Being at an event to commemorate 50 years as a writer was like attending a wake where the corpse could get up and have a drink, Thomas Keneally told us last night. Speaking at a dinner for more than 220 family members, colleagues and friends in Sydney’s CBD, he reflected on a career that has made him one of Australia’s best-known and well-loved writers.
Echoing the words of another Australian writer, Albert Facey, he said he had been a “fortunate man” all of his life and “a large slab of that fortune is in this room tonight”.
“To listen to me for 50 years is the height of graciousness on your part; to express my gratitude isn’t enough, I salute you for taking some of the journey with me. Words are the only net we have to catch the universe in, so watch out for some more words from this dreary old source.”
Four Australian icons — writers Richard Flanagan and David Williamson, together with actor Bryan Brown and director Fred Schepisi — spoke about the author, with Brown noting that it is not difficult to become a friend of Keneally’s, as “he is not that discerning”.
The Tasmanian-based Flanagan said that while most of us had some peaks of achievement, “Tom Keneally has Himalayas”. His career has spanned the Beatles to Breaking Bad, and “from the land of knights and dames to the land of knights and dames”.
Keneally is Australia’s most famous writer globally and the only literary writer to have a book top The New York Times bestseller list (Schindler’s List), he said. In a video tribute to the author, the director of the Hollywood movie version of the book, Steven Spielberg, thanked Keneally for writing the story, saying that “part of you is so deeply embedded into my life”.
Flanagan quoted Henry Lawson as saying that anyone who wanted to be a writer in Australia should reach for a revolver and shoot himself. Unless you were landed gentry, like Patrick White, you needed the money from selling books to have the freedom to write more books, he said. Keneally was the first literary writer in our history who could sustain himself from his writing.
And although literary prizes were invented “to give dog shows a good name”, the Tasmanian writer said, Keneally has won the Miles Franklin three times and was also the first Australian writer to win the UK’s Booker Prize, for which he has been shortlisted three times. In 1983 he was made an officer of the Order of Australia.
The two men have appeared on panels together at a few literary festivals, which Flanagan likened to “holding a triangle and being asked to join a jam session with Thelonius Monk”. This provokes a loud honking sound from the subject, whose laugh “is like a donkey braying after a good snort of crystal meth,” Flanagan quipped.
Playwright David Williamson, who has been writing for more than 40 years, said that although most writers were egomaniacal narcissists, Keneally was an exception.
“He is a fine human being. He is humble, warm and passionate. He has an enormous anger about injustice and has the courage to speak out loudly and often about the distortions of power in this world.”
The author said he was currently working on two novels, and hoped to write “a dozen more”. To mark the anniversary, publisher Random House has re-released his first book, The Place at Whitton.