Richard Flanagan (FLAN-ih-guhn) made his native island of Tasmania the heart of his fiction, and his novels have made publishing history in Australia. Flanagan was born in 1961, the fifth of six children in a Catholic family. He was descended from Irish convicts. Both of his great-grandfathers were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (later renamed Tasmania) during the Great Famine, one for stealing food, the other for his involvement in a revolutionary society.
Flanagan grew up in the mining town of Rosebery, in western Tasmania, and left school when he was sixteen to work as a bush laborer. He later attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and developed an interest in history. Before becoming a writer, he held many jobs, working as a chain hand cutting lines through forests, a river guide, and a doorman.
He began his career as an author by writing history books, simply because it was easier to get published in that genre than in others. “Parish-Fed Bastards”: A History of the Politics of the Unemployed in Britain, 1884-1939 developed out of his master’s thesis. In it, he seeks to disprove the belief that the unemployed were politically passive, as well as the assumption that they were victims, unable to change their situation. Flanagan’s success writing on historical topics gave him practice in the techniques of publishing and provided good background for his novels.
Growing up immersed in the oral culture of Tasmania, Flanagan grew to love the stories that passed down the island’s history and folklore from generation to generation. As a novelist, he tried to capture the circular structure of those oral stories and represent the local rhythm of spoken language. Flanagan dared to write about Tasmania’s deep history, even though the stories were not always pleasant.
His first novel, Death of a River Guide, was an immediate success, selling more than thirty-five hundred copies in the first three weeks. Flanagan remarked that its success was a surprise even to him, but he credited the book’s engaging and loving portrayal of the Tasmanian people as its appealing quality. Narrated by Aljaz Cosini, a guide who at the beginning of the story is drowning, trapped in the rocks of Tasmania’s Franklin River, the story is told through flashbacks of his life and the lives of his ancestors. The novel won the Victorian Premier’s Award for First Fiction in 1995 and the Australian National Fiction Award in 1996.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Flanagan’s second novel, began as an idea for a film. Flanagan worked on the script in 1991 and continued revising as he completed Death of a River Guide. Producers were not interested in the film concept, however, so Flanagan decided to rewrite the story as a novel. It has sold more than 150,000 copies in Australia and was the winner of the Australian Booksellers Book of the Year Award and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction. The story begins in Tasmania in 1954, at a construction site where Eastern Europeans, who have come seeking new lives, are living an isolated existence and paid laborers’ wages. Sonja, daughter of a Slovenian, must weather her mother’s suicide and her father’s abuse, finally escaping to Sydney while in her teens. At thirty-eight, she returns to reconcile with her father and, with the support of families who knew her mother, bear the child she had planned to abort. Shortly after its publication, producers and investors finally saw the potential for this story as a film. Flanagan again wrote the screenplay and also directed the film, which debuted in Australia in April, 1998. This dark drama had its world premiere in competition at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Bear for best film.
Flanagan’s success as a novelist propelled him into the spotlight as a leading figure shaping the national prose of Australia. He writes about Tasmania with love and accuracy, looking at it neither as some type of gothic horror land nor as a utopia...
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