Town Hall was a fitting venue for Richard Flanagan: A Celebration. An awed crowd felt the grandeur of the vaulted ceiling and atmospheric lighting, responding to Jennifer Byrne’s instruction to give a fitting expression of appreciation (‘clap, stamp, shake your jewellery’) on Flanagan’s entrance: there was a raucous reception. This was his first Sydney appearance since winning the Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North (in fact, most of his post award appearances were cancelled due to family circumstances), so the audience was keen to celebrate and gain insight into the man behind the masterpiece, so to speak. In short, this event was a big deal.
Flanagan is a man of contradiction; the achievement of the Booker, which ‘launched him off into the stratosphere,’ as Jennifer Byrne put it, is the pinnacle of an extraordinary career (many excellent books, wide critical acclaim, Rhodes Scholarship to name a few highlights) which would suggest he has much to boast about. The man himself - though articulate and well educated - was self-deprecating, warm and humble. The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a book that Flanagan didn’t want to write, saying ‘it was a stone inside me that kept growing and growing.’ He attempted to write it five times before becoming unhappy with the manuscripts and destroying them. When an inquisitive Byrne brought this habit to our attention, he responded by saying that ‘a good writer needs a good bin.’ The audience laughed because he is clearly an excellent writer, but it was this awareness of his work and his dissatisfaction with mediocrity that endeared him to us; Flanagan clearly does not lose himself in the idea of his own genius.
Unexpectedly, Byrne used photographs of his personal life to direct the course of their conversation, and a relaxed Flanagan detailed many family anecdotes over the course of the event. The first photo showed a young Richard in a tub, his mother bathing him. She was old and frail by the time he won the Booker, and because of her age she was confused by the long listing and short listing processes and thought he had won the award over and over again. By the time Flanagan actually won the prize, his sisters informed him their mother was ‘like a rock star with a bad heroin problem’. She died three weeks later. It was because of this loss that Flanagan cancelled his post-Booker events. And though winning had changed him, he declared to the audience that the people you love were more important.
This sentiment was reflected in the following pictures of his family. Flanagan ‘did not come out of a literary tradition’ - he came from a large, hardworking family that allowed him a beautiful childhood because they were ‘free and loved’. Flanagan’s parents had come from families marked by illiteracy but this experience had encouraged them to respect education and literature. His father, Archie, had become a teacher, and was a vital force in inspiring Flanagan’s love of storytelling and awareness of the importance of authenticity. He recalled going to tell his parents about receiving the Rhodes Scholarship, and his father, who had been turning compost, didn’t stop as he quoted Rudyard Kipling: ‘if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two Imposters just the same….’ His was a family of warmth and humour and stories.
Flanagan can’t quite remember what inspired him to become a writer, though he suggested that being one of six children forced him to find his voice and express it uniquely. And although writing ‘wasn’t a common ambition in Rosebery’ (a remote town known for mining) in the 1960s, he talked about the way he was brought up to respect the written word and appreciate its ‘magic’. His literary voice, though, took a while coming. He began by using the style of European modernists but had no idea how to write about the urban landscape when he had grown up somewhere so rural. It was his gradual awareness that ‘the measure of all things wasn’t manmade’ that started to shape his writing, as he described the way the environment of his childhood made him aware of just how big it was and how small we are in comparison. The Tasmanian rainforest could overtake any construction it wanted to (like the childhood home he returned to many years later), and this respect for nature appears in his work and his activism. One of the readings Flanagan gave from The Narrow Road to the Deep North described the way the Burmese Railway was slowly reclaimed by weeds and jungle; a reflection of his deep understanding of the power of the natural.
It was a pleasure to hear Richard Flanagan talk about literature and his great love of the novel form:
The novel isn’t just entertainment – though it is – it is a spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic tradition that allows insight into ourselves that nothing else does. Novels are the purest form of storytelling ever invented.
He detailed his love of Kafka, Faulkner and Chekov and the brave way they shared their voices with the world, and when Byrne again brought up his many ‘stillborn’ books, Flanagan explained that ‘the work you do, that you put out, should be the best of you.’ He believes that the ‘contract’ of a writer should be with the reader, not any particular fashion or literary society. It is clear that he has a strong ethos and values integrity in himself and other writers.
Towards the end, Byrne asked Flanagan what winning the Man Booker Prize meant to him, and he responded with: ‘I realised I was free. I could leave these burdens behind and I could finally be myself.’ There was a palpable sadness from Byrne and the audience that he hadn’t felt comfortable in (what he termed) a ‘conformist society’ that is suspicious of writers because they rub against the grain. Yet this event definitely felt like a homecoming: Flanagan had overcome the loss of both parents in the span of finishing this novel and winning the Booker, the challenges of getting his early work recognised and the vitriol against his campaigning for the preservation of the Tasmanian wilderness. Byrne concluded by saying that she hoped we felt we knew this man better than before, and indeed we did. When asked again to show how we celebrated Richard Flanagan and all his achievements, he received a standing ovation that seemed unending.
Stay tuned for more Sydney Writers’ Festival coverage from Writer’s Edit.
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