Books: The long ambiguous journey into the ark: Peter Guttridge talks to Thomas Keneally, whose novel led Spielberg to the life of Oskar Schindler

Thomas Keneally is still angry. 'The Holocaust is an unconfronted European problem - the old world has still not repented of the anti-Semitism it has been practising since the Middle Ages.' This prolific Australian author, a self-styled 'pinko Republican', has long championed the oppressed and written polemically about the dispossessed in his fiction. But in his 1982 Booker Prize winning novel, Schindler's Ark, he excelled himself. It was a humane and moving account of the Holocaust as refracted through the story of Oskar Schindler, the opportunist German industrialist who profited from the Nazi occupation of Poland while saving the lives of Jewish workers.

When he researched the story in the early Eighties, Keneally decided to write it as a novel rather than a biography because he wanted to reach the widest readership for polemical reasons. 'I was aware that to some the Holocaust is unutterable but I also felt that Europe had not accepted responsibility for its anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is a Gentile problem, not a Jewish one. I felt it ought not to be forgotten because it is morally unique. Coming up with an industrial process for getting rid of a hated race is the most thorough expression of race hate in European history. On the hate line in every racist's head something like Auschwitz is always the last station.'

He is adamant that the Holocaust should not be forgotten, which is why he is in London, jet-lagged, for the British premiere of Steven Spielberg's film version only days after attending the Australian premiere. He has seen the film six times and he thinks it gets better with every viewing. 'The first time I saw it, I was totally drawn into it. I forgot that it had anything to do with me. But I never had any doubts that Spielberg would serve the book well. When we first met, back in December 1983, to discuss it, it was clear he was interested in the very things that first attracted me to the Schindler character.'

Both Keneally and Spielberg were drawn to this unfathomable, contradictory character: a hard drinking womaniser who combined a chancer's willingness to profit from the war with an altruistic determination to save the lives of as many Jews as he could. 'Schindler had a capacity to be chums with SS men like Goeth (the sadistically murderous camp commandant) at the same time as being profoundly horrified by them. It's impossible to explain his motivation, but we both had the certainty that much of what he did could only be explained in terms of altruism. Also we were both attracted to this time when history was so upside down only a scoundrel was any use to anybody.'

Author and film director were both worried about trivialising the experience of those who had borne witness to them. 'I was writing for Gentiles, but you become obsessive about not debasing the witnesses' stories. Steven was afraid of this too, so the approval of the former prisoners probably gave him the greatest joy.'

Keneally spoke to many 'Schindler Jews' in researching his book. He was so concerned not to debase their stories that he wrote the novel in documentary style, inviting complaints when it won the Booker that it was not, strictly speaking, a novel. 'I read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff just before I encountered the Schindler story. I thought, this is the way to do it - the documentary novel - then it will reach a wide readership.'

Recently, Schindler Jews who had not responded to his letters at the time he was researching the book have come forward because of the film and given him their testimony about Schindler. Their stories merely add to the confusion about Schindler's character.

'Goeth's other Polish servant, who was a teenager at the time, told me at the Washington premiere of the film that Schindler used to come down to the cellar and say to her: 'I'll get you out, little one, don't you worry.' To restore a young girl's dignity to that extent was an act of extraordinary kindness. And he did get her out.

'Then another bloke in New York told me that he was brought to Schindler's camp as a boy of 11. Schindler saw him and said 'I don't want children here.' The kid gave some bullshit answer and Schindler let him stay, but only because he admired his line in bullshit. He'd been willing to send him back. So when I look back at the book's balance between altruism and opportunism, I think I'd still put it around where it is.'

Keneally has written 26 novels in 21 years on an eclectic range of subjects. Before Schindler's Ark won, he had already been shortlisted for the Booker three times: for his novel about Aborigines, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in 1972, for Gossip from the Forest (1975), set in France at the end of the First World War, and for Confederates (1979) about the American Civil War. He thinks he has written his best books since Schindler, however.

'I think my best are To Asmara, about the struggle for Eritrea, and The Playmaker, which I'm pleased to say Merchant-Ivory are going to film. I really think I'm getting on top of my craft now. When you're young, you have raw energy and there's no match for that, but I think you get technically more adept as you get older.'

He is slightly uncomfortable with the fact that the film and the reissue of Schindler's Ark (retitled Schindler's List) coincide with the publication of his first 'romp' novel, Jacko. 'It's a real romp that I found a joy to write. It's about Australian video gangsters pushing the bounds of popular television in America, working for a Murdoch- like being. Australian worldliness and innocence run up against American worldliness and innocence - very different things.'

He has already finished his next novel, provisionally titled In A Valley Reached By Steamers. It is set in 1900 in Kempsey, the town of his birth, on the north coast of New South Wales. His Irish Catholic grandparents ran a store there at the turn of the century. The new novel is about - among other things - two immigrants running a store, Punjabi hawkers selling cloths and herbal specifics, the Boer War and the bubonic plague in Sydney. He chuckles. 'It's a book I'm very much in love with, but it's not an immediate grabber.'

He finished the last large chunk of the book last week in a hotel in Melbourne, in between Schindler interviews. 'I really couldn't rest until it was done.' A compulsively industrious writer, it has been suggested that the speed with which he writes sometimes affects the quality of the finished work.

'They just seem to be finished when I finish them,' he says with a shrug. 'I do work very hard, I am compulsive. Even on a day when I'm travelling all over Australia I don't feel right if I don't find a spare hour to write, on a plane or in a hotel room. But my greatest strength is my greatest weakness. The same thing that could produce slapdashedness is also the thing that gets them done.'

And he listens to the advice of his editors. He rewrote much of Confederates when his editor expressed doubts. His hardback novel Woman Of The Inner Sea was shorn of some extraneous authorial intrusions - 'They seemed a good idea but it was author's vanity' - for its paperback publication.

He wanted to be a writer from a very early age. 'I thought writing was just the cleverest thing. I remember reading Captain Marryat's Masterman Ready. It was worlds away from my experience, but nothing blew me away like that did, even the pictures, which I loved. I didn't know it was possible for Australians to write. I thought foreign wars, fine wool and cricket was our way out of cultural ignominy. When my first novel was published in 1964, in my colonial innocence I carried on because there was no one to tell me I couldn't make a living from it.'

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams' life story will be told in a biography written by a New York Times reporter

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis