Tom Keneally Lunchtime Conversation
Photos from the Lunchtime Conversation between Tom Keneally and Kim McKay held at in the Hallstrom Theatre on 21 May 2019. Image: Nick Langley
© Australian Museum

This talk took place on Tuesday 21 May in the Hallstrom Theatre as the first installment of the Australian Museum's 2019 Lunchtime Conversation Series.

One of our most popular and prolific authors, Thomas Keneally has produced more than forty novels, screenplays, memoirs and non-fiction. His embrace of challenging themes and social justice is evident in Bring Larks and Heroes, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Schindler’s Ark, which won the Booker Prize, and was made into the Academy Award winning film Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg.

Thomas Keneally appears in conversation with AM Director and CEO, Kim McKay.

Sue Saxon: Good afternoon everyone. I'd like to welcome you to the Australian Museum and acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respect to their elders past, present and emerging.

It's wonderful to see you here for the first session of our 2019 lunchtime conversation series, exploring Australians who shaped our nation, and featuring the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in our award-winning Westpac Long Gallery. My name is Sue Saxon, I'm creative producer here in our programming department, and I'm so proud of this rich season which showcases the extraordinary contribution of six exemplary Australians across technology, medicine, art, architecture, literature and human rights. We will be exploring the vision and legacy of Charles Perkins, Dr Terry Percival, Gabi Hollows and Professor Fred Hollows, Albert Namatjira, and Glenn Murcutt. And today, Australian Museum director and CEO Kim McKay is joined by world-renowned Australian author and national treasure Tom Keneally.

Kim was appointed to the director's role in April 2014 and is the first woman to hold the role in the AM's 190-year history. She has initiated an impressive transformation program, including enshrining free general admission for children into government policy and constructing new award-winning spaces, including the Crystal Hall entry pavilion, Westpac Long Gallery, and has established the Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science, part of the Australian Museum Research Institute which we call AMRI. And of course the new $57 million restoration, starting soon.

As always, there will be an opportunity for your questions, so have them ready, and please join me now in welcoming Kim McKay.

Kim McKay: Thanks so much Sue, and welcome to you all. I just would like to start today by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we've gathered on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. And I'm very pleased to say that here at the Australian Museum we have an amazing team of emerging young First Nations people. I was up in Alice Springs last week with them at the National Museum's conference where they presented some of their recent work, including the Gadi exhibition that some of you might have seen last year which talked about the Gadigal people of Sydney and revealed some of their stories for the first time, and I'm very pleased to say the Gadi exhibition that they created won the prize for the best small exhibition. So we are very proud of our First Nations team here at the museum, and of course we are the custodian of one of the most significant First Nations collections in Australia, and a lot of that is housed here on site.

So today we are in for an amazing treat. As Sue said, our conversation series kicks off today with the fantastic Thomas Keneally. And all of the people that we are profiling through the series, both last year and this year, are featured among the 100 people who helped shape the nation in the Westpac Long Gallery as part of our 200 Treasures exhibition.

I do want to just start out by saying some people wrote to us and said why are there no women featured this year? There are women featured. Fred Hollows of course is no longer with us and Gabi Hollows is stepping in to represent him. Albert Namatjira, the wonderful First Nations artist, is no longer with us either and so in fact the leading expert on Albert Namatjira, a woman who runs Indigenous collections at the National Gallery in Canberra is coming up to represent the family and to be in a discussion with him. And of course this year we are also looking to focus a bit on technology, and historically of course women weren't counted very much in Australian history and I'm very proud to say the gallery here you'll find more women on that list than any other list in Australia and more First Nations people on the list than any other existing list in Australia. So we are very pleased with what we are trying to do here at the Australian Museum.

And with that I'm going to start to introduce Tom, I'm going to sit down…come up here, Tom. Please welcome Thomas Keneally.

And in my welcome I'll just point out some of your extraordinary achievements. You've written more than 40 novels, screenplays, memoirs and non-fiction books. You've won all the major literary prizes, including two Miles Franklin awards, the Scripter Award from the University of Southern California, the Mondello International Prize, the Gold Medal of the University of California, the Helmerich Prize in the US, as well as a Logie award, an AFI award, the Critics Circle for your screenplays. And it goes on. You've been made a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library. I'm turning the page. The American Academy. A recipient of the University of California Gold Medal, and your dial is now on a 55c Australian stamp too, I believe. Lucky we don't have to lick them anymore, right?

Tom Keneally: That's right.

Kim McKay: The Tom Keneally Centre opened in August 2011, and your latest book, Two Old Men Dying, was published just last year.

Tom Keneally: And it has Fred as a character.

Kim McKay: Fred was a character, wasn't he. I feel quite blessed in life to have known Fred a bit.

Tom Keneally: Yes. And Gabi will be dynamite, she is a formidable woman and a great raconteur.

Kim McKay: She sure is. So, next month I believe you're travelling to Prague to receive the Trebbia Prize for artistic achievement from the governments of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And, as you said about yourself on occasion, not bad for a boy from Homebush.

Tom Keneally: Well, sadly in Prague they're going to have the Prague Symphony. They'd have the Homebush Pipe Band if they could get it but they're booked out, so I just have to put up with the ho-hum of the Prague…yes, I've been very lucky, Kim, very lucky. And this museum was part of my life.

Kim McKay: Well, I wanted to ask you about that just to start off with, so we talk about ourselves a bit more I guess. You've got an Order of Australia, you've been named a living treasure and you're here of course on our list of our 100 Treasures people. What role has the museum played in your life? Because you said to me you came here as a boy.

Tom Keneally: Yes, we used to come here every school holiday, so it was one of the first places that I started to bring my daughters. I brought one of them so young that she had a little urinary accident in the front of the…

Kim McKay: I think I had one of those as a child.

Tom Keneally: And of course the skeletons hold great power over children, the skeletons of huge beasts, whales and elephants. And there were very graphic exhibits on Aboriginal people that had been taken down because they had proved to be…they had been superseded by later research. But they were a great stimulus to the imagination too. And then the megafauna and the crystals of course, the crystals were fabulous, and they were nowhere else. The Australia of Chifley and early Menzies was not known for its spectacular crystals. So it had a powerful impact on my imagination. I brought my daughters here a lot. And recently I've brought grandchildren here a lot, both when they used the play centres, which are great, and then when they got on to looking at things. And my grandson liked the way you've done the living treasures thing…

Kim McKay: The interactive digital wall.

Tom Keneally: The interactive. And he was playing with it. I was here one Saturday and a family turned up at the display next door and then they noticed a resemblance between the exhibit and me, they became very excited, and my grandson put the encounter in perspective by saying, well…he said to them, 'He writes books you know.' If you're low enough to write books, you could…

Kim McKay: Now, you mentioned megafauna and we were just talking about that because…

Tom Keneally: Yeah, the megafauna is a very big part of the imagination.

Kim McKay: And it's part of your latest book as well.

Tom Keneally: My latest book is about a contemporary old man dying and Mungo Man dying. I call him Learned Man. But of course Mungo Man died 42,000 years ago, and we have evidence just from what's around him, that he had contact with two other human communities, one beyond the Darling, and the other on the upper reaches of the Murrumbidgee. And his is the first ritual burial of a human that we have of Homo sapiens. And so I tried to make up a story about why he was ritually buried, why the community felt the necessity to use ochre that came from 200 miles away beyond the Darling to anoint him. And that's what the book's about, whereas the contemporary man just dies of an operation which at the time I'd researched. It was only after I finished the book I found out I had to have it, and so I had it last year and survived okay, and through no merit was cured of drinking and weight, without even trying…

Kim McKay: Without even trying, no…

Tom Keneally: …of virtue at all.

Kim McKay: But you're okay now?

Tom Keneally: Yes indeed. A little bit…the Prague thing is my first overseas trip, but I think I'm up to it.

Kim McKay: Good on you, I'm glad to hear that.

Tom Keneally: So I've been very fortunate, yet again. The luck will run out.

Kim McKay: Well, it will for all of us I guess. I must say, one of your fellow luminaries in the Treasures gallery is of course Bob Hawke, and we put a little black ribbon across his portrait after he passed away last week. When you talked about…

Tom Keneally: That's very nice of you, Kim.

Kim McKay: Well, I knew him quite well, and I think he was such a great Australian in so many respects. And you said about the crystals not being evident in the early years of Curtin and so forth, well, he was a shining light, that's for sure.

Tom Keneally: Yes, there were crystalline excitements in his regime.

Kim McKay: Exactly. But look, your resilience is quite remarkable given you grew up in an Irish Catholic family, you spent your formative years in towns like Kempsey, Taree and Wauchope. What was that like?

Tom Keneally: Well, it was well very much a town…one was very aware of the Aboriginal equation. We didn't even know the name of the tribe, it was Thungutti, and of course the recently retired great South Sydney centre…gee, I've had a senior moment…Greg Inglis, who has just retired, was a Thungutti. And that was very much part of the town because the Aboriginals were in the cinema in the front stalls. I'm writing about that now, about the relationship the tween the Aboriginals and a gay pianist, another kind of marginal figure, a gay pianist…there was a gay pianist in the Kempsey cinema whom my father know called Chicken Weeks, and magnificently he was called Chicken Weeks because he could hypnotise chickens, so I'm writing about a gay cinema pianist…

Kim McKay: That shows no senior moments on your part because your memory must be so good to think back then to Kempsey.

Tom Keneally: I was born in 1935 but I remember the Friday afternoon coming to town, and the other thing I tried to do is imagine what happened if you were a pillar of society, Kempsey took itself very seriously then and there were big people from up river who were connected to the professional people in town. So, say your husband is a member of the professions and you're walking along Smith Street or Belgrave Street Kempsey in 1933, and you see a Thungutti half-caste kid with undeniably your husband's features. This must have happened to a number of women, and the question is what did they do from there on? So that is in this novel I am writing at the moment.

But the one about Fred…I describe Fred going to Eritrea where I saw him in operation, and he installed a situation in Eritrea which still works, and you know, he said, 'You said I was a bloody wild colonial boy, I'm not a wild colonial boy, I'm an anarcho-syndicalist.' And he is an anarcho-syndicalist. The book sets out to prove that, but he also was on the look for what happened in Mungo's day.

In Mungo's day we had a cognitive leap forward. We had pretty fancy brains like the Neanderthals before but we had extra powers of abstraction around about 70 BC, and that enabled us to take the next step and imagine nation, political parties, all the yummies that have come our way since, and religion, advances in religion, advances in poetry. And Fred thought it might be possible that we could make another cognitive leap forward. And when he encountered the Eritrean rebels he thought they were on the way. He raised the possibility that they were on a new evolutionary tangent. And visiting that civil war…it's about a filmmaker travelling with Fred during that war and seeing how he puts together these teams which still operate in the Third World. It wouldn't be permitted here. But he put together surgical teams that are still travelling throughout East Africa, working on people's cataract blindness.

Kim McKay: I'm going to draw you back just a bit to your childhood because we wandered off a bit there. That's all right.

Tom Keneally: I do that. It's called pre-dementia geriatric syndrome.

Kim McKay: It's pretty good though, being a wanderer, I think. I know your parents instilled an amazing sense of social justice in you. Can you tell us a bit about how that happened and them?

Tom Keneally: Well, there was a kind of Irish working-class people around then, like a lot of people my age remember their parents being like that, they had a great belief in Australian utopianism and social justice, and they were to the left of any Labor man now. They say this last program was too left-wing to sail. Hawkey could have sold it. Hawke would have involved everyone, he would have had the head of the Business Council consenting to radical socialist reform. But it was not to be. We had, as we now know, and as he would admit himself, the wrong salesman.

But they were therefore very up the workers and very social justice, but they also were members of this totally totalitarian and dictatorial church. But in a way it was who they were. They were blamed for being…at that stage of history you were blamed for being a Catholic, so you clung to it all the more. Persecution is very good for religion. If you want to reduce the impact of a religion, tolerate it, and it becomes purely theological and people begin to think, 'oh, I wonder did the virgin birth really happen', instead of clinging to it because it identifies you.

Kim McKay: Well, you went on of course to be educated at St Patrick's at Manly and to go to the seminary…

Tom Keneally: Yeah, which is where Tony Abbott went.

Kim McKay: But not at the same time.

Tom Keneally: No, he was a younger man, and I went with…I was in there with some notable figures, including your former partner…

Kim McKay: Business partner, yeah…I was in business with Mick Harfield who was Father Mick, a priest.

Tom Keneally: Mike Harfield, a handsome man who ended up…I mean, he did what…you see, if you're…sex in Catholicism is a weird entity, as you know, so they tell you to…if you look at the reflection of a high school girl's bloomers in her patent leather shoes, you're going to hell. So intelligent blokes like Harfield and John Fitzgerald Kennedy say, well, if I'm going to go to hell, I'll get my money's worth and go out with Marilyn Monroe.

Kim McKay: That's right, because Mick Harfield married a former Miss Australia.

Tom Keneally: Which is hilarious.

Kim McKay: And the Pope gave him a dispensation to get married in the Catholic Church, which is unheard of for a former defrocked priest to be able to do that.

Tom Keneally: But Brian Johns was in there who was a great Australian. He headed the ABC, he headed SBS, he was head of the copyright agency too which holds all the uncollected money for copyright holders for things like photocopying and other uses of copyright. And he was of course the publisher at Penguin for quite a time, and a remarkable human being. And he and a fellow who is still a priest whom I always told to stop drinking because he has to bury me yet, he has to last…Eddie Campion who is an historian and a gentleman, we founded a literary society and they were very uneasy about it. They thought we were reading Graham Greene, and we were. So Brian Johns left before me, I was trying to be both literary and a good Catholic, which is a test.

Kim McKay: What impact did being in the seminary and being a good Catholic have on your writing?

Tom Keneally: Well, it certainly makes me interested in moral issues. We had these books written by Spanish Jesuits of moral theology, and they would put up case stories, you know; if you save a man now, even though you suspect he is a psychopath, and he then goes on to kill 20 people, have you committed a sin? Questions like that. And gradations, you knew what the…talk about New Zealanders and merinos, it was full of case arguments about how far you could go with a donkey before it became a mortal sin. If you just caressed the donkey, was it a mortal sin? And I knew what the favourite recourse of Spanish farm boys was by the time I'd read that. But again, the question of where is the morality in this, and to what extent are you a sinner.

The Holocaust always interested me because a lot of those SS men were Bavarian Catholics. What if the Pope had forbidden them to join the SS and prescribed the SS? And since there were a lot of northern Protestants and Catholics in the SS and they were conditioned like I was conditioned as a kid, not by my parents but by this whole Catholic thing…could I, not because I'm a Catholic but because I'm a human, am I capable of obeying by officers and shoot another human being? And if you do that once, where do you go from there? You've lost your innocence, you can't be a martyr anymore, you can't say I won't do it, as some German soldiers did. But you're asking for martyrdom, so you hope you wouldn't do it but you don't know.

What would I do if I'd been a backside-out-of-the-trousers Scottish crofter or Irishman and I arrived somewhere where there is huge acreage, like Ryan the convict who ended up out in Galong and occupied these huge…and then the Aboriginals who for some reason still seemed to think the country belongs to them, think the animals do, they start spearing my sheep and they might spear one of my convict shepherds because he has been messing with the Aboriginal women. What would I do then? And again, I don't know. So that is a source of my own sinfulness in which I still believe is…the one thing I believe in is that we are born fundamentally tainted, and I think most humans know, as well as fundamentally gifted, fundamentally tainted. On the way towards that next leap that Homo sapiens might make, if we survive ScoMo. These moral questions are the basis of novels.

Kim McKay: They are. And so that leads me to ask you, and I'm sure everyone will want to know, any aspiring writers amongst us; how do you approach your writing? What is that process that you go through to write a novel?

Tom Keneally: I begin novels when I know where they are going, but I don't know any incident in detail. And the connections between the major characters are not fully developed yet, the organic sinews of the novel between the people who are the people of the novel, the people in the dark room which is your novel when you begin it.

I think it's a bit like the first Maori or Polynesian voyagers to New Zealand. There must've been a rumour that way down there was this abundant and extensive set of islands, and they have a rough compass bearing from their myths. So, someone sets out. And there are men and women in the boat and there are children and there are dogs and pigs, and they are sailing by dead reckoning. So they set out from Polynesia and they know what they're looking for.

And it's around about then, the setup that I begin writing and put these characters into the book, for example there's a book I wrote called Daughters of Mars, which is about two army nurses in World War I who come from a Methodist community across the river in the Macleay Valley in Kempsey where my parents and grandparents lived, and I lived there for a time. And you sort of know who they are. But they grow as you write. There is a stage where you have to do begin writing to find out who they are. And this is because I believe in our subconscious is all the creativity we need to be readers and lovers and parents. It's all in there. And to make our own myths, all the archetypes and the avatars.

And from the collective unconscious you get from pole to pole the same sacraments, the same ceremonies, the same types of ceremonies; the ceremony of birth, the ceremony of initiation, the ceremony of marriage, ceremonies associated with death. So that there are echoes between Aboriginal ceremonies and Eskimo, Inuit ceremonies, Yup'ik ceremonies in Russian Siberia. And this interpretation of life as a sacrament with gates in it is something that comes from our collective unconscious. So you've just got to start writing. And Yeats had a saying, 'Only begin'. And one of the Irish writers had a saying that when…'I've got to find out what the bloody novel is about by writing it'. And in the first draft, that's so.

You find out who the characters are because the process of writing brings into play this part of the brain where you know things you don't know you know, including what it's like to be young, what it's like if you're an old writer, what it's like to be old if you're a young writer, what is it like to be a woman, what is it like to be a girl, what is it like to be an outcast, even an Aboriginal. These imaginative tricks are all made possible by that unconscious part of the brain, and how do you trigger that unconscious part of the brain? You start writing. And you'll be in great bewilderment and anguish; how is this possible? The writer…the way you are taught literature at school, the writer is in charge, he/she is pulling all these kinky effects, metaphors and similes and onomatopoeia, and he's sort of like a sound effects man in a booth up the back and he's totally in control of triggering your emotions, but not early on in the book he isn't, the book is a runaway carriage heading towards a cliff that he has to get…he's got to work out who the passengers in this runaway wagon are, to slow it down, to get control of it.

Kim McKay: So in this runaway wagon, do you have no concept at the outset of where the wagon is going to end up?

Tom Keneally: Yes, you've got a brief, it's going to end in your version of New Zealand, of the land of the long white cloud. But that arrival will be made fully possible by finding out what the connections between characters are, which are often delivered to you from the same part of the brain that delivers you cryptic crossword clues. If you do cryptic crossword clues, there is a standout clue that you can't get for quite some time, and then it becomes apparent, you have a eureka moment, and it comes to you.

Or remember you were playing Scrabble and you can't think of that that actor's name and you put pressure on the unconscious brain, and then when you wake up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, oh, it was Yul Brynner, Jesus! The answer has been delivered by your unconscious, it is a eureka moment delivered by your unconscious. And these eureka moments, these organic revelations and epiphanies occur, we know, in science also. So it's an interesting though way the unconscious plays with the conscious.

And a lot of the stories about how to write…for example, there was a wonderful 20-stone Irish woman called Maeve Binchy, and she said write 500 words a day, whether you like it or not, it will be sometimes like writing to an aunt who you dislike to thank her for an abominable Christmas present, and other days it will be like talking to transcendence, you'll be talking with the tongues of angels. But after three or four months of 500 words a day, you'll have a mass of stuff, and start working on that.

Kim McKay: So does this subconscious, the unconscious, whatever you want to call it, does it come from learned experience?

Tom Keneally: We are born with it, I reckon. We are born with all those stories in us, and that's how we connect as little kids to stories that are read to us, archetypal stories. But they become more and more sophisticated. For example, I can give you an example if you like…

Kim McKay: Yes, because I'm interested in this because of course here we study DNA, and DNA tells us a lot about the physical form, but all the geneticists I have worked with over the years believe in genetic memory, which we don't know much…

Tom Keneally: Here, there you go, again. Why when we pick up a baby, Bruce Chatwin asks in his book Songlines, which I've got a lot of tolerance for, a lot of people dump on it. But he says the first thing we do, we are lost nomads. we have a horror of our home, of the sedentary life. That's why no matter even if we live in a palazzo, we will take a risk on a bed-and-breakfast for the weekend. And if a child cries, what do we do? We pick it up and start marching with it because there is that genetic memory in the child that wants to be on the road, wants to be on the trek. And I think he's right about all that stuff, and we know more than we know, and we have gifts more than we know. And one of the methods to get those gifts out…it's a pretty desperate one, it's the last card in the pack, is writing a novel, or writing a play, or writing a memoir and dwelling on the moments in the memoir of your childhood. Not, you know, 'I went to Concord West Public and there was a nice teacher there called Miss so-and-so, and there was a nasty…' but get into why the teacher was nasty and what that lost child from Concord West thought.

Kim McKay: But it's also the impact of the novelist. For my higher school certificate a long time ago, I had to do Bring Larks and Heroes, your second major normal which set you on the path to a fulltime career. That was brutal, that novel.

Tom Keneally: Yes, it had a lot of…I was young and dark. You've got to get into your 80s to be relieved of darkness.

Kim McKay: I'm looking forward to it.

Tom Keneally: And if you're a bloke you've got to get into your 70s to grow up. I grew up about 75 and Judy tells me that's pretty early.

Kim McKay: It's good. Well, you won a Miles Franklin award for Bring Larks and Heroes a year later.

Tom Keneally: Yes, and that confirmed me in my worst habits.

Kim McKay: Well, I was going to ask you about winning these awards. What do you think about…you know, you won the Miles Franklin twice in your career. How does it influence you as a writer? Does it matter?

Tom Keneally: It does matter in this sense, that writers are the kids in the corner of the playground that no one wants to play with normally. So they have great narcissism, they know they're better than all those flash kids that the teacher likes, but it hasn't been revealed to the teacher yet. And at the same time they have huge insecurity. So they begin their novel out of a mixture of insecurity, which holds them up, particularly when the novel isn't flowing, and narcissism…because, after all, they are saying I have a book which is so important it must be published, and I have something to reveal to the world. And your novel, you are often in love with the subject, and convinced that the world needs your book, but you can't even get your book written. So this combination of insecurity and narcissism is murder.

And you thought you'd be in control of your novel, and you're not. You're not until the second draft because you've got to write the characters, and then the characters become apparent. So how does a pillar of the society who has gone somewhat crazy as far as her husband is concerned—you've gone feral, Myrtle—what's her connection to the gay cinema pianist? Well, my parents told me all about this gay cinema pianist and he used to love makeup, he used to come into Barsby's store and buy makeup. He didn't buy it for himself, he loved making things up. He loved making up a face and he was a makeup artist. And he read all the film magazines.

And so of course she is so discombobulated by seeing that her husband has had an affair with a Thungutti woman, that…the choices of the Aboriginal women in the 1930s were very narrow, and their poverty was intense. And he makes her up. She comes to him for information about the Aboriginal mother of the child and he says, 'You have a beautiful complexion.' And she is so alienated from her husband, she lets the town pansy, the homosexual, make her up. And then as a defiance she wears it home. That sort of thing doesn't come until the second draft. The sinews between people. They do it themselves, the character becomes slowly so fully-fleshed, the figure that you…writing a novel is also like entering a darkened room, and the more you write, the more the lights come on. You know there are people around the room, but you don't know that the person in the third seat in is in love with the person the second seat in from the left.

Kim McKay: So when you're writing that novel and these characters start to reveal themselves to you, when you walk away from the typewriter or the keyboard at the end of the day, do you still live with them, are you inhabiting the novel?

Tom Keneally: Well, that's the thing about your unconscious brain, it's there all the time. I'm having dreams…you know what I took up in my late 40s? Cross-country skiing, just in time for global warming. And I became a fanatic, I loved it, to be out there skiing on your own terms, not like the downhillers, often pushing your way up hill and getting very tired, but to be out there in the Porcupine at Perisher, this heroic set of rocks up above Perisher Valley, and to ski in winter from Perisher to Charlottes Pass, absolute magic. I'm going to say something about cross-country skiing that's germane to your question…

Kim McKay: About inhabiting the character? Did you come up with one when you were cross-country skiing?

Tom Keneally: Yeah, you do because it engages the subconscious too because it so exhausts the conscious mind. It's good. But I was going to make another point about it. Certainly when you start skiing you don't know if it's going to snow that afternoon or if it's going to rain and wash out all the snow off all the heather below Charlottes Pass. You don't know who you going to meet, you don't know whether they are going to be eccentrics who are going to delay you for two hours, or whether they are someone whose skis are broken and you're going to have to bring a ski back for them from Charlottes Pass. You can only find the adventure by going on it, and that's what a novel is like too.

Kim McKay: That's true, you've got to take that step forward, haven't you.

Tom Keneally: And you've got to be desperate, you've got to be a deadbeat to want to write a novel, a marginal figure.

Kim McKay: Tom, one of the things that happens when you write great novels is people option them to make films, don't they, and your first one was…Fred Schepisi directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, right?

Tom Keneally: Yes, and they made a good film of an old, old book of mine from the '70s about the armistice called Gossip from the Forest, a film…Granada made a film for television, which you are far too young to have seen.

Kim McKay: But The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith had a cultural impact in its day too.

Tom Keneally: Yes, and Fred's film is extraordinary, Fred Schepisi, it is very powerful. Quentin Tarantino knows it, there's a name to conjure with, and he showed it, he brought a 35mm print and showed it to 2,000 young Australians who had never seen it before at the casino while he was out here, and he did a Q&A with Fred and me about it. And that 35mm on the big screen was dynamite, and it's a film whose time has come now. It hadn't come then.

Kim McKay: No, actually I was thinking that, that it's time we screened it again, isn't it, for people.

Tom Keneally: Yes. You know, Fred left school in the intermediate. A very intelligent bloke and visually intelligent, and those blokes who are often better at reading a book and transferring it to the screen, they often see things…Spielberg was very good at reading Schindler, better than you'd think.

Kim McKay: That's what I wanted to ask you next about, of course, is Schindler's List from your novel Schindler's Ark. In 1980 you met Poldek Pfefferberg in his shop in Los Angeles, and this was a fortuitous encounter.

Tom Keneally: Yes, I'd broken a briefcase and I went to a store. It was a day when the enervating Santa Ana winds from the desert were blowing in, and I'd stopped at a window that advertised a sale, in the days when there were normal shops and normal shopping centres. And this beefy character, not fat but strong, big shoulders, came out and said, 'So it's 105 degrees out here and you want to look in my window instead of coming in my air-conditioned store. What's wrong with you?' And I went in and this was Leopold Pfefferberg, 'pepper mount' in German, a Polish Jew, despite his German name. The Austrians brought in a lot of Austrian names to southern Poland, and Pfefferberg may have been one of them.

But anyhow, he was a Schindler survivor, his wife was a Schindler survivor. Because Australians had a repute for credit card fraud at that stage (Australia always punching above its weight, after all), the charges on the credit card were held up, and Poldek had his mate, another old Holocaust survivor, on the phone, and he took me to meet his wife, a beautiful woman, he said. He loved women and loved his wife very much, 'Darling,' he'd say, 'you're such a dream,' he'd say, if he came into the repair room. She was a Schindler survivor who had been a medical student in Vienna when Hitler came in, and she went back to her parents in Lwow, they were both surgeons, very distinguished, but it didn't save them from the Holocaust, they were both shot. She came to Krakow from Lwow in a shipment of Jews into Krakow, and then she met Poldek and married him. But she is very quiet. She is 96 this year, this May she is 96. It's great to see people get to 96 when their oxygen was supposed to be taken from them when they were 22.

Kim McKay: It's that chance meeting.

Tom Keneally: And it's a chance meeting, and a great story because there is no way that Schindler's saviourhood made up for everything else that happened in the Holocaust, but Schindler was small-scale enough so that you saw through him every aspect of the Holocaust on an imaginable scale, and that is the problem…you know, that old saying…someone wise in the audience will know this, was it Stalin or someone else who said 'one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic'? I think it was Stalin said that. I have heard it accredited to Stalin by intelligent people, and there is a supremely intelligent man up there shaking his head. And it's true, you can't get your imagination around 6 million. You can get your imagination around people who have a name. So, you see, in remotest Queensland there is a town with three refugees in it that they're trying to ship out, and the town fights for the refugees because they know their faces and their names. And to get…the novel has to get down to that imaginable…or the account, the narrative has to get down to that imaginable scale. That's why the novel features people…often features servants of emperors rather than the emperor themselves, or peripheral figures who are the lens on some huge figure.

Kim McKay: So let's just talk about…you've had a couple of your novels turned into films or quite a few of them. Working with Steven Spielberg, were you pleased with the adjustments he made, because there have to be adjustments, from the book to the screenplay.

Tom Keneally: Well, what I found out from Fred Schepisi is that the director looks on the book as a mere springboard. And anyone whose book is bought for film just has to take the money and run and be philosophic. Margaret Atwood gets two credits on The Handmaid's Tale, and when she was here recently I said to her, 'I see you have a consultative credit on the series. Does that mean you can actually have a say on every episode?' And she said, 'No, it's just a mechanism by which I get paid. They didn't have enough money to pay me up front, so they pay me a fee per episode,' and they do it under that rubric of her being a consultant. But she said, 'They listen politely to what I've got to say but they don't necessarily listen.' And that's the way it is.

Spielberg however is very consultative, and he asked about things like; is it better to film in Prague or Krakow? Well, Krakow has a particular look of a city of fallen angels, fallen Gothic, which is great for a film on the Holocaust, exactly right. And so it's an Austrian city because the Austrians occupied it for nearly 200 years, so it's like Prague in that regard. It's a beautiful place, but Stalin seems to have deliberately put a steelworks called Nowa Huta down the road, and all the acid rain from that has rained on the gargoyles and the angels of Krakow. So it has that ambiguous look to it. Very important. So he discussed stuff like that. But not only with me, with hordes of other people.

I think he found me a relief from Poldek, who knew his mother. Steven's mother is a tiny creature about 4 foot 11, and like every woman of 4 foot 11, formidable. And Poldek used to say, 'I know your mother Steven, she says you're doing quite well.' But Stephen did consult everyone, and he had lots of survivors on set, and he had Mrs Schindler on set, even though Mrs Schindler later denied it but she is there at the grave scene in Jerusalem too, at the end of the film.

But I understand what her problem is, Schindler dumped her in Argentina after the war, when he and she went broke on their farm. And the Jews of San Vicente, a suburb of Buenos Aires, kept her alive and supported her. And then he becomes…this scoundrel becomes this byword for salvation, and that's terribly hard when he has been unfaithful to you so many times and... Boy, you could make a great movie about him afterwards.

When we were doing the interviews, I went to a family on Long Island and it turned out the mother was gentile, the wife was gentile, and she was Schindler's old mistress, and she and Schindler and his wife were in a ménage a trois in Munich after the war. And this fairly good-looking survivor calls in and Schindler says, 'Look, it's getting a bit knotty with my wife, would you marry…' and he pointed to the girlfriend. 'She is a wonderful girl, a desirable girl.' And years later when we were writing the book, this Holocaust survivor who was an engineer in New York, was still married to Schindler's old mistress, Ingrid, and they were living in high suburban felicity on Long Island.

Kim McKay: So really, Tom, it's just great gossip.

Tom Keneally: Well, you know I've got a book coming out next year? I'm confusing you. I'm writing a book about a pianist, there is a book coming out next year about Charles Dickens' son, who lived in the…out beyond Wilcannia when he was 17 on a huge sheep station out there, when the Darling was the Darling. When we went out to the Darling doing research last year, a local told me a joke, which is slightly improper, but I think most of you have done your HSC. And he said that Barnaby Joyce's lover said to him, 'Barnaby, do to me what you've done to the Darling, only a little slower please.' Gee…

Kim McKay: I like the way you always bring it back to the politic of the day. Now, you've four detective stories, gentlemen convict detective stories with your daughter Meg. What's that process like, the Monsarrat stories?

Tom Keneally: It was good, particularly since she is such a good worker. In Taree…I started school in Kempsey, and then I was admitted to hospital that night in Kempsey with diphtheria, and there was a diphtheria epidemic in Kempsey. And country people weren't injecting their kids against diphtheria because there had been a batch of diphtheria used in Queensland which had killed seven kids, so they didn't believe in the…it was a batch that had gone off or something and it didn't save them, it killed them. And so I wasn't immunised, and my mother was always guilty about that, and I ended up in Kempsey Hospital. And then by the time I was over that, we'd gone to Wauchope, the Venice of the north, Hastings and Wilson River beautiful hinterland. Anyhow, I started school up there…and I, again, have lost the thread…

Kim McKay: I was just going to…about writing with Meg.

Tom Keneally: Ah yes, well, in that school (this is the point) there were these kids who'd arrive in the school on horseback, there was a family of three kids came on the one horse on a hessian bag as a saddle, and they had been up early, they went dairy farming, milking the cows, and they left school early to ride home in time for the milking. And the dairy farmers' kids were a bit of a caution because they naturally were exhausted by the time they got to school and they still had the afternoon milking to do. But I thought what a great idea, the kids come home early from school and they do your work for you. And I noticed that Meg had a great capacity to turn out text, thousands of words, so I thought if I can get her…and use her in the dairy, I'll never have to do morning milking again. And she has got very strong. We were going to write a chapter at a time, but we have a much different form of writing.

Kim McKay: Tom, I notice some people are going and I do want time for a few questions because I could sit here and ask you questions all day about the Republican movement and Manly Sea Eagles, you're a great fan I know, and also refugees and other social justice issues, but I think our audience would like to probably ask a few questions of you as well. Do we have a question for Tom?

Audience question 1: Hi. It appears to me you just have a great intellect and I would not be surprised if you went home tonight and then tomorrow will announce you are publishing your 100th book and it will be out the next year. And I just am so amazed about how you can be so prolific. I don't know…and obviously your eureka moments, you are interested in everything, and I guess it's what interests you the most that will be your next book.

Tom Keneally: Yes, that's true. I don't know what's next. But the Dickens novel, the idea that Dickens of Australia is a dumping ground, not only for convicts but for the sons of the gentry who weren't good at Greek grammar and Latin and chemistry. Dickens wrote a letter about his son whom he sent here, Plorn, the younger of the two that he sent here, that was his nickname for him. He said to his teacher, 'I suggest that we cut out the Latin grammar and the chemistry because he won't need it in his rough colonial existence.' So from about the age of 12, 13 he intended to send Plorn here.

And that is something that has interested me for a long time, and I have doubted, I have dismissed writing it because I doubt I could populate the skin of a gentleman, for obvious reasons! But I found a way to do it. The more letters, the more I researched the life and the more letters of Dickens I read and the more letters of his children, the more dense their relationships became, the more…for example, Dickens had a connection with a place called Urania Lodge, which he bought for poor women, and he brought poor women there, women who…in some cases so-called fallen women, women who had been thrown out of workhouses, women were seamstresses, who had got pregnant from their employer. He had all those in Urania Cottage, and the bill was picked up by Miss Coutts, an extraordinary woman who was the heiress of the Coutts Bank. And he sent them to Australia, so he sent the women who had been under a certain trial period, fallen and unfortunate women, he sent to Australia.

Then he sent his son to Australia. Could the sons have thought 'I'm a sort of reject, like these girls from Urania Cottage'? Could they in dark or drunken hours thought that? So the more you research, the more fantastical it all becomes. And then I found out that his boss out in the Darling River was an early photographer of the Paakantji people who, by the way, are the descendants of Mungo Man. And so the more you read, the more you research, the more hints you are given to weird and wonderful stuff. As my daughter said, a heroine who escapes Botany Bay and arrives in London and is going to face execution for escaping, for transportation, and her life is saved by James Boswell…preposterous. And yet that's what my daughter's book is about, and it happened. So the more research, the more inescapable these passions become.

Audience question 2: Just a quick story and then a question. The quick story is on Saturday I was talking to a man who was handing out Labor how-to-vote cards, and I said, 'I hope Bob Hawke voted early.' And he said, 'Don't worry, he's only been dead two days, wait for the third day.' But the question was, because of your long relationship with this museum, do you think perhaps in the fullness of time you may find yourself a place in the taxidermy section?

Kim McKay: Well, we do have a lab downstairs.

Tom Keneally: It's going to be a cheaper job now I've had the operation, there's less of me to get stuffed, so to speak.

Kim McKay: You know as you walk into the museum now, Tom, you'll see the footprints of children, and they are the footprints of the Mungo children…

Tom Keneally: That's wonderful, those Mungo…

Kim McKay: Yes, and there's a new film about them in one of our First Nations galleries here, if you've got time after. One more question.

Audience question 3: Thanks for your time here today. This may be too complex a question to answer, but given what you've said about the development of character and research and everything, do you find it more difficult to write a short book than a longer book?

Tom Keneally: I find it difficult to write a novella, that's true, because I take after my mother. My mother used to begin anecdotes like…I remember one night she said, 'You remember that man from the Macleay, the Trevors, and they had that sister-in-law who was in the circus, and his uncle died of peritonitis? Well, his daughter and son-in-law live in Granville, and I was at the hospital the other day and he has had bad conjunctivitis,' or whatever. And my old man one night got sick of this novel-length exposition that went back to the 1880 floods of the Macleay, and said, 'Anyhow, he bloody died.' So I wish I took after my father, but I take after my mother, and everyone has a backstory and a genealogy that has to be recounted. You couldn't stop her from recounting it either, she'd just start again.

Kim McKay: Ladies and gentlemen, there is no doubt why Tom Keneally is in our list of 100 Australians who have shaped the nation. He's shaped our literary history and understanding, and he is, without doubt in my mind a literary genius but, more than that, I think today we are in the presence of true greatness. Please thank Tom Keneally.

Lunchtime Conversation Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is a series of talks with some of Australia's best-known innovators, revolutionaries and underdogs.

In 2019 our guests were chosen from the 100 people of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery. Some have now passed, and some continue to challenge the status quo – all embody a peculiarly Australian spirit and drive to make a difference despite adversity.