Richard Flanagan gets attention for his politics and his recent credit as the screenwriter for the Nicole Kidman movie Australia, but the Tasmanian native, whose Wanting is coming out from Atlantic Monthly Press, doesn't crave the limelight. He's much more comfortable speaking about his writing, with a humbleness that almost seems affected until you spend some time with him. The accent's thick and the sentiments authentic. He loves his life, his work and Tasmania, where his ancestors came as convicts.
Flanagan's first novel, 1994's Death of a River Guide, an investigation of Tasmania's convict-haunted past, won Australia's National Fiction Award; it received, Flanagan says, “no reviews and no support, until readers found it.” He dodged the sophomore jinx with his critically acclaimed second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, about the Tasmanian immigrant experience, which sold over 100,000 copies in Australia. His foray into political activism occurred after his third novel, Gould's Book of Fish (which was printed in different colors of type, a requirement that had his U.S. editor, Morgan Entrekin, moaning when he heard about it until he saw the book), was nominated for the biennial Tasmania Pacific Region Prize. But Flanagan boycotted the prize (which he had helped create) because the award was co-sponsored by the state's Forestry Commission that Flanagan condemned in a newspaper article for promoting the cutting of old-growth forests. The book also won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers prize, and Flanagan became an international literary name. The Unknown Terrorist—about an innocent pole dancer who is considered a terror suspect—drew criticism in Australia from those who saw Flanagan, whose political journalism pieces often criticized the Australian government, as a controversy seeker. “That was a painful and difficult time for me,” says Flanagan. “I suspect that it made me think that simply to tell stories matters.”
He turns to story in Wanting, about a young Aboriginal girl named Mathinna, who is adopted by the most celebrated explorer of the age, Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Lady Jane, as an experiment in civilization, to prove that reason trumps instinct. When Sir John disappears while looking for the fabled Northwest Passage, rumors of cannibalism surface, and Lady Jane turns to the great novelist Charles Dickens for help in establishing that in the enlightened age of Victoria, it could not be possible or true.
Flanagan smiles when he speaks of writing from the perspective of Dickens. “My publisher questioned whether I really wanted to create a character out of one of the greatest creators of characters in the language. I think to create any successful character is hard and I'd always wanted to write about the cost of writing.” He liked the idea of “creating a character who feels corroded by his creations and the only way he can understand and escape it is to continuing creating.” This idea of the writer as character informed Waiting and inspired Flanagan to work 15 hours a day for a year in order to finish it.
For Flanagan, writing begins with a sentiment. The work he puts into his novels is what he refers to as “a circular journey back to that sentiment.” Talking about craft is less interesting to him than talking about the esoteric and intangible. Without that mystery, Flanagan believes there would be very little worth reading.
“There is so much in the world that divides us murderously. But you read a great novel and you're reminded that you're not alone, that what you share with others is bigger than what divides you,” he says. Being called treasonous simply reaffirmed Flanagan's belief in the power of books. He hasn't stopped writing since. “The avenue for the expression for truth is being taken over by power and money. One of the last avenues that remain is books.”