Keneally’s latest novel The Daughters of Mars explores WWI from the perspective of Australian nurses.
What led you to write this book?
The Daughters of Mars originated from my reading of the journals of Australian nurses of WWI. Why were people so far removed from the war so anxious to participate? Part of it seemed to be the desire for an escape from the post-colonial torpor of their country; part of it a desire to expand their professional experience; and part of it a desire to see the northern hemisphere, to pass from the south, the zone of the colonized, and reach the northern hemisphere, and its works and pomps, and of course its disasters. I became so attached to the young writers of the journals—for their sturdiness but also for the struggles they had as women—that I became convinced I should write a book about them.
Were you surprised by what you found in the journals?
I was astonished at how they could handle the massed outcome of injuries inflicted in the trenches. I wanted the novel to deal with what was a struggle for female status, a struggle to achieve some sort of focus or—to change senses—grip on previously unimaginable events and all without going into the trenches themselves.
Does it share any themes with your other works?
A fascination with what quite sane human beings can impose on each other at the behest of their governments. Since I first felt discrimination as a kid of Irish decent, and first saw Aboriginals and heard what people thought of them, the question of how gleefully we can condemn each other and pursue each other with knives has always engrossed me. The borders between ethnicities and political systems, and the enforced blindness that operates along either side of such fault-lines, generates fascinating stories. I am sure I am not the only novelist who thinks that as much as we, as a group, desire world fraternity and peace, we nonetheless get our stories from regions of rift and human division.
How do you feel about being primarily known for Schindler’s List?
Sometimes I think that Schindler’s List emits so much radiance that it swamps some of my other works, but it is good to be known for any book. It is chastening to know that the plot of this documentary novel really befell people, and also to understand that it was such an extraordinary narrative in itself, the essential story of Oscar even before I touched it or knew of it, that no such consummate plot could be devised by me or is ever likely to turn up again.