11 Oct 2017

Richard Flanagan: 'People need truth as they need food and drink'

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 11 October 2017

Now more than ever we need the truths inherent in novels and the privacy and subversion of reading, says Booker Prize-winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

Richard Flanagan

Photo: Supplied

Flanagan draws on his own experience of ghostwriting in the dark and funny new novel First Person, which had its genesis when he was a young, broke labourer.

He got a call near midnight from a notorious corporate criminal who'd defrauded banks of millions and invented a strange secret paramilitary army.

The man offered him $10,000 to ghostwrite his memoir in six weeks.

Flanagan worried for a couple of minutes about his literary reputation then agreed and fled Melbourne from Tasmania and began work with him the next day.

For three weeks the man evaded telling Flanagan anything personal then shot himself dead.

Although Flanagan didn't get any hard material on the man, he did get a palpable sense of the man's philosophy of evil that has haunted him since.

A conman like Siegfried Heidl in First Person is a great vehicle for exploring one of the dilemmas of our age – that the very notion of the truth is being corroded, he says.

Now more than ever we need the truths inherent in invented stories.

"As politics and media collapse, as the early promise of the internet curdles into… that idea of vast corporations seeking to make profits from our lives on one hand and the state surveilling us on the other, the novel emerges with a great force as a place where we go not for answers, but the questions we need to ask of our time and of ourselves.

"The truth matters enormously and people have a great hunger for it. If you can just say it with enough accuracy and devoid of hyperbole people will listen because they need it as they need food and drink, and it will be ever heard over the armies of paid propagandists. Truth's slow but it's inexorable and it does have a great power.

"Why is it that to read is suddenly seen to be arrogant, to be conceited, to represent some strange threat? I think that's to do with the subversive and private nature of reading."

Winning the Booker Prize isn't an easy experience for every writer to continue on from, but Flanagan says he wasn't troubled by the pressure.

"I guess I was older and I'd had successes in the past and I'd had failures. And I learnt that what matters is simply writing each time the best book you can."

Writing is the only thing he ever took seriously, Flanagan says, and he still feels lucky to be doing it for a living.

"Most of the world has rotten jobs. Hard, difficult, humiliating work is commonplace and writing is not those things. If it's difficult and sometimes consuming and sometimes despairing it is also for me a transcendental joy."