For Booker Prize winning author Thomas Keneally, who began what he describes as his ‘conscious’ life in the bush, Sydney in the late 30s might as well have been New York or London. “When I was young, it lacked civic events to do with the arts.” Today, he talks about the importance of public art and events like Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Biennale of Sydney in evolving our city from a purpose-made penal colony to the sophisticated place that it is. “Even by jet we are a long way away, yet we entertain the world.”
Perhaps best known for Schindler’s Ark, which was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award winning Schindler’s List, Keneally is a true national treasure who this year celebrates 50 years of writing. He is a prolific narrator of the Australian story, often featuring the harbour and the western suburbs in his work.
I have a very ordinary set of experiences – but well, that’s what happens with writers, they write about the ordinary in a way that makes it engaging.
Keneally loves Sydney’s old buildings, like the convicts’ barracks and mansions along Macquarie Street – but in later years, he has been inspired by the diversity of people who live here (he won’t call this ‘multiculturalism’, as this is a term he believes has been loaded by its enemies). Keneally is discussing the not dissimilar social justice idea of egalitarianism in Australia today at a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel.
The dissenting question – ‘has Australia lost its soul?’ aims to explore how we, as a country, can globalise, without buying into having obvious losers. For Keneally, Sydney Writers’ Festival is a as much an opportunity for readers to hear from their favourite writers, as it is for authors to meet their audience. “(As a writer) you have no idea who your readers are and they’re most unexpected when you meet them.”
To those in the crowd who are aspiring writers themselves, Keneally says, “the best way to learn how to write is to write…to begin and to continue and not to be derailed by lack of belief in yourself. I know many writers who, despite their doubts about their own talent, pressed ahead anyhow – I am one of these! ‘Only begin’ – that is my advice.”
Always remember that Dickens never took a writing class!
Hear Thomas Keneally discuss egalitarianism in Australia and his favourite works – or you can pay tribute alongside his old friends, publishers, literary journalists and academics. Head to swf.org.au for more.