The author of The Prosperous Thief talks about her fourth novel, her characters, ideas and themes, the power of fiction, her research, influences, the novel’s moral centre, her character’s politics and her new work.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena Ball: The story has a strong feel of verisimilitude. Is it based on a “true” story?
Andrea Goldsmith: No it’s not. All characters are made up. I’m a passionate believer in the power of fiction to take you places you’ve never been before and to take you into the hearts and minds of people you do not know. (In fact, I first learned about the Holocaust from Leon Uris’s novels.) Fiction is my preferred drug. In fact ever since Enid Blyton took me from the noise and clutter of the family loungeroom to the top of the Faraway Tree, and Dickens gave me a guillotine-side seat to witness Sydney Carton doing a far far better thing than he had ever done before, I have been a willing disciple of fiction, a lifelong convert.
MB: Even if the story wasn’t based on a true story, did you feel perhaps that this was in some way, your story – or the story of almost any European Jew?
AG: I’m a 5th generation Australian Jew through 3 of my grandparents; the fourth came to Australia in 1901. My father fought in New Guinea during WW2 and my family lost neither friends nor relatives in Europe. I went to a Methodist school for 13 years and the Jews my family mixed with were of an Anglo background. I did not meet children of survivors until I went to university. One of the issues revealed in the novel is that there are many different types of Jew, and to label all of us as one thing or another is to distort and reduce all of us. (I think this is so relevant at the moment for Muslims, given that only the radical wing makes the news.) I’d like to think The Prosperous Thief is a story for all Australians. After all, we live in a country of immigrants. All of us are descended from people who left behind lives which could have benefitted from some improvement – otherwise they wouldn’t have uprooted themselves. In fact, as I was writing the book, and particularly with the asylum seekers being treated so appallingly here, I found myself thinking over and over that no one ever chooses exile.
MB: Tell me about some of the research you had to do?
AG: I’m a typical novelist when it comes to research. I’d never choose to write a book that required research that didn’t captivate me. (There’ll be no novels down the track that would require me to hang out in abattoirs or accountancy offices.) I have long been fascinated with volcanoes and deliberately lent that love to Raphe. Both the volcanoes in the novels – White Island in NZ and Kilauea in Hawaii I have visited. They are magnificent, seductive, brilliant, and always enough fear to remind you who you are and how you fit into the scheme of things. Re the European sections of the book, I read a lot, and eventually I visited central Europe – but not until I had a good first draft written. I wanted the imagination to enjoy free rein – and then off I went to see if I got it right.
MB: Did you feel a tension between the story itself and the need to create a piece of entertainment; a message; a provocative work of art?
AG: Not really. All my novels begin with ideas – and give my very low threshold for boredom, ideas big enough to keep me interested for the 3-4 years it takes to write a novel. In the case of The Prosperous Thief they include: how we shape the past to suit present needs and desires, the modern notion of victim; issues of revenge and justice; the intransigence and self-defeating nature of hatred; the long arm of damage; the necessity of humour in living a responsible life. From the ideas I develop characters and from there narrative. So the ideas quickly become subsumed in the story.
Provocative? I would never turn away from a character or a narrative line just because I was nervous of upsetting someone. Every character, every event has to justify its inclusion in the novel, must contribute to the novel’s coherence – that’s my bottom line. It is fiction which drives me: the coherence of the emerging fiction will decide what is to be included and what is not.
MB: Were you influenced (or burdened) by other Australian Holocaust based novels like Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (which gets mentioned in the book), or Brett’s Too Many Men (which also involves a visit to Lodz and looks at the impact of the Holocaust on the survivor’s children).
AG: Not at all. Firstly I should say that I never regarded TPT as a holocaust novel. I still don’t. For me it is a book which leads inexorably to the present, a book that tells how we are now despite the past burdens we might carry. I got far more from Coetzee than any Holocaust novel. From Homer too. I read Keneally’s book a long time ago and enjoyed it, but my overwhelming memory of it was its redemptive quality. I haven’t read Too Many Men – Lily Brett’s sort of fiction doesn’t really appeal to me.
MB: Who did you set as the main protagonist? Was it Raphe? Laura?
AG: Different ones as the book progresses. Certainly Raphe AND Laura in the modern section. Alice is probably the fulcrum of the novel.
MB: I won’t ask you to elaborate, but would you say that the ending is happy, or tragic?
AG: Up-lifting for Laura, tragic for Raphe.
MB: Heini/Henry is a survivor – the thief who prospers. Is his crime forgivable? Is his love for his wife (and indeed the saving of his wife) and children enough?
AG: The question you ask is of course the key to the novel, its moral centre. I think there are no easy answers. Extreme times produce extreme acts. Heini cared for his brother and sister as he later cares for his Australian family. He is not a bad man. I do not give him a voice – deliberately – in the second half of the novel. That is a high price to pay. But is it enough? Would anything be enough? And the fact remains that he does die so soon after his meeting with Alice.
Henry’s is only one of several thiefs in the novel. Raphe is a thief who has appropriated his grandfather’s life to fill up the gaps in his own second-rate life. And of course Nell is a very modern, very opportunistic thief. Heini’s theft is hard to accept, although, given the life or death circumstances, perhaps understandable. But these modern thefts are also pretty inexcusable from my point of view and perhaps occur with less justification.
MB: Nell is determined to turn Laura’s mother’s story into a film. Her father’s story is equally, if not more, interesting. Have you thought
about turning The Prosperous Thief into film?
AG: This is the stuff of a novelist’s dreams. I sit by the phone waiting for Anthony Minghella to ring. Hey, I’m even home to Steven Spielberg.
MB: Tell me more about the role of Kilauea. I know that you have an interest in volcanos, but does this one have symbolic significance in the book?
AG: Sure does, although this was not my original intention. I just wanted to indulge one of my loves. But as I wrote it seemed to me that volcanoes are geology’s imagination. All those mysterious, marvellous, dangerous, unpredictable under-currents – like life itself, or at least the life that is not to be wasted. We live with shadows, we live with secrets, we want more control than is ever possible, and we carry within us such imaginative potential. Every leap is both wonderful and dangerous. (Rilke: Every angel is terrifying.)
MB: Both Nell and Juno show signs of anti-semitism (or at least gross insensitivity at best). Is modern (two generations removed from the
Holocaust) anti-semitism an issue you wanted to address in the book?
MB: Are Laura’s politics an offset for what her father has done, or is it ironic that she, in her ignorance of her paternal inheritance, should champion the cause of the oppressed? (eg just as white Australians should take responsibility for the sins of their predecessors so should Laura assume the burden of her father’s guilt?).
AG: Laura is a liberal humanist – a breed that has taken a beating in recent times. I like her political stance. I think it is a valid way of living with history. Despite her ignorance of her father’s past, Laura of all the characters in the book leads the examined life.
MB: Or is it a simple poke at the Howard Govt?
AG: Well yes, I did have a poke. In this, the author shares Laura’s stance.
MB: Should Laura be told the truth? Is she responsible to any extent?
AG: I think there are many different ways of living with the past. Raphe does it one way, a victim’s way, Henry chooses silence, Etti’s past is too big even after 40 years to hold it to herself, and Laura chooses yet another way. Laura says at some stage in the book that she wanted to keep loving her father, that it was better not to know the whole truth. I wouldn’t want to criticise her for this. I have a horror of the therapy generation that excavates excuses not understanding.
MB: What about Laura’s Zionist brother – is this an alternative evil, or an understandable reaction from a Holocaust victim’s son?
AG: Daniel is not so much a Zionist but an observant Jew. He could have gone into therapy in search for meaning, he could have sunk himself into money and materialism, instead he chose religion – a choice shared by many people in the contemporary world. It is not a choice shared by his author, but it is one I wanted to explore. Certainly it is a popular option for many people who have damage in their past.
MB: Have you begun work on something new?
AG: I’m reading for my next book now – tapping into what Henry James called ‘imaginative traffic’. I wrote about this business of starting a new novel (published in the AGE, Saturday, November 2nd 2002). I hope you don’t mind but I’ve attached it here as it answers your question. Also I wrote a long essay called HOMER AND THE HOLOCAUST which was published in the November issue of Australian Book Review. Whenever I finish a novel I write an essay, primarily to clarify why I wrote the book just finished. Homer and the Holocaust is my paean to imaginative treatments of historical horrors.