Saturday, April 20, 2024

Richard Flanagan: ‘Art was something that happened elsewhere’

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By the time I sit down with Richard Flanagan, he is armed with a glass of champagne. 

Technically speaking, it is a sparkling white wine from a vineyard in Tasmania, the remote Australian island state that the Booker Prize-winning novelist has lived in for all but three and a bit years of his life. Everyone calls it champagne in Australia but either way, Flanagan is not just drinking it but knocking back hefty swigs of the stuff.

“I’ve also got an Armagnac, just to help me along,” he says.

I laugh uncertainly. Each to his own and all that, but it is barely 7 o’clock in the morning in Hobart and I had been expecting to see him with at least a slice of toast.

So no plans for any sort of food at all? “No,” he says. “I felt nourishment enough, Pilita.” 

I cannot gripe. He has gallantly agreed to speak on Zoom at what is 8pm my time in England and 7am his. As an Australian transplanted to London, I appreciate the sacrifice. But I glance at the cooling bowl of tagliatelle and bolognese beside my keyboard. It seems rude to eat alone. Luckily, there is a large Negroni next to it. I soon wish I had three of them.

It’s not that Flanagan is hard work. Nor is he remotely dull. It’s just that he has a lot to say and some of the frustrations he articulates can be difficult to reconcile with his shimmering literary record. 

At 59, he has spent nearly 30 years dazzling critics and hoovering up prizes for novels that veer from Australia’s brutal colonial history to one of its greatest 20th-century fraudsters. The book that won the 2014 Man Booker prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is about something else again: the notorious Burma Railway built by prisoners of war captured by Japan in the second world war. 

His new novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, is set against a disturbing backdrop of 21st-century climate change, an obsession of his that I share as the FT’s former environment correspondent.

Before I have a chance to ask about any of this, he is anxious to know if he is pronouncing my first name correctly, which he is. It turns out that people are always mangling the name of his Slovenian wife, Majda, which sounds like “my-dah”. “A friend of mine called her ‘Murder’ for the first six months he knew us,” he says. “I didn’t like to correct him.”

Having seen him in action at the odd literary festival, I know his self-deprecating modesty is both charming and bottomless. But it is still a jolt to hear him talk about what has obviously been one of the English-speaking world’s most successful literary careers.

He began charting Tasmania’s often violent past in his first novel, Death of a River Guide, which the Times Literary Supplement called “one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing”. The New York Times compared his third, Gould’s Book of Fish, a wildly inventive convict tale, with Joyce, Melville and García Márquez. Both carried off a swag of awards, as has most of his fiction. Yet his memory of how it all started is far from joyful.

“It was difficult,” he says. “It was harder to come out of the closet as somebody who wanted to be a writer than to come out of the closet as gay in the Tasmania I grew up in.” It was a place where you were destined to dig holes or chop down trees, he says. “Art and life were things that happened elsewhere.”

He grew up in a small Tasmanian mining town, the fifth of six children born to a school headmaster father and a mother who thought he would make a good plumber.

Instead he went to university and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. “That’s good,” his mother said when he told her the Oxford news. “Go and see your father, he might be interested”. 

His father, whose experience as a prisoner of war inspired Narrow Road, was out the back turning compost and equally underwhelmed. “He never even turned around,” says Flanagan. Instead he quoted Kipling, on the need to treat triumph and disaster as equal imposters, and went back to turning the compost. 

I’ve always wondered what it was like for Flanagan to leave quiet Hobart for Oxford but when I ask him, something peculiar happens. 

“Well,” he says, staring into the distance for so long that I think my screen must have frozen. “What can I say?” he eventually says, 28 long seconds later. “I found it a place of sublime emptiness.” 

He was, he says, surrounded by people from whom he felt utterly alienated. One don told him Australia had no culture. Another routinely addressed him as “Convict”. The whole place left him cold.

“These were people who thought women were slime. These were people who thought black people were apes. These were people who didn’t think they were the master race, they knew it.” Another pause. “I went from a universe of wonder to a storied place and I discovered to my astonishment it was small,” he says. “Oxford above all else is a bit dull.”

Back on my computer screen, Flanagan is reminding me that another interviewer once came away from meeting him to report he was like “a library made flesh”, quoting slabs of prose from Flaubert, Neruda and Blake. 

In between sips, he recites García Márquez on the imaginative leap required to write about a place as culturally remote as Tasmania once was, then Chekhov on the craft of writing.

More startling is the intensity of his views, which tumble out with unexpected force. English literary culture is “being eaten by Amazon”. A lot of American literature is “incredibly dull”. “Covid is the death of neoliberalism.” 

Then there is intellectual intolerance. He was incensed a few years ago when author Lionel Shriver was savaged on social media for criticising the movement against cultural appropriation in a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. He later wrote he feared that the courage to listen to different ideas was vanishing. Does he think so-called cancel culture has deepened the problem since? 

Pilita Clark

Dorset, England

Negroni x 1
Tagliatelle with homemade bolognese sauce x 1

Richard Flanagan

Hobart, Tasmania

Tinderbox sparkling white wine x 1
Delord Armagnac x 1

Yes and no. “Arguments about race and gender are very important,” he says carefully. “It’s about how they are conducted that worries me, and about how cultural institutions run in fear of them.”

He is concerned about what he calls a “homogenised culture” in the US. “There’s been a big debate about diversity of opinion but in American journalism there is no diversity of voice,” he says. “When you write for American publications you have this constant battle to save your voice. And voice in the end is the soul of the individual and if you destroy voice, the soul goes missing and you sound like every other preppy white person. I think that’s a real problem.”

His greater concern lies in Australia itself. At one level he is fiercely defensive of the country and his decision to live in one of its remotest parts for most of his life. “People think that’s really strange, but no one ever said to Philip Roth, ‘Why do you continue to live in Manhattan?’ ”

In any case, he married young and had to support three daughters he had with Majda in his twenties with his writing. “There wasn’t a question of moving elsewhere.”

He is sitting in the study of the Hobart home he mortgaged so heavily in the years it took him to write Narrow Road that he was on the brink of financial disaster. “We were done for,” he says. “We were going to have to just sell everything.”

He says he was seriously contemplating taking a fly-in-fly-out job in the remote Pilbara mining region of Western Australia to stay afloat, until he won the Booker. “I’m very grateful that the Booker intervened and I was spared,” he says. “I could pay my mortgage off with the Booker gold and be debt free.”

I think I hear him take another gulp as he switches to another topic: Australia’s political leaders and their climate change policies. “The fundamental problem in Australia is that the government and the opposition are owned by the fossil fuel lobby,” he says.

He fears the prime minister, Scott Morrison, is leading the country to the wrong side of a world where old divisions between developed and developing economies will be supplanted by a split between clean and dirty economies.

“Saudi Arabia, Russia, Australia [could] increasingly run on a toxic combination of being owned by fossil fuel companies and trading in dirty carbon and sustaining it through a populist mix of xenophobia and white nationalism,” he says. “That would be my fear for my country.” 

Allied to the problem, he says, is Rupert Murdoch’s “poisonous” media group, long a dominant presence in the Australian news media.

As I take a quick glug of negroni, he says he has not signed the petition for a royal commission into the Murdoch empire’s power that was started by former Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, and is supported by another former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on the centre-right. 

But Flanagan thinks that Murdoch’s group “behaves like the worst of totalitarian media”, especially when it comes to the attacks some of its papers make on the need to combat climate change.

“When they were just destroying the lives of celebrities and politicians in the pursuit of power, people saw that as the tragicomedy it was. But on climate change, they’ve taken a fundamental position that could be an important factor in the destruction of us all. And so I think that is a crime for which they must answer.”

On a happier note, he thinks Australia’s communal instincts have helped it to weather the coronavirus pandemic far better than Europe or the US. But he fears those tendencies also breed a conformity that is destructive, especially for people like him.

“I know of no other culture where writers are held in such low official repute,” he says. In Europe, a writer is accorded a certain respect, even if “the arse might be out of your trousers”. “In Australia, you can be highly successful and you will always be locked out of . . . every aspect of your society.”

He says it was difficult to get accepted in Australia. “I didn’t get anything written about me in what was then the leading newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, until I’d made it in America and France and places like that.”

In fact that newspaper (my former employer) devoted nearly 2,000 admiring words to him as far back as 1997, in a profile that drooled over “the extraordinary power of his writing”. But it is true that other local critics were less impressed. One review in The Age in Melbourne called Gould’s Book of Fish “a monstrosity of a book” with prose that “slurps and slops” so terribly it was hard to believe it had been published.

That must have stung. And it may help to explain why, in 2017, it emerged that Flanagan had decided to stop entering his novels in the Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s oldest and most important literary prizes.

His books have been shortlisted for it five times, including Narrow Road, without winning and he confirms the new book won’t be going in. “I just decided I wouldn’t enter it any more,” he says quietly. “Prizes need writers but writers don’t need prizes.”

Living Sea will doubtless do well enough without another award. Like so many of his novels, it is set in Tasmania, for which Flanagan is unapologetic. “Tasmanians are like the French,” he says, deadpan. “They pretend to be interested in elsewhere but essentially they are obsessed with themselves.”

He may be best known for fiction, but some of his most influential writing has been biting environmental journalism. One 2004 essay about the ravaging of Tasmania by loggers and developers prompted the then state premier to declare: “Richard Flanagan and his fiction is not welcome in the new Tasmania.” 

Tackling natural devastation in his new book was more complicated than I imagined. At one level, Living Sea is an emotionally charged account of Francie, a gravely ill woman in a Hobart hospital whose children are split over whether to prolong her life. 

The larger presence in the novel is what is happening outside: raging bushfires and the catastrophic destruction of forests and wildlife.

Some characters are so glued to their phones they find it hard to concentrate, inviting a bleak assessment of the distractions of social media, something Flanagan himself avoids.

Yet the book is chiefly a reminder of the horrific bushfires that tore through Australia in its 2019-2020 summer. Before they began, he had been itching to write about what he was seeing in his home state. “I was more and more aware that we’re living in this strange autumn of things.” Populations of birds and fish were collapsing. Kelp forests were vanishing. Then, in late 2018, Tasmania was struck by huge fires unlike any he had seen before. He abandoned a novel he had been working on and started writing what would become Living Sea, with a curious plan in mind. 

He says he was so sure the state’s fires were a harbinger of the mainland fires that came 12 months later that he decided to have a draft of the novel ready so he could rewrite it in real time once the blazes began. “I really wanted to absorb and reflect the strange mood and terror of the time.” His prediction, alas, was borne out. 

As he says this, I suddenly realise we have been talking for more than two hours. My tagliatelle has gone cold. My glass is empty and I am in serious need of food.

Flanagan looks relieved when I say he must have a lot to do on a summer’s day in Hobart. Before he goes, though, he wants to make another, more hopeful forecast. 

“The vast majority of Australians want action on climate change, so it will come,” he says. “It’s a tough battle. But it’s a winnable battle. And it will change.”

Pilita Clark is an FT columnist

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