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Interviews with authors

 

Richard Flanagan, photo by Giles Hugo
Richard Flanagan
(photographed in September 2001 by Giles Hugo )

RICHARD FLANAGAN: THE MAKING OF A TASMANIAN BEST- SELLER

An interview by Giles Hugo conducted at the time of the launch of Richard Flanagan's first book, Death of a river guide circa 1995

5146 words

© Copyright 1995-1998

Bibliographic details: Death of a River Guide, by Richard Flanagan. Ringwood, VIC.: McPhee Gribble/Penguin Australia, 1994 ISBN 0-86914-344-1

RICHARD Flanagan's first novel, Death of a River Guide, is a phenomenon in Australian publishing - three months after its launch it is in its third print run and still selling well. It tells the story of Aljaz Cosini, a river guide taking a party of tourists on rafts down the Franklin River. In an accident, Aljaz is trapped underwater and sees his life unfolding before him - as well as a vision of the complex lives of his ancestors in Tasmania and before they settled in Australia. It provides a rich and inventive chronicle of the tragic and eventful history of the island state and its people. Giles Hugo spoke to Flanagan about his writing in Hobart during the first week of March. Flanagan is still a bit bemused by the success of his first novel.

 

'It was launched at the beginning of December and the first edition sold out in three and a half weeks, that was 3,500 copies,' he said.

'Then the publisher wasn't keen to do a second edition until there was almost incontrovertible evidence that it would sell out - that means they get an almost equivalent amount of back orders to a print run. They were sort of shocked that the book sold because they never expected it to do near as well. They didn't think it was a book that would sell and it didn't fit into any pigeon-hole. An average Australian novel would sell between 1,000 and 2,000 and a first novel less than that.

'The Australia Council did a survey of the people who got grants from them and the average sale for a first novel was 800. I could understand their logic - sometimes they do second runs and they don't sell; that was the total sales. But from my point of view I knew that people wanted the book, and it wasn't in the shops any more. This was just before Christmas, so it was losing sales. In the end they did decide to republish it in a second edition in the middle of January of 1,400 or something. And that sold out again within a couple of weeks. And then they went into a third print run at that stage of 1,500, that was a couple of weeks ago.'

Flanagan finds it hard to explain this rapid success, but it is even harder to explain the publisher's seeming reluctance to capitalise rapidly on the book's immediate popularity.

To the question 'How do you explain its appeal, he replied modestly: 'It's a question for a reader rather than a writer.

'My responses (to the novel) are largely from Tasmanian people, this is where I live. I think Tasmanians like it because it's one of the first times they've seen their own world - somebody has attempted to depict their world with honesty and love. They (Tasmanians) are a much-maligned people who have been misrepresented by others for a long, long time. And because there wasn't an attempt to engage with their world as it was, and write about it with love.

'There are a series of responses to Tasmania; one is to present it as a Gothic horror land, and the other is to present it as this Utopia. But nobody wants to look at truths that might be more complex. And everybody's after a little box to put the place into, rather than to accept that it's a large and moving mystery. And they ought to try to come to terms with some of the tensions that make that mystery, to me, so interesting. I personally think it's a terrific place for a writer - there's an enormous well of subconscious experience that's accumulated over centuries.

'I think a lot of the problem with Australian writing at the moment is people simply try to tap into their own talent, and that's a frail and small world to draw upon and you've got to find something more and other than yourself to be writing about. I think the Tasmanian experience is a particularly powerful and rich one on which to draw. The great problem with a lot of Australian writing, I think, is that it's constantly in flight from the truths of this place rather than engaging with it.'

Flanagan received a $14,000 grant from Arts Tasmania in 1992 to work on 'Death of a River Guide'.

'I conceived the structure and I wrote the beginning and the end very quickly, that all happened within a week. I had a fair bit written when I took up the grant but I was loath to show anything because it was either something that would work when it was finished or it wouldn't. To show any pieces of it would have been to open it up to immense criticism, because there would be no tension to the individual pieces.

'I knew exactly what it was going to be like - the struggle of '93-'94 was to actually make it work. Because I really didn't realise until I got into it how ambitious it was technically. It was a very difficult piece to write and to hold together. I came up against a whole host of technical problems that took me a long time to resolve. I wanted to write it in a circular structure, because I came to think that traditional forms of narrative were very European-based and very much a straight line. And it always interested me here that the people tell stories in a much more circular fashion.

'Essentially I come from a Tasmanian oral culture where stories are passed on from generation to generation. It wasn't a literary culture, it wasn't an intellectual culture - it wasn't a culture that had references in books or ideas. It only had references in stories and images - its own life and other lives - and they were all in the form of stories. I had grown up loving these stories. The more I thought about them the more incredibly circular they were in structure and they had very discursive elements within them but they always came in the end to a very tight point.

'So my ambition was not simply to write a book about the Tasmanian experience but to have one that was true to the culture that I had come out of. And when I looked around at Australian literature I couldn't find anything that offered me any model. An similarly with the language, I didn't want to write in the fashion that's been adopted in Australia of sort of clipped modernist language. I wanted something much richer and more baroque that reflected the richness of the spoken language here and also the rhythms of the language. And again finding models for that was impossible.

'So, I knew these were some of the things I wanted reflected in the book - that it had to work on all those different levels to work at all. But I didn't know how to get there. So I wrote a lot of stuff that I threw away. Finally I had something that basically worked but I took another third out of that. Then I had two publishers who were interested before I submitted it - one of them was Sophie Cunningham at McPhee Gribble. She read it, came down to see me, read it that day, said she wanted it. I very much trusted Sophie and so I gave it to her.

'Then the book went through quite a bit of editing, though in substance it didn't really change that much - essentially it was tightened up a lot. I really enjoy working with editors, to me it's a chance to get a second opinion. Because once a publisher has taken you on nothing they say comes out of disrespect, it doesn't do to be too sensitive. They point to things they see as problems within a book and you'd be foolish not to listen to them. Sometimes they're not right in the solutions they propose but they're generally right in that they've latched onto something that isn't quite working.

'I like to work with people who see writing as a craft. Editors see it as a craft, rather than an art, and they talk about things not as good or bad but as things that work or don't work. And I think that's a much more helpful way. I'm not interested in tags of literature or art, I'm just interested in what people have to say and whether it works when they say it.'

Most reviewers have been ecstatic or have praised it with faint damn - but it has sold out twice in three months.

'This has pleased me. It has heartened me that a book doesn't need the imprimatur of the high-placed critics. Radio National's Books and Writing program wouldn't review it. They said, "We only have Big Name writers and interesting new writers and this doesn't fall into either category." '

Had they read it?

'Probably not. I think what everyone saw with that book immediately was that it wasn't a book that belonged in any of the recognised book traditions in Australia. It wasn't inner urban angst, it wasn't post-modernist University of Technology writing school, and it wasn't sort of soft regional either. They would have been happier if it was soft regional and replayed some of the tired old cliches about Australia and regional Australia. It was always a book that I wanted to be confronting and challenging. I think readers are more comfortable with that than reviewers.'

Flanagan's best reviews have been Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth - outside the Sydney-Melbourne critical empires.

'So, the closer you get to the citadels of power, the more hostile the response. But that hasn't stopped the book selling in Sydney or Melbourne. Readers make books, not critics. Novels are regarded as the big thing in Oz lit in the 1990s, while back in the 1890s, it was poetry and short stories.

'Partly because non-fiction has been totally and utterly appropriated by the academy, and they write so badly and have so little to say, I think that's got a lot to do with it. Most of the best writing at the moment is in the form of novels.

'I always wanted to end up writing fiction, it's just that initially history books (A Terrible Beauty: A History of the Gordon River Country, Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich and Parish-fed Bastards: A History of the Politics of the Unemployed in Britain 1884-1939) allowed me to get published - I could get published writing those sort of things. But I wanted to end up doing novels. But they were good grounding for me because they gave me a sense of how to write books. I learned a lot about structure and the craft of writing, what worked and didn't work in a book.

'A book is a big canvas and you've got to learn how to deal with this. There's still so much I've got to learn. But having done those books I was probably in a much better position to write a novel. I've leaned to write to deadlines, I have word limits every day, I have a set number of projects I want to achieve in a year. I've been a professional writer for some years and it's what I make my living out of so I'm probably a lot harder with myself than some people who see themselves as writers but it's essentially a dilettante's existence.

'It's not to demean what they do but I read letter that Faulkner wrote to some young writer and he said: "If you want to be a writer, become a writer, don't pretend." At some point you must make this break, say this is what I want to do. And then you must risk everything. It's terrifying but there's a great sense of freedom and elation because you have this chance and you must make it work. Raymond Carver used to work nine to five, and he had that maxim that he worked every day without hope and without despair, which I really believe in. I don't feel like writing every day but I force myself to.

'I just get interested in an area over a couple of days - not necessarily consecutive. My methods is probably closer to what I've hear Peter Carey describe as cantilevering, where he writes passages and then he goes back within them and sort of works them up and adds things, pulls things out and so on until what was sentence becomes a paragraph and what was a paragraph becomes a page - a chapter, and so on, endlessly going back, re-shaping, reforming playing with the possibilities of each sentence. Then sometimes thing take on a life of their own. You start of with ideas, things you want to say but there's a certain point where the most important thing becomes the writing, you've got to be true to the sense of what is coming through within the writing, and be open to the possibilities of your own language.

'When I said I had a structure, it was structure not in a strong sense, I knew I wanted to do certain things. I wanted to have a sense of disintegration, of a person's mind losing total hold, but at the same time all these new possibilities opening up because of that. But how that was to be realised, achieved, I had no plan in the structure. The more fantastical thing arose simply in the writing. That's the good part. Sometimes you know something is working because the words are speeding up.'

Flanagan spends about four to five hours a day actually writing - 'There are a lot of other minutiae associated with being a writer, correspondence, phone calls and meetings that take up the rest of the day.'

He treats it as a job, starting when his family goes off to work and school between 8.30 and 9 am. Then he works until 5pm, with another bit in the evening.

'Within that time I try to read, dream and think a bit, because your writing is only end of all those other creative processes. There are a couple of my dreams in there - presented as reality. I think there's a great point in writing a novel where the novel enters your dream world. And when you reach that point the novel has taken on its own life. There's a point where everything around you seems to literally wash into the novel, whether you want it to or not. Everything you see and feel and hear, you suddenly see the point of it, and how you can fit it within the novel. Whereas when you're starting out with the novel, you train and struggle to find anything that will work. Everything seems so laboured, but all of a sudden life seems to have this nexus between you and everything within the novel.'

Does he find writing fiction can be emotionally trying?

'The great freedom - but the great difficulty of being a writer - is that you allow yourself access to parts of your soul that most people in everyday life, for a very good reason, leave closed off. Because if they were to be open to everything they felt within them, they simply couldn't continue to live. And I think to really write something of worth you've got to go back within yourself, dredge your soul, and that's a profoundly disturbing thing to do because it goes beyond simply feeling sad or happy - it takes you to aspect of yourself that you may not like or wish to disturb.'

Flanagan, like his hero Aljaz Cosini has worked as a river guide on the Franklin River. How much of that aspect of the novel is autobiographical?

'On one level, yes it comes totally from my own experience, but within every character there are parts of your experience you give huge and total expression to but there are other parts you repress. In fact some of the things that Aljaz feels about the river are things that I feel about people.'

Many Australian authors have written about Tasmanian history - convict settlement, the brutal near extermination of the Aborigines, the distinctly Anglo class system that persists today. Many have mocked and satirised this isolated community of less than half a million souls. However, Flanagan is proud to be Tasmanian and takes unashamed pride in looking at his ancestors with compassion - in spite of their foibles and undeserved reputation on the Australian mainland for being 'in- bred weirdos'.

'I wanted to make a point that here (Tasmania) everybody was related, everybody had a connection. To me the European culture (in Australia), for all its undoubted brilliance, and essentially positive disposition, was in despair, was totally alone. For me the Australian experience is - because of people's connection with the earth and other people - that they're not alone, and they share things. And there's a sense that this is a land capable of including a whole range of people. This book is a conversation between European culture and Australian experience. And that's why I embedded all the references to Central European writing, which I love.

'I've written film, and people in film are always adamant that characters can't be caricatures. I suppose I've just been lucky in that I've worked with people who have a great respect for writing, that characters must work, they must belong somewhere, they must have a past. They must have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. That's another aspect of Australian writing, you meet people within it who don't seem to have families.

'Maybe that's a Tasmanian thing - because it's such a small society, it's been so little influence by the waves of migration that have shaped other places (on the mainland). The first thing that people seek to do here in Tasmania when they meet is to make connections with other people, to find out who their parents were, who their friends are, until you find this point of contact, and then you spiderweb out on that. And through that you seek to know people through the people around them. So that you can never end up diminishing someone here because they come from somebody and somewhere.'

And you know everybody here?

'You do, people here have as many vices as people elsewhere, but there is a culture of understatement, compared with the increasingly Americanised mainland - big-noting and hyping - because it's a professional necessity for people over there. But you couldn't do that here because you'd be caught out immediately. People know the ordinary truth about you.'

A poignant irony for Flanagan is the fact that he was given a $14,000 from Arts Tasmania to work on his first novel, after being refused a grant by the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Last year he was granted $24,000 from Australia Council to write his next book.

'The Australia Council wouldn't give me a grant to write Death of a -River Guide - I got knocked back on that. People don't realise how little money is spent on literature nationally - and it's taxable; of a $24,000 grant about $8,000 goes to tax.

'I think the Literature Board should be split off from the Australia Council and be re-established as a sort of publishing industry body, The model I'd be looking at is the film industry, you've got things like the Australian Film Commission and the Film Finance Corporation. I would be looking at supporting writing in a whole variety of ways, and helping other creative people involved in Australian publishing, editors and designers and so on, which happens in a very limited way in the Australia Council but not enough.

'I think it would also force writers to look at what they do as work that they ought to get paid for. And that would focus everybody's minds on how to sell more books, and writing better books. And looking at areas that really need attention such as distribution in Australia, helping small publishers - they need a lot of help with financial management, design, distribution. These would be things that if you actually had a proper body set up - a national publishing body - it would look at. And also it would become apparent how little money they get. It's something all these debates constantly ignore. It would become a voice separate from the Australia council.'

Why should it be separated?

'Because the Australia council is a monster, the Council is essentially about the performing arts, and literature is a poor cousin in that set-up. The people who are most eloquent in defending the Australia Council are the ones who get the least out of it. The structure of the Australia council is one that doesn't look at writing and all the different aspects of writing overall - writing is a process that involves a range of people, you should look at helping all those different people to help writers.

'The book bounty (to publishers producing works by Australian writers) should go back up, the book bounty was a great scheme - it's down to about 12% and it's going totally, I think. Small bookshops should also be helped - they're really important in local literary culture. They need all the help they can get. If you look at the Australian Film Commission, it's impressive how with a not big budget it manages to help a wide range of people. The AFC was once the film and television board of the Australia Council and it split off back in the '70s.

'We all know the problems with the grant system, we know the way its been abused - we know how mates look after mates. It constantly angers me, it essentially seems there are two worlds in Australia - there's the world of the literary establishment and the world of writers and they hardly seem to connect.'

'I've been bitter myself when I've missed out on it but one must take a generous view and acknowledge that in Australia, writing has experienced a renaissance since the early '70s. Before then we didn't really have local writing or local publishers. It seems to me undeniable that the grant system has helped enormously, and you have to give it credit for that, for all of its failings, for all of its mistakes. You have to give it credit for what it's achieved on a very small budget.

'I think the need at the moment is for more magazines that published fiction or writing that people will read - and I don't mean things like Meanjin - I mean magazines that you buy in newsagents with stories and poems in them. Like (Bruce Pascoe's) Australian Short Stories, that's a success. Also things like Harpers in America, things like that. I understand the problem - we're a small population spread over a huge area. But if you had this publishing authority... The literary magazines in Australia aren't interested in writing that people will ultimately read, they're not interested, in my opinion, in good writing. They largely reflect the interests of the academy and the politics of the literary establishment.

'I believe in academic debate, but you can keep it in academic journals. It's horses for courses. We need magazines that people will buy with good writing in it. We need outlets for all the writers who are coming up to start finding their audience and for the audience to find them. There's nowhere for them That's probably another reason for the pre-eminence of the novel, because you're not going to become pre-eminent as a short story writer in Australia, because outside of Australian Short Stories, there is no outlet.

'I think short story competitions are a rather cruel form of torture for aspiring writers because you find writers who've won competition after competition but they can't get a book published.

'Writing is about getting published. Competitions won't help you get published a jot. And it's really sad to see people who are really fine writers pursuing that, having their talent dissipated and their hopes dashed.'

Given these difficulties, how does Flanagan manage to feed his wife, Majda Smolej, and three daughters on a writer's haphazard wage?

'In a given year I'll do labouring, river guiding and writing in various forms, film work, television work, I did a major treatment for a drama series last year, a 200-page job. I work with an architect sometimes, coming up with ideas. It's a very difficult balancing act, you must be focused on what you want to be a as writer but at the same time some of those jobs are actually very good for you, because they take you beyond your immediate concerns, reopen your eyes once more. And you meet people, because writing is so lonely, it's awful.

'Whether or not I get arts funding money in the future, I'll keep on writing, maybe with concrete and plaster dust under me fingernails, I'll still be there tapping away on the keyboard. If you choose to do something like this, you have to accept that it is hard, and its really a journey largely of disappointments, frustrations. But you do it because you think there's something worthwhile in it.'

Flanagan has always loved writing - he began enjoying stories at the age of four or five and his first book was published when he was 21. He had left school at 16 to be a bush labourer. Since then he has been a Rhodes Scholar, a river guide and a building labourer. When I asked what writers had first influenced him, like Elizabeth Jolley, he replied:

'Comics, they had strong stories, Camus when I was about 12, I read The Outsider, I just thought that was fantastic. Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Heinrich Boll, Faulkner, the South Americans, the only English writer I've liked is Hardy. Conrad, William Blake, Bohumil Hrabal, More recently Toni Morrison. Henry Lawson was everything in our family. We were read to, it was a large Irish-Catholic family, we used to have Henry Lawson read to us, and John O'Brien, who was the poet of the Irish Catholic peasantry in Australia, he wrote these sort of traditional bush ballads.

'Then there were all the old songs. Henry Lawson was a socialist and a writer. These were big things. Enjoying language, I think that comes from the richness of a story- telling culture, the way they use language, they always play with language. And language always seemed to be alive with possibilities.

'Somebody said to Joyce: "You're destroying the English language." And he said: "When I'm finished with it, I'll give it back to you."

'There was that sense with a whole lot of ordinary people that they broke all the ordinary rules of grammar and pronunciation and did it knowing that it was subversive, that you weren't supposed to do it. And I loved that. I loved the cheekiness and vulgarity of it, the way it made language always alive and reflecting where you were and what you were. So I wanted to capture that in my writing.

'I had trouble at school because I don't think grammatically. My family were Irish Catholics descended from convicts on both sides and they just married convict descendants, without knowing it, that's how it went. I think our language is possibly more influence by Gaelic than people know. And also the Aboriginal languages must have influenced people here in Tasmania. The Aboriginal experience has been submerged in a way within Tasmanian working-class experience. Very alive and very strong, many people here have got that blood within them, and I think their sense of humour - I wish more was known about their language because I'm sure it would be revealed how much more it's influenced our present-day language than any of us know.'

Flanagan is due give the manuscript of his next novel to his publisher in June. However he was reluctant to describe it in detail.

'It's in a minor key - a much more focused story. But the one after will be even more epic than Death of a River Guide. The ('River Guide') book for me is a bit like James Baldwin talking about Go Tell It on the Mountain - it was the book he had to write if he was ever going to write anything else. And that's what it was like for me.'

'The novel wouldn't matter so much because I'd expected it to fail. Everything else I've written has largely gone, disappeared. There is a pressure now, people saying what do you do next. No one ever said that before, they said, "Why do you bother?" '

He laughs.

'The success is gratifying, writing's always gratifying for me. But it is good to know it means something to people. To know that it means something to people here, that does mean a lot. It's still an oasis in a journey across a desert and you know you'll have to leave it, and that you would be foolish to see it as anything other than that. And you must back out on this very blindingly beautiful journey. I've had enough hard times in writing to know that the next one could be a total dud and then nobody would be interested again. And that doesn't mean the book's not as good.'

With a smile: 'And so I'll continue to write without hope and without despair - as I wrote this book.'

Interview with Richard Flanagan by Giles Hugo circa 1995.