There was something particularly heartening about Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize win for his novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. Here is a writer at the top of his game, receiving one of the most coveted literary awards in the English speaking language, admitting that on completing the book he almost gave up writing to work in the mines of northern Australia so he could support his family.
Although I’ve never met Richard Flanagan, I’ve followed his career, not without a touch of envy, for a number of years. I first came across his work when I was in Tasmania back in the 1990s working on an early draft of a novel I was writing. I was out on some wilderness tracks in the far western part of the state bushwalking with my cousin and some friends, some of whom knew Flanagan from when they had worked together as river guides. We were discussing his novel “Death of a River Guide”, which had recently appeared, and my newfound friends were chuckling at Richard’s acerbic depictions of the gormless tourists who stumbled up the Gordon River in search of authentic wilderness, and the cynical guides who took their money in return for protecting them from the consequences of their ignorance.
Flanagan has always been known for his honesty, and this can make him an uncomfortable and sometimes abrasive companion, both in print and at smart literary events. It’s entirely in keeping with this character trait that he would break British protocol and embrace the Duchess of Cornwall when she handed him a cheque for fifty big ones. It’s an honesty I admire, even though I have to admit I have on occasions struggled with his style, especially when he has veered towards magical realism, a genre I have always viewed as the prog rock of literature.
His acceptance speech, and the press interviews that followed, highlighted the struggle writers face to make a living from their craft. Of course no one made us take up the pen, and most of our community have ignored multiple warnings from well-intentioned family and friends, urging us to apply our way with words to more secure ends such as the law or teaching. However, it is nice for the setbacks, rejections and humiliations we face on a day to day basis to be acknowledged, and to be reminded that even the best and most lauded amongst us have had their days when they felt overwhelmed by it all and on the verge of jacking it in.
So thank you, Richard Flanagan, for once again speaking the truth as you see it, and inspiring me to pick up the pen for another day. In the meantime, I look forward to getting stuck into “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”.
My own novel Francesca, which is also a tale of love and war, though set in East Timor in the 1970s, can be purchased here.