Richard Flanigan: “What the Writer Needs Is a Mad Courage”

From a post by Cherilyn Parsons on headlined “Richard Flanigan: What the Writer Needs Is a Mad Courage”:

Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan has been called “one of our greatest living novelists.” His seven novels have received numerous awards, including the 2014 Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and the Commonwealth Prize for Gould’s Book of Fish. He also has been an outspoken activist on the environment….In May 2021, he delivered the PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.

His latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, has been called a “magical realist tale of ecological anguish … [that is] also playful… at its heart, hopeful” and a “cry of alarm about what we choose to pay attention to.” I found it to be one of the most profound, moving novels I’ve ever read.

Cherilyn Parsons: Where are you writing to us from right now?

Richard Flanagan: A table in Tasmania.

CP: In January 2019, at the height of the fires raging in Tasmania, you went to tiny Maatsuyker Island to work on a novel. But you found yourself creating a different story, which became The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. You’ve said it “was there, on that very remote island, with that shrieking wind and the noise of waves on the cliffs,” that you found the voice and the story you wanted to tell. Why do you think it happened there? What’s needed for a writer to stumble upon this magic elixir?

RF: I have no idea. If I did I would return to it every book. All I know is that to know what I am writing I have to write.

CP: Beyond time and solitude, what conditions, inner and outer, do you think are optimal for a writer to create her best work?

RF: The great thing about writing is that it can be produced in sub-optimal—even atrocious—conditions. And so many of the most interesting books are. It’s the one art form that isn’t beholden to power or money. Which is perhaps why so much of what we celebrate in writing comes from the edges—geographically, politically, socially, economically. What a writer needs above all is a mad courage to overcome the fear of failure we all have, which is also, unfortunately, often also the most destructive vanity….

CP: How do you know a manuscript isn’t working? You say you’ve discarded the manuscript you brought to Maatsukyer Island. Why?

RF: If a manuscript bores me it’s likely it will bore the reader. And a novel can do anything, but it cannot be boring….

CP: You’ve said you didn’t want The Living Sea of Waking Dreams to be labeled as “climate fiction.” Why?

RF: Why? Because adjectives are judgements and judgements are frequently mistaken and always misleading.

CP: I came across an online commenter to the New York Times review of Living Sea saying he wouldn’t read the book because it would be too dark and upsetting. Ironically, a major theme of the novel is precisely the damage caused by this sort of active “looking away.” But you also explore the emotional pain behind such effort to not see. What do you say to people to whom this novel, and others like it, can feel overwhelming?

RF: Am I allowed to say miserable bastards? It’s also a comic book as several commentators have noted, and it’s hopeful. But at such a moment in our history it is an offense to people to pretend the world is a rosy place. It’s not and we need to get honest about what has happened and is happening. All these crises—racial, political, economic, environmental, medical—are finally one crisis, and the horror of it weighs on us all, and to change it we have to name it, we have to point, we have to find language that opens us up to what has and will happen. I wanted to put kindness and gratitude at the center of whatever I was writing. There seemed such a power to both things that went largely unremarked and yet seemed so important.

Despair is an easy cynicism, and cynicism is the new naïveté. Despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it is to be human. Hope is what we have. Not until people are really tested do they know who they are and of what they are capable. Some of what we learn about ourselves is disappointing. Some of it is horrifying. Some of it is remarkable. But we have to know what is at stake to be capable of hope. To be kind to others when they fail us as we fail them. When we fail ourselves….

CP: You’ve talked about trusting story to guide you, and avoiding a preconceived notion of what a book should be “about” or some idea you want to convey. Why does that trust matter to the quality of the work, to your own process, and to the reader’s experience?

RF: Because the least revealing thing about any book is an author’s intentions. For that reason meeting writers is always an added disappointment. Story allows the writer to escape the sinking jetsam of their character and history and opinion into the chaos of life. Novels are not moral grammars: they exist beyond morality or ethics or politics.

CP: In your PEN Arthur Miller lecture, you discussed the role of literature in “saying the unsayable.” The way you used language in Living Sea did just that, not merely conveying meaning but, to me, becoming meaning and emotional experience—such as the mounting terror we feel in reading the rapid-fire, unpunctuated stream of images as Anna scrolls through her phone. Then there’s Tommy’s stuttering, which makes so much sense. What did it feel like to arrive at the language of this novel?

RF: Liberating. All these things that had been welling up in me for years suddenly had their necessary voice. It‘s strange how choked you can feel for years and then one morning—my first morning—on that remote, wild island, the voice came. And thereafter it was just work. A lot of work, but I had lived that strange autumn of things and finally I knew how to write it.

CP: What is your best advice to writers? To readers?

RF: To readers, read. To writers, embrace fear and read even more. In terror, smiling.

Cherilyn Parsons is the founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival (launched in 2015 in Berkeley, CA) and its year-round Women Lit series.

Speak Your Mind