Keneally the outsider looking into his own heritage

April 27, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

For Thomas Keneally, "Schindler's List" was the kind of book authors only dream about writing. It was universally acclaimed a "serious" work of literature, sold millions of copies, and was made into a memorable movie.

Yet, if Leopold Pfefferberg were to approach Mr. Keneally today -- as he did in Los Angeles in 1980 -- with his story about a German businessman who saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis, Mr. Keneally isn't sure he'd write a book. Something about getting old.

"If I were presented with the Schindler story now, I would be asking: 'What do I know about Jews? What do I know about Europe?' " Mr. Keneally, 59, says thoughtfully. "It's the timidity of age settling in."

This is a rather startling admission. Mr. Keneally is known as a bold, ambitious writer, and many of his novels are set not in his native Australia but in such locales as Germany, Africa and the United States (his magnificent Civil War novel "Confederates"). But, he says over breakfast yesterday in a Baltimore hotel, "I've tended to bring a 'living on the edge of the world and looking in' view to my European and American books. Now I would not have the bravura or stupidity to write some of them."

Of course, Mr. Keneally did write "Schindler's List," it did win England's Booker Prize in 1982, and, a year and a half after Steven Spielberg's shattering film was released, he's still making "Schindler"-related appearances around the world, talking about the Holocaust and how he came to write the book.

That's why, though he's on a book tour to promote his 21st novel, the just-released "A River Town" (Doubleday), "Schindler" keeps popping up on his schedule. Today, for example, he's appearing in a Holocaust memorial program sponsored by the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. (The ceremony is closed to the public.)

Mr. Keneally is so affable that one could easily figure this short, portly fellow to be something completely innocuous -- a schoolmaster, say, or even a shopkeeper, much as his grandfather was in Australia. Maybe it's just the easygoing charm, evidenced by his greeting of "G'day." His gentle, ironic demeanor makes it hard at times to tell when he's really serious.

But one readily sees an overpowering intelligence and creative drive accompanying his geniality and garrulousness. There's a restless curiosity, too: In the interview, he ruminates on lapsed Catholics, contemporary nationalism, the appeal of "Crocodile Dundee" to Australians, the differences between the Australian and American frontiers, and, especially, the Irish people.

The last subject in particular is near to his heart. It was his grandfather, Timothy Keneally, an Irish immigrant, whose story Mr. Keneally appropriated for "A River Town." After years of writing about other countries and other peoples, Mr. Keneally is back to subjects of more personal interest: Australians and the Irish. "A River Town" is the first novel in a planned trilogy set in Australia in the early 1900s.

He's also trying to finish a long, nonfiction book this year. It's about Irish political prisoners of the 19th century -- men and women who were forced out of their country and sent to America, Australia and other distant points.

"You know, the population of Ireland is half of what it was in 1840," says Mr. Keneally, who divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles, where he teaches creative writing at the University of California at Irvine.

"That's quite a demographic phenomenon. Every other country in Europe has increased by factors of 5, 6, 7. There was the [potato] famine of the 1840s, of course, but there were many other factors as well. I want to look at the Irish tragedy through the careers of political prisoners who were sent to Australia."

He came to this project "in the typical novelistic way -- my wife's great-grandparents were political prisoners." he says. "They were rural activists and treated to huge sentences."

As a youngster growing up in the 1940s, he remembers Australia as a closed-off society, dominated by those of English ancestry. As a Catholic with Irish roots, Mr. Keneally felt part of a minority. Catholic schools, for instance, didn't celebrate Empire Day, as did public schools; and, he notes slyly, "pictures of the queen were totally missing" in his school.

Mr. Keneally is elusive about his revived interest in the history of his family and the Irish people. On the one hand, he says sardonically, "I'm retreating to that discredited writing-class dictum that you should write what you know. Of course, any good writer writes precisely about what he doesn't know -- the writing is an act of discovery in itself."

After a self-deprecating laugh, he acknowledges something else.

"As you get older, you get more interested in ancestor worship and mythologizing," he continues, more seriously. "Doing things on the behalf of ancestors is a profound human impulse, and I guess this book" -- he points to a copy of "A River Town" -- "is about that. And that's what I'll be doing for a while."

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