Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Writers' Conference recharges the batteries of 'Schindler's List' author

Express Staff Writer

Thomas Keneally. Photo by Barbi Reed, courtesy Sun Valley Writers' Conference

Fourth in a series of interviews with authors who participated in this year's Sun Valley Writers' Conference

Like actors, authors love to socialize with each other (even marry each other). For acclaimed author Thomas Keneally—best known for immortalizing Oskar Shindler in his Booker Prize-winning work "Schindler's List"—one of the joys of the Sun Valley Writers' Conference is the chance to catch up with fellow scribes.

Keneally was happy to spend time with Irish author Frank McCourt at this year's conference—the two had often socialized at a New York luncheon club in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Reminiscing about his first meeting with McCourt at one of those luncheons, Keneally said, "(One) table had the famous Macaulay McCourt and his obscure school teacher brother Frank. (Someone said) 'By the way, Frank's little book is being published.'

"He not so much joined the club," joked Keneally as he relaxed after lunch on the Sun Valley Lodge Terrace, "He blew the windows and doors off."

For Keneally the conference is an important venue for writers because, like a rousing conversation over lunch, it helps to recharge the batteries.

"It's wonderful when they put you in the limelight. I like the experience of being able to talk like this," he said, joking that sometimes he feels a little bad, however. "Maybe the book is not as good as what I just said."

Keneally describes writing a novel as a work of endurance and describes writing in general as a solitary task. Participating in writers' conferences and festivals, he said, is important in terms of restoring confidence.

"You've got to convince yourself the world needs (to read what you've written)," he said. "You rarely meet people who've read your books. The sessions here have been so spectacular. People bring goodwill to literary festivals. The headmaster of The Community School has read everything. Meeting a fellow like that fills the batteries. God bless him."

In a divergence from his path as a novelist, Keneally spent three years deep in research for his non-fiction foray "The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World." In part he liked the change because he loved the research, being able to explore primary materials in libraries from Boston to Montana and from Washington, D.C. to Tasmania.

This extraordinary work tracks the breadth of the Irish diaspora of the 19th century, including the story of Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irishman exiled to Australia in the late 19th century. He escaped to America to become a brigadier general and governor of Montana.

"I loved that—being cheek and jowl with a man long dead," he said.

Keneally is inexplicably drawn to stories about underdogs, and if there is a nation that exemplifies that word, it is the Irish.

The dust jacket of the book explains that "in the nineteenth century, the Irish population halved. 'The Great Shame' ... traces the three causes of this depletion: the famine; the emigrations; and the transportations to Australia. Based on unique research among little-used sources, the book covers eighty years of Irish history, told through the intimate lens of political prisoners—some of them ancestors of the Keneally family—who served time as convicts in Australia."

"I've got an obsession with prisoners," Keneally said. "I love stories about a person on both sides of the cultural divide. Novelists cherish paradoxes ... people declared unacceptable."

In his long career as a writer, which began at age 25 when he stepped out of studies for the Catholic priesthood, Keneally continually stretches to tackle challenging political and social themes that divide people.

Writers don't explore paradoxes and examples of prejudice out of some kind of heightened morality, he said. "(We) are imagining what it is to be the person that is condemned. For people that are scapegoats it is dramatic to prove their humanity."

The Aussie born-and-bred Keneally has had many entreaties to move to the United States, and he is torn. "America has a lot of good angels" and it is easier to meet with an agent or publisher here, he said.

"America is big, complex, dramatic. It is full of gifts and blights," he said, adding, however, that being Australian has its advantages because one has the benefit, particularly with a unique accent, of being someone fascinating from the outside.

"I have a different idiom. But spiritually and in terms of family I'm locked in between Australia and America. No one would deny that it is a difficult choice."

Keneally's next project is to study the early penal settlements in Australia, their purpose and design.

He said the study includes Georgian England, freed slaves, early Sydney, the shipboard action of American privateers ostracized from domestic trade and first contact with Aboriginals.

"They were the anthropologists," he said, explaining that violence between the two disparate cultures began after Aboriginal enchantments and blandishments failed to send the newcomers packing.

He also relates another compelling paradox about the impact of foreign-born disease, and asks a question that was raised by Jared Diamond in his book "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies."

"Why did we (Australians) have all the viruses and bacteria?"

Keneally's name, as it is printed on the inside of his latest work "The Tyrant's Novel," has a Celtic script that attests to his own Irish heritage. The book itself, however, reaches far outside his cultural and national heritage, focusing yet again on the tale of one dispossessed and threatened by an oppressor. The protagonist tells his tale at the risk of losing all that is dear to him. And, in typical Keneally fashion, the story reflects the political reality around him.

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