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Q & A with Richard Flanagan
May 14 , 2009
Our staff recommendations Summer Favorites and Children’s Favorites are now available online and will be in the store shortly in printed format. As a taste of what’s to come, we offer you Book Buyer Mark LaFramboise’s review of WANTING and his interview with author Richard Flanagan.
In Tasmania, Mattina, a young aboriginal girl, is removed from her tribe to be raised as a proper English girl by Lady Franklin and her husband, the explorer Sir John Franklin. Later, in England, Lady Franklin enlists Charles Dickens to help restore the good name of her husband after his arctic expedition fails and London buzzes with rumors that his crew has resorted to cannibalism. In Wanting, Richard Flanagan uses this extraordinary history to tell a story of desire, deceit, and betrayal, juxtaposing the brutally colonized wilds of Tasmania and the crowded, polluted environs of Dickens’s London.
An interview conducted by Mark LaFramboise of Politics & Prose Books & Coffee, Washington, D.C., with Richard Flanagan on his novel Wanting.
Mark LaFramboise: Would you talk a little about how you arrived on the title, Wanting? Obviously, Dickens is obsessed with Ellen Ternan and Lord Franklin lusts after young Mathinna, but the implications of the title suggest more than male lust.
Richard Flanagan: I wanted to write a novel about desire in its fullest sense, of wanting as the essence of all our lives. The characters, the story were the way for me to think about such things. Like a water bird that builds a nest attached to a single reed, in the belief that reed will anchor all else against currents and winds and storms, so wanting was the reed around which I spun everything else.
ML: Reading Wanting, I enjoyed the juxtapositions between the richly detailed lushness of Tasmania and the dirty urban setting of London (not to mention the staged setting of Dickens’s drama). How was it, as the author, to be continually shifting place so radically?
RF: I enjoyed writing it. It helped allow me a way of creating a musical patterning to the novel, which I think is the soul of any good novel.
ML: Mathinna, I think, is the heart and soul of the book. Her betrayal by the Franklins is appalling and horrible, but could that relationship have possibly ended well?
RF: Not without it being a different book. “Who recalls a cloud?” de Maupassant asks somewhere. And what writer, if they are honest, recalls why things happened in the writing of a book. I have no idea if it could have been otherwise. All I know is that it in the end it wasn’t.
ML: Are there any parallels with Mathinna’s story and that of Ellen Ternan, both objects of the desires of powerful men?
RF: I have no aesthetic theory and few concrete ideas when I write a book. I trust in that story and impose no neat symmetries or effects on it or the characters. If readers find such things—and they often do—it is what they have discovered, not what I have intended. A writer may intend some things, but the book only succeeds to the extent he fails in such ambitions.
ML: Was it at all daunting to cast Dickens as a character? His life has been vastly chronicled, but you focus on an aspect of his life not usually commented upon.
RF: It’s daunting to write any character well. I have written corpses, seahorses, and pole dancers, among others, and all are daunting. I was interested to write about writing, about the spiritual and physical cost to a writer of making his stories, and Dickens allowed me a way of doing that.
ML: In the afterword you detail the actual historic elements in the novel. Did knowledge of the actual events assist you in framing the story, or did it curtail your imagination? What is the responsibility of the novelist writing an “historical novel”?
RF: The book wasn’t written as an historical novel, but as a meditation on desire dressed up in a motley of story from another time. A soul history, perhaps, but a contemporary novel certainly. A novelist has no responsibilities other than to write a good novel. The present age is in this, sadly, far duller in its understanding of story than, say, an Elizabethan audience, who did not for a moment entertain the delusion that Antony and Cleopatra, for example, was a history lesson, but rather understood it as an entertainment about passion, power, and love.
ML: Wanting is an intense book. As Dickens’s feverish passions reach their limit and Mathinna’s desperation grows more extreme, the story takes on irresistible momentum. Was this part of your original plan (if you plan) or did the pace come to be organically?
RF: It matters not just that there is story in a novel, but that the story drive. If it succeeds in this regard, I would credit it to the low cunning of craft combining with some good luck.
ML: Finally, who were some of the authors you admired while growing up and how do you think they’ve influenced you as a writer?
RF: Admiration and influence are entirely different. There are great writers I admire whose work is so unique it is impossible for them to influence you. Fitzgerald is one such for me. The writers who influenced me most were probably the South Americans among whose number I’d include—as they often do as a spiritual father—Faulkner, along with Kafka, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Borges, Cortazar, Hrabal, Márquez, Neruda, Heaney, Grass, Celan, Carver, Calvino, Bulgakov, Rosa, de Assis. Writing this, I realize I’ve forgotten a much, possibly more significant larger library. Still, their influence has possibly been largely malign; a writer triumphs to the extent he escapes all influences into his own voice. Borges said all writers belong to two countries, the one in which they’re born, and the universe of books. For a long time I believed this to be so. But I am no longer so sure. There is a cusp, and at certain point the path leads not to the acquisition of influences, but to their steady abandonment.
Wanting is $24, published by Atlantic Monthly Press.