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Interview: Thomas Keneally, author

16 June 2017

‘While writing those books you dwell on the limits of human behaviour and morality’


I always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know in my post-colonial childhood whether Australians were permitted to aspire to such things. Reading always gave me the hu­­bristic impression that, one day, I might be able to produce something which was at least a faint shadow of the excellence of the books that at­­tracted me.


When I left the seminary, where literary tendencies were suspect, I began to write short stories, and then a novel. Ignorant of the real­ities of publishing, I greeted the acceptance of that first novel as a mysterious mercy and a sign of a writing destiny.


I’m very attached still to the book Towards Asmara, an obscure work of mine which deals with the appalling Ethiopian-Eritrean War as it existed in the late 1980s. When I attended the Eritrean independence referendum in 1993, I was delighted to find that the UN observers were required to read that book.


Writers think that they can enter into a subject, and get out of it fairly lightly, withdrawing when the work’s finished. Whether you’re writing about Australian Aboriginal life, East Africa, or the Holocaust [Schindler’s List], you bring an appropriate toll with you, because, while writing those books, you are dwelling on the limits of human behaviour and morality. This is only a pale echo of the horror of those who live in the belly of the machine, but one emerges from this work with more burdens and appropriate duties than if one hadn’t undertaken them.


The half-truths, opportunism, race hysteria, and outright lies that go into the Australian policy of man­datory detention for asylum-seekers make me angry. But, like all citizens, I find governments invincibly resist­ant to such criticism. If you’ve prof­ited from a book about the Holo­caust, you can’t ignore that scandal.


Believe it or not, I find it very scary to question the institutional Church. The awed child of the 1940s is still there in me. I chose the subject of paedophilia in the Church for Crimes of the Father because it exemplified the limits of the Church’s institutional callousness, and because I, like many laypeople, lapsed or not, and others, find it so hard to believe that, while so much was exacted of us, priests committed these most destructive of crimes against the young.


I wrote it, too, because a priest-friend of mine predicted that, if the Church did not attend to the issue according to its better angels, in­­stead of its better legal advice, the civil arm would eventually inter­vene. It has happened in Australia, with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which began its work in 2013.


I was always impressed by the extent of the concern of many ordinary priests, and the unwar­ranted composure of the hierarchy at the damage that’s been done. It wasn’t easy to write this, because I have a strong sense of how devout my forebears were, and how little they would have wanted to see these crimes frankly written about. But, to mix metaphors, that’s a horse that’s long since bolted.


My early experiences of God were as a merciful entity, but also as a God of vengeance. We were bred on tales of the Catholic child who missed mass to go on a picnic where he drowned and faced eternal wrath. The Virgin Mary was important to me, as to all Catholics of that era, as a mediator of mercy.


I think that, essential to my decision to become a priest was the fact that Irish Catholics were rather mis­trusted in the Australia of my child­hood. I had an ambition to be a Catholic ambassador to the major­ity. My parents were very concerned with social justice, as was the Church of the time, and I saw that as part of my vocation. In the dour Australia of the 1950s, I saw the rituals and liturgy of the Church as the most graphic thing on the landscape, and I had an ambition to be a dispenser of the sacraments.


I was emotionally immature, like so many of my brethren, and I think it’s part of the mercy of Providence — or good fortune — that I was prevented from giving advice in the confessional, or giving a pompous celibate sermon on Christian marriage. I’d been a very observant seminarian, but suffered an excep­tional crisis of faith. It’s not too exorbitant to say I had a nervous breakdown prior to ordination. I at­­tended, for a month, one of those psychiatric hospitals that are full of priests and seminarians.


I know priests who are fully paid-up human beings, compassionate, of democratic bent, with a sincere be­­lief in human equity. Now, because of their superiors’ lack of wisdom in the matter of child abuse, they bear the suspicion of being enablers.


The scale of the crimes which have been revealed by the Australian Royal Commission is frightful. It announced statistics of abuse in­­volving up to 15 per cent of priests in some dioceses, though the na­­tional average was seven per cent. The Order of the St John of God Brothers had a staggering 40 per cent who were believed to have abused children; 22 per cent of Christian Brothers; and 20 per cent of Marist Brothers.


For these figures to be explained, one would have to believe that that tendency was endemic in priestly and monastic training. In preparing young men for the priestly and monastic life, celibacy too often was achieved by dampening the psycho­sexual development of the young. There’s no doubt that we were encouraged, and indeed were partly programmed, to exclude 51 per cent of the human race, women, from any power in the Church, and to treat them as a perilous mass to be held off with suspicion and eccle­siastical contempt.


I’ve acted in a number of Australian films, particularly those produced by the director Fred Schepisi, in­­cluding one of a novel of mine, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, which Quentin Tarantino recently showed in 35mm to a crowd of young Australians, with a Q & A between himself, Fred, and me. I asked Spiel­berg if he would let me be Rabbi Levertov in Schindler’s List, but he politely ignored the suggestion.


The superlative job is that of writ­ing. It’s also the hardest. Fiction, I find, is hard, because you have to find the book in the ether during the writing of the first draft, and you’re not in control. The later parts of the book, where you are in some conscious control, are easier, but, by and large, the satisfactions of writ­ing are so transcendent that none of us can stop until our clock wears out.


To be an Australian is to be a member of a unique society, given its relative youth, inhabiting the most ancient of landscapes, and liv­ing in the presence of an indigenous tradition which is the oldest culture on earth. In so far as I can and am qualified to, I’ve tried to plug into that culture, and I’m presently writing a novel about the death of a member of Homo sapiens in Aus­tralia, 42,000 years ago.


Australian republicanism has to do not with hating Britain, or holding a grudge against the monarchy, but with having our own head of state as a late-blooming symbol of sover­eignty. The Queen can no more re­p­resent her government in Australia than she can her government in Canada, and is subject to the in­­structions of her government in London. Given that our objectives and imperatives and geography, ex­­ternal and internal, are so removed from those of Great Britain, it’s simply appropriate that we get our own head of state who can speak for us. May I say, God bless your Queen.


I’m very Australian, marked by the landscape and ethos of the political culture, which was, until modern times, very healthy. I began life in a small town in the bush 300 miles north of Sydney, and came down to Sydney during World War II, when my father was in the Armed Forces. My mother, a girl from the bush, applied herself devoutly and ambi­tiously to books, and had a mantra: “A child with a book is never bored.” My parents were ob­­servant but very left-wing Catholics, and I’m afraid I’ve passed on some of their values to my children.


My great joy are four grand­children. They are essential therapy to me.


The sea is a favourite sound of mine, but also blizzards. The sound of blizzards is very complex.


The apogee of happiness is hiking in the bush near our place on the North Head of Sydney Harbour.


The greatest influences on my life in terms of educating and humanising me are my wife, Judy, and my mother.


I pray for the gift of acceptance, including acceptance of my inevit­able decease.


I hope that a new politics arises, and that we work fraternally on climate change and the huge problem of refugees — which is always far more of a problem for refugees than it is for us.


I’d like to spend time discussing her view of Christ with Joan of Arc, that robust girl who, despite France’s being the eldest daughter of the Church, was not canonised until 1921. I find her anguish over her voices ceasing very poignant, and I’d like to tell her that that happens to everyone.


Thomas Keneally was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Crimes of the Father is published this week by Vintage Books.

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