Thomas Keneally, the award-winning Australian author of “Schindler’s List,” is leaving his teaching position at UC Irvine, where his international reputation has brought added luster to the university’s highly acclaimed graduate Program in Writing.
Keneally, who served as senior writer in the fiction portion of the program, will leave at the end of the academic year.
“It largely has to do with the difficulty of extricating the self from Australia,” says Keneally, 58. “I find myself being a bit torn in two between the two countries.”
Keneally, who is founding chairman of the Australian Republican Movement that seeks to end Australia’s constitutional ties with Great Britain, found himself having to return frequently to Sydney for professional and personal reasons over the past three years.
He has since stepped down as the movement’s chairman and says “the frequent returns are not as intense as they were. But I just find that in the long term it’s going to be hard to do one’s duty by the writing program and the university and have that commute.”
With a characteristic chuckle, he added, “It’s all the curse of my grandparents catching the long boat to Australia instead of America. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have this problem. If I came from Iowa, I could fly back every week and not have jet lag.”
Keneally’s pending departure is not based on any conflict with the university, he said. “It’s not a slamming of the door or anything. In fact, it’s been proposed that I continue to come back on a regular basis. I’m still looking into the details of that.”
“We’re certainly sorry to be losing him,” said Michael Clark, chairman of UCI’s Department of English and comparative literature. “He combined his stature as a novelist with a dedication to teaching and the program, and that combination is very rare. He’ll be very difficult to replace.”
Clark, who was instrumental in luring Keneally to UCI, said Keneally had never held a permanent academic appointment before, “so it was understood he was trying us out--the whole notion of being affiliated with a university on a full-time basis.”
He added, however, that, “we had certainly hoped it would be a permanent basis.”
Clark said a search has been started to find Keneally’s replacement. “We hope to have somebody by the beginning of the school year next year,” he said. “We have a very long list of people we’re contacting to see if they’re interested.”
Keneally, author of more than 20 novels, five plays and number of film and television scripts, had been a visiting professor at UCI, where he taught the graduate fiction workshop for one quarter in 1985.
Landing a writer with the stature of Keneally for a full-time position was considered a coup at the university. But he was not an easy catch.
To entice Keneally, who turned down the offer three times, the university offered him the title of distinguished professor of English and comparative literature, a $110,000-year-appointment that includes a part-time secretary to help tend to the administrative details of the fiction program and a light teaching load: He teaches only three undergraduate and graduate courses a year, which allows ample time for his own writing.
Since arriving at UCI in the fall of 1991, he has turned out several books, including his 1993 novel “Woman of the Inner Sea.” His next book, due out in March, is a novel set in Australia at the turn of the century and is titled “A River Town.”
Keneally received an unexpected flurry of publicity earlier this year with the release of Steven Spielberg’s much-acclaimed movie version of “Schindler’s List.” A reissue of the 1982, fact-based novel shot to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times paperback best-seller list and remained on the list for 22 weeks.
Keneally, who begins teaching the fall fiction workshop today and will teach a graduate seminar on the connections between Irish and African literature in the winter quarter, said the caliber of the students in the writing program is “very high.”
“The crowd who are in second year at the moment are particularly talented,” he said. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll (get published). That’s up to them, but it’s a very high caliber crowd now. My God, I think I could say, hand on heart, that they’re more talented than me, that they have things that I could envy.”