SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Naomi and Sally Durrance are heroes of the Great War, the War to End All Wars that didn't, but made two sisters with many sibling suspicions close and committed to each other. They didn't fire a shot, but they enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service, sailed over oceans in a ship called Archimedes, and tried to bind the wounds of war behind the bloody sands of Gallipoli and the frozen trenches of France. "The Daughters of Mars" is the 29th book and latest novel from Thomas Keneally, the acclaimed Booker Award-winning novelist who wrote "The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith" and the book that became "Schindler's List." Thomas Keneally joins us from his home in Sydney, Australia, and began our conversation by describing the horrors faced by the nurses in World War I.
THOMAS KENEALLY: I was fascinated by the fact that women very young from shires and townships that had existed for maybe 80 or 100 years could deal with this tide of damage to young flesh, a quite unrelenting tide of, in many cases, previously unimagined damage, such as the terrible inroads gas made on the linings of lungs and throats. And, of course, shellshock. To be able to do this for days on end, particularly in clearing stations without cracking was something that fascinates me about women. I think about women in aboriginal communities here who hold things together. I'm old enough to remember as a very small child, I hasten to say the end of the depression and the way men fell apart and women held things together, and it was almost like that on the Western Front.
SIMON: Well. and I want to get you to read a section of this book, if I could, Mr. Keneally, that I think might underscore some of that. And it's a description of Australians, in this case Naomi and Sally, coming into Cairo - a city that is certainly in news accounts on our program today - in World War I and seen as Australians in this human procession. If I could get you to read that section.
KENEALLY: (Reading) There were acrobats, fire eaters, snake charmers, all yelling out at passing Australian and British soldiers for baksheesh. Shocking beggars, young girls with infants, crippled crones, their hands stained pink and yellow, and every kind of blindness and crookedness of body and amputation, as if these people themselves were the ones who'd taken part in a recent and very savage war. And if you looked at the sky, you saw kites circling above the putrid streets waiting to descend to their abominable yet cleansing meals of flesh. Even amongst them the most talkative women in the gharries, making for their hospital across the city at Mina, the chatter stilled a little. All this just the surface anyhow, the visible part of the crowned ocean of life here that you are not equipped to deal with in any way other than by looking at it, if at all, at a tangent. Dear Papa, how can I tell you of what Naomi and I have seen?
SIMON: That is just a breathtaking bit of writing. And every few words contain an image that is, in many ways, no longer visible in the world we inhabit now in the 21st century. How do you write something like that?
KENEALLY: Well, I visited Cairo when there was still a lot of that happening. And there is a strong association with Cairo in my life because half of the argot of returned Australians was in fact Arabic. Half of their slang derived from what they'd picked up in Cairo and Egypt and Libya.
SIMON: I never knew that. When the book opens, Naomi and Sally, the daughters of a dairy farmer, are sort of like the city mouse and the country mouse. Do they get to know each other in war in a way they didn't as sisters?
KENEALLY: They have an arduous way towards intimacy throughout the book. They are more intimate each with other nurses than they are with each other. And here's a poignant scene which women tell me they like, which sisters - I've got two daughters - sisters tell me they like, a poignant scene in Alexandria where one virtually says to the other: Do you think we can be friends now? So, beneath the huge diorama of trauma to young boys, there is this glacial approach towards intimacy between the sisters. And I hope that that is part of the drama as well.
SIMON: Speaking as a novelist, does war reveal character?
KENEALLY: It does tragically reveal character in some of the combitance(ph) and horror, atrocity and soul-damaging failure on the part of many of the participants. But this was a tale in which that female capacity to deal with horror on a process-lined basis was something I wanted to write about. So, in the case of these young women, Sally, Naomi, their friends, their character is amply and richly revealed. And their capacity to deal with this ennobled them. Whereas the trenches were ignoble. Those scenes of huge heroism and huge folly and huge fear on the part of individual soldiers. But these women, I think were ennobled.
SIMON: Mr. Keneally, can I ask, how did being the author of "Schindler's Ark," the book that became "Schindler's List," how did it change your life?
KENEALLY: Well, it gave a new visibility to my work. And I think it helped the fact that publishers can have that as a banner, the name of "Schindler's List" as a banner to put on the cover of my books is a great help. When people used to thank me for writing "Schindler's List," I would be abashed because I'd say to them but I did it for the normal novelistic reasons, the normal professional writer reasons. I wanted to make a living, above all, of course. When you fall in love with a story, you don't write it for reward. But you sometimes you irrationally get rewards. And I used to say to them, look, I've been rewarded for writing this. And I'm therefore astonished that coming from such venal origins my endeavors could produce in your family this or that effect.
SIMON: "The Daughters of Mars," Mr. Keneally, is your 29th book. Do either your fingers or your imagination ever get tired?
KENEALLY: No. I find when you're writing a book, you're aged about 32 and you're in robust health. You feel you are, at least some days. On the days of transcendence, the days you get the heightened excitement of the book in your veins, it's the same excitement and the same process over and over. So, I'm not writing because I think the world needs my books. I think they could do well without them, but I'm writing because I need my books.
SIMON: Thomas Keneally. His new novel, "The Daughters of Mars." Thanks so much for being with us.
KENEALLY: Not at all. Thank you.
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SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.