Thomas Keneally

Thomas Keneally is a legend of the Australian literary scene. He is a novelist, playwright and essayist, and a force to be reckoned with.

He won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's Ark (which was made into Schindler's List by Steven Spielberg), and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize on three other occasions for The Chant of Jimmie BlacksmithGossip from the Forest, and Confederates.

He has been awarded received Australia's most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, twice for Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) and Three Cheers For The Paraclete (1968). In addition, An Angel in Australia (2003) was shortlisted and The Widow and Her Hero (2008), The People's Train (2010) and The Daughters of Mars (2013) were longlisted for the Miles Franklin. 

Tom's non-fiction includes the memoir Searching For Schindler: A Memoir and Three Famines (an LA Times Book of the Year), as well as the histories The Commonwealth Of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of AustraliaThe Great Shame: An the Triumph of the Irish in the English-speaking World and American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles.

Show notes


Nic Brasch: Tom Keneally is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. Booker Prize winner, Miles Franklin winner… He’s also a very hard writer to pigeon-hole. His fiction incorporates so much real life and his non-fiction reads like the best creative fiction. And at the core of all of his work is a love of history. Tom Keneally, welcome to The Garret.

Tom Keneally: Thank you very much.

Nic: I’m wondering what is your earliest reading experience or memory, whether it be a book or an author or even just a scene from a book.

Tom: I went for the big melodramatic stuff early, and I think it shows. I was an asthmatic as a kid in the days when there were no medicines for asthma. So, if you got an asthma attack you were sidelined for a long time. Thus, my mother always pushed books upon me. That’s the way I encountered both Walter Scott, and another bloke who had a big impact on me was Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans. But also books like J. M. Ballantyne, you couldn’t write books like that now with titles like Mr Masterman Ready and Mr Midshipman Easy, The Coral Island.

So, I think that big melodramatic canvas, I’ve got a weakness for. And it’s almost a vice with me. You know how a writer’s greatest strength also becomes their greatest vice.

Nic: [Laughter] And as you were growing up through your teens, what writers stuck with you?

Tom: Well, I did honours English at the Christian Brothers, and the Christian Brothers have a notorious reputation. The Sydney equivalent of St Kevin’s in Melbourne. I was introduced by this wonderful brother to the stuff that was in a locked cabinet at the back of the room. The literary TNT: T. S. Elliot, Virginia Wolf. Particularly, I remember being bowled over by Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.

Nic: Of course.

Tom: And I can remember being similarly flattened by – in a good way – by Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. And the idea that operated in Australia in those days – that we rough people who produced wool, fought in foreign wars and were second class Europeans as the famous poet said – that we needed this dusting of European poetry but you did get the impression that the last poet that died was Tennyson. Poetry died with Tennyson and the novel died roundabout Thomas Hardy or George Eliot, a good place for it to die. I mean, we’re all trying to be as good as her, as George Eliot. But this stuff blew my mind and the impact is still there.

When I decided, I mean, kids did this. Kids wouldn’t understand my taking this path now. But in those days, if you came from an Irish-Catholic family then you were sort of out of it, like the Muslims, and so you got a bit stroppy. And a lot of us studied for the priesthood. Then we found out it was a very bad way to get vengeance on the Prods and we left. Also, a rotten way to meet girls too.

Nic: One of the worst, one of the worst.

Tom: And so even seminary, three remarkable men and I founded a literary society which was great suspicion because of heresy.

Nic: Of course.

Tom: And the other one was the historian and writer Eddie Campion.

Nic: Oh yes.

Tom: Another one again was Brian Johns, who became a famous journalist, ran the ABC, ran SBS and so on. Johnsy and I…

Nic: And publisher as well.

Tom: That sort of underlay of literature… And literature, you know, it was the mythopoetic side of Christianity that sucked me in. When you get into these institutions, you realise it’s got nothing to do with myth and poetry, it’s everything to do with real estate. And giving up your life for real estate is not to be proposed. But the literary thing was always there. I wasn’t aware though… Again, a young writer now is in an environment where there are writing classes and they read Australian writers regularly, they wouldn’t believe how isolated the phenomenon of the Australian writer was.

Nic: Absolutely.

Tom: And the Australian writers were looked upon as rather second class. The best books came in on the ships from the northern hemisphere. And so, Judith Wright was hugely undervalued in her day, so was Kenneth Slessor.

Nic: How important was Patrick White in terms…

Tom: Patrick White was this lonely nunatak of excellence, rising out of the great Arctic-Antarctic plain of Australian Philistines, of which I was part.

Nic: [Laughter]

Tom: And he still holds that place, you know. It is interesting to me that Patrick White – a great writer, one of the great modernists, comparable with Thomas Mann – that he never won the Australians over. Because he was an angry prophet.

Nic: Yes, he was.

Tom: He didn’t want to be our cobber, he wanted to blast us with lightning and wake us up. And so, when I read Voss, it’s still, you know, a founding book. And I wish I could write like him with that certainty.

Another thing is that, a lot of us when we finish our book we are so sick with it, it’s like a mental disease and we want to get it out of the house. We’ve had a lot of fun, I mean, don’t get me wrong. Everyone who wants to write knows that it’s fun. They want to get into it because they know there’s something transcendent about it, that it will enable them to rise above themselves. But I didn’t know that I could possibly write as well as Patrick and indeed I can’t. But he was sui generis. He was one of a kind in that he’s not the sort of bloke – the sort of writer – you can imitate because he’s incomparable. Although, let me tell you, when I was a young writer I knew Thea Astley a lot. And Thea Astley, who was an Australian writer of that period and quite well known, was very influenced by him and was indeed a friend of his.

Nic: Were you writing when you were in the Seminary? When did you start writing?

Tom: Yeah. I started writing at the age of 12, and then I started to write versions of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and about good Saxons and nasty Vikings.

Nic: [Laughter]

Tom: All irrelevant of course, I thought literature belonged somewhere else so you had to write about somewhere else. And I often have written about somewhere else but that’s not the reason I did it. But Australia didn’t have validity as a literary venue at that stage. All the poetry, as a very fine Canberra Poet Mark O’Connor says, was about little hedgerow flowers that didn’t exist in Australia. Even ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, we didn’t have the nightingale to sing us an ode. And so, the imputation was, you know, ‘You post-colonial kids stick to your barbers, trades but carry a patina of English refinement’.

Nic: Yeah. And I’m assuming back then also that the study of colonial history was very broad-based and we hadn’t recognised the myriad of great stories that exist within our…

Tom: That’s exactly right. Australians have become convinced in my lifetime that our story is interesting.

Nic: And that there’s so many small stories worth telling.

Tom: For example, when I was a kid it was said that Aboriginals had been here for 15,000 years, maximum, and that there was still an overlay of that Federation belief that they were dying out. Now the Australian imagination is going to be altered forever by what is being discovered by palaeontologists.

Nic: Sure.

Tom: This antiquity of occupation. I’m writing a book at the moment about an old man my age who’s dying, which is dangerous. The gods say, ‘That old bugger’s writing a book about dying? We’ll show him dying’. I’m writing about a man my age dying of oesophageal cancer, an Australian now. But the other story is of a 42,000 year old Australian dying. And that 42,000 year old Australian is Mungo Man, who lies on a shelf in the depository of the Australian Museum in Canberra and is 42,000 years old, lived in a settled community on Lake Mungo, travelled for the same reasons we did: pilgrimage, knowledge and trade, and lived amongst the megafauna in an Australia that remained unspoiled through the 30 – 41 – 50,000 years of occupation by that lake. They were able to live by a lake without destroying it.

Now, I know we make bigger technological demands on resources but it’s only taken us two and a quarter centuries to destroy the Murray-Darling.

Nic: Destroy most of it, exactly.

Tom: These people were there till 9,000 years ago living that sort of life because the lake provided them with food, and in Mungo’s day it provided them with the huge lumps of protein: the giant kangaroos, the two-and-a-half-ton wombat-like creature called the Diprotodon, and the other items of megafauna, a three-metre-long perentie which would have been excellent protein once again.

And I have tried to create a kinship between this ancient man and the modern man, because I believe that it would be great if our vision of Aboriginals was of Mungo Man instead of the crappy little hand drawn picture of a few miserable people by a gunyah that was in my history book when I was a kid.

Nic: I’d like to talk specifically about a couple of your best known books and then talk maybe about the writing process more generally. First: The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. I wonder what drew you to the story of Jimmy Governor in the first place?

Tom: Well it’s interesting that it depends where you grow up, what obsesses you. I spent my early childhood in a town called Kempsey, which is up near Port Macquarie where my daughter’s… the old convict settlement that my daughter and I have written about. I saw these former owners and the true owners of the Macleay Valley come past our gate, particularly on Fridays. Aboriginal kids from Green Hill camp… there was another camp on the other end of town. And these were dispossessed and demoralised people and indeed it was an open secret that these ‘Blacks camps’, as they were called, served some of the men of the white community as de facto brothels.

And so, I became interested in people I saw. There are two kinds of people, I think, the two kinds of kids there are kids that want to play with the gypsies in the woods and the kids who don’t ever want to know about or be like the gypsies in the woods. And so, I was fascinated by these people. I was fascinated by one phenomenon. My uncle was the driver of the night soil cart, he used to go around and collect everyone’s waste from the outdoor toilets, and he used to visit the blacks camp too and take their waste away and yet they weren’t allowed to sit with us in the cinema. And so, I thought, not in any moral sense but with a child’s bewilderment, ‘Why can uncle Joe, a white man, collect their poo – which is fairly low level contact – and yet they can’t sit with us, my cousins and I, in the cinema?’

Nic: How old were you at this stage?

Tom: Less than 7. I was about 6, 7, 8.

Nic: Wow. That’s your Irish-Catholic upbringing, making you a rebel stirrer even at that young age.

Tom: My mother asked the same questions, actually. She was a very rebellious country girl. She – in her quiet way – she rebelled against orthodoxy, and yet she remained a Catholic all her life. But very left wing. A particular kind of Catholic that grew out of the encyclical Rerum novarum. My mother and father were very influenced by the ideas of Rerum novarum, so they were… my father wasn’t exactly rosary saying but he was certainly God-struck, and yet very left wing by the standards of today. I mean, I think they would despise Shorten to tell you the truth.

Nic: [Laughter] So, coming back – Jimmy Governor – when did you first hear or read about Jimmy Governor?

Tom: I missed a train at Epping one day, when I was newly married and had little kids, and I bought a book at a book store at Epping station –the days when you would have a book stall at a station…

Nic: Exactly.

Tom: And it was the story of Jimmy Governor and I thought, ‘God, this story illustrates everything’. We were in the midst of Vietnam then, and at that stage they were in the midst of the Boer War. And the Boer War was the Vietnam of its day, and it divided opinion in Australia and the nationalists and the left wingers tended to despise it as a landgrab and the conservatives were in it with the Empire. And even in a country town like the one I grew up in, Kempsey, I’ve gone back and read the papers from that period, for a book called A River Town – an obscure book of mine published years ago – and they intensely debated. The local paper wasn’t all about the bowling club, it was substantial articles written by exiled Oxford undergraduates who’d got into some trouble. So, it did divide Australia the way Vietnam did.

Nic: Well I was going to ask you about that, because there’s so much violence in it, I was actually going to ask, while you were writing it, were you deliberately trying to make comments about the time you were living in it as well as the times back then?

Tom: Yes, I was, and I was a very angry young man because young men are angry. Nic: Of course.

Tom: Some people find the book almost psychotic. Who am I to argue against that proposition?

Nic: Exactly, exactly.

Tom: But it is a shocking story and shocking violence. And one of the biggest challenges of both the book and when Fred Schepisi made the film, is that leap between alienation and violence that happens in the movie and the book.

Nic: I know you’ve written about the fact that if you were going to write that book now, you would not have written it from Jimmy’s perspective. I just want to explore that. Is that out of respect, is that out of belief that you haven’t represented him properly or you didn’t have a right to? I’m really interested.

Tom: A mixture, I think. I think I assumed the Aboriginal world view and it wasn’t mine to assume. I could plead that it was the time.

Nic: Well I was going to ask you…

Tom: But then John Howard pleaded that about the capture of children. And I think it’s just that there’s so many… I’m not one of those writers who say, ‘Men can’t write about women and women can’t write about men’. I believe that we should be given err on the side of daring, but with so many fine Aboriginal voices emerging from about that period onwards – about the time of the Referendum onwards – who am I to adopt an Aboriginal story?

Nic: So, I mean, if it came out now, they would obviously be immediate criticism on those grounds. I’m wondering whether there was any talk back then when it did come out.

Tom: No, not as much. No, because the white community assumed the white writer had the right and the black community was forgiving. I got a few forgiving remarks. What is astounding is how amiable the Aboriginal community were about it. They don’t want me to do it again, one woman told me.

Nic: [Laughter] They forgive you the once though, they forgive you the once.

Tom: But I am writing the point of view of Mungo Man because he’s Homo sapiens 42,000 years ago.

Nic: You can get away with that.

Tom: Living in an animist community. And I think one of the benefits of having been a Catholic is that Catholics live in an animist community. You know, you can understand animism and Hinduism for that matter because we’ve got all these saints to burn… some of them were of course.

Nic: Of course, they were.

Tom: And they’re like avatars in Hindu religion. And I notice when Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, he didn’t do away with the stones, the animism, the Pagan stones. So, obviously I was climbing Croagh Patrick – I’ve climbed it a number of times – from the top on a nice day you can nearly see America and from that mountain is the place where Saint Patrick cast out the snakes and the toads from Ireland in mythology. And on the way up you come to standing stones that are leftovers from Pagan animism, and you’ve got to go around to the right, not to the left. You have to go around them saying certain prayers. Not to the left though, if you want to curse someone you go to the left. Now this isn’t Catholicism, this is pure animism. And I had a granny who could tell that someone was going to die by the way certain rocks look and lights in the sky and so on.

So, all that is helpful if you’re going to write from an animus point of view. And I’ve had to recreate the world of 42,000 years ago, world of wonders and heaven journeys and so on, and my justification for doing that is that it was 42,000 years ago and we were all, in fact my ancestors 42,000 years ago. The woman – isn’t it incredible – there’s a woman back there who’s my ancestor, she’s probably in Central Asia, she’d probably be in China, and she survived long enough to give birth to another, to some other woman who then grows up and lives long enough… and this succession of bull dusters reaching back.

And we were not as advanced as the Aboriginals were. It’s obvious that Mungo Man was ritually buried and that trade occurred because the ochre that was used in his burial came from two hundred miles away. It’s the wonder of in Australia, north of Balranald in the Riverina, there were communities trading with each other…

Nic: 42,000 years ago, yeah.

Tom: Not 4,200, not 4,020. It’s almost too big a reality for the imagination to deal with. But my excuse for trying to deal with it, is that he’s me… But he’s also, above all, the ancestor of three Aboriginal tribes whose traditional territory are butts on Lake Mungo. But he’s also us and I see him ultimately as a great when we put him in his cenotaph with the permission of the traditional owners. And we realise the life he led, that he will be the image of what Australia was and we’ll all be proud of that image and so I see him as a sort of – well Christ only existed 2,000 years ago–but I see him as a sort of paleolithic Christ, uniting us all. And that’s my excuse when I’m hauled before the tribunal. I’d like the judge to take…

Nic: There’s your defence. Who could convict you?

You won the Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark, yet this book, perhaps just about more than any of the other of your novels, is as close as to what I would regard as creative non-fiction. I’m wondering how you regard it, it’s extraordinary.

Tom: I thought of it in terms of In Cold Blood and so it’s not characteristic, sadly by other work it’s not characteristic. If my other work was characteristic of it, Spielberg might have made more movies. I did want to write it as fiction. Tom Wolf used to write narrative non-fiction so I thought it was the…

Nic: I think it is, so I’m wondering how it came out as fiction and how the Booker judges…

Tom: They didn’t know where to put it. It wasn’t a biography. So, they put it in fiction the way they put In Cold Blood in fiction.

Nic: Which they don’t anymore, so I’m wondering if it came out now, if it’d just go straight into non-fiction.

Tom: It would be like Helen Garner’s great books… so there it is.

The form was almost prescribed by the fact that, at that stage in history, people who gave the interviews were very nervous. They were nervous about Holocaust denial, they were nervous about the fact they were always having quarrels with other survivors who said, ‘No, there wasn’t any. Fairy stories. We never met anyone halfway like that. You’re insulting us’. And so, they wanted to be accurate for the sake of their fellows, their fellow survivors. And they were just… it was hard, I was aware that it was hard for them to talk at that stage because they were in their middle years, successful people and they were not… that was submerged in their life. And they didn’t necessarily want to go back to when they were untermenschen and unterfrauen. The Poldark of my survivor accompanist, he would put the wood on them to get us interviews. Without him it would have taken me much, much, much longer and much longer courtship to get the confidence. They gave the interviews but on condition that they saw them and vetted them.

Nic: What involvement did you have in them making it a film?

Tom: Well, I wrote the first draft until, in the nicest possible way, in 1985 Spielberg sacked me. But he did have another film, not as documentary a film as he made, in mind. By then I’d worked a lot with Fred Schepisi, I’d seen Fred Schepisi working, the great Melbourne Sicilian... You had a lot of larrikins in Melbourne then, you had John Elliot. But John Elliot was definitely a boofhead. Fred Schepisi is a larrikin genius. So, I had a fairly realistic idea that the film maker does not see himself as the servant of the book. The author often thinks that when they sign the film contract and take the devil’s candy, and the devil’s candy in Australia is a very modest devil’s candy, but in America it’s big and it’s beyond your working class dreams.

But you know, I knew by then that that pernicious word had been introduced into filmmaking by some French mongrel, the auteur, to tell the director that the book is just a springboard. It is not divine writ. It is just the springboard for another creation, an independent creation, and that’s the way film is.

Nic: Of course it is.

Tom: And I just wanted him to have… I always feel with films that it is important that the people have good intentions towards the book, like a son-in-law to your daughter. You want it to be dealt with integrity.

Nic: With respect and integrity.

Tom: Yes, and so in terms of the ambiguity of Schindler, which is the biggest part of him, he didn’t try in any way to naysay that. When we got closer to production, I was actually in America and he asked me to come up to Amblin for seminars on what they were going to do, whether they should film it in Prague or… And it was then that he told me that he was going to film it in black and white like the news reels, and I thought this was a crazy idea but I was too big a wimp to tell him, and a lot of people thought it was a crazy idea. It is only because he has such independence within the studio that he was allowed to do it. That’s only that he’s his own boss.

Nic: And do you think it was the right decision?

Tom: It’s hard to imagine… it gave it a distinctiveness.

Nic: It did. And almost some sort of historical accuracy in a way.

Tom: It certainly enhanced the verisimilitude of events and so the problem is, of course, that I am not a screen writer, I’m a novelist and barely that. But if you win a few prizes you think you are and you think, ‘Well they think I’m a novelist’.

This is what Kiran Desai said to me, she said she’s always doubted whether she’s a novelist and she’d written a number of books. When they gave her the Booker Prize, she thought, ‘My god, I must be a novelist. They think I’m a novelist’.

Nic: It’s all about perception, isn’t it?

Tom: Not thinking you’re a novelist is no excuse for not writing. [Laughter] So get into it.

And, of course, the other thing about novels is that – this wasn’t the case with Schindler, I had a definite plot made by events – but with most novels you only have a part… you know, the characters are shadows, you have a point of departure and a point of arrival. And if in doubt: begin. Because the process itself is enlightening. The process of writing is such a weird thing to do to your mind, that it evokes your subconscious and your subconscious gradually. If you keep working at it, begins to work on the characters and give you the resolution – sometimes in the form of a eureka moments – gives you the resolution to the connection between characters.

I find that some writers can plot their book exactly, but most of them have to begin. They’ve got a voyage in mind. They’re a bit like those Polynesian voyages who set out and ultimately discovered New Zealand. There might have been a rumour of something out there and they know roughly where it is, they’re going to reach it by dead reckoning. But they don’t know what strange people, what storms… they don’t know who they’re going to encounter, they don’t know who’s going to fall overboard and drown etcetera until they’ve made the journey.

Nic: And that’s always the most… the core part of a story, because in essence we always know where the writer’s going to take us in the end. But it’s what happens along the way that’s going to intrigue us.

Tom: Yes. And the subconscious has had such a powerful… It’s funny, you write for whatever: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 hours a day. Then, of course, when you’ve got it under control when you’re on the third or fourth draft, you’re writing like crazy and it’s good fun. But it’s when you’ve got it on the way that you find out who does drown and what island you do encounter. And you write with great certitude.

So Therbert told the story about a lamb that works for the Sheep Times, and interviews a recidivist sheep and lamb-eating wolf, who’s been on Oprah and has given it up. You know, he’s in therapy. And he interviews this wolf about how, inexplicably, he once had a passion for ripping the jugular out of lambs but now he’s cool and he can sit with the lambs, drink a cup of coffee. And the lamb goes away and writes this up and he thinks, ‘Oh there are a couple areas of obscurity’. So, he gets another interview, goes back. This time it’s too much, the fox rips his jugular out and it’s the end of everything. And the moral of that story is: don’t get it right, get it written as a rule of the first draft. That is what you want to do. Get the damn thing written.

Nic: Well you’ve done… You’ve basically written a book a year for fifty years. I mean, that’s just extraordinary. You must spend hours every day.

Tom: Yes, I do. I’ve got an indulgent wife who lets me spend ours. I’ve been saved from total absorption in the task by… When you’re a young writer, you take your work very seriously. You think the world needs it. When you get older you realise you’re the only person who needs it. But children are important. It’s such a demented condition that children, who don’t give a damn whether you’re a writer or not, are very great therapy.

Nic: Of course.

Tom: And if you’ve got two little girls, as I have, who want to go to the beach… they don’t want to go to the beach, they don’t give a damn. And so, this is an anchor for you in the storms. But you have to be careful in a relationship if you’re a writer, because you’re very happy and you impose happiness on the household if the work’s going well. But if the work goes badly, as it inevitably will, then you have to be careful not to impose your misery. And that’s why writers are big on high rates of divorce, alcoholism, etcetera.

Nic: So, is the – after fifty years of writing on your own – the collaboration of The Monsarrat Series with your daughter Meg, is that a form of outsourcing or how did that come about? And also how was it different working with someone? How do two people write a novel together?

Tom: Yes, it works out with us because we’re temperamentally similar and I, therefore, find it easy to talk to Meg and she finds it easy… I mean every bullying old monster says the other party finds it easy too. You’ll have to ask her. But we seem to find it easy to agree, and we worked out the plots first.

What happened with the first book that I was researching, volume one of my history of Australians, and I came across James Tucker who’s always interested me. He was a Jesuit educator and English gentleman. He knew his Latin and Greek. He accused a relative of child abuse and the relative, who was a powerful man, sued him not only for liable but for criminal liable. That’s the sort of liable that got Oscar Wilde in jail, where you not only lost the case for liable but you were sentenced to jail for it.

And he was transported, unjustly of course, as a convict and he had narky officials over him and he got a ticket of leave and he was sent… he was travelling from Windsor, his district, to Parramatta to visit a woman and he was discovered and was sent to a place as secondary punishment: Port Macquarie, up where the Keneallys settled when they came to Australia. And I always wanted to write about his situation because the progressive administrators used these men rather as Macquarie used Greenway the architect. But the High Tories wanted them, really, punished. Wanted them… I don’t know what it is about Tories…

Nic: Time hasn’t changed, has it?

Tom: They’re really into punishment, stopping people doing something, and everyone on benefits is potential drug fiends so let’s test them…

In any case, I was interested by the society of the penal settlement, the fact that they were not enclosed. And at Port Macquarie and many other places there was interchange between the Aboriginals and the Europeans.

But I thought, if you had an educated convict who was sent from penal station to penal station to solve murders, there was so many penal stations in Australia that he could be busy for decades.

Nic: A very long time.

Tom: And so, I started writing a novel along those lines in which Monserrat and his sidekick – or maybe Monserrat is her sidekick – Mrs Mulrooney, emerge. And I began to write the first book. Now my daughter is a former journalist, she’s now a communications person, that is a journalist who’s sold her soul to corporations. And so, I wanted to liberate her from this and I said to her, I knew she was a fast writer…

Nic: This is because you couldn’t save souls because you didn’t finish the seminary. You’re doing it now with your daughter, is that right?

Tom: I’m trying to liberate her as a… She says I didn’t tell her some of the pitfalls of being a writer because being published is like marriage in a Dickens novel: it’s the end of the novel but it’s the beginning of the problems. [Laughter] And being published is like that.

But I had half written a novel and gave it to her and said, ‘do you think we could collaborate?’ And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. She’s now writing nearly the whole first draft. We talk every day and we make up the plot together and do the research together. But then I’d done a lot of research on the convict situation for volume one of The Australians, which is the social history of Australians. And it is aimed at two propositions. One, you can have a black arm band and a white arm band version in the one book. Secondly, Australian social history is phenomenal.

Nic: Yes, of course.

Tom: It was through looking at these poor gentlemen convicts. Another one who was literary, Henry Savery, a Tasmanian convict who was sent from the West Country because he forged a contract. He took a contract to a bank and said, ‘Look, I’ve got this big new contract could you give me an overdraft?’ And the contract was forged. These days you’d make him chairman of the Loung Liberals. But in those days, you got sent to Australia, to Van Diemen’s Land and he wrote a novel too.

Nic: There’s quite a few of them that did. Just one final question, I’m just wondering, this whole talk of history, do you regard yourself as a historian who loves to write or a writer who loves history?

Tom: I think, a writer who loves history. Even the history is punters history, you know. But it’s not hard to find an extra dimension to people, whether it’s that extraordinary character, Bennelong, who fascinates me, particularly his time in England with Phillip. Or it’s Henry Parkes with his continual overdrafts, always in debt, moving from house to house and his interest in young women... This is a bloke who, when he was about my age, married a 25 year old Irish girl. But was still moving from out to house to escape. And when you come across this human, this extra dimension, and you realise he was a young radical. And Ivory Turner, who travelled down from Birmingham with his young wife Clarissa, in a train with no sides to it, with the weather blowing through it, to catch his boat to Australia as a bounty. And waiting for his boat so long that he has to sell his ivory turning tools to keep living, until the boat’s ready. And then he comes to Australia and he’s got a toy shop in Sydney where all the radicals meet.

Our last book, The Unmourned, is set in the female factory and my wife’s great granny was in the female factory in Parramatta. It’s a place that the New South Wales government shows minimal interest or marginal interest in its survival and yet so much of it is there. And it’s a great story of Australian feminism too. And it’s an extraordinary… I mean, fancy having a female factory into which you put young miscreants, newly arrived after a journey of three or four months and you put them in there and they’re supposed to start working with a superintendent that’s looking each one over and if she says ‘no’, she ends up as a third-class woman instead of a first class woman.

In terms of Australian feminism, can you imagine anything more eloquent than dividing these fallen women as they were looked upon into first, second and third class? And so that’s the sort of thing, unexplored, that Australian history is. Most Sydney-siders don’t know what a female factory is, and I only started researching it because my wife’s great granny, one of the… now these women were supposed to be all whores, were often passed off as whores. But they are the matriarchs. My wife’s great granny got a ticket of leave and travelled to Bathurst and ultimately, she travelled to beyond Cooma to work on a big landgrab up there and met this Irish convict and that’s where Judy’s family comes from.

Now this is an extraordinary. At the female factory they had speed dating. If you were a ticket of leave man who wanted a wife, you’d be right there and they’d parade the young women right there in front of you. And if you liked one of them you could talk to her for an hour or hour and a half. You were going bush to work as an overseer or a drover or whatever and she had the opportunity to marry you. That’s Australian romance.

I think it’s remarkable, if you look at Australian ballads there’s no love songs, except one that goes, ‘So pack up your swag and let’s make a push’– addressed to a woman – ‘I’ll take you up the country and I’ll show you the bush. I’m sure you won’t get another offer any day, so come and take possession of the old bullock dray’.

And that’s the nearest thing you have from colonial Australia, except for, ‘the lass I love, the lass I adore, is the lass from the female factory’. There is a hymn to a good-looking girl from the female factory.

And these women were young and heavily Irish, because the Irish had less chance of being employed. They’d grown up in very primitive conditions in Ireland and so they didn’t make good servants and they were raucous as well. And people thought they were damned whores because they were so loud. And it’s interesting that that is our destiny too – I’m beginning to ramble – but our destiny is to be written off as low of soul because we’re kind of loud.

Nic: Well I just want you to keep telling these wonderful stories, to keep writing. You’ve given Australians so much and so much of a sense of history and you’ve rediscovered so many stories. Keep doing it. On behalf of all Australians, you’re a national treasure and I thank you so much for giving us time, for everything you’ve done.

Tom: Very kind.

Nic: I could talk for hours.

Tom: And to the kids out there who want to be writers and poor and anguished, don’t forget W. B. Yeats. Only begin. Get into it. And don’t let the fact you can’t write stop you producing literature.

Nic: Thank you, Tom. Thank you.