Richard Flanagan Q&A: “My mother hoped I might make a good plumber”

The author on growing up in Tasmania, his favourite cricketer, and politics as a shadow play.

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Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania in 1961, the fifth of six children. In 2014 he said that he was contemplating seeking work in north Australia’s mines before he won the Man Booker Prize for his sixth novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Running in the light pouring into the aisle of a bush church to which my mother and grandmother had taken me. The Catholic churches in country Tasmania were not much more than large wooden sheds, the gathering places of the descendants of the Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land during the famine. I don’t know why we were there. To pray, I guess. I used the memory for the start of The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Who was your childhood hero?

The cricketer Jeff Thomson. When the greatest quick of all time was asked the secret of his action, he replied: “I just shuffle in and go wang.” Which also seems as good an explanation of writing as any other that I have since heard.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Not a book, but an essay by Camus, called “Return to Tipasa”. Daring, moving, and finally hopeful, written as the euphoria of liberation was giving way to the polarities of the Cold War, it speaks directly to now.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Other than the rise of noise, I do like now. It’s an extraordinary world and, more than we dare acknowledge, a beautiful one.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Politics is a shadow play and I sometimes fear that in admiring shadows we deny ourselves. Which is perhaps why so many who looked to Obama then voted for Trump.

What’s your theme tune?

“Zorba’s Dance” from Zorba the Greek. It always ends badly. Zorba says, in the novel at least, if he could write it or sing it he would, but he can only dance it. Who doesn’t want to dance the world?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was young, I won a scholarship out of Tasmania that got me to Oxford. I went to tell my parents. My mother was peeling vegetables and took it in the manner of a radio update on the football score, and suggested I tell my father who was out the back turning the compost. I told him my news. He never turned around. He said, reciting Kipling: “If you should meet with Triumph or Disaster treat these two impostors just the same.” And that was that. I laughed and left. But he was right.

When were you happiest?

I do recall as a young man nearly drowning, trapped in an air pocket in a rapid for several hours, and, after, knowing I was alive, I felt not happy – the word seems hopelessly inadequate in this regard – but a most overwhelming sense of wonder that I never quite lost.

What’s currently bugging you?

Too much about too little.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

My mother had high hopes for me and thought, with application, I might make a good plumber. I had the folly of thinking I might even aspire to being a carpenter, but secretly all I ever wanted to be was a writer.

I can’t believe I’ve made it to 56 with no one blowing the whistle on me – yet.

Are we all doomed?

Thankfully, yes. It’s called death, and without its prospect and example before us what reason would we have to live? And I mean live

Richard Flanagan’s new novel “First Person” is published by Chatto & Windus 

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder