In his 37th book, A Commonwealth of Thieves, Thomas Keneally recounts the settlement of his native Australia.
Your 1987 novel The Playmaker describes the early years of Sydney. How long has the idea of Australia's founding been percolating?
I have been fascinated since a now distant childhood by the idea of our society beginning as a purpose-designed penal settlement. The British did not want a place of commerce, merely an outdoor prison designed to receive the excessive population of the appalling British prisons. I always thought that in their strange paradise, Australia's European Adam and Eve were—unlike Adam and Eve in Genesis—already fallen. Hence the puzzle, the enigma of a new heaven and a new earth, something worth writing about.
You describe the birth of Australia as "improbable." Why?
The 1787 selection of Botany Bay on the New South Wales coast as a penal settlement was a desperate act of the British government. Imagine if President Bush, appalled at the state of federal prisons, decided to move prisoners into space—an option which will come up soon if America keeps locking up its underclasses as the British did in the Georgian era.
How has the story of Australia's colonization by 168,000 criminals contributed to its rough-and-tumble image in the world?
The convict era still fascinates Australians. The descendants of the "First Fleeter" convicts are a sort of Australian nobility. The Australian character is a mixture of convict defiance and convict conservatism. We are a paradox, the most submissive/nonsubmissive, authoritarian/hedonist society on earth, and despite all, the most egalitarian in spirit if not always in practice. Redemption becomes a national obsession under this record of beginning.
How did the Europeans' arrival affect the Aboriginal population?
The impact was catastrophic—malice accounted for some Aborigine murders, but bacteria accounted for more, with syphilis, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and other diseases colonizing the hinterland far more swiftly than the convict society could.
What are your feelings about Robert Hughes's depiction of the same events in The Fatal Shore?
I celebrate Hughes! Bob Hughes's book was a refreshing insight into convictism. It tested whether Australia was a redeemable earth or a gulag. He emphasized the gulag aspect. But my emphasis is on why we survived to become a sophisticated national community, capable of producing a Hughes or a Peter Weir or even writers like myself. So I look at redemptive aspects.