2016 / Saturday

The perfectly imperfect fascination of character

Dionne Alaveras

Meg Keneally with her father, novelist Tom

Meg Keneally with her father, novelist Tom

“There were some pretty horrendous bushfires in Sydney 1994 that I covered. I was in Lindfield – you wouldn’t believe Lindfield was on fire, green little Lindfield. There was a street I wanted to go down and the fireman warned me not to. At the time I was 22, 23, and thought I was bulletproof. I went, and a mob of fire from one side of the street to the other just lobbed over my head, I felt the soles of my shoes beginning to melt and I thought, okay, time to get out. That was an important lesson on how not to be stupid”.

Meg Keneally is a storyteller. It is part of being human, she says.

We meet over coffee at Manly Beach. She drinks cappuccino and is “rusted on” to the beachfront, she says.

She believes in experiences: before becoming a journalist with the Daily Mail and a radio producer for 2UE, she tested her skills abroad. “I was a bit sheltered, you know a 20 year old girl moving to New York. I spent the first three months thinking, ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore’. It broadened my horizons, and made me more self reliant”. Recalling the sultriness of that city in summer, and of how working at the Australian Consulate in Rockefeller Centre allowed her to pop into Saks Fifth Avenue for a “spot of lunchtime shopping”. She was living the dream. Her shared studio apartment in the East Village was dingy and full of cockroaches: “We had names for them. Moby would only come out when we had visitors, I think we also had Gargantra, and Godzilla, Moby was the biggest”. She left the US behind and moved to Dublin where she dabbled in feature writing.

“In some ways I’m sort of a timid person, but having grown up with two parents who are quite adventurous and who have a bit of a ‘why not’ attitude, I have never been hesitant to give something a go,” she says. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

So she decided to give corporate affairs a go, and co-founded a financial service company but sold it after her first child was born. “Yes, that was the dark side of the force,” she says with a laugh. After financial services, she accepted a role with an insurance company. Now with two children and full time work, she felt the weight of it: “You can become so tunnel-visioned in a high-pressure work environment. You start to think the sky is going to fall if you can’t do it, but really the sky wasn’t going to fall if I didn’t do a particular thing. I was reading bedtime stories to my kids over the phone from my desk and I thought ‘ah’.”

Now, Meg has a contract job with a large bank, which she does in the early hours of the morning, leaving the rest of her day to focus on writing, and scuba diving. Earlier in life, Meg tried creative writing, she finished two books, which never got published. “They are permanently in the bottom drawer,” she says. “Oh well, these things don’t always get passed down.” Meg’s father is the renowned author Thomas Keneally.

“We didn’t realise he was anything special when we were little. We just treated him like a story vending machine. We would say ‘Daddy, tell us a story of two little girls who make friends with a volcano, hurry up’, and he would have to produce this story or there would be trouble”. Something did get passed down, considering her life is now consumed with writing. Meg and her father have just finished the second of their historic crime Monsarrat Series, set in colonial-era Port Macquarie. The Soldiers Curse, the first book, was published in March.

“You know when you watch somebody who is a real master at what they do, they make it look easy,” she says. “And that’s how you know they are complete masters, they make it look effortless. Dad’s like that, he can add layers of meaning with a single brush stroke. Take our character Mrs Mulroney, who gets cranky at inanimate objects. I wrote her like that and Dad says, she is a former convict, the reason she gets angry at inanimate objects is because it is misdirected anger. She’s too scared to get angry at the people who put her there, so she gets angry at things that can’t retaliate.”

Tom Keneally’s eldest daughter talks about her characters as if they are living beings; describes them as “independent entities”. “Even with all the planning in the world a character can surprise you. One example of that is a character called Michael Diamond who is the second-in-command at the Penal Settlement. He started out as not a good man but a sort of ambiguous man. Then I wrote a flogging scene, in which he administers this vicious flogging and then in the end spits in the wound of the person he’s just flogged. I didn’t know he was going to do that until I wrote it. I sat back and thought, ‘Diamond, you really are a psycho aren’t you”. Laughing, she sips her cappuccino and in great detail gossips about Mrs Mulroney and Diamond as if they were imposing neighbours.

“I remember sending Dad an email saying Monsarrat and Mrs Mulroney aren’t leaving me alone. Monsarrat’s putting his boots on my coffee table and eating all the food in the fridge. I’m sitting there trying to do my paper work and Monsarrat’s coughing for attention and remarking, ‘I thought the place would have come a lot further within the last 170 years, you know’.”

We stare out at the Manly waterfront, a world far from the one that’s been absorbing her focus the last few months. “There’s no such thing as a perfect piece,” Meg Keneally interrupts our ocean gazing, a hand raised to block the sun from her eyes. “I mean, we’re not perfect people, so we can’t produce perfect works of art. And they’re all the better for that.”