Thomas Keneally is still puzzled by the fervent way in which he is embraced by British readers and critics.
“To Brits, I’m just a harmless figure from far south who’s never going to give them any problem,” the Australian quips – despite having won the Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark and having been shortlisted a further three times.
“The review of my latest novel The Daughters of Mars in The Daily Telegraph could have been written by my grandmother,” he giggles.
To his complete bafflement, the 77-year-old – a leader of the Australian republican movement – has even received a royal seal of approval.
Keneally’s publisher “mischievously” got him an invitation to a cocktail party at St James’s Palace last year.
“Being a republican, I hid in a corner out of embarrassment, admiring the paintings and the mouldings,” he says.
“But in any case, I met the Duchess of Cornwall and she complimented me on the reviews I was getting in Britain for my book.
“I thought at the time: ‘What’s a bloke got to do to get sent to the Tower these days?'”
Keneally has flown into Adelaide, South Australia, to deliver three talks at its annual writers’ week, including a discussion on The Daughters of Mars.
As you would expect from Keneally, the novel, which takes a fresh look at the First World War, was painstakingly researched. He scoured contemporary journals and even adopted the diarists’ writing style.
“The punctuation is eccentric and a lot of dashes are used – that’s the way a lot of them wrote. I wanted to honour their punctuation more than I wanted to honour Oxbridge punctuation.”
Keneally’s interest in historical conflicts stems from a desire to fathom how he would behave morally if stuck in a time of savagery.
“I am against war, but the terrible irony is that I’m fascinated by it. The Schindler thing is based on the idea of: how would I have behaved as a 19-year-old in that time when ideas were turned upside down, when language was turned upside down.”
Keneally first participated in the Adelaide Festival, the “Edinburgh of Australia”, back in 1968, and praises the region for having “a better and more worthy kind of people than us trailer trash of the eastern states”.
“And, of course, it’s hard to move in my hotel without tripping over some great British novelist or biographer. It has become even more of a force than ever.
“Because of the weather, the writers’ festival take place in a series of tents. Now I know that Hay-on-Wye takes place in a series of tents, but these tents are not ankle deep in water,” he says while taking in the midday sun.
There are other perks to holding an arts festival during an Aussie summer. Keneally was able to take time out from writers’ week to visit the beach in one of the city’s two London taxis with novelist Kathy Lette – who has known the “literary love god” since she was a teenager.
Lette admits she stripped off to her “lacy G-string” before she took the plunge, leaving Keneally holding her summer frock.
She also joked that next year the festival should make their jaunt “a ticketed event”, before adding: “The only disappointment was that Tom didn’t strip down to his budgie smugglers.”