Richard Flanagan Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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,...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Richard Flanagan was born in the mining township of Rosebery, Tasmania, in 1961, the fifth of six children in a large Irish Catholic family (he also had more than fifty cousins). He attended local school in Rosebery, which is on the west coast of Tasmania. He left high school when he was sixteen years old to work as a bush laborer, but after a couple of years decided to go to college. He attended the University of Tasmania and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford in England, where he earned a master of letters degree. He soon began work as a roof painter, one of many construction jobs that supported his writing. He also worked as a river guide and became a skilled canoeist. Flanagan and his wife, Majda Smolej, have three daughters, Rosie, Eliza, and Jean. Flanagan’s brother is Australian journalist Martin Flanagan.

Flanagan, also a historian and editor, is very much rooted in his homeland. His connection with Tasmania’s rivers and his familiarity with the Tasmanian landscape appear in all but one of his novels (The Unknown Terrorist is set in Sydney), and he has an appreciation for Tasmania’s diverse cultural heritage. Tasmania is a large island on the southeast tip of Australia, with rugged terrain, an intense and variable climate, and a history that includes settlement by convicts and the near-extinction of the Aborigines. For Flanagan, the stories that arise from these elements are as much a part of the world as a tree or a human being. They have power and presence; they can change lives.

Flanagan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide, initially received little promotion by his publisher and was largely ignored by reviewers; word of mouth sold out the first printing. Flanagan’s aim for the novel was to write about the people he knew and the richness of Tasmanian history as it was lived. He got it right: Tasmanians devoured Death of a River Guide and made Flanagan a national phenomenon. With each succeeding novel, he broadened his audience and won even more acclaim.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Richard Flanagan (FLAN-ih-guhn) was born in Rosebery, Tasmania, Australia, in 1961, the fifth of six children and the descendant of Irish convicts transported to Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land) during the Great Famine of the 1840’s. He spent his childhood in Rosebery, a small mining town on the west coast of Tasmania, an area which has featured extensively in his novels.

Flanagan left school at sixteen to work as a bush laborer but later attended the University of Tasmania, earning a first class honors degree in 1982. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and attended the University of Oxford in England, where he earned a master’s degree in literature in 1983. Like the protagonist of his first novel, Flanagan has worked as a river guide, and he took part in the first expedition to canoe the Jane River and the Gordon Gorge. He has also worked as a building laborer.

Flanagan’s first novel was the now much celebrated Death of a River Guide (1994), which was so popular that it sold out its entire print run of 3,500 copies in less than four weeks—an unusual development for an Australian first novel. A second print run sold out almost as quickly. Death of a River Guide went on to win the 1996 National Fiction Award in Australia and the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Award for First Fiction. His second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), was similarly successful, winning the 1999 Australian Booksellers Book of the Year Award, the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, and the 1998 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Best Novel.

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001), Flanagan’s third novel, drew attention not only for its story but for its production, featuring colored portraits of the fish mentioned in the novel, with the text printed in a variety of different colored inks. It won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region and was short-listed for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award. Flanagan’s next novel, The Unknown Terrorist, was published in 2006.

Flanagan is also a well-known and outspoken campaigner on environmental and political issues in Tasmania. He has been highly critical of the Tasmanian government and regularly campaigns against activities he regards as being detrimental to the Tasmanian landscape and its inhabitants. In 2008, he was living in Tasmania with his wife and three children.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Richard Flanagan’s novels explore the nature of Tasmania, his native land and a place of which he is inordinately proud. Flanagan does not hesitate to address the darker side of Tasmania’s history as a penal colony, nor the fact that the country’s indigenous inhabitants were all but exterminated by white settlers. However, he also seeks to show that his country’s history is more complex than a simple matter of settlement and extinction. For Flanagan, Tasmania’s history is closely related to the land, but he also shows how modern Tasmanians are affected, often unwittingly, by the experiences of their forefathers, and that they carry the history of their country deep inside themselves. Flanagan’s role as a writer is to remind the world of this.