Q&A With Man Booker Winning 'Schindler's List' Author Tom Keneally Ahead of Australian Writers Week in May
Though Tom Keneally is best known as the Booker Man Booker Prize winning author of Schindler's Ark, which was adapted into the Academy Award-winning 1993 film Schindler's List, he nearly made cinematic history a decade earlier in China. Back in the 1980s, the Sydney-born author was attempting to broker a deal between Australian directors and Shanghai studios as part of the two nations’ first cultural liaison. Those efforts stalled, but Keneally returns to China this May as a speaker at the Australian Writers Week in Beijing.
Below he tells us more about his long running China fixation, how his early life as a deacon in the priesthood shaped his most recent and controversial book Crimes of the Father (2016), and the advice imbued to him by world-renowned movie director Steven Spielberg.
The Catholic Church was so formative for you, seeing as you were as a deacon. How does it feel to be writing about its abuse scandals now?
I’m acknowledging there are some good people in there, while also acknowledging that the institution has become corrupted. The question of abuse in the Catholic church is one that has quite shocked even though people who grew up in the church. So in that sense it’s a sort of closure. But it also confesses to the underlining mystery. I have to say that in the West the church has lost a lot of traction through its mishandling of these abuse cases, not according to its compassion but handling them according to its self interest. With confidentiality and small payments and less emphasis on the generosity and feeling for the people who went through it.
So it’s a real crisis now. The official church barely acknowledges there’s a crisis. It mentions it a few times, but it doesn’t act like there’s a crisis. So I wanted to write about the sort of descent priests I knew and also the betrayers.
There was a sort of closing of the circle, acknowledge the crime but also acknowledge the genuinely spiritual people in the church.
Did that make writing this novel more challenging than any of your others?
No. I was asked, as someone who had studied for the priesthood, by the New Yorker some years ago to write about this problem. It’s emotionally difficult, but once you start researching it, there are many plot lines that present themselves. And there are people you’ve met who were victims. So I knew, pretty much, what was going to go into this book. An old friend of mine, a priest who I based a character on, said to me “If the church doesn’t clear this up, all priests will be under suspicion of being abusers or being enablers of abuse.” And he was right of course, that’s the position priests are in now. And many, many of them are of course not abusers.
The church hides by saying the Boy Scouts have abuse, and that there’s abuse in schools. But they are supposed to be the top institution. They’re supposed to be the ultimate source on faith and morals. So they can’t have it both ways. Either they’re the top of the tree and uniquely to blame, or they’re just another organization. So it’s a great crisis, it's seen by the victims, it’s seen by many priests and nuns, but it’s not seen as such a crisis by the people who run everything. That’s the way things go.
Given your links to the church through your time spent as a deacon, was writing this novel cathartic for you?
Not necessarily. I’m feeling I’m getting to be a better novelist as I get older. And if you look at one of my other recent books Napoleon's Last Island, and the idea of ordinary people becoming very close to a political and military superstar on an island in the south Atlantic and then they themselves being sent to Australia, because they got too close to him, that was equally difficult and easy to write. It wasn’t that difficult, in a sense, to write Crimes of the Father because I’d been thinking about it for a long time, since I’d written this piece for the New Yorker in 2002.
I have an Irish name, and grew up in the Catholic faith during a time when England controlled Ireland. In writing about that I’m not only writing about the religion I grew up in, but also my tribe. On top of that, a lot of interesting progressive politics all over the West came out of the Catholic church. Ted Kennedy was a great social democrat who came from Catholicism. So I’m writing about pat of our identity, the Irish underclasses who rightly or wrongly clung to the church in the same way the Poles did in the last days of the Soviets, as an emblem of their difference from the Russians. And that’s what happened in our case too. So I am writing about my own people in writing that book.
So, in that way, it must have such a different feeling than writing about the holocaust and Judaism in Schindler's Ark?
Well it’s funny, I’ve always been fascinated by Judaism because – though I come from Australia, which seemed like the end of the earth when I was a kid – my father was a solider in North Africa, fighting the forces of the Third Reich. So I used to receive packages from him full of mementos, the sort of thing soldiers always send home; things they’d found on patrol or on the battlefield. I was very immature, a kid of only six or seven, but these mementos of the Third Reich did lodge in my imagination a bit, and made me wonder why it was so essential to the Nazis to obliterate the Jews. And I feel that I was closer to that question, since my father fought that regime.
And of course a lot of people who killed Jews were Catholics, and in the heart of Christianity there seemed to be a hatred of the Jews. So I had to work that out. And part of writing Schindler was my wrestling with that questions – that my own culture, even though I was a debased Australian version of it, my own culture had pursued the Jews as killers of Christ.
Did that inner conflict make you perk up when you met Poldek Pfefferberg, the Holocaust survivor that inspired you to write Schindler's Ark?
Yes. But also what I liked about the story, and what I liked about [the protagonist] Oskar Schindler was that he did quantifiable good, but he was a scoundrel. And, according to the Church, only people who follow the sacraments and behave well do good. But I believe that you never know where good is going to come from.
I’ve seen that in my own life, in relation to East Africa. I went there with a doctor named Fred Hollows. I’m writing about him and his time in East Africa at the moment. He was involved in eye health there, but he was also against the idea of being the Great White Man coming in and presenting that to them. So he started an intraocular lens (which, according to All About Vision are “medical devices that are implanted inside the eye to replace the eye's natural lens when it is removed during cataract surgery”) facility in Africa. He set that up before he died, and it’s still operating and providing lenses that are up to European standard at a much lower price.
So I went to East Africa with him and a number of times again after he died. And that’s what I’m writing about at the moment, those journeys.
It sounds like this new project won’t be a work of fiction?
It will be fictional. Oh, it’s about so many subjects! It’s about that doctor in East Africa. But it’s also about how we, in Canborough, Australia, have a skeleton of a 2,000-year-old man. I know China is a great place for palaeontology too, and many human remnants from the stone age. And this man in Canborough is 42,000 years old. I’m writing about his life, and the life of the modern man, and in a way I'm trying to write about the ultimate historical novel. I’m a huge admirer of Chinese culture but even they weren’t as advanced, 42,000 years ago, as these people in Australia.
You just mentioned being an admirer of Chinese culture as well. How so?
When Australia began relations with China, our Department of Foreign Affairs created an Australia-China council to liaise with China about business and academic life and science and cultural exchanges. We first went to China as a group in 1980 just as China was starting to change. We were the first country to try so many things there.
How were you involved in some of those pioneering efforts?
Well I tried to start coproductions between Australian filmmakers and the Shanghai studios. But that never happened, though it may happen in the future. And we were involved in the China Daily, the first English language newspaper, which was started by the Melbourne Age and the Peking People’s Daily. And we were the first country involved in the first external tour of the entombed warriors which had just been recently been discovered in Xian. So I think you could say I’m a great admirer of Chinese culture. I can’t speak Mandarin. But I’m fascinated both by the history and antiquity of it all, and of course the modernization.
To get a visa, I had to say I wouldn’t write about China. And I have no intention of doing it, because I’m not enough of an expert on it. But I am an admirer of its history and culture. And we here in Australia have a full range of Chinese immigrants from all over the country, so the way that the Chinese have entered the West interest me a great deal also. I was hoping, if I had the power, to get the Australians and the Shanghai studios to make a great feature about the men from Guandong who came to Australia in the 19th century to mine gold. Many of them were former bandits, some were rebels against the Qing dynasty, and I think it would be fascinating to look between the interaction between them and the white Australians.
But that’s just one of the movies I’d like to make. If I were a director. And had a rich uncle (laughs). Or if I had the help of the Shanghai studios.
Even though your plans with the Shanghai studios didn’t work out, it still must have been fascinating to approach them. I’m curious about how that experience compared to working in the Hollywood system on Schindler’s List? For instance: screenwriter Kurt Luedtke “who had adapted the screenplay of Out of Africa, gave up” on adapting Schindler’s Ark “as he found Schindler's climactic change of heart too unbelievable.”
Yes. Kurt was an Academy Award winner. I’d written an adaptation, and didn’t find it as hard. But I’m glad, if you’re a writer of books it’s best to keep out of the film business. I think films are wonderful. But I’m not a director by nature, or a screenwriter. I’m a novelist and historian, and that means of course you’re doomed to comfort rather than riches. You make riches in the movie industry (laughs). But it’s not what I normally like to do at all, though I loved every aspect of the making of Schindler’s List.
What did you enjoy most about working on that movie?
I was on the set with Spielberg, and traveled to a number of premieres, and he was a very genial fellow. But films are not my normal gig. The solitude of writing books is what I normally do.
How did you feel about Spielberg’s adaptation of your novel overall?
I thought it was good. He had to choose a simple storyline through. A lot had to be sacrificed. He did a great job of that. But there’s a lot of riches in books, they have lots of elbowroom. And movies don’t. They’re wonderful entities, but they’re simpler. They’ve got less DNA in them than novels do. And less complications.
Spielberg once said to me that a film has to be designed for the span of a human bladder, it can’t be too long. He then went and made a three-and-a-quarter-hour movie out of my book [laughs]. It was a rule that he broke, because usually there alt these constraints on film. But a novel doesn’t need to be consumed so quickly. And it can indulge itself with subplots and subtexts. It’s like the difference between a marathon runner and a 5,000 meter runner, they’re both wonderful but one can’t do what the other does. Novelists are generally too long winded to write good screenplays.
This new book you’re working on – that covers prehistoric times and an Australian doctor’s late 20th century trips to East Africa – sounds like the perfect sort of story for a book, but not a film.
Yes, there are some books that will never be films, because they’re too complex. You can’t ever tell. It’s best for a writer to never think “Will this be a good movie or not?” [laughs] Because that sort of thing happens entirely by accident. It’s like an intersection between zoos on different planets. I’d like to see more of my books made into movies, and some people have succeeded in doing so, while other’s attempts have fallen through.
Recently Quentin Tarantino was in Sydney, and he staged a screening in 35mm of a film based on a book of mine called The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which is about the grief of Australian aboriginals. It was a wonderful film, very shocking and radical when it was released. But it’s a great film to see now. it’s an example of a good film coming from a book. But you never know what film will come from a book, because one of them is done in solitude and the other is done collaboratively between a writer, director, producer, and more. It takes a special sort of magic for a film to become more than the sum of its parts.
I think Schindler was more than the sum of its parts, and I think Jimmie Blacksmith was too. Anyhow, there are a few random thoughts on film and the novel [laughs]. I should let you talk now!
Well the part of your new novel about the doctor in Africa sounds very cinematic. How did all that get started?
I wanted to investigate the question of whether famines are made by God or man. They’re usually blamed on God or the victims. But I wanted to know where they came from, so I went to East Africa were there was a famine. At the time and I found that there was a new under reported war raging between the Eritreans and the Ethiopians. The Eritreans won in the end but Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Stalinist dictator of Ethiopia, fell and lived in exile. I was astonished by traveling there – and it was very hard to travel there then, you had to go in through Sudan by special arrangement and there were no phones – I was astonished by the scale of the war occurring there. It was a war that was absorbing the resources of both countries. So I wrote about that, a book called Towards Asmara (1989). The story of the Eritreans is a tragic one, but one I wanted to write about and get involved with. I had an Eritrean friend and I knew this doctor going into Eritrea to set up systems of eye health that the Eritreans could take over, which they did very competently. So that’s how I got involved in East Africa.
Does the story about the doctor tie in with the story about the prehistoric fellow in Australia was well? I was a bit unclear on that earlier.
Yes, I’m writing about both of these Australian men dying. The man from 40,000 years ago is a forerunner with the Aboriginals, and he dies by a lake full, and ceremonially buried. He’s the first case of a human being ceremonially buried, so I’m trying to reconstruct the events that killed him. He was obviously an important man in his human group. As I get older I want to write about those kind of things, and also about our shared humanity. How it’s the only true star we have to guide us in our behavior towards each other. The fact that we all come from a woman in Africa, and that you and I are related to each other through her. That’s a compelling idea, and I’m trying to write about that stuff in this new book.
Are these some of the themes and ideas you’ll touch on during your appearance at the literary festival in Beijing in May?
Oh yes. I want to talk about things like that, and the ethnicity issues raised by Schindler’s List, and human ironies, and the great ironies of history, and all the rest of it. And of course the question of China and Australia.
It must be exciting to come to China again and discuss these things, given you were here so early in the 1980s as one of the first foreigners to arrive in some time.
Yes indeed. I do think that the demeanor of the university students has changed quite a bit since the 1980s and my most recent visits. They’re as vocal as Californians now. I don’t know if that’s a tragedy or otherwise.
Oh well, it must give you joy to see people here in China be more open and more self assured?
It does, I’m kidding of course. Many of them are very much citizens of the world now. Things have both improved and have almost gone backwards there – as an old social democrat I’m almost sad to see all the big designer labels there now, and so on. But anyhow, that’s not my business. it’s up to you guys! I do look forward to coming to talk about it though, and hearing more about it.
The schedule and full line-up of this year's Australian Writers's Week have yet to be released but we will keep you updated as details emerge.