News & Reviews

Q&A: Sally Tabner interviews Richard Flanagan [IN FULL]

SALLY: Question 7 covers a lot of ground – the life and work of HG Wells, the creation and detonation of the atomic bomb, a deep inquiry into your family history and identity, a revisiting of your near-death on the Franklin River. All of it is revelatory and arrestingly beautiful. Tell us a bit about the genesis and process of writing this book? 


RICHARD: The hardest question. Who recalls fully the passage of a dream? Who remembers a cloud? By which I mean I have no idea. 

During the long dark night that were the Covid years, life for us all seemed on hold. 

The question that I at least was left with was this: How to live? Do we live? Do we wish to live or are we content to merely exist? 

And it is clear to me that in the wake of those Covid years these questions are exercising a great many other people around the world in the choices they are now making about their lives. We see it in everything from the Great Resignation in the west to the Lie Flat movement in China to the exodus of many from cities and a certain idea of life to the regions in search of another idea.

During Covid I realised I had suddenly, without warning, grown old, and the world around me had grown strange and alien. It was as if I had stepped through a mirror and return was no longer possible. Or put another way, the world I assumed I lived in—it’s values, its verities, even its seasons and its animals and birds—all this was no more or vanishing. I had lived, I realised, in the autumn of things, and the world I had grown up in was irrevocably lost. I felt the shades of my long dead parents near me and wanted to hold them close and did it the only way I knew how: with words.

Question 7 began to emerge, at once a homage to them and my strange island at the end of the world. Words were all I had to hold on to it a little longer, to hold on to my parents’ laughter and stories, the sound of gum logs cracking in a dying fire as I fell asleep as a child, the extraordinary power of their love.  

And other things crept in: a kiss that began it all one hundred years ago, a bath, traffic lights and H G Wells and Hiroshima: a daisy chain of events that begins in front of an Edwardian book case and ends with you reading this about my book.

SALLY: Why are questions more important than answers?

RICHARD: Because they open rather than close. They are an invitation.

SALLY: You imagine interesting scenes in the daily lives of Wells, his affair with Rebecca West, his forays with Little e in the alps; the ablutions of Leo Szilard, which were so instrumental to his thought process. How would a similarly imagined life of Richard Flanagan, writer, look?

RICHARD: I only have to live my life, thank God, not imagine it. And that’s more than enough.

SALLY: I was fascinated by the revelation that HG Wells had perceived and named the atomic bomb some 30 years before it was used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do you think writing still has the power to imagine things into being? Are they necessarily destructive?

RICHARD: Not at all. I write in Question 7 how we cannot be what we cannot dream, that sometimes we discover that we live in the dreams and nightmares of others and we must dream anew. And we can.

SALLY: Australia is famous for its bureaucracy. You draw an interesting link between shame and bureaucracy in Australia. Can you conceive of a better Australia?

RICHARD: That’s why our artists matter. Perhaps too that’s also why our artists and their work are so consistently scorned in Australia.

SALLY: Are you most like your mother or your father?

RICHARD: I have no idea. I don’t think either saw much of themselves in me. My children say I am like my father though I think I am more like my mother. We are unknown to ourselves.

SALLY: Question 7 has a wonderful sense of impermanence and temporality. Did that come naturally?

RICHARD: I seek to write a different book every book rather than the same book over and over as some authors do. I was after a style that played to the strengths of age and not its weaknesses—the ease of experience taking precedence over the joys of invention. Once I was fearful that I would lose readers and strove to keep winning them, image by sentence by page. Now though I drift down the river with them, pointing out a matter of interest here and there but for the most part silent so that they might discover for themselves other things hiding within the pages, new things, their own reflection vanishing into circles rippling outwards the moment they spy their own image.

In this way, I strove for lightness and found my words levitating above the page and me with them. I didn’t seek to understand it but only to go with it. I discovered that the more I left out and the more I took out, strangely, impossibly, the more there seemed to be to what remained. And so I would take more out again, and still the book grew. It was a magical time that constantly surprised me.

SALLY: In your acknowledgements you reference an essay by Yolnju writer Siena Stubbs. How did it inform your writing?

RICHARD: I have always felt that time is circular, not linear. It was how I grew up understanding my world in Tasmania, where stories were the tool for divining the world—not religion or ideology or philosophy or art, but stories—and the stories were endlessly recursive and digressive, and everything ran back and forth through time simultaneously. It is how I have written all my books. I had long thought this was an Indigenous influence on Tasmanian culture and so, for me, Siena Stubbs’ essay was revelatory. It details how in Yolnju there is a fourth tense that evokes the idea that things that are happening now simultaneously happened a thousand years in the past and are also happening a thousand years in the future. I explored this idea at length in a recent essay in The Monthly. Above all, I find circular time, the fourth tense, a liberating idea that anchors us, with humility and hope, into the country we live.

SALLY: I enjoyed your brief but excoriating passage on the literary establishment. How do we build a genuine Australian literature?

RICHARD: By writing and reading Australian books. And the best way of ensuring both is by shopping for Australian books at Australian bookshops. A visit to Bookoccino is a great start.

SALLY: What is your advice to young writers?

RICHARD: Don’t waste time and money on a writing degree. Live, read, and write. As de Maupassant once advised, ‘Writing is easy: it’s just case of putting black on white.‘ If it’s also equally hard, it cannot be avoided and must be met in the embrace.

SALLY: Do you have a strong sense of foreboding for the future?

RICHARD: No. The world is always precariously poised at five minutes to midnight. I grew up with the bomb and the prospect of the nuclear winter. That was serious, and the climate crisis even more so. But we have made this mess and so we can make our way out of it also if we choose to act. I have a fascination with the future. As global depopulation begins to press we’ll be compelled to imagine a world where numerical growth—a recently fashionable fiction—is no longer the sole or even adequate measure by what we wish our world to be.

SALLY: Do you spend much time on the Franklin river now?

RICHARD: I try to get back down once or twice a year though it gets harder in every way and some years I even miss now. This December though I will be going back down with our eldest daughter, for whom it will be her first trip. And being with her in that most beautiful world will be for me the greatest joy.

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