Born into an Irish Catholic family, author Tom Keneally studied for the Catholic priesthood for six years until a new direction as a writer beckoned. Daughter Meg was a journalist before she decided to join her famous dad and co-write the successful Monsarrat series of novels, Julie Houghton writes.
Tom, what impact did faith have on your life when you were growing up and what caused you to leave the seminary?
Faith was to me a map of the world. But I lost faith in the institution—that is, in the men in charge. Too many institutions that claim to be driven by the charity of Christ are actually most driven by institutional enlargement. I suppose the recent Royal Commission into institutional responses shows how readily institutions and men and women of virtue can be driven by self-preservation, above all.
At what point did it become apparent that writing could be a full-time occupation for you?
I decided in 1965 that if I could, I would be a full-time writer. But it was partly an act of innocence, because I didn’t know how hard it was to live by writing. I had one saving bit of knowledge—I knew that if I published in Australia, the UK and the US I would be paid three pittances, and that three pittances might add up to a living.
Meg, family businesses have their own special set of challenges so what do you need to be a successful father-daughter writing team and enjoy the experience?
It helps that we have very similar temperaments, and we both believe that no-one has all the answers and everyone’s work can be helped by constructive feedback. We rarely disagree but, when we do, it’s genial. The fact that we have a shared goal about which we’re both passionate helps a lot too.
In practical terms, how does the process work?
We tried writing alternating chapters but the end result was too inconsistent. So I write the first few drafts in constant contact with Tom, and then we work on subsequent drafts together. We’re both keen bushwalkers, so at the beginning of the process, we go on a long walk to figure out the plot.
The Power Game is the third book in the Monsarrat Series—how did the idea to write together happen?
Tom was working on the first volume of his Australians series of histories, and was focusing on a gentleman convict called James Tucker, who is believed to have written one of Australia’s first novels. At the same time he was reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so the concept of a whodunnit with a gentleman convict detective began to form. He wrote some early chapters before moving on to other projects, and then approached me to see if I’d like to take the concept forward. It’s an incredible opportunity and I’m deeply grateful.
You both obviously love using Australian settings and history—what made you choose Maria Island?
Maria Island’s best-known convict is William Smith O’Brien, a member of parliament and son of an Irish baronet who became a revolutionary and was ultimately convicted of high treason and transported. He’s a fascinating character, and attempted a daring escape which is fictionalised in The Power Game. We were interested in playing with a character based on him—someone the authorities are too scared to hang in case it starts a revolution, who is tucked away in the most remote corner of the empire in the hopes people will forget about him.
Will there be a fourth in the Monsarrat series?
Yes, it will be called The Ink Stain, and Monsarrat and Mrs M are sent to Sydney to investigate the murder of a journalist, where they uncover fake news and government corruption. It’s shaping up to be the best adventure yet.
The Power Game by Meg and Tom Keneally is published by Penguin Random House, RRP $32.99.