‘It’s as if everything is gone’: Richard Flanagan on his most important book
By Melanie Kembrey
Tasmania’s Franklin River.Credit: Getty
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For the first time ever Richard Flanagan doesn’t feel the urge to write. Usually, when the Booker Prize-winning author finishes a work, he has another idea ready to go, but things are different after Question 7.
“When I finished this I just felt a great silence within me and I don’t feel fear about it. I’ve never had that feeling before. I’ve always got other books I’m going on to, but I don’t have anything at the moment. It’s as if everything is gone and I feel good about that,” Flanagan says.
“I’m not saying I won’t write another book, you know, but I have no urge to for the first time. I’ve got no idea. I’ve had nothing inside me for the first time ever and I’m sort of grateful for that and I’m just glad I’ve written this book.”
Richard Flanagan says his new non-fiction book Question 7 felt important in a way his others haven’t.
When the man described in The Washington Post as one of the world’s greatest living novelists – and among the finest to come out of this country since Patrick White by Kirkus Reviews– tells you he doesn’t want to write, at least for the moment, you pay attention to the book that has made him feel as though he has said all he needs to say.
That book is Question 7. It is a memoir, but it bursts the banks of any easy categorisation. Constructed like a river, the story twists and turns, yet pushes relentlessly forward with tributaries about the lives of Flanagan and his parents, the bombing of Hiroshima, a romance between H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, and the colonisation of Tasmania.
The individual and the universal, the past and present, all flow into each other. There’s a sense of the butterfly effect given literary form, where everything is interconnected, and small actions lead to unforeseeable consequences. It all rushes towards Flanagan’s account of nearly drowning while kayaking on the Franklin River. “Everything ever since has been an astonishing dream,” he writes.
Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania in 1961.
Our interview is the first time Flanagan has spoken publicly about Question 7, which follows 2020’s novel The Living Sea of Waking Dreams and 2021’s non-fiction Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmania Salmon Industry. He’s not one of those writers who have a ready-to-roll explanation about their book’s origin, or easy answers to the how, why and what questions, which is also part of the point of Question 7. That, as Flanagan writes, “what occurred is still occurring … all writing is trapped in tenses when life isn’t”.
“I had a bad illness and I didn’t know if I could write any more, and I wrote this because somehow it seemed important in a way the other books hadn’t, and it was as if it had taken a whole lifetime,” Flanagan says.
“I didn’t know if I could finish this book and so it had to carry a considerable weight of things but be done adroitly, quickly, so it demanded of me something different.”
Richard Flanagan as a baby, with his mum.
The book opens in 2012, with Flanagan visiting the Ohama Camp, Japan, where his father was interned as an Australian prisoner of war during World War II. He was held for nearly four years, working as a slave labourer in a coal mine after surviving Changi and the Death Railway.
Flanagan was at the time researching what would become The Narrow Road to the Deep North, his sixth and most famous novel, which won the 2014 Booker Prize (the trophy for which, he later jokes, might have fallen behind a cabinet). His father was close to death when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
“It always struck me as extraordinary that I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the fact of the bomb and all those however many tens of thousands of people died and because my father was pretty close to death at the time and he only survived because of all those countless deaths, that was really the wellspring for the book,” Flanagan says.
“I had always dwelled on this strange fact that this truly evil weapon meant I lived and meant we’re now talking about this book and I wanted to try and think about that more through the writing of the book.”
Flanagan considers Hiroshima the “great tragedy of our age”. The only reply, he believes, is to ask “question 7″. The book’s title is a reference to a Chekhovian short story that parodies school arithmetic questions to make the point that life, as Flanagan writes, “is never binary, nor reducible to cant or code, but a mystery we at best apprehend”. The fools are those with answers, the artist can only ask questions.
Richard Flanagan after winning the Booker Prize.Credit: AFP
Flanagan was born nearly 16 years after the Hiroshima bombing, the fifth of six children, in Longford, Tasmania. His parents were Catholic, frugal and practical, the descendants of convicts transported from Ireland.
His mother was from an impoverished farming family, a strong woman who was subjected to cruelty from her own mother. He always knew his father was different. A reserved, solitary and kind man who seemed “impossibly old”, he worked as a school teacher. Flanagan writes about the fury in his father’s eyes when aged six or seven he asked how many Japanese he had killed during the war.
“Never, he said with an anger the ferocity of which I can still feel these years later, never ask such a question again,” Flanagan writes.
When his father died at 98, Flanagan discovered among his papers a letter from a relative implying that his grandmother was of Aboriginal descent. There is no concrete evidence, and Flanagan says that even if there were, he would not consider their family Aboriginal, writing that like many Tasmanian families, theirs exists “in the shade of old stories”.
Richard Flanagan and Thomas Keneally. Credit: Sahlan Hayes
Flanagan says writing about his parents in Question 7 brought them back into focus, yet also revealed how little he knew about them.
“Their deaths took them away and I needed the passing of time to understand a little better who they were,” he says.
“Really, in a way, all the book was a homage to them and my island home and that was a way of holding them close to me one last time. I could do it with words, you know? I miss them very much. It was a way of being close and holding them,” Flanagan says.
As a child, Flanagan experienced deafness, existing in a “strange netherworld of isolation and pain” until his condition was diagnosed and corrected with a series of operations. The experience, he writes, took him away from the spoken word, drawing him into the written world. He decided to be a writer when he was just four, with his first efforts the books he wrote for his older sister while she was at teacher’s college.
At the heart of Question 7 is Flanagan’s experience of nearly drowning. He sees his life as consisting of before and after he “died”. It was this incident that inspired Flanagan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide, published nearly three decades ago. He was guiding a party of rafters when he was caught by a current. Taken over a drop, the nose of the kayak was wedged under a rock ledge, and he was trapped. What follows is a remarkable account of the moments that passed. Flanagan was eventually freed by a friend, although you get the sense that he is always, in some way, still in that dark river.
“The other memories were on the surface of my mind, this memory was deeply locked away and I do not think about it and I had to excavate it,” Flanagan says.
“I wrote that chapter over about a week and a half and it was like going down the dark tunnel and there it was and I just had to pull the rocks back out each day and describe them. And everything was there.
“It was there in a horrifying present and immediate way and I would just concentrate on a particular few rocks each day and try and describe them as best I could. The next day I would go on to the next few minutes. Then once I’d written it, I put it all away again. And that was it.”
And so this book is it, at least for now, for Flanagan. Is it a comfort to not feel compelled to work on something else immediately? Comfort is a little strong, he says. He just doesn’t care; smaller things bring greater satisfaction.
“I wanted this to be a book that readers found themselves in much more than any of my other books. I always try and do a different book every time I write but this was so different,” Flanagan says.
“I remember reading this story about Isaac Babel and in 1934 he addresses the Soviet Union of Writers, and he says how his own literature henceforth will be the literature of silence and how he was in a goat-buying mood. It struck me as a very funny phrase. A goat-buying mood. I think I am in a goat-buying mood.”
Richard Flanagan will be in conversation at Sydney Town Hall as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Wednesday, November 8, from 6.30pm. He appears at the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne on November 9 at 7pm. (www.wheelercentre.com).Question 7 is published by Knopf.
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