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\u2019s instruction to give a fitting expression of appreciation (\u2018clap, stamp, shake your jewellery\u2019) on Flanagan\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\nRichard Flanagan at Sydney's Town Hall...\r\n\r\nFlanagan is a man of contradiction; the achievement of the Booker, which \u2018launched him off into the stratosphere,\u2019 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\u2019t want to write, saying \u2018it was a stone inside me that kept growing and growing.\u2019 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 \u2018a good writer needs a good bin.\u2019 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.\r\n\r\nUnexpectedly, 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 \u2018like a rock star with a bad heroin problem\u2019. 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.\r\n\r\nThis sentiment was reflected in the following pictures of his family. Flanagan \u2018did not come out of a literary tradition\u2019 - he came from a large, hardworking family that allowed him a beautiful childhood because they were \u2018free and loved\u2019. Flanagan\u2019s 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\u2019s 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\u2019t stop as he quoted Rudyard Kipling: \u2018if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two Imposters just the same\u2026.\u2019 His was a family of warmth and humour and stories.\r\n\r\nAuthor Richard Flanagan...\r\n\r\nFlanagan can\u2019t 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 \u2018wasn\u2019t a common ambition in Rosebery\u2019 (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 \u2018magic\u2019. 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 \u2018the measure of all things wasn\u2019t manmade\u2019 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.\r\n\r\nIt was a pleasure to hear Richard Flanagan talk about literature and his great love of the novel form:\r\nThe novel isn\u2019t just entertainment \u2013 though it is \u2013 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.\r\nHe 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 \u2018stillborn\u2019 books, Flanagan explained that \u2018the work you do, that you put out, should be the best of you.\u2019 He believes that the \u2018contract\u2019 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.\r\n\r\nAuthor Richard Flanagan. Image credit: Sarah Lee for the Guardian.\r\n\r\nTowards the end, Byrne asked Flanagan what winning the Man Booker Prize meant to him, and he responded with: \u2018I realised I was free. I could leave these burdens behind and I could finally be myself.\u2019 There was a palpable sadness from Byrne and the audience that he hadn\u2019t felt comfortable in (what he termed) a \u2018conformist society\u2019 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.\r\n***\r\nStay tuned for more Sydney Writers\u2019 Festival coverage from Writer\u2019s Edit.\r\nIn the meantime you can check out our Sydney Writers\u2019 Festival Profile as well as the\u00a05 Events You Can\u2019t Miss.