In winning the Booker Prize novelist Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North exponentially increased the reasons whereby other earthlings gained awareness of Tasmania,his home. The other claim to recognition being a small marsupial that was monetized into cartoon character by American film studios.
It happens that this is my second conversation* with Flanagan wherein he spends some time admiring my ragtop and mistaking it for a beat-up Mercedes Benz. This should have no bearing on your judgement of his literary talents.As is my wont what follows is a typically digressive conversation. Go ahead live a little.
Keltic Krust,site of many authorial conversations [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Robert:Say something? I need it test the mic level.
Richard:I do like your car, by the way.
Robert: Hmm? Today is September 5th 2014. For the record, I’m speaking to Richard Flanagan, at the site of the now closed Keltic
Krust. Where do you live?
Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Richard: Where do I live?
Robert: Yes, where do you live?
Robert: Am I wrong but I haven’t seen people referring to you as a Tasmanian. Don’t they refer to you as an Australian?
Richard:I don’t know.
Robert: What do you think of yourself as?
Richard:I just think of myself as a writer. Adjectives are judgments and judgments are normally unfounded. It doesn’t worry me really.
Robert: Your identity doesn’t attach to Tasmania?
Richard: I like the place I come from but no, I don’t think … I just think if you’re a writer you live in that universe of letters, don’t you? It makes as much sense as trying to define yourself as an Angolan chiropodist or something. It’s neither here or there, is it? Literature is not national. That’s my point.
Robert: Lots of people would argue with you about that but I’m not going to. Here’s the thing. It seems to me in some places that I read, including, I think, your lecture on love stories*, you would say things like, “Suffering can’t be contained in a book. All sorts of life experiences aren’t contained in a book, they are.”
Richard:They are but also- literature is. Ultimately, finally, novels are an addition to life. They’re not a complement to it, they’re not a reflection of life. Literature is life or it is nothing. Literature has to exist in this world as everything else does. If it’s seen to be ornamental, if it’s seen to be additional, it is only because it’s seen to have failed.
Robert: Speaking of love stories, you weren’t reticent about talking about them. I think the underlying theme of that particular talk was that you didn’t feel like you were an expert in love stories.
Richard: The talk makes the necessary distinction between love and love stories. Love stories seem to me they’re more- I’ve read them and thought about them- to obey certain rules and certain structures, certain rhythms. That is because when they succeed they speak to what we know to be the spiritual and psychological truths of love. We don’t experience love in the form of love stories, but when love stories are great, they speak to our experience of love precisely because they have different patterns and symmetries and-
Robert: Or they evoke in the reader that feeling that they had when they had a sort of similar experience.
Richard:They should. I think fundamental to a love story is that sense we have in love, of knowing we’ve discovered eternity in the moment that vanishes and dies immediately after. That’s why love stories always have to have death.
Robert: They have to have what?
Richard:They have to have death because that death in terms of story speaks to that idea of the eternal being ephemeral. Without that we’ve already got something that is slightly false to our knowledge of love. In our lives we may know love and may know it profoundly, but we don’t have death with it.
Robert: It reminds me of some glib saying about while it lasts, love is forever. Do you feel that the love story in your new novel is effective, is real? Does it work for you? … It obtains the characteristics that you’ve just described.
Richard: It’s not for the writer to judge what their work is. That’s for the reader. Some readers judge my books a success, some judge them a failure. It’s not for me to argue with them.
Robert:Let’s say one critic refers to your book as deeply flawed because they don’t think the love story works, whereas the other part of it, the retelling or the telling of the Japanese building of a railroad under horrendous circumstances that does work. How does that make you feel that someone thinks one half of the book is okay and one half isn’t?
Richard: It doesn’t make me feel any different to the critics who say the book is a triumph and both halves complement each other. In the end, if a novel has a life it’ll have many readings. Some of the readings will judge it to fail or partly succeed or to succeed completely. You cannot set your compass by those readings. The real judgment on the book isn’t made by the immediate critical response. It’s social and historical and it’s made by thousands upon thousands of readings by anonymous readers over many years. It’s that judgment that ultimately obtains and endures. What that will be on this book, it may be that I’m condemned to the trash bin-
Richard Flanagan circa 2007 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Robert: Or you win a Booker prize. When is that announced? In October?
Richard: In October, yeah. What I can say about that question is that I think the critic was wrong in this regard. They said there was a war story. That’s what the book should have been. It was a very conscious decision on my part to have these 2 stories, both the love story and the war story. I set out to write a love story seeking to do what I spoke about. To do that I needed a story of death, and war is the ultimate expression of death. It is the great story of death. War illuminates love but love gives you something that you need in a story as dark as this one would otherwise be. Nietzsche said that hope is the most evil of human torments because it prolongs life. That’s true but equally whether it is our greatest folly or not, we all live in hope till we die. We understand the abandonment of hope as death. I think novels that don’t allow for hope in the end disappoint us because we understand in some fundamental way that they’re untrue to our experience of living. A novel has to find that sense of hope. It’s not the same thing as happiness or happy endings. No one’s accused me of lapsing into those sort of errors. Hope’s greatest expression is love. That’s why this story, for it to succeed, needed to love. A novelist does look at writing his book many different ways, or I certainly do. It was my opinion then writing it, and it is completely my opinion having finished writing it that it was a much lesser book without the love story. I think the way it’s being received suggests that as well.
Robert: You would have an incomplete character. Rodrigo, what would he be if he was just a insecure hero of his war experience?
Richard: That great American literati I feel close to sitting in your wonderful battered Mercedes [actually an 11 year old Sebring ragtop] looking out on a highway in America. Clint Eastwood said the interesting thing about violence is that it has consequences and the act of violence itself is uninteresting. Too much of our world has become a pornography of violence. It’s not interested in either the causes or the consequences, but ultimately both those things shape our humanity.
Robert: I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard of this. There’s a BBC series called Southcliffe* which is about a guy marauding a town, killing 16 people and other … What I thought was really great about this was you barely saw any of the violence. It was all about the consequences. It was all about what the survivors experienced and how they coped or didn’t cope.
Richard:I didn’t see Southcliffe but I’m aware of it. It seemed to me, from what I heard about it from those who saw it, that it is in this new genre that’s arisen that is born out of one TV series, which is the first series of the Danish thriller series, The Killing. The point of The Killing is that there’s an act of violence which is really peripheral, a murder. Unlike normal thrillers which are really about the solving of the crime, each episode focused on a different consequence of the crime. How it affected the mother, how it affected the father, how it affected each of the cops in turn. Southcliffe’s just picking up on all those same ideas. That’s why The Killing, I think, did something really new in that particular genre.
It’s not something new in literature. Work in a novel is always being accused that storytelling is elsewhere. When you look at storytelling elsewhere, you see it reflecting what the novel has been doing successfully for a very long time. Not to take anything away from The Killing, which I thought was a terrific series, the first series.
Robert: There has been a marked improvement in the storytelling on TV starting, I guess … A lot of people like The Sopranos, The Wire, True Detective, Justified. Series like that. They’re coming from better writers. That’s the thing. You’re getting novelists and story writers to do this.
Richard:I think 2 things happened as I understand it. One was creative power got concentrated in a single creator, the showrunner, rather than in a strange, cruel melange of studio executives and feuding producers and directors and so on. I just don’t think you really get great art arising from that deranged expression of terror and greed and aggrandizement and so on that is how most television and film gets made. The second thing was they were then, as I understand it- this is what my friends who work in film tell me- is that you tend to get given the money to do those series with not many strings attached. Which is actually unlike Hollywood where you’ve got so many people. I’ve written for Hollywood so I know you’ve got so many people crazily coming up with things being broken down and rewritten for no good reason. These people because they’ve got the money, they control the money.
What I hear about cable TV is that once they decide the project and the people and what they want and they greenlight it, they largely, as long as the money is accounted for responsibly, let them make what they set out to make. It’s really the moment maybe the visual arts were finally allowed to create in the way that painters or novelists or other people create. Which is that you tell the story the way you think it ought to be told.
Robert: With all the [value 00:15:16] of the casting, the … [inaudible 00:15:20] the way you want it. Are you interested in doing that? In writing for film, video. Creating a story they would tell via that.
Richard:No, not particularly.
Robert: Or adapting-
Richard:I’m a terribly inconstant man. Who knows what I’ll do tomorrow? I’ve worked in film. I’ve directed film. I’ve written film. In the end, I keep on falling back in love with the novel because-
Robert: You don’t enjoy that experience?
Richard:No, there’s fun to be had. It’s like you live in the scriptorium and you’re allowed to run across the highway and run away with the circus. After a while you weary of stepping in the elephant shit and you-
Robert: Too many people too?
Richard:No. What I think is that ultimately even with what I was talking about the TV series, film and television are a tyranny and the tyrant is money. Novels are a flawed, broken and difficult world but it is a republic. I would rather live in a corrupted republic of letters than in the tyranny of money, no matter how driven that tyranny sometimes sounds.
Robert: Speaking of the republic of literature, what is it like to be a writer in your part of the world? Or do you see yourself as a citizen of the world, you don’t particularly notice that you’re dealt with differently or that your world is different?
Richard:I think it has to be said that there would be … I don’t know of any other country where us writers hold as low a public position as they do in Australia. There’s strangely very little respect in the structures of society for a writer. A writer is someone with no standing. The paradox of that is that Australian writers are much loved by Australian readers. They’re popular. They have a very real place and affection in the minds of the people but they-
Robert: The people who know them.
Richard:Australian books sell really well in Australia. They’re read and they matter. That is a wonderful thing. The position of a writer in that society-
Robert: Yeah, you’re not considered a public intellectual.
Richard:You’re not considered anything. Perhaps that’s a good thing.
Robert: When a book is-
Richard:It’s good to understand writing is a journey into humility.
Robert: I would think. I did read somewhere that you said something to the effect that you knew you always had to write this book eventually, even when you were writing other books.
Robert: Does that sound like a fair recapitulation of what you said?
Richard:Yeah, that’s true.
Robert: Was it sort of a burden or an interference as you were writing any number of other books that you wrote? Another way of asking it is when did you finally decide, “Okay, I’ve got to do it now”?
Richard:I started writing this in 2001. I wouldn’t just write a draft, I’d finish a novel and I’d know it had failed. Then I would delete it off the computer and I’d burn the manuscript and all the notes. I’d end up writing a different novel, another novel that’d be published. Then I’d go back to this and I’d write this as a new novel in a different form. One was a book of linked haiku, one was a sort of haibun, the Japanese form that combines travel journal and poetry, one was a sort of Odyssean.
Robert: A who?
Richard: An Odyssean. A sort of journey in which-
Richard:No. It’s narrated in the first person form. One was a family epic that spanned 100 years.
Robert: How many different forms of the novel did you write?
Richard: I wrote 5 novels to get to this one. What happened? I guess it was this … I’ll put it in a better way. Philippe Petit, the famous tightrope walker who walked between the Twin Towers. When police drag him in and kick him down the stairs and throw him in the police car at the bottom, a journalist shoves his microphone into the back window just as the police car is about to drive off. He says to Petit, “Why did you do it?” Petit says, “There is no why.” There is no why why I had to write it. I just knew I had to.” I think that there were 2 great facts in my life. I was a writer, that was one tale. The other tale was that I had grown up, along with my brothers and sisters, as this child of the Death Railway. More and more I realized how shaped everything in my life had been by my father’s experience as a slave laborer of the Japanese, and this horrific war crime where between 100 and 200 thousand people died for nothing. As some-
Robert: It’s funny how usually the statistic is 12 thousand Brits. The total number of Brits and natives isn’t put together as an aggregate.
Richard:What is shocking is that to the extent it’s remembered, it’s only remembered in terms of what happened to Allied soldiers whose part in it was only a fraction of and whose suffering bad as it was was less because they had their structures and they had their expertise. Admittedly all of those things in a living hell. The Asian slave laborers, the Tamils from the Malay states, the [the Muslims, the Thais and so on, the Burmese tribes locals, their situation was a hell beyond imagining, and is certainly a hell of which there is no knowing. I found that so sad. To return to what I was saying, there was this tower that was the fact of me being a writer and there was the other tower of this experience. At a certain point I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to walk the tightrope between the two if I was to keep on writing. I had to somehow communicate this incommunicable thing that concerned me or I couldn’t say anything else.
Robert: I guess the closest thing that we have to knowing about this was the David Lean movie. Do you foresee anybody modernizing this story given the fact that you have now brought this topic up again?
Richard: Do you mean in-
Robert: Making a newer version of Bridge on the River Kwai.
Richard:It’s not for me to answer, is it?
Robert: No, but you could speculate. You do that sometimes, don’t you?
Richard:No. Here I get asked about Bridge on the River Kwai. That movie relates as much to what happened there as-
Robert: That’s what I mean. Now we know-
Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Richard:As My Fair Lady did. Or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was a Hollywood confection. On those terms, an admirable … it’s a David Lean movie. It’s an admirable movie but it bears no connection to anything. Will people think more, do more? I would have no idea. The world is so quick-sighted in what it chooses to care for and what it chooses not to. I tend to think it would but I really don’t know.
Robert: I would have never thought somebody would make another profound Holocaust movie but then Spielberg did his version with Schindler’s List and some still come out. Some little tidbits of movies about that era.
Richard:If you’re asking me should it happen then I don’t think you can really give an answer to that. All you can say is that whatever people do with their art … There is only 1 criteria, not whether it’s appropriate, not whether the times demand it, not whether something is being ignored. The only category that can apply to it is it good? That’s all that matters. If it’s good it speaks to something, some truth about ourselves. That chaos at the center of us and other things. If it’s done that and then something has changed a little, even if it’s only 1 reader or 1 viewer thinking, “I’m not alone in what I feel,” I feel that is something good that’s been achieved.
Robert: What’s the resonance of spending time on this book for a long period of time then completing it and going on with your life? Are you done with the book?
Richard:Do you mean emotionally done or …
Richard:Something like that. I feel 2 things. I’d rather not talk about it and I try not to do things unless I have to. On the other hand, it’s not the worst in life to be sitting in a battered Mercedes in the middle of America with Robert. It’s not-
Robert: I want to correct you. This is a  Chrysler Sebring.
Richard:Of course. Oh, is it?
Robert: This is the most expensive version. Now your whole opinion I hope you’ve it changed about me.
Richard:A Chrysler what? A Chrysler Cedric [sic]. That’s even better. Look, the thing is a writer shouldn’t get too precious … Most people have such difficult, demeaning and often humiliating jobs. Of course there are things I’d rather not do but they’re not odious or terrible things. It is terribly wrong to pretend otherwise.
Robert: To act like a suffering writer?
Richard: Yeah. To paint that task as … For several reasons. One, all I ever wanted to do was be a writer. I’ve been lucky enough that no one’s blowing the whistle on me today and I’m still getting away with it. I’m sure someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder in the next few months. The other is yeah, exactly that. I was able to do what I wanted to do. It is a joyous thing for me to be allowed to get up in the morning and sit at a table and make it up. The other is most people aren’t allowed that sort of fortune. Many of those are gifted people. Even if they’re not gifted, they don’t deserve the difficulty or the struggle that is daily life for most people. I know there are some rotten jobs. Writing is not one of them.
Robert: No. I imagine, this is my imagination, that you’re onto something else already. That you’re writing something else or thinking about writing something else.
Richard:Yeah, I’ve got-
Robert: Are there gaps in your life when once you started writing you didn’t know what you were going to write?
Richard:I’ve always got too many ideas. I’ve got a novel nearly finished now and I’ve got another one half written. I always just want to get back to the table and write more.
Robert: Do you live in an urban area or a rural area or a combination?
Richard:I live in Hobart, which is the capital Tasmania. Tasmania is about the size of Ireland or Sri Lanka but it’s only half a million people.
Robert: How many people live in Hobart?
Richard:200 thousand. It’s a remote or by American sensibilities a very small place. Then I have a shack, as we call them there. A holiday cottage on an island off Tasmania where I also go and write when I just want to be by myself. I go there for … Like with this novel I spent the best part of 6 months by myself. My family would come and stay with me occasionally on weekends and so on. Occasionally friends came but mostly I just lived by myself in this remote place in the sea.
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
Robert: I should say, I also really, really like Wanting
. That is a terrific, terrific book.
Richard:I’m really touched by that because I felt that was my first novel where I’d mastered writing a novel. I really felt for the first time that I had some difficult and large thing I was trying to communicate but I was in control of that. I’m glad you read it.
Robert: I think your escort is getting nervous. I hope we talk again and have more time.
Richard: You should get someone to take a photo of us sitting in here doing the interview. Why don’t we do that?
Flanagan & Birnbaum, sitting in car [photographer unknown]
Conversation with Richard Flanagan
Lecture on Love Stories