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SCHINDLER’S STORY
Thomas Keneally at Kolkata Literary Meet 2013. Picture: Anindya Shankar Ray

Thomas Keneally wishes he looked like Leo DiCaprio but Jeet Thayil thinks Hugh Jackman would be more like it. The 77-year-old Australian writer was a star speaker at the Kolkata Literary Meet, held at the Book Fair in association with The Telegraph.

Most known for his Booker-winning Schindler’s Ark in 1982, which became Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-sweeping Schindler’s List a decade later, Keneally has penned some 50 novels, non-fiction titles and plays, and won three other Booker nominations. His 29th novel, The Daughters of Mars, came out in December 2012. At KLM, Keneally discussed the impact of an Oscar on a book with writer-diplomat Vikas Swarup, whose book Q&A was made into the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. On the closing day, February 3, Keneally took the KLM stage with journalist Sandip Roy to talk about great heroes thrown up by wartimes.

A t2 chat with Tom Keneally that started on a Friday and ended the following Sunday!

Welcome to Calcutta. Are you enjoying yourself?

Oh yes, tremendously. I have been to the Ganges and also Trincas. I love it here!

War is a recurring theme in your books. Why this fascination?

It’s probably a sign of some dreadful mental illness (chuckles)! But apart from that, even though we live so far away in Australia, my father was in North Africa for the better part of three years when I was a kid. So, though I was living in Sydney, I was at only one-degree of separation from the Third Reich. And so, inevitably, I was interested in the Third Reich. I don’t write about it hugely… but I do write about it in the case of Schindler. And what interested me about World War II was that we were the New World, we were supposed to be the barbarians, the people who weren’t polished enough to go on living in Europe and yet these people in Europe were performing this extraordinary savagery. For example, there is a young man in my new book, The Daughters of Mars, who says how can you believe that within 17 miles of Notre Dame or of the Louvre, you have this barbarity of gas-impregnated body parts in the trenches? How can you have such savagery and such glory so tightly packed? And I always wonder how I would act in those situations….

How do you think you would’ve acted?

The only experience I’ve had is in Eritrea, as a journalist during the war in 2000. That was the only place in which quite by accident I was occasionally in remote peril. So I still don’t know. The biggest question is, if I was 19 — and I was 19 a long time ago, but the question still stands — and an officer said to me, ‘You see those people over there? They might look quite human but they’re sub-human. If you let them live, they’re going to undermine your culture, rape your sisters... so go and shoot them all and then civilisation will be safe.’ How would I react to that, at that age? Am I by nature a war criminal or a pacifist? This is a question that helps fuel my writing too.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List

How did the story of Schindler’s Ark come to you?

I first encountered the story when I bought a briefcase. In the 1970s there had been the showing of a number of Australian films in the US, including one based on a book of mine on Aboriginal Australians. On the way home, I had to go through Los Angeles and I bought a briefcase from a man in a store. He was a Schindler survivor. And he had recently read a review of my latest work, so he got very excited. He started giving me all the material.

And you immediately knew this was a great story?

I did, I did indeed. But I thought I was underqualified to write it, though ethnic hysteria had always fascinated me. I was raised as a Catholic and sadly, it [ethnic hysteria] was a very Catholic thing… and a very Lutheran and a Protestant German thing too. But you also had priests and monks and individual Catholics who went to great risks to protect people. I kept telling the man at the store, Leopold Pfefferberg, that I didn’t know enough about Judaism… but he said, ‘That’s good. You don’t want this as a story of Jews. It’s a story for the world.’

His cry once Spielberg took up the film rights was, ‘Steven, you won’t win an Academy Award with little furry animals! You will only win an Academy Award for a film on humanity — man to man. An Oscar for Oskar.’ [Schindler’s first name was Oskar.]

Schindler didn’t obey religious laws or any other laws. The fact that he was anarchistic naturally was interesting to me. Also, he wasn’t self-reflecting. If he’d stopped to think about what he was doing, he would have been stupefied by vertigo!

I did wonder if I were in that situation, how I’d be. I hope I’d say, ‘This is appalling!’ But would I have the guts to hide a family and see them to safety, when the death penalty was attached to it? It’s a very serious question. We all criticise our governments but would we still do it if our lives were at stake? That’s the acid test and I write about it a lot.

Does it bother you that despite writing so many books, you’re still known as the man who wrote Schindler’s “List”?

No, no complaints about it. But I do have many other books which I would love to see Indians read. I met a young man the other night who had read The People’s Train. He loved it and I felt like kissing him because it’s one of the lesser-known books, that was NOT made into a movie (laughs).

But it’s better to be known for something than for nothing. Who said that I had to be known by any book, let alone Schindler?

After 50 books, what keeps you going?

Oh I can’t imagine not being able to write a certain amount! I’m also involved in other affairs. I was involved in the movement to make Australia a Republic, very much along the lines of the Republic of India. Because it is ridiculous for the Queen of Great Britain — who is a perfectly nice woman — to also be the Queen of Australia! I mean, she doesn’t have the legs to stretch that far. Particularly since our interests no longer coincide with Great Britain.

I also spend a lot of time writing and researching about refugees, because I feel our refugee policy is not good. We have mandatory detention for refugees, where they are detained for a very long time before they are processed. And I have four grandchildren. And I go to [watch] cricket — that good Indian activity (laughs heartily).

So, who’s your favourite Indian cricketer?

Well, I quite liked [Virender] Sehwag as a batsman. I liked [Sourav] Ganguly. Tendulkar I’ve seen bat, but in Australia he doesn’t score that much, does he? I remember getting to the Sydney Cricket Ground, parking the car and rushing down to see Tendulkar open the batting but by the time I got there, after about an over-and-a-half, he was gone! But Tendulkar is a phenomenon, so he’d have to be a favourite.

Moving on to other things, you’ve said you invariably gravitate towards the women at a party… so, are you a ladies’ man?

Ah, well, not in that sense (grins)! I am not a ladies’ man, Schindler was a ladies’ man. I just find women often make more interesting conversation. In fact, when I used to give lectures in America, the women would say, ‘Oh you’re so cute. You’re just like a little leprechaun [in Irish folklore, a creature like a little man, with magic powers]… I’d like to put you inside my pocket and take you home.’ Well... but I wish they said, ‘You remind me of Leonardo DiCaprio’ (laughs out loud).

Speaking of Hollywood, who are your current favourites?

Well, my wife [Judy, who accompanied him to Calcutta] and I disagree on Russell Crowe, the Australian actor. Because she thinks Crowe is a very rough man. She dismisses his acting. [‘Oh, yes, I see Russell Crowe instead of the parts he’s playing,’ Judy chips in], but I think he is a very fine actor.

Among women, there’s Carey Mulligan, Cameron Diaz and the Australian actor who’s been nominated for an Academy Award… yes, Jacki Weaver. I also like Cate Blanchett.

What about Indian films, have you watched any?

Yes, but they tend to be the ones that the world sees — Slumdog Millionaire, Bandit Queen, Lagaan. I was also fascinated by Monsoon Wedding.

What are you reading right now?

HHhH, that French book by Laurent Binet. It’s about the killing of [Reinhard] Heydrich during World War II. It’s quite a phenomenon in Europe and America but I’m not very impressed with it. A book that I’ve just finished and was impressed with is American writer Barbara Kingsolver’s latest [Flight Behavior].