Tom Keneally was amazed and delighted to be awarded the Historical Novel Prize for his most recent book, Corporal Hitler’s Pistol. Amazed that the prize could go to someone who turned 87 this month; delighted because he could use a chunk of the $50,000 award to make a point about the plight of writers in Australia.
He doesn’t want the money to go on “undertakers and incontinence treatment”, so he is giving $4000 to each of the six authors on the longlist for the prize, sponsored by ARA. (The two shortlisted authors, Geraldine Brooks and Robyn Mundy, automatically get $5000 each.)
Tom Keneally says the filament between the past and the present is thin.Credit:James Brickwood
“The longlisted writers get nothing,” Keneally said. “I’m very anxious to depict the craft of writing as an industrial thing and as a measurable industrial thing that brings in various economic goods for Australia. I’ve always felt that many ministers of the arts don’t get that.”
He said those politicians often regarded support for writers as a “lefty indulgence”, whereas the literature industry supported 20,000 people, and writers generated international kudos for Australia, income from overseas, and jobs.
For the second year running, Katrina Nannestad won the $30,000 prize for children or young-adult fiction, this time for Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief.
The book is about a Russian boy adopted by soldiers during World War II and taken to Stalingrad and on to Berlin. It is the second part of a trilogy of war stories, with the third, Waiting for the Storks, due next month. She sets her stories in World War II because it was recent enough to feel relevant to today and said she liked to share lesser-known aspects of it.
“It’s exciting to tell somebody about a story that’s not well known. Waiting for the Storks is about a Polish girl kidnapped by the Germans to become a ‘little German girl’.”
She said there was a need to honour the real stories – “You can’t make light of a trauma” – but walked a tightrope as a children’s writer: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written.”
Katrina Nannestad says she walks a tightrope when writing about war for children.Credit:Rebecca Rocks
Keneally has written plenty of successful novels set in the past – The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schindler’s Ark, Gossip From the Forest, Confederates, The Dickens Boy and umpteen more – but when it came to Corporal Hitler’s Pistol, which is set around Kempsey, where Keneally lived as a child, he said it wasn’t really history for him and so in this case he didn’t consider himself a historical novelist.
The novel involves a man who may have encountered Hitler at Fromelles in World War I, the appalling conditions for the local Dunghutti people, the difficulties for a gay man in the ’30s, and the Irish politics of the time.
“I’m increasingly taking on the present and that’s the interesting thing. I was writing about these incidents in the book due to conversations with my grandparents and parents,” Keneally said. “I take on the present by looking where we’ve come from. I mean you can see how desperate the situation of Aboriginal people was in that book.
“It’s set only two years before I was born. I think of it as pretty much the present. And the filament between the two is very thin. You can effectively comment on the present by writing about the past, and particularly on issues like the civil rights of gays and Aboriginal people, because so many changes have happened since 1933.”
Keneally said the biggest transformation of his lifetime has been an increasing acceptance by white Australians that the country belongs to Aboriginal people: “They never ceded sovereignty and that’s probably accepted by a majority of Australians now.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is Keneally’s productivity. His 36th novel, Fanatic Heart, will be published in November. (He has also co-written four with his daughter Meg and 17 works of non-fiction.)
It’s about an Irish rebel, John Mitchel, who was transported during the famine of the 1840s to Van Diemen’s Land. He later made his way to the US and “received a 22-gun salute when he arrived in New York as the unacknowledged president of the new Irish republic and who is then so appalled by American capitalism that he begins to be seduced by the more obvious Jeffersonian charms of the independent farmer of the [Deep] South”.
And as if that’s not enough, this week he was due to finish his sequel to the book, exploring the further life of Mitchel and taking him through the American Civil War. Keneally may be 87, but he’s spry, seemingly unstoppable and certainly not history.
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