The 75-year-old author on his presidential connections, Australian culture and life as a ‘living treasure’.

Did you like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the movie version of your Booker Award-winning novel Schindler’s Ark?
Yes, indeed. I thought that it was appropriately ambiguous – the question of why he [Schindler] did it. When I saw [the film] it was ten years since I’d written the book. I’d forgotten what the book was like.

Your latest book explores Australia’s origins. Given that Oz started out as a dumping ground for England’s convicts, is it surprising the country turned out so well?
I think we should note about the convicts that although they were all passed off as common criminals, they were not all common criminals. There were Irish rebels from 1798, there were the so-called Scottish martyrs, the Scottish republicans in the early 1900s … all sorts of people who weren’t really criminals. Without over-romanticising them, they were village revolutionaries.

Former Oz PM Kevin Rudd presented your biography of Abraham Lincoln to President Obama – how did you feel about that?

I was delighted that it was given to Obama, however, I’m still waiting for the letter of thanks [laughs].

At least you know he probably read it.  George Bush, say, probably wouldn’t have bothered …
Well, that’s right. There is also an obscure book of mine called Woman Of The Inner Sea which Hillary Clinton likes greatly too, and, on the strength of that, not of Schindler’s Ark, we were invited to the White House for dinner in 1994. So we’ve had a few brushes with the White House. In the tradition of Irish convicts, my wife nicked a lot of the presidential face-washers out of the downstairs loo.

What are Bill and Hillary like?
I’ve got a lot of time for them. Bill had this extraordinary capacity to engage people eye-to-eye which I used to see in the Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke … He  could make you a believer.

Aussie culture is now respected by Brits but was it once looked down upon?
When I came to England in the 70s I was asked by a woman: “Why would Sydney need an opera house? You don’t go to the opera, do you?” That sort of question was very much of that time when we were looked upon as barely being able to use an knife and fork.

You’re a staunch republican – will Australia ever become a republic?
It will happen, relatively soon. I don’t agree with the proposition that we should wait for the Queen to die. It’s like saying to your granny: “We’re going to have a great 21st century [party] for Wayne or Craig or Skeeter or whatever, but we’re gonna wait for you to die!” That’s ridiculous! But I think that the republic should be attended to soon because of its anachronistic quality and because I’m sick of the Barmy Army singing at test matches, “God save your gracious
Queen” [laughs].

How did it feel to be listed as one of Australia’s Living National Treasures by the National Trust?
If I told you I wasn’t delighted I’d be bloody lying. But on the other hand, it is very un-Australian to be delighted, isn’t it? So winning an award where no one wants to stand out is a very peculiar arrangement – but I’m glad I’m in it.


What song is guaranteed to get you on the dancefloor?
Probably Putting On The Ritz … [laughs] it was written in the 1930s so it’s been done by everyone. It’s really old and I do apologise!

Tell us your biggest phobia?
To be buried alive.

What was your nickname at school?
They only called me Keneals which is not much of a nickname. I wasn’t popular enough or hated enough to have a nickname!

» Thomas Keneally’s new book Australians: Origins To Eureka out now through Allen & Unwin. £30