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Powell's Q&A

Richard Flanagan

Describe your latest book.
The Unknown Terrorist is a fable about our times in which a young innocent woman is set up as a terrorist. Denied the possibility of love she finally feels driven to commit an act of terrible evil. In writing it, I tried to forget everything I thought and felt, and simply let my words be a mirror to this strange era.

  1. The Unknown Terrorist: A Novel
    $1.00 Sale Hardcover add to wishlist

  2. Gould
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

  3. Death of a River Guide
    $13.00 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Death of a River Guide

    Richard Flanagan

  4. The Sound of One Hand Clapping
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I once rode shotgun on an offal truck for the local abattoir with a man called Stan. Stan told me nothing. Stan drove us around butcheries in the gray light of coming day, fag spilling ash, saying nothing. We started work at 5 and were invariably half cut by 6 as butchers, I discovered, were invariably semi-alcoholic. Still, Stan refused to talk. But he did drink. By 7 the tray would be full for the first time and we had to sort through the steaming pig skulls, the rancid fat, the green entrails, the rotting kangaroo carcasses for the so-called 'good' fat, kidney fat, which was heaved to one corner of the truck and then taken to a European smallgoods factory where we had a large cooked European breakfast with the workers — salamis, brawn, bacon, eggs — a feat of the slaughtered. Still Stan said nothing, merely took the fag out, belched some stale beer, and hoed in. Hieronymus Bosch meets Marcel Marceau.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.

Three years ago I was on a book tour of Spain. Everywhere I went, everyone I met, every writer, every poet, every bookseller I asked the question: Who is the Hispanic writer I should read now? After all, it had been the Hispanic writers of the last fifty years — Marquez, Borges, Cortazar, Neruda, Paz — who had as comprehensively reinvented and reinvigorated literature as the Russians in the nineteenth century. To my question there was but one answer, repeated over and over: Bolaño, Bolaño, Bolaño.

Roberto Bolaño had died the year before I visited at the relatively early age of fifty. His close friend and fellow novelist, Rodrigo Fresán, told me how Bolaño wrote like a man possessed, as if knowing he was going to die, compressing a lifetime's work into those last few years of his life. He was much loved and venerated.

By turns bawdy, beautiful, brilliant and often very funny, Bolaño writes like a fallen angel. Bolaño described The Savage Detectives as "a love letter to my generation." In its freewheeling description of the lives of travellers of every nationality intersecting for odd, intense moments in places as diverese as Tel Aviv, Liberia, and Spanish camping gounds, it is as much a novel of its generation as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Kerouac's On the Road.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
That some writers happen to be wonderful fabulists devoted to creating themselves anew obscures the truth they seek to assert: that life is neither reducible to, nor explained by known facts. As Oscar Wilde put it in The Decay of Lying, "Give a man a mask and he'll tell you the truth, take it away, and he'll lie." Or at least I think he said something like that, but I could be lying. Writers are — or should be — better storytellers, and if they understand their craft a little, they understand that stories are the best way we have of communicating fundamental truths about this world. Why? Because like life, they are ever chaotic, and never consistent. They celebrate the mystery rather than pretend to understand it. In scribendo veritas.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"Forward! Charge the windmill!"

Gogol's dying words.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
No, but going to Oxford , Mississippi, for the first time felt like an odd and unexpected homecoming.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
That I like them.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?

Why do you write?
Because it's easier than not writing.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
When did such things become choices and answering questionnaires part of a writers' life? I became a writer in no small part to evade questionairres, committees, and the assorted detritus of this life. In this forlorn hope, as in so much else, I was again mistaken.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
They can all be badly behaved, but having been on a rock and roll bus and discovering it to be a clautrophobic hell, like the Kursk on wheels, I realised rockers were driven by something far darker than any writer, and thus were unfairly advantaged. There's a movie about a Russian sub in which the nuclear reactor starts melting down, and one after another the Russian sailors bravely, insanely, go into the reactor to fix the problem while their bodies fry. And why? Because it's so awful on the sub, even being irradiated seems more interesting and exciting. I suspect a rock and roll tour in its torpor and relentless dullness is not disimilar. Game over.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
I have always lived with birds flying around the house: cockatoos, galahs, ring necks, cockatiels. One cockatoo once once got on my desk and deleted a chapter, then shat on my keyboard, reminding me of the natural destiny of all literature.

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
No more author questionnaires.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.


Anna Karenina — best novel about love
Anna Karenina — best novel about death
Anna Karenina — best novel about society
Anna Karenina — best novel about the pointlessness of books
Anna Karenina — best novel about the necessity of books spacer

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