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Character building with Tom Keneally

The question is poised fairly early on: Just why is a 76-year-old man still writing?

Simple. He’s too in love to stop.

Tom Keneally, AO, is in love with the characters, the stories, the history, the ideas. Everything good about writing is possessed inside him.

“Writing is an addiction with me,” the Australian author, best known for his work Schindler’s Ark, now Schindler’s List, says simply.

Besides that he says, “I’m genuinely good at little else.”

But Keneally wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s purely taken with the characters that appear in his stories, many of which are based around war.

The process of writing, he says, opens up many doors which were never known to be there. Keneally says, “You get these miraculous apparitions of people you never knew, or never knew you had the ability to know” appear when you’re writing a novel.

As he talks of his lead characters in his latest novel, The Daughters of Mars, about two sisters who volunteer as nurses in World War I, his eyes light up with a sparkle of genuine emotion.

“They just came to me,” he says. Once again, lovable characters seemingly popped into his head before he transferred them to paper and published the stories so thousands more could love them too.

“They are why I’m addicted to writing,” he says of these friends he conjures in his mind. But don’t confuse him with a crazy dude with imaginary friends.

He’s a literary genius, just as engaged with his characters as his readers are.

The journey of writing a novel and having the characters revealed to himself, as the author, is another thing to love.

“You have to work it out,” he says, with a cheeky smile, as if the challenges he faces as a writer aren’t challenges at all, but just as much fun as the literary acclaim.

Keneally believes that the characters are all already in his head, he just never knew they were there. Of writing a novel and discovering these characters he says: “It’s like you enter a dim room, and you’ve been told that there are people in there, but you have to uncover them. You stumble over them at first, but the more you write, the more the lights come on.”

“It’s like they’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” he says.

Once you find them, he says, it creates that ‘Eureka moment’ that writers often talk about, where things all fall seamlessly into place, and a story is born.

But while writing can prove difficult at times, and mental blocks can appear, Keneally still adores everything about the art.

“Good things happen if you keep at it,” he smiles.

And so they have. The Man Booker Prize winner and Miles Franklin Award winner has proven that the love of writing never dies.

Not for him anyway. Seventy-six years old, 29 novels, and many more non-fiction books later, he’s still at it, and plans to be for a long while yet.

Marnie Johnston is a Southern Cross University media student.

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