Richard Flanagan: From Illiterate Grandparents To Booker Prize

On Tuesday night in London, Australian author Richard Flanagan won one of literature’s greatest honours, the Man Booker prize, for a tale inspired by his father’s experiences — prisoner 335
18 Oct 2014 07:20
Richard Flanagan: From Illiterate Grandparents To Booker Prize
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker for fiction, Australian author Richard Flanagan, at the Guildhall in London on Tuesday.

On Tuesday night in London, Australian author Richard Flanagan won one of literature’s greatest honours, the Man Booker prize, for a tale inspired by his father’s experiences — prisoner 335 — in a Japanese PoW camp during World War II. It’s been a whirlwind of interviews since then, especially for an author who lives a pretty solitary life in Tasmania and doesn’t like publicity (he had the clause removed from his publishing contract for ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’). But the 53-year-old, whose way with words is all the more remarkable because his grandparents were illiterate, did take out time for his first interview to the Indian media. Excerpts…

In our part of the world, the headline wasn’t ‘Richard Flanagan wins the Booker’. It was: ‘Neel Mukherjee loses out to Aussie author’. Did you think the competition was close?

It was a very strong shortlist this year. Six strong books, and that’s not always the case. Neel’s book was regarded as wonderful. I said in my acceptance speech that I hope that readers remember this not as the year I won the Booker, but the year that there were six extraordinary books on the shortlist.

You revealed yesterday that after finishing ‘The Narrow Road’, you were in dire straits, that you contemplated getting a mining job in Northern Australia, and this prize would change your life. Besides sending book sales soaring, what do you think is the purpose of literary prizes?

I am, of course, greatly honoured to win the Booker which is one of the great literary prizes in the world. More generally, literary prizes are significant not for who the winner is but the discussion they create around books. The discussion around Neel’s book, for instance, reminded people about the strength of Indian writing today, its vitality and its space in global literature. That is important.

Who is your favourite Booker winner of all time?

I have to confess that there are many I haven’t read. Of the many that I have read, I like Peter Carey’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ andJ M Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’.

A C Grayling who chaired the judges’ panel said the book had a strong contemporary resonance given conflicts around the world. Do you agree?

That’s true. I think all novels are contemporary. When people went to see Antony-Cleopatra at the Globe in the 16th century they were not going to get a history lesson on the Roman Empire. It was about love, sex and also about dynastic troubles. In the same way, mine is very much about the 21st century.

Australian author Richard Flanagan holds his book ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ in London

How would you describe your book — as a war novel or a love story?

It’s a love story, I conceived of it as a love story. But there are many forms of love and this is a story about the ongoing war between those different kinds of love in the way that exists in a place beyond good and evil.

The novel’s title is based on a book by the Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho even as you write about this great evil that the Japanese were responsible for during the war. Was that deliberate?

Basho’s book is one of the high points of Japanese culture and my father’s experience on the death railway was one of the low points. I wanted to use the forms, influences and tropes of Japanese literature — for which I have a great affection — to write my novel because I wanted my novel to be without judgment, to not be seeking to apportion blame.

You took 12 years and five drafts to write this book. How do you write? Do you need to shut yourself away from the world?

In the end I did go away and live on an island for six months to finish it. But I live in the world. A writer can live in a monastery for a time but then he has to live as everybody else does.

You’ve described the book as something “I would have to write if I was ever to write anything else”. Has it been cathartic and have you moved on to your next book?

It was a cathartic experience, and I’m now writing very quickly. I have a half-finished novel. It’s about a ghost writer writing the memoir of a conman (Flanagan, incidentally, has ghostwritten the memoirs of a conman before).

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