He is probably best known for his novel Schindler's Ark, which earned him the Booker Prize in 1982 and was later turned into a film by Steven Spielberg, but his back catalogue is staggering in breadth and length — 32 novels, 17 non-fiction books and four plays.
I saw him at an event at Foyles Gallery last Thursday evening, which was part of his promotional tour for his latest novel, The Daughters of Mars. The book, which I'm yet to read, is set during the Great War and tells the story of the Durance sisters, who leave their home in rural Australia to work as nurses on the battlefields of France.
He did two short readings from the book before being interviewed by Robert Collins, deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times, and pretty much everything he said was fascinating or funny — or both.
He had a lot if interesting things to say about war and why so many of his books revolve around it. His father fought in the Second World War and he remembers receiving a little package in the post containing Nazi memorabilia from him. This instilled an endless fascination with war — and as a writer he loves to explore the ways in which humans behave during times of conflict.
He has also spent some time in war-torn Eritrea (for journalistic reasons) and was constantly amazed and shocked by what he saw.
He wrote The Daughters of Mars because he wanted to explore war through the eyes of women. "I wanted to write a story about the New World [Australia] and the Old World [Europe], and how women deal with stress," he said.
What gave him the right as a man to do that, he was asked. The response? He was raised by women (while his father was at war), has daughters and is deeply interested in (and knowledgeable about) aboriginal culture in which "aunties" hold their communities together.
"Australians are myth-ridden about World War One, but politicians talk absolute bollocks about it," he said. "War is a test of courage and morality."
And the reason so many Australians signed up to fight abroad? "Australians will do anything for a trip!" he said, with a twinkle in his eye. "But I think it was mainly a hunger to see the old world and its glories."
Afterwards, I joined a long, slow-moving queue and waited patiently to have my book signed.
Turns out many of the people ahead of me had brought along their entire collection of Thomas Keneally novels to be signed. The elderly couple immediately in front of me, for instance, had at least a dozen hardcovers in two tote bags — they had waited 31 years to see him (he was last in Foyles in 1982), so I think they were genuine fans and weren't doing it to stick them on eBay!