Read This Podcast
The Cause and Effect of Richard FlanaganRead Transcript
Described by the Washington Post as "one of our greatest living novelists", Richard Flanagan has been writing for more than three decades. His 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker Prize and his essays have been published across Australia and internationally. This week Michael heads to Tasmania to speak with Richard at his home in Hobart about his latest and most personal novel, Question 7.
Gould’s Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan, 2001
The Narrow Road to the North, Richard Flanagan, 2013
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Richard Flanagan, 2020
Question 7, Richard Flanagan, 2023
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, 1898
The World Set Free, H.G. Wells, 1914
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov, 1951
You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books.
Guest: Richard Flanagan
Title: The Cause and Effect of Richard Flanagan
Description: Described by the Washington Post as "one of our greatest living novelists", Richard Flanagan has been writing for more than three decades. His 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker Prize and his essays have been published across Australia and internationally. This week Michael heads to Tasmania to speak with Richard at his home in Hobart about his latest and most personal novel, Question 7.
We’re flying to Hobart to visit Richard Flanagan at home. It’s a busy Friday, and the various logistical hustles and bustles of squeezing in the day trip are tricky, but it’s Richard Flanagan: literary legend, Australia’s most recent Booker Prize winner. And Tasmania is central to his work.
His publisher is even referring to his latest book Question 7 as a “love song to his island home”: so speaking to him on his home turf feels especially meaningful.
We stop for pastries on our way from the airport, and walk the last fifteen minutes or so to his house, working up a sweat from the surprisingly warm Hobart sun. He’s put witches hats out on the street to make it easier for us to find a park at his house, and we scoop them up and carry them in on arrival.
<<AMBIENT SOUND OF ARRIVING AT RICHARD’S>>
From Schwartz Media, I’m Michael Williams, and this is Read This, a show about the books we love and the stories behind them.
Almost any time you see a publicity photograph of Richard Flanagan, he’s scowling. It makes him look like an imposing presence. This is a man who writes serious, award winning books and that heavy brow looks like it’s crinkled with displeasure. The reality is very different. Richard Flanagan frowns when he’s thinking.
He’s a man that worries about getting it right, and he’s a man that worries away at big ideas. But he’s also unfailingly generous with that thoughtfulness. And unfailingly generous with his home. Our pastries are added to a pile that he’s already set out for our arrival.
<<AMBIENCE OF RICHARD GETTING WATER>>
RICHARD: It's an odd book to talk about this because it's sort of personal. And normally you can be glib, but suddenly it's not really a question of that book, but about your life. So it's taken me a while to know how to respond quickly and adroitly.
We admire the view of the mountain from above the kitchen sink, the lovingly tended garden, the wood stove is making the whole place toasty warm. Then we make our way to the living room. The couches are super comfortable and at all sides, floor to ceiling, are the most stunning bookcases. Enviable, gorgeous book cases. Packed with delights.
MICHAEL: I might kick off with the bookshelves actually because you've got the beautiful passage about your dad visiting here and looking at your bookshelves which you know, we're here in the room. One day my father visited me and he noticed my bookcases. Do you need all these books? He asked. Doesn't the library have them? I really love that description. And I love how much this book is a return to your dad. It's many things in this book, but one of the things is the love letter to your parents.
RICHARD: Yeah, it is a homage to my parents, and I guess I wanted to hold them close, and the only way I had to do it was with words. The passage about the bookcases, it goes to the heart, I think, of trying to recapture this world that I feel is entirely lost now, as though some vast revolution came along and destroyed it all. But he had very little interest in possessions and he had a great passion for the written word. But he saw something vulgar about accumulation and possession, and I've always felt a strange subterranean shame ever since about my books.
I guess during COVID, I began to think a lot about what it is to live and why we live and to what end? And I think these questions begin to really absorb so many people. And you see it now reflected in all sorts of things. And it's happening globally, from the great resignation to the lie flat movement in China to people abandoning one life in cities for the idea of another life outside of them. And everything is animated by this question, what is it to live? And I don't know why, but this made me think a lot about my early life and a world, which I think has largely vanished now, a material world and with it a spiritual world. And I was thinking about Nabokov's speak memory, because the whole set up with that is he's describing a world that existed before the Russian Revolution. And the only way he can touch and hold it is with words. And of course, it's very clear in that, that he can't even return to that country that far less to that time. But in a sense, we've had an equally devastating revolution, except it's silent and invisible to us. And there's been these extraordinary changes brought to the natural world and also to the human world. And we pretend that it was a natural progression, but I think it was actually a very violent rupture. And in trying to understand that and describe that, I returned to my childhood and increasingly began to think about my parents and how I grew up in this very strange – what appears a strange world now – this tiny little mining town, which was, you know, a little blip in this great, still largely untouched wilderness of rainforest on the west coast of Tasmania. And the more I thought about that too, and it always struck me as the strangest coincidence or fact that I only really exists because of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, because my father was a slave labour in Japan at the time. He was only about 80 miles from Hiroshima when the bomb went off. And without that bomb and the subsequent bomb on Nagasaki and all those tens of thousands of dead, my father would have died, he was pretty close to death at that time. And I wouldn't exist. And I slowly began to think about the way we created by chance events and how those chance events in turn, have their own history. I wanted to write the book as a sort of daisy chain of events, and I wanted to place my life as being one in which was created by stories and in turn leads to this story in the form of the book.
MICHAEL: I hadn't read the thing before about the influence of Tasmania on H.G. Wells for War of the Worlds. It's not the only significant Welles link in this book. In fact, it's a in some ways it's an incidental one. But can you describe to me why is, Wells, such an important figure for you?
RICHARD: Well, I'd long known that Wells was inspired to write War of the Worlds because of the terrible story of the fate of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. And War of the Worlds really is just the representation in what was then called a scientific romance, of an imperial force whose motives are entirely obscure, who come and bring great violence and damage in the process of conquering Britain. I was always very taken with that. That science fiction, the great ur-story of science fiction actually arises out of a correct perception of what Britain had done with its imperial mission to a place like Tasmania, so one of the great imperial writers actually wrote a book that is a parable for what people here had suffered. But then the connections between H.G. Wells and, um, you know, certainly my story here don't end there because he wrote another book a decade or two later in which he invented the idea of the atomic bomb. And he wrote that book after a young woman called Rebecca West, had fallen in love with him and he with her. She was then 18 years old and he's middle aged and although he was an inveterate womaniser something about her passion terrified him. Something about the fact that it wasn't only about the prospect of sex frightened him so much he fled to his mistress's chalet in Switzerland and wrote a book that was a story of unbridled destruction, of a fire that could consume the world and the mechanism that would ensure that, he called the atomic bomb, which he described in great detail and which was founded in recent discoveries about radium. And this book was dismissed by the Times Literary Supplement as porridge and wasn't regarded as one of his memorable great works and rapidly vanished.But for some people, this description of this weapon was so compelling, they returned to it again and again. Winston Churchill was fascinated by it, and so too was a Hungarian Jewish scientist called Leo Szilard and it was because of Wells's description of an atomic bomb that in 1933 he came up with the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, which is the basis from which the atomic bomb springs. And so it's often said, quoting Auden, that, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” And yet it's also true to say that a novel destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and remade our world into the shape we had today. And also because of that, my father lived and I'm here talking to you here today, Michael, and whoever's listening to this is listening to it.
MICHAEL: You mentioned Nabokov before. He memorably said that a question is insubordination in its purest form. Are you trying to be insubordinate in the questions you're asking here? Is this you trying to shake things up to make sense of the world?
RICHARD: No. I pursued my fancies as I found them. And I wish to hold a past that was precious to me in the present and going into the future. And I wanted to say. Certain things that I wasn't sure I would get the chance to say ever again. I had an unfortunate episode where I was given a prognosis that wasn't hopeful for my health and I thought I only had a short time. And there were things that mattered to me that I wished to understand and I had to get them down quickly. And in consequence, I wanted a style and a form and a technique that could say many, many things in a small space that I could write in a short time. And I thought that I would organise the book around an idea of lightness. And I began taking things out so I would write things, but I would take more and more things out, and then I would take them out before I’d even written them, I’d conceived of them. And what I discovered was the more I took out, strangely, the more there was on the page, the more existed and the more compelling it seemed to me to become. And it allowed me to make great leaps. And I think it's because the one thing I've really learned over decades of writing is to trust the reader and allow the reader to invent the book in the great spaces between the fragments that you find on the page.
MICHAEL: It's incredibly effective, but it also has a sense of personal cost in there, there is a sense of grief. You know, there's one section two thirds of the way into the book where you begin, “My mother and father…” and you break off and then there's a new section and you try again. But for you, the telling of this, the need to get the words out. You're generous enough to share those false starts with you, right at those moments where you have to pause a bit and try again.
RICHARD: I guess I was always fearful as a writer. I always sought to persuade the reader with another image, another tweak of the story of character, something to persuade the reader to keep their eye to the end of the paragraph to turn the page. I never felt a reader owed me anything. You know, if they've opened the book, you have to give them every reason to get just to the bottom of the first page. But I didn't feel fear this time. There were things I wanted to write, and to write them in a way that would matter to the reader, they had to be as truthful as possible and to be as truthful as possible I had to find a very simple and clear language. And so that passage you refer to is about how I felt my parents observe the rules of this world and rendered unto the world the things that were the world. But they kept one thing in reserve. They never they never pawned their selves to the world. And they believed in an idea of love, which really, we're told, is an illusion. But they practised it, that idea of love, with kindness and goodness to others. And over time, that illusion became their hard won truth. And only now do I see the immense price they paid, but also the beauty of that. And I realise that I'd once had the arrogance of thinking they were naive, and now I could see that the naivete was mine alone.
Coming up after the break, Richard shares his memories of first imagining himself as a writer, and reveals the essay that inspired him to think about time differently in his work. We’ll be right back.
In its combination of genres and approaches – bits of fiction and memoir, side by side – Richard Flanagan’s latest book Question 7 is a bit of a departure, and certainly his most personal book yet. It is a book that takes in the sweep of twentieth century history and its tragedies, from nuclear annihilation to the massacre of indigenous Tasmanians, but much of its power comes from its intimacy, from the ways he pays tribute to beloved late family members and the disappearing world of his own past.
MICHAEL: You say in the book that it was at the age of four, despite not even being able to write at that point, you decided you wanted to be a writer. You know, that you had that clarity of purpose from the age of four. What did you know about why being a writer was what you wanted?
RICHARD: You say clarity of purpose could have equally been folly, of purpose and vanity of purpose, because there was no evidence that I could, well I couldn't even write words, you know? And I used to make little books where I’d draw pictures of words and sentences and paragraphs and. And then my mother would transcribe the stories I told her and put it on the back and she would staple the pages together and bind them with black electrical tape. And they would be posted off from this little mining town to my big sister, who was at teacher's college in Launceston which loomed in my mind as fascinating as Shanghai or as extraordinary as New York. And really what I was doing with those books was, it wasn't really about the story, it was trying to smuggle a message of love to my sister that I loved her and we missed her and she wasn't forgotten. I think I saw writing as serving that larger purpose.
My father's parents were illiterates, my grandparents were illiterate. And I think he understood the power of the written word. The way that in those 26 abstract symbols could be liberation as it had been for him. But equally without it could be oppression as it was for them. He said to me that words were the first beautiful thing that he ever came across. He grew up in a very poor, uh, bush hamlet. His father was a railway ganger and he read a lot of poetry, and it meant a great deal to him. But for him, the written word was beauty, which was the highest form of truth. So I think that was very formative for me. And my mother was an inveterate storyteller and the house was crowded and I was the fifth of six children and I was under the table and there's just people spilling in and out of the house: cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. And there were endless stories and in Tasmania at the time, people didn't divine the world through aesthetics or philosophy or religion or politics, they divined it only through story. And the stories were circular; they went traversed back and forth in time, they were fragmented, and they were digressive. And yet they remained with you like a seed out of a pharaoh's tomb that you could plant 3000 years later and grow into a tree of exotic and unknown fruit. And all of that to me led to an idea that the most extraordinary thing you can be, the thing that could express all this wonder most perfectly, most joyfully was to be a writer.
MICHAEL: You recount in the book speaking to your dad on the phone the day you finished writing Narrow to the Deep North and saying, “It's done,” and him dying later that day. And then The Living Sea of Waking Dreams in part reckons with that business of letting go of a mother and the nature of what it is to be a child whose mother is dying. But those two novels both act as these kind of beautiful testaments to your relationship with your parents and it's so lovely to see them back on the page here as a kind of reckoning with the kind of writer you've become as well. Were they big readers of yours before they died?
RICHARD: I don't think my dad ever read anything, he never read any book I wrote. My mum read some. That never worried me. You know their concerns, whether you were good people. My mum got excited about the Booker and bet her entire pension on it, which greatly distressed the family because I was longlisted then shortlisted, but it was very clear to all of us that this had been some error and that I was going to be found out and so, my sisters had to go and see her and say, “Look, it's wonderful, but he's not going to win, you know, so don't do this. But she did it and she was strangely proven right.
MICHAEL: You have written two novels and a book of non-fiction since you wrote The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but in many ways, at least in terms of the inciting incident, the kind of spirit of this book, it kind of arrives in the world almost feeling like a rejoinder to that award-winning work of fiction that, you know, you've told this story, that your father's presence is there on every page in the novel. How hard did it feel to remove the barriers between him and your reader this time around?
RICHARD: There's a sort of a vanity that we have now that we should know everything about another person. And it seems very destructive to me. There's so much I don't know about my parents, but there's much I don't need to know. What people give to you is what you have, and that's finding meaning in that and seeking to understand that that matters, you know. I think everyone has a public life, a private life, and a secret life. And the secret life deserves enormous respect, and so too the private life. I guess what I was trying to present with them was also the world that had created them, which here is a very particular world here in Tasmania. They’re very much the product both of a society that did understand that it’d committed a genocide and a society that was a totalitarian country for the first quarter of its modern history, and in which most people of the issue of a slave labour system either that or of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people or a mash up and those two things. I think one of the great differences between Tasmania and Australia and as we've seen with the voice, you cannot look at that voice vote and think that people understand that we were a conquered country and we are the issue of the invaded and the invaders. And until we understand what that means, I don't think we can really progress as a nation, but clearly most people don't understand that. But I think in Tasmania it's a little different in that there was always a sense, it was always understood here there was a black war, that the black war was terrible and that Aboriginal people fought as patriots, but they lost. There were also great lies. There was a great silence. There was the lie that black people had vanished, which was simply untrue. But nevertheless, it is a different story than what mainland Australia told itself for a long time, and it shaped people differently.
MICHAEL: What has that meant for you as a writer? What is it to be a Tasmanian writer rather than an Australian one – you and Kafka both?
RICHARD: You're referring to an essay I did some years ago, where I said that my favourite top ten Tasmanian writers and Kafka was number one. I don't think there is a Tasmanian writer, there's just writers and you get given the clay you have and you seek to do what you can with it. But if you do your job properly, as Kafka certainly did, then I read him in Tasmania a century later and all I discover is a reflection of myself and my world, because he spoke so acutely and accurately of what it is to be human. It is in trying to find some truth about your own world that hopefully you speak to all worlds. I mean, that is the great joy of and solace of literature. You know, you read a 19th century novel, you read a 15th century essay and you discover something that speaks to you as though it was written here and now. And yet these cultures and societies and their conceits, their vanities, their prejudices are so utterly distant and removed from our lives. But because they've done their job properly, we discover in them that we're not alone. I always feel that it's always put on writers to justify literature, but that the very fact that in your worst thoughts, in your greatest hopes, in your love, in your hate, you discover in books that you're not alone is the only justification literature needs.
RICHARD: We don't live in the present alone. We live in the past and we live in the future. And our very language restricts us in perceiving this. And I wrote an essay that you kindly published in The Monthly, which is in part about an essay I was sent by a young Yolngu woman about the use of a fourth tense in Yolngu where they have a tense – we have past, present future. They have one where you're making a fish trap a thousand a night and you're making a fish trap to die, but you're also making it with other people a thousand years ago and a thousand years into the future. And this idea of this tense so staggered me because it suggests a completely different relationship with the people around you, with the actual natural world around you. And that took me back to sitting under that kitchen table as a little boy, hearing these grand circular tales that went back and forth in time as though there was no time. And I think the novel was invented in Europe, in accordance with the European mentality, with the idea of time, as a great railway line of thought, stopping at all stations of human progress and many great novels constructed like that. But it doesn't make sense here. You know, we come from a different place. We are that issue of the invaders and the invaded. We were indigenous as much as we were colonised. We are an expression of a culture, in a culture that 65,000 years ago and we're also an expression of this extraordinary land we live in. And we're not European, we're something else. And we need to look at our own stories much more closely and much more honestly. I'm. If we are to go on and make something better of this place and of ourselves.
Richard Flanagan’s latest book, Question 7, is out now.
Before we go, and in lieu of reading recommendations this week, a moment of joy. Our wonderful founding producer and Schwartz’s Head of Audio, Sarah McVeigh and her partner Jack have just welcomed their first child, Freda McLean to the world. She is gorgeous and we’re thrilled for them. Also, one more listener for Read This, which is excellent. Hooray Freda. We love you already.
Richard Flanagan has written twelve books, and you can find them all at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books at apple.co/readthis. There’s a link in our show notes.
That’s it for this week’s show. As always, rate and review, it really helps.
Next week on Read This I sit down with Gabrielle Zevin, author of the fabulous summer read Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, who shares with us the truth about literary failure.
Any time I walked into a bookstore, I was just like, This place smells great. Here are all the things I might read, you know? And it feels like you're among friends. And then after you published your first book and it fails, you walk into a bookstore and it seems like a completely different place. It all seems black and white. And like the other books that are the bestsellers that are piled up on the table are mocking you and the store doesn't even smell as good anymore, you know.
Read This is produced and edited by Clara Ames.
Mixing & original compositions by Zoltan Fecso.
Thanks for listening. See you next week.