Tom Keneally only has to step outside his home office, where he writes his bestselling novels, near North Head in Manly to remember the path he could have taken in life. A stone’s throw from St Patrick’s Seminary, a heritage-listed sandstone monument, it was here decades ago that Keneally made a life-changing decision. In the process of becoming a Catholic priest, he abandoned his training after six years and began to write.
Since then he has grown into one of Australia’s most prolific and successful authors.
“I was a failed priest,” he says. “And I started writing because in our community there was a terrible old thing – a term that was brought from Ireland by immigrants – the failed priest. [People would say] … ‘no wonder he’s an alcoholic, he’s a failed priest.’ “
As a result, Keneally knew he had to find a new career. “I didn’t have any social skills. But once I wrote a novel, when the girls asked me what I was doing, I found it easier to say I’m a novelist because it was a real boast in 1964. Saying you’re a failed monk wasn’t a good pickup line! “
Keneally says he has always had an interest in words, from his early childhood in Kempsey, NSW, then growing up in Homebush, West Sydney. However, it was during his time at the seminary that he was able to exercise his creative muscles by writing for the seminary magazine and participating in his literary society.
This was the foundation that eventually spawned his first novel The place in Whitton in 1964, followed by a series of mile-long commercial and literary hits. To name a few: the preselected Booker-prize Confederates in 1979, the Miles Franklin Prize An angel in Australia In 2000, and his latest books, Corporal Hitler’s pistol and A good rant, both released this year.
Hitler’s corporate pistol is a novel set in Kempsey where a pistol that belonged to Adolph Hitler is used to kill an IRA defector. It mixes the themes of major historical events – World War I and the unrest in Ireland – against the backdrop of a small country town in Australia. Here, the story begins when a white woman walks down the street and sees a young native boy who unmistakably resembles her husband.
Also a master of non-fiction, A good rant is a collection of memoir-infused essays that cover everything from politics and religion to women and grandparent wonders.
The author, who turned 86 this month, shows no signs of slowing down. “I try to work from 9 am at the latest, even if it gets a little fragile with old age, and to work until 1 pm, when I have lunch,” he says. “Then I go for a walk for about an hour, then I go back to the manuscript and write until about 7 o’clock.”
Keneally can be seen walking around his neighborhood regularly on his daily walks in Manly where he has lived for 12 years. “We live in an apartment in Manly, near North Head, between the Pacific and the harbor,” he says. “There’s always a movement of air here. It’s a place in Sydney where there are always spirits coming and going. It looks like a good place. You have to find a place that, for some reason or another. other, has spirits in it .. I wrote my first novel in Homebush, which has as much presence as a toothbrush. But you can write anywhere of course. “
Before Manly, Keneally and his wife Judy lived in Avalon Beach for 40 years where they raised their two daughters, Janet and Meg, who is also an author. If you walk through the iconic Avalon Bookoccino bookstore, you’ll find the Keneally-designed poem on display in the store; he wrote it for the store opening in 1992. Owner Sally Tabner said: “Tom is a patriarch of Australian literature and really sets the tone and pace for much of our literary culture. He has such a natural reach and can write on anything. “
The birth of a masterpiece
It was also in Avalon, in his house overlooking Bilgola Beach, that Keneally wrote the internationally acclaimed novel, Schindler’s Arch. Published in 1982, it is about Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. The story was then immortalized on the big screen in the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s list, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley and Liam Neeson in the lead role.
Its origin story is the stuff of literary and cinematographic folklore. Keneally went to a luggage store in Los Angeles to purchase a briefcase where he met store owner Leopold Pfefferberg Page, also known as Poldek. After learning that Keneally was a novelist, Holocaust survivor Poldek tried to convince him to write the story, showing him extensive research, evidence and the promise of putting him in touch with people who could talk about their first-hand experiences.
Keneally describes Poldek as a “force of nature” and completed the research for the book in six months, thanks to Poldek’s help and enthusiasm for the project. The book, like many of his novels, was successful and won the Man Booker Prize and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Book Prize.
Soon after, Poldek began his efforts to turn the book into a film, and with ties to Spielberg’s mother across Hollywood’s Jewish community, the script eventually landed in the hands of the legendary director. Keneally remembers the day he got the call that his book was going to hit the big screen. “The night Bob Hawke became Leader of the Opposition was the night I flew to America. I met the director of Universal Pictures. The boys from Homebush and Kempsey do this all the time! ” Keneally laughs.
While Keneally proudly clings to his roots in the country and the west, he has been a resident of the northern beaches for most of his adult life and has become an obsessive sea eagle fan, often shouting from the key or, more recently, on television. . “My dad played very well rugby union,” he says. “He used to start fights to get things done in the game so that there would be a big fight. And my dad first spoke to my mom after one of those fights ended. ‘He started, so in a way I owe my existence to this weird game.
“I tried to play, like my dad, and I failed. But I had a good time. And so there was a point where I ran with the jocks and the nerds!”
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Keneally’s interest in the game never wavered. Former Manly player Matt Nable was an aspiring novelist when he wasn’t on the pitch. In 2003, as an unpublished young writer, Nable sought advice from the veteran novelist. “Tom was a crazy Manly fan and when I finished my manuscript I was full of doubts,” says Nable. “He encouraged me to continue.
After French Forest-based Nable wrote his second manuscript, he also sent it to Keneally. “I remember him saying to me, ‘Son, this is what you should do. I wouldn’t tell you that if I didn’t believe him because that would be immoral of me.’ So Tom is directly responsible for encouraging me to take this trip. Without him I wouldn’t have done it. “
Nable has long hung up his football boots and carved out a brilliant career as an actor, screenwriter and novelist. His fourth novel Always was released this year. With a friendship now forged over decades, the Writers can also sometimes be found together at Brookie Oval when their favorite team is playing. Nable says, “This guy is a rightful national treasure and I feel remarkably humbled to be in his circle and call him a dear friend. He is such a caring and generous person that you could ever meet. In the world. literary, where there is smoke, mirrors and pretenses, it is as down-to-earth as they come. “
This is a humble description of someone who received an Order of Australia and named Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia. Also founder of the Australian Republican Movement and Ambassador of the Asylum Seekers Center, Keneally manages to combine his multiple interests and passions with his ever-growing book canon.
Talking to man is like stepping into an encyclopedia of world events and issues. He is just as comfortable talking about the elections in Eritrea or the life of Abraham Lincoln – he wrote a biography of the President of the United States who ruled the country during the Civil War – as he is that Tommy Manly’s Turbo (Trbojevic) won the Dally M Medal at recent rugby league awards.
When not lingering over his next home manuscript, Keneally can also soak up the atmosphere at his favorite local cafes, like Three Beans on Darley Road and Bella Vista at North Head Sanctuary. “You can look all the way to the end of the coast and to the harbor there,” he said. “I sometimes write in cafes. If you get something written in a strange place, it’s like stealing words. When you’re sitting at your computer [at home], you are supposed to write. But if you’re somewhere like a cafe or an airport lounge, I think I’m stealing someone’s words. I love it.”
For a more chic night out, Keneally says he loves Hugo’s and the Manly Pavilion (now under a new owner). “I go when the royalty checks arrive!” ” he says.
These days he has another obsession: his grandchildren. “I just like being with them. There’s a kind of grandparent drunkenness,” he says. “You don’t become their herders, you become their conspirators. The toy parents don’t want them to have. The pacifier their parents are suddenly ready to give them. And they give you the ability to renew yourself.”
Valerie Khoo is CEO of the Australian Writers’ Center and co-host of the weekly podcast So you want to be a writer
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