Richard Flanagan: Fiction is not a lie, but a truth, a necessary truth

The Booker prize winner on his new novel and why its not always possible to separate fact from fiction

Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North . In First Person , would-be novelist Kif sees himself embarking on the ghostwriting job from hell.

This is a very different fiction to The Narrow Road . Was that always the scheme ?
Plan? I had no scheme. First Person is the book I began before the Booker and which I finished after, while at the same hour, trying to surf the mudslide that the Booker brings on without falling off and being buried alive.

Can you tell us about the back tale to First Person ?
In 1991, while working as a builder’s labourer and trying to write my first fiction, I was offered $10,000 by Australia’s greatest conman and corporate criminal, John Friedrich, to ghostwrite his memoirs in six weeks. He had embezzled a billion dollars in today’s terms, put in a sort of a secret army and the whole thing had gone belly up. His bodyguard was a mate, which was how I got the gig. We worked on the book for three weeks and then he shot himself dead. I was left to ghostwrite a ghost.

Although the novel is based on your experience with Friedrich, your ghostwriter, Kif, discovers truth is arrived at by not cleaving too faithfully to the facts .
Maybe that is as it should be: after all, fiction is not a lie, but a truth, a fundamental and necessary truth, that we need as much as we need food or sexuality. Without fiction, we poison ourselves on the lies of the first person. And perhaps that was the anxiety I had felt with Friedrich all those years ago- the terror of becoming the first person trapped in someone else’s lies. For if story as lies leads us to a dark place, story as fiction offers the possibility of transcendence and freeing, the recognition of the many things each of us are.

Kif detects the only style to become a writer is by write. Would that be your advice ?
I have no advice. People write books in spite of themselves. Which may be why I never understood creative writing degrees.

Do you become as possessed by your characters as Kif is by his subject ?
No. But Kif is a mediocre artist who believes in the grand old lies: experience, empathy and the necessity of identifying with your subject, the first person- those things people say about their writing when they don’t know what to say and are not sure what to write. It leads Kif to a bad pass.

As a Tasmanian, Kif determines it hard to be taken seriously as a writer. Was that your experience ?
It was. When I started out, Tasmania was still a metaphor for everything Australians detested about themselves- their convict past, environmental rapacity, murderous racism and general insignificance. My first novel, Death of a River Guide , was rejected a review in Australia’s leading broadsheet on the grounds it fitted no recognisable school of Australian literature. Which is one of the sweetest compliments I have ever had.

First Person nods to the rise of autofiction. Do you understand its popularity ?
I don’t even understand its meaning. It has something to do with the French? I dread it may also have something to do with me. The problem is, as Flaubert called in exasperation: “ Madame Bovary , c’est moi” and novels were always stolen from everywhere and everything , not least the author’s own soul. Labels are best left on jam jars.

What can more conventional realist novels offer that autofiction can’t ?
The larger truth that we are not one but many and that all that we don’t know is everything we need to discover.

Are you seduced to write your own memoirs ?
I’m seduced by everything unwise, but I hope I don’t give in to it. St Augustine prayed to the Lord to grant him sobriety and chastity, but not just yet. To which I would add memoir, but wisely St Augustine didn’t.

* First Person by Richard Flanagan is published by Chatto& Windus( PS18. 99 ). To order a copy for PS16. 14 going to see guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders only. Telephone orders min p& p of PS1. 99

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