Richard Flanagan is one of Australia’s most accomplished writers. He won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He has published nine novels and eight works of non-fiction, including Toxic, an expose into the underbelly of the Tasmanian salmon industry. Flanagan has also written and directed films; he was a co-writer on Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 epic Australia. This year, he published Question 7, a “hypnotic melding of dream, history, place and memory… It is about how our lives so often arise out of the stories of others and the stories we invent about ourselves.”
Here, he sits down with Christopher Riley, editor-in-chief of Esquire Australia, for Esquire’s long-running Q&A series ‘What I’ve Learned’.
WHEN YOU COME OUT WITH A BOOK, the first thing you discover is no one has read the book you thought you’d written. You discover that reading is always a more creative act than writing.
AS A WRITER, the more you trust the reader, the less you put in, the more the readers discover themselves and the more interesting the book becomes to them.
BOOKS ARE ODD. Unlike film or television, the reader must invent so much. And the more you allow the reader to invent, the more you credit their creativity and intellect.
THE MOST OBVIOUS THINGS about your work don’t occur to you. A friend once asked me, “Don’t you think your interest in writing stems from being deaf as a child?” I was never much interested in myself if I’m to be honest. I was always interested in other people.
I WROTE A CHAPTER of Narrow Road to the Deep North on the back of a beer coaster in a bar. The idea came to me [in Sydney], and I rushed back to find a pub in The Rocks. I didn’t have any paper, so I borrowed a ballpoint pen from the bar and scratched it out on the back of a coaster.
I HAVE NO IDEA what an ‘Australian story’ is. Still, I do think, as I come from Tasmania—which is most decidedly part of Australia—that we are slowly discovering Australia is not one country, but many countries.
AS MUCH AS THERE WAS A PROCESS OF COLONISATION, there was also a process of indigenisation. That a culture that was 65,000 years old wasn’t just wiped off the face of the earth. It continued, it endured, and it affected all who came. I guess that’s one of the themes of Question 7. There are so many extraordinary possibilities for us as a people, as a democracy, and as a society because [our history]
is so rich. We’ve become a culture with a 65,000-year-old history that Indigenous people share with us.
IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE WRITING, you’re writing nothing worth reading… it should be the same series of surprises for you as it is for the reader or otherwise. How can it surprise the reader? You can’t manufacture surprise.
GREAT WRITERS AREN’T STYLISTS. Great stylists rarely write great books. They can impress on the page, but they don’t sustain. And many of the books you really love when you look at them can be somewhat flawed as prose.
WHATEVER AMBITIONS or ideas you have at the outset tend to end up being the least interesting thing agreed upon in the books you write. In a strange way, one word follows another, one word leads to a sentence, which leads to a paragraph, a page, a chapter. In that way, books, relationships and love affairs are made. But we will never know the consequences of that first word and sentence.
THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON BOOKS and writing in the last 20 years wasn’t eBooks, it was just the retail model of Amazon. That destroys so much of the tenuous basis for existing as a writer. But no one ever talks about that.
THE THING ABOUT BOOKS is no one knows what makes a successful book. And that’s the one thing everyone in publishing can agree on. No one knows. But the stakes are so low. It allows for that. I think books remain a subversive medium, though few people recognise that. You can still do extraordinarily radical things within them if you wish.
I DIDN’T EVER WISH to be a film writer… If I was going to go back into film, it would be to direct. But the problem with directing is that you answer to the man. You have to pursue the money.
BOOKS DON’T NEED MONEY. You just have to survive to produce it. And that’s a battle, but it’s all doable.
EACH DAY, I just like sitting at a table and dreaming. Luckily enough, no one’s blown the whistle on me. I’ve never thought of retirement—but then I never thought I had a career. I just had books. Now, after this book, I feel still for the first time in my life. I don’t feel any need to write.