Thomas Keneally: ‘Does anyone write a good book at 83? Well, I think I have’’

The Australian novelist on crying over a Dickens biography, laughing at Kathy Lette and the classic he is ashamed not to have read

The book I am currently reading
The Barbara Kingsolver novel Unsheltered. Not quite up there with The Poisonwood Bible and Flight Behaviour, but still a magnificent novel.

The book that changed my life
Nobel prize-winning Australian novelist Patrick White’s Voss. It is a sweeping and eccentric book, a modernist classic (Thomas Mann eat your heart out), and it showed me that Australians were just as entitled to write novels as anyone.

The book I wish I’d written
James Joyce’s Ulysses will do me.

The book that had the greatest influence on me
The poetry of WB Yeats. I use him shamelessly to fill up my prose storage tanks. He’s illimitable.

The book that is most underrated
The Inheritors by William Golding and Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. Two writers, by the way, who disliked each other.

The book that changed my mind
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. It expanded my perception of our species in ancient Australia (70-80,000 years ago) and made me feel the breath of the now extinct megafauna on the back of my neck.

The last book that made me cry
Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. She managed to convey the extent to which the genius and silly man was, in lacerating his wife and pursuing a new love, so unwittingly dedicated to his own destruction.

The last book that made me laugh
My friend and fellow antipodean Kathy Lette’s Best Laid Plans. But then Kathy’s been helping me laugh for longer than she would appreciate my saying.

The book I couldn’t finish
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. OK, guv, I’m ready to wear the vulgarian handcuffs and do my time. It’s not the first time my family was transported.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. I listened to it as a recorded book, which I think doubles the culpability.

The book I give as a gift
It’s often Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, the consummate novel of dictatorship and war. My father from New South Wales spent nearly three years campaigning against the Reich in north Africa, so I feel closer to the story than would at first seem likely.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
A new book, The Book of Science and Antiquities, partly set among members of our species in Australia 42,000 years back. Does anyone write a good book at 83? Well, I’m insisting I have.

My earliest reading memory
Reading the old series What Katy Did in the bush with my female cousins.

My comfort read
William Boyd, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith.

• Thomas Keneally’s The Book of Science and Antiquities is published by Sceptre.


Thomas Keneally

The GuardianTramp

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