. Keneally – who rattles from subject to subject with encyclopaedic depth and infective enthusiasm – has visited China many times. ‘Coming to terms with the closeness of China is one of the things that has happened in our lifetime,’ he explains. ‘I said to my daughter: “Make sure the little people speak Mandarin.”’
With Keneally, the subject that comes up again and again is a fascination with the paradox of his country: a continent at once isolated and yet intimately connected with the rest of the world, be it China or Europe. In April, once his new history and a novel are finished, Keneally and his wife will travel to Europe in a three-week boat journey. It is symbolic, perhaps, of his desire to bridge a gap and to lesson the niggling feeling that he has always had: ‘We grew up feeling we were exiled from the big world.’ Yet, looking back on the body of his life’s work, the world surely seems not quite so far away.