Interview with Thomas Keneally

Thomas KeneallyThomas Keneally recently spoke at our ‘Oxford is English Conference’ and our Secondary Marketing team were lucky enough to have some time with him beforehand to ask a few questions…

Tell us about your first experience as an English student.
My first experience as an English student of any seriousness was to be given Treasure Island to read in first year in 1948 or 1949 and I just thought the novel was a wonderful phenomenon. The thing about it is it seems so authoritative and so sure of itself. When you read a good novel, and because it looks authoritative and effortless, you get the feeling that you could do that, and that’s a fatal feeling that every would-be writer has and that I’ve always had.

What advice do you have for English students who aspire to be writers?
Well I think you are on the right track because you love the word, and I think that there are many kinds of writers you can be too. It’s not a mystery and it is a mystery, it involves starting to write. The process of writing, the instinct – all somehow fed to you from your subconscious ­– comes into play through the process of starting to write. As in any process of writing, the blankness of the page is the great enemy, and any kid who does an assignment knows that he feels better as soon as he puts the first words down. And it’s like that with writing. We have this talent for expressing ourselves in writing that we’re never quite sure what we’re going to write, so even if you’re not sure, if you’re only sure of the vague outline of what you’re going to write, start writing and you’ll find out eventually… and have courage, have ticker, don’t give it away just because you feel depressed. And above all, rule number one, don’t let the fact that you can’t write stop you from producing literature – that’s a big mistake.

What advice do you have for English teachers to inspire their students to start writing?
Yes, umm I think their own enthusiasm. One thing I always tried to do, and it doesn’t consort with modern critical theory, is to show the social background of the story. The other one they can’t do. I taught graduate English in American universities; they also served chardonnay and I think that’s the big tip for getting across, but you can’t do that in high school.

What’s been your greatest challenge as a writer?
Oh keeping originality and not succumbing to what other people suspect of you. And I wouldn’t boast that I’ve overcome or met that challenge. Another challenge I have is that I’m fluent and like all bull dusters I can produce stuff, but I am impulsive… a novel is not good for an impulsive person because it’s a long range project so not abandoning the novel before its finished, that’s important to me, and I have to discipline myself not to send it off too early, and that is a challenge.

How do you see digital publishing changing the written word?
I think… I’m not sure… but every cultural influence changes writing – I’m sure that, for example, the movies changed the way fiction writers wrote – and because you’re not immune from any of these technological influences. Now if you’re sending off tweets and Facebook as well as trying to write your novel, it can often be for the good of your writing. I think that the tweet is wonderful; I’m a fan of the tweet because it’s like writing a haiku and it makes you economical. So you try to put down a relatively sophisticated thought, to get that down to 140 characters is really a good exercise, and so that might influence your writing. It’s interesting that for young writers who are cool dudes and know IT and so on, being published in Guttenberg form is still important. Now why is it so? I don’t know. I think it’s because there’s nothing more validating than the physical book, and we are tactile animals and we want to smell that book, that crack when you open a book. I think the job hasn’t changed, just the media, in which it goes out, has changed.

What books are you currently reading?
Ok yes, there are a lot of them. I’m actually reading a Scott Turow but you don’t want to hear that you want to hear something posher, so I have just finished reading a book of Philip Roth called Letting Go, and I thought that was a brilliant book. There’s a writer called William Boyd, I’m hanging out for a new Barbara Kingsolver book and last night I was reading various poetry books including Gerard Manley Hopkins. I have a copy of Gerard Manly Hopkins that I’ve had since I was 16. It was one of those books that I thought this is such magical power, that I must wear it in my breast pocket and girls will be attracted by it, that’s the sort of dopey kid I was, I thought this has such power that it’s my talisman.

Did it work?
They just thought I was weird… and they were right!

What’s your favourite word?
Ahhh my favourite word, of all the words is, I think, there are a few but I’ve got to choose one…

We’ll be flexible, word or words!
Transcendence is my favourite word. I was going to say limitable but something is saying don’t say limitable, but transcendence has got that rhythm that echoes what it is.

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