I met Tom in his favourite café in Manly. Our conversation was punctuated by effusive greetings to and from passers by, with chat about the last bookshop talk and the fortunes of the local rugby league team. Afterwards, we visited his new apartment on the grounds of the Catholic seminary he had left fifty years before, and walked through the old cemetery near Sydney’s quarantine station, where Tom regaled me with the stories of some of the people interred there with as much enthusiasm as if they were current news, or new material for his volumes of tales of all the colourful figures who make up our national history. His comments on his career were peppered with people’s names and anecdotes about his connections with them. A life in books has clearly been as much a life with people.
But Keneally has also always kept a keen eye on his career in terms of economics and the workings of the publishing industry. The interview began by talking about the latest book, The Daughters of Mars. Tom believed that it had already sold twice the number of The People’s Train, from a print run of about ten thousand. Random House only wanted to issue it in paperback as hardcovers no longer sold, and Big W was their biggest purchaser these days, reflecting wider changes in the publishing industry. For the first two decades of his career, the hardback was ‘the real book’, the only serious literary format, with the exception of Penguin titles.