Interview with Thomas Keneally

Posted by Goodreads on July 30, 2013
Thomas Keneally In the works of beloved Australian writer Thomas Keneally, the ravages of war are occasionally offset by the tenderness of a few good people. This signature theme resonated through his best-known work, Schindler's List, which won the Man Booker Prize under its original title, Schindler's Ark, in 1982 and was made into a 1993 Oscar-winning film by Steven Spielberg. At 77, Keneally remains one of Australia's most prolific writers, with 29 novels, including The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Confederates, and Gossip from the Forest; 17 works of nonfiction; and many plays. His elegant new book, The Daughters of Mars—a tribute to the Australian nurses of World War I—is anchored by a complicated and powerful sister relationship. Sally and Naomi must bear a secret and endure a war that is "a machine to make us true sisters." As volunteer nurses, they are sent off to the Dardanelles, where Australian troops face the Ottoman army at Gallipoli, and later to the Western Front. The author talks to interviewer Joy Horowitz about the moral imperatives of war, the fine line between altruism and opportunism, and how his grandchildren figure into his writing schedule.

Goodreads: Is the book's title a reference to Mars, as in the god of war?

Thomas Keneally: Yes, the god of war. When I first presented it to the publisher, I said, "Does this sound too sci-fi?" But then I thought if people buy it, mistaking it for science fiction, what a wonderful thing.

GR: The Daughters of Mars is based on the diaries of nurses from World War I. What led you to the diaries and where did you find them?

TK: In writing about World War I, I thought I'd do it through the nurses, surgeons, and stretcher-bearers, because they dealt with what came out of the trenches. So I began to read nurses' journals. I was fascinated that they could handle and process so efficiently this grand trauma without going completely nuts. They encounter a horror at an unexpected scale—the whole thing of shell shock, of gas damage, of facial reconstruction, of shock from wounds and the extent to which they have to be servants of wounds, continually tending them to protect them from sepsis and gangrene. One of the things that also amazed me was their struggle for status, even by the standards of the time when the blokes were definitely in charge.

Some of the journals were published and others were in our state library. And then we have an Australian war memorial, which is an archive as well as a museum. I found a lot of material in there that was very enlightening.

GR: The question of how women seem to deal with trauma better than men takes front and center in this book.

TK: It is remarkable, the stamina of these young women and their resistance to shock. I think it's these things we now know about women. The multitasking. I hesitate to use the word. What happens on Thanksgiving while the blokes are watching football? The women are in the kitchen multitasking. Without being flippant about it, it's almost a variation on that.

GR: I loved the sister relationship in the book. It felt so complicated and real to me, the tension and the love between Sally and Naomi and how they grew closer over time. Did you draw on anything from your own life or family history to create them?

TK: Yes, I'm fascinated by sisters, because I have two daughters. I only have a brother myself. But having daughters was part of my education on the way to writing books like The Daughters of Mars. And, my God, is the relationship between sisters complex! I wanted to put some of that complexity into the novel. In an Alexandria hotel they're having tea together, and one of them says to the other, Do you think we can be friends? That's a big question between sisters, because sometimes they're the most savage enemies. Some of them become passionate friends. Others have a less-than friendship but more-than friendship in other ways—the old blood is thicker than water thing. But the sister is not necessarily the first person you call up when you're in trouble. That perspective of sisterhood is very interesting. The sisters are both drawn together and repelled by all of what they know and by much of what they've done.

GR: You dedicated the book to your nurses Judith and Jane.

TK: That's my wife and sister-in-law. They both nursed in the '50s, and they said it's close enough to World War I. The only difference is, they had access to antibiotics. So they were a great help. Also, my brother who was a doctor who died of cancer last year. He was quite a medical historian. He did a complete medical critique of the book, and that was wonderful help.

At my brother's wake there were a number of nurses who said, "He treated us as if we were colleagues." That means there are still doctors around who don't treat the nurses as if they're colleagues, and that's a very sad thing.

GR: You're now 77. I'm wondering if you feel that you're a better writer today than you were as a younger man. Are there things you feel freer to do, like writing from the perspective of these two sisters, for example?

TK: I think technically I'm a bit better. I've always been a bit of a messy writer in that, as a novelist, you put all these colored balls in the air and you don't manage to catch them all convincingly. Some of them you just catch in a plausible enough way. I genuinely felt in this book I caught all the balls I'd thrown up in the air. In that sense I think I'm becoming better. But I might be going gaga and lack the passion I had when I was young.

GR: Goodreads member Sandra says, "Having been raised in a small rural area outside of a very tiny town in deep East Texas, I had never seen or heard of a Jewish person before I read Schindler's List. It's an understatement to say that book changed my life to make me a better person. I think I grew up after reading that book (even though I was 30) and realized the world did not revolve around me or my small part of the world. Is there a book in your past that changed your life? Not one of your books, but one you read from another writer. If so, please tell me why it changed you."

TK: Oh, gee, there are a number. But a book that really changed me was Toni Morrison's Sula. To me, it's not her best-known book, but it really spoke of what it was to be a child of slaves, to be an apparently free black man or woman in the South or drifting up north to one of the more industrial states. It simply, again, was the sort of epiphany the reader in Texas got. I'm delighted she got that result, because writers are just stumbling along and they're trying to get a book written and hoping it's good, but they are working in a certain level of darkness. The other shameful thing is, they're working to get paid and published as well. If out of all that ambiguity comes this book that expanded the reader's world, that's a wonderful thing.

There are other books that have influenced me so profoundly. For example, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior. I thought it was so exquisite, and it was so well handled without being didactic. She wrote about climate change so dramatically but in a gentle persuasion sort of way and with magnificently perceived characters and magnificent prose. I met her recently at a literary festival in England, and I told her how touched I was by her book and then burst into tears. Jesus, I used to not be able to burst into tears. I went back to her later and apologized, but she rather liked it. If you keep reading, you get these revelations all the time. And writers get them as much as anyone else does insofar as writers are big readers.

GR: Goodreads member Laurel Valenti asks, "What fascinates you about 20th-century wartime stories and why are they your inspiration?"

TK: It's undeniable that I'd like to be a pacifist, but my hypocrisy is, I like to write about human conflict. If we all were as nice to each other as I wish we could be, novelists would have nothing to write about. But I was a child of the war, even though I lived so far away from World War II. Everyone I knew was in it from 1939 onwards in one way or another. My father was away three years in North Africa. He used to send me back cake tins full of Nazi memorabilia. So I was only one degree of separation from the Third Reich, even though we lived in a suburb of Sydney. The Japanese bombing of northern Australia and the submarine attack in Sydney harbor—all that occurred at an impressionable age.

The fact that we go to war is a great mystery to me. Not all my books are about war, but they're about the ethnic divide between people or the fraternity across the ethnic divide. If I'd been properly conditioned, could I do what the young men in the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto did? These people were not mad. They were the ordinary sons of ordinary families, and they'd been sold a very, in its way, sophisticated line of indoctrination. And I always wondered how I'd behave in those situations. I don't think I'd be as competent as the sisters [in The Daughters of Mars] and I don't think I'd be as effective as Oskar Schindler was, because Oskar was an operator. I fear a lot of us, when we see present horrors, say, "Oh, how appalling. Why doesn't NATO address it?" We sign a few petitions but ultimately do very little. It's often unexpected people who do the housekeeping of humanity, which is what Schindler did, and of course these girls are doing the housekeeping of humanity, too. It's horrifying housekeeping, but it definitely needs to be done.

You write out of doubt about your own moral fiber. One of the places your own moral fiber is cast up as a question is when it comes to war. In the 19th century how would one behave racially? I've written a lot about the clash between Aboriginals and settlers, which was very much like the clash between Native Americans and your settlers—except Aboriginals never had access to rifles, so they were even more disadvantaged. But I often wonder how I would have behaved in the 19th century as a land-starved Irishman riding into these illimitable pastures that no one is going to stop me occupying except members of the oldest culture on Earth. It's the sort of question I can't help teasing away at.

As well as the moral interest in war, there's probably something pathological I'd probably have to go to a psychoanalyst to unearth. There's probably something unhealthy there as well. But I was a child of war.

GR: Goodreads Author David Ebsworth asks, "I'd be interested to know whether Thomas Keneally uncovered any previously untold facts during his research for The Daughters of Mars, and if so, what were they and how did they change the shape of the story as he originally envisaged it?"

TK: I think the discovery that gave contours to the story it otherwise wouldn't have had consisted of the growing sophistication of these "casualty clearing stations," when they became aware of the phenomenon called "shock" and devised special procedures to deal with it. Shock so profound men couldn't be operated on until they got out of that condition. We all know that shock occurs and it's dangerous, but I didn't realize it had been addressed at that time of history.

The other thing in terms of plot was the existence of this Lady Tarlton figure. I'm not a great fan of the British aristocracy, but I discovered the real Lady Tarlton, whose name was Lady Dudley, because I know her great-granddaughter, who is a very beautiful Englishwoman who lives in Sydney and is married to a friend of mine named Bryan Brown, an Australian actor. Her name is Rachel Ward. It was her ancestor who was Lady Dudley. She visited on official visits with her husband to remote parts of Australia, and she found the conditions in which women were giving birth were appalling. So she created her own midwifery service to send nurses into remote areas. She wanted to send them to northern Australia as Lady Tarlton does. But because the prime minister is quarreling with her husband, he doesn't provide her with a ship to make that possible. But she started this service that lasted a long time and must have saved a lot of lives of children and women in the Australian bush. Then when the war broke out, she started this Australian voluntary hospital. I never had heard of her until recently. Studying her, I became aware of how much fortitude she had. She didn't do it like a dilettante. She was hands-on.

GR: What's your writing process?

TK: I tend to write for considerable stretches in the morning and later afternoon. Generally mid-afternoon I go on a long walk. I live in a part of Sydney on the edge of a national park. And it's near the sea. So there's a great lot of walking around the coast of the harbor and the Pacific coast. So I generally take an hour and five minutes. That is very important to the day.

I'm the sort of novelist who writes a draft of the novel almost as a means of getting to know the character. I think that's a very important thing for people who are demented enough to want to write fiction in this age. To begin to write and find out who the characters are. Then in the second draft you begin to see connections between these characters, and you begin to see nuances you never did before. Then you get to know them better. Then the third time round you really know them and the lights are on in the room; whereas in the first draft there was a lot of darkness. It's their characters you can discern. I'm one of those incessant draft people. I generally send it off after the fourth draft and then rewrite it again according to editorial suggestions. I find I need an editor by the time I've written four drafts. Working on something you know—improving it—is, in fact, a great joy. It's the time of greatest delusion, too. You're most in love with it. That's the time you think it's an important book that will mean a lot to the world—a delusion that is quickly defused by reading the proof pages and the actual process of publication. But there you go. It's the intoxication that makes us do it.

After my walk, I work as much as I can before dinner, which is generally around 7:30. But I've got grandchildren to look after, too. They're more important than novels to me. If they need to be looked after, then that's what you do.

GR: Other books of influence?

TK: I think Graham Greene was the most important, because he made writing seem so effortless. Writing only looks effortless when you've nearly died for it. Saul Bellow's Herzog and Mr. Sammler's Planet showed what could be done in fiction. You can look back in fiction and think, "God, compared to these people you've only flexed some puny muscles." But that's OK. It's better than being a real estate developer.

GR: What are you reading now?

TK: You wouldn't believe it. It's shameful. People expect writers to have read everything. I'm reading To the Lighthouse for the first time [laughs].


Interview by Joy Horowitz for Goodreads. Horowitz is a writer living in Cambridge, MA, and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is also the author of Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter's Story and Parts per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School.

Learn more about Joy and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Wayne (new)

Wayne Thanks for this wonderful and insightful interview.
Good questions leading to very meaty responses.
WHO WAS THE INTERVIEWER ???

I'm presently looking forward to rereading several of Tom's early books..."Bring Larks and Heroes", "Confederates", "Three Cheers For the Paraclete"... but also have his recent "The People's Train" and, after reading a very favourable review in the British Literary Review,"The Daughters of Mars". This interview confirmed earlier impressions...thanks again.
Long ago,my Dear Mum had promised to buy me Tom's very first novel, "The Place at Whitton", around the mid 1960's.
I was thrilled but nothing came of it.
I had recently entered the Passionist Religious order to study for the Catholic priesthood. Tom had recently left the Catholic Priesthood. He and my Mother had crossed paths several times at the Hibernian Dental Clinic which my Mother managed at Homebush, a suburb of Sydney, where Tom had grown up and now returned to.
Leaving the priesthood in those days was frowned on.
A Catholic patient discouraged my Mother from buying this book of Tom's for me...he was 'suspect,'under a cloud' for his abandoning his vocation, and this man assured my mother that, being in a seminary, I might be disturbed by the book. However I was already being disturbed by what was happening in the seminary itself.
I was to leave in 1969 after 6 years study, a confirmed, yet reluctant, atheist. Now a contented atheist, I still mourn my lost opportunity of reading Tom's First Book. But certainly have relished those I've read. So did Mum !!!!
Thanks to You , Tom!!!!

Wayne from Sydney.


message 2: by CatBookMom (new)

CatBookMom Thanks to the interviewer and especially to Thomas Keneally for this fascinating conversation. I have recently read several books about nurses in WWI (beginning with Charles Todd's Bess Crawford mysteries) and will immediately put this new one on my TBR list.


message 3: by Joyce (new)

Joyce McDonald Loved this interview with Thomas Keneally. No writer of historical fiction should miss it. Can't wait to get my hands on the book. World War II and sisters are my favorite topics to read about. His research and methods of understanding of his characters are very impressive. Thanks so much. Wish I could visit with him for an afternoon.
Joyce McDonald, author of The Benediction.


message 4: by Sarkis (new)

Sarkis shant Thanks for this wonderful and insightful interview.
His research and methods of understanding of his characters are very impressive. Thanks so much. Wish I could visit with him for an afternoon


message 5: by Mohamed (new)

Mohamed Alksade Thank you Author Hedmkablh royalty journalist with writer and synthesizer Australia


message 6: by Jan (new)

Jan Great interview and perceptive questions from Goodreads members. I am not at the end of The Daughters of Mars but these insights will add to the whole experience. Fascinating period detail too. I find I always learn something from TK.


message 7: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Cardinal I read this book and loved it. Characters well drawn, plot intriguing, details amazing, but pretty graphic. Book stays with you long afterwards. Only problem is with the ending. Why so questionable?


message 8: by Louise (new)

Louise Beaumont I loved this book. It was such an insight into the time and the perspective of women involved in WWI.


message 9: by William (new)

William Goldman The interviewer, Wayne, was Joy Horowitz, as it says in a box immediately under the interview. Fascinating to read this. I kept meaning to read Schindler's Ark and then the film came out, which knocked me out.


message 10: by Wayne (new)

Wayne Thanks William.
I had caught up with that addition and meant to return a BIG THANK YOU...which better late than never I now do
I too saw the film but missed the book which I now hope to rectify.
Too much Good Reading, not enough hours to devour it ALL, eh !!!!


message 11: by Jan (new)

Jan I've just read the final page and am unsure if the ending worked or not. Actually I'm not totally sure exactly what happened so will read it again. Obviously a device used by TK to keep the reader dangling. Is that a bit too manipulative? Hmmm. If it is connected to the uncertainty of death, fate, random events over which we have no control, the end could be seen as quite profound. I'm still working it out.


message 12: by Boyd (new)

Boyd Musukambale love the interview, unfortunately i dont have a copy of this novel. can anyone help me acquiring this novel, am really in need of it.


message 13: by Awolusi (new)

Awolusi Joseph Ope Thank you Author,i can't wait to get my own copy.


message 14: by Marcia (new)

Marcia L.loomis Thank you Goodreads for introducing me to this author and his new book about WWI. My family has become very interested in this time in history because my daughter just finished the Broadway tour of Warhorse which is set during that period. We are looking forward to reading this book as soon as possible.


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