Writers have a reputation for being dark, brooding types, fond of the written word precisely because they’re shy of the spoken.
That is not Thomas Keneally.
At age 82, Keneally is bright, burly and eloquently boisterous, a National Living Treasure who embodies the down-to-earth ideals of his beloved rugby league at least as much as his status as a literary giant.
“You know, it’s hard to be a cool geriatric,” he laughs. “But I am lucky that as a writer, I am in a profession where I can still speak to young writers.
“I mean, a surgeon as old as me would not be able to talk meaningfully about surgery in the 1950s, except to an historical society.”
That Keneally, who was recently appointed a Professorial Fellow at the University of South Australia, should remain so relevant beyond the historical is, rather poetically, almost entirely the result of his profound, prodigious sense of history.
From the most famous moments of Schindler’s Ark to lesser-known triumphs like Bring Larks and Heroes, Keneally’s stories are enthralling accounts of times past, but their real power comes from an understanding that history is more than that.
“I’ve always had a strong belief that history is the present, and that the best historical novels are actually about the present,” Keneally says.
“Take The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. At the time it was written, Australia was engaged in Vietnam, a foreign war in which half of us didn’t believe; and in the story, we were in a foreign war in South Africa that liberal opinion in Australia didn’t agree with. So, I felt right there that the past and the present were one.”
Keneally’s ability to view the challenges of today through the eyes of history’s unsung heroes has seen his career encompass a staggering range of subjects, and his prodigious output is a testament to both the power of an open mind and plain hard work.
Indeed, the recent series of masterclasses he delivered to UniSA students emphasised that the biggest lesson – and challenge – for any writer can be summarised in three words: “Get it written”.
Nonetheless, in conversation there is a real sense that Keneally’s work is also a very natural extension of the way he sees the world.
“I was listening to a politician on the radio this morning, and he was attacking some of the Senate for not supporting business tax cuts. Now, I’ve not written anything recently about the Irish Famine, but one could do so very effectively right now, because it’s the same argument about tax cuts for big business.
“The argument then was that large landowners had to be helped because it would trickle down to the starving. One-and-a-half-million corpses later, people are still claiming that tax cuts to big business will increase jobs.
“It’s all old failed stuff revisited, but because the blokes in charge have no sense of history, they don’t see where it’s led the human species.”
The issue is not just where it’s led us, but where it’s leading us.
As a writer, Keneally has found his most fertile ground in historical tales, but he sees no reason why the same themes – humanity’s, follies and frailties and most fantastic capacities – won’t continue to take centre stage into the future.
At a time when billionaires are pointing their egos and bank accounts at the stars, Keneally believes the human challenges that lie ahead are remarkably similar to the ones we have already faced.
“Unless we evolve to have another huge spurt of DNA which reconciles, by superior reason, the contradictions of our nature, then the people we send to Mars will go through the same crap that people in Massachusetts went through in the 17th century, the same troubles that Sir Walter Raleigh faced,” he says.
“There’s an image I have of Arthur Phillip in one of my books – in his shirt sleeves at the fire, feeding his pet possum one grain of rice at a time, while he’s living off the same ration as everyone else and Mrs Brooks, his girlfriend, the widow of some dead bosun [boatswain] whom he picked up at Tristan da Cunha, is making dinner.
“That is the image of Phillip and it’s the image of the commandant on Mars – he’s picked up a girl whose husband died on some abandoned space station, and they’ve started their association, just trying to make it all work.”
Fittingly, Keneally is currently working on a new novel about Edward ‘Plorn’ Dickens, son of Charles Dickens, who was sent to Australia by his father in what was more or less an act of rejection.
The land Plorn finds is strange, and its lessons could well travel beyond this world.
“He is an inspector of pastoralists, looking at the way other people are trying to make a go of it on the pastoral leases.
“And there are rules about it, many of which he thinks are ridiculous, like cutting down all the trees.
“The topsoil was disappearing, and they thought the droughts and the dust were bad luck.
“But in fact, they brought the wrong dreaming.
“Australia was dictating its terms. They’re not the terms of Europe; it’s not even the anti-Europe. I’d like to say it gives the middle finger to European expectations.”