Novelist Richard Flanagan and his latest project, First Person

Modest: Australia author Richard Flanagan. Picture: Simon Schluter
Modest: Australia author Richard Flanagan. Picture: Simon Schluter

Winning the most prestigious award in literature, the annual Man Booker Prize, has often provoked a period of controversy for the successful contestant.

Not long after taking home the Booker for his 1988 novel Oscar & Lucinda, Peter Carey had his car fire bombed after writing an opinion piece that criticised white supremicism in Australia.

In the months that followed Eleanor Catton winning her prize in 2013, she was widely condemned in her native New Zealand for claiming that her government was shallow, profit obsessed and money hungry.

A year later a humble but brilliantly imaginative novelist from Tasmania won his first Man Booker Prize. Accepting the award for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the Oxford-educated Richard Flanagan, from a tiny west coast mining town, announced that the then Prime Minister’s commitment to coal made him ashamed to be an Australian.

In the years that followed that infamous ceremony, Flanagan has been busy examining a very different sort of shame and controversy. His new novel First Person tells the story of Kif Kehlmann, a struggling writer suddenly called upon to ghost write the memoirs of the mysterious and cunning white collar criminal, Siegfried Heidl. Intellectually seduced by the manipulative wits of Heidl and chasing the quick fix of a much-needed paycheque, Kehlmann attempts to reconcile his conscience with the financial responsibilities he owes to his young family.     

The story draws heavily upon the author’s own experience as an ambitious young novelist in Hobart and the task he once undertook, in a similarly desperate position to Kehlmann, to write the story of the millionaire fraudster John Friedrich.

Long before his Booker triumph, Flanagan was himself a penniless writer with a monthly mortgage that his literary ambitions alone could barely sustain.

“When I was first starting out I never had a Plan B,” admits Flanagan. “For me, there never was an escape plan because I knew that a writer was all I was ever going to be and yet it is a very hard way to make a living.”

As Kif in the novel ponders his own escape from the deceitful and conniving Heidl, Flanagan  contrasts the familial warmths of Kehlmann’s native Tasmania with the bleak and dreary bitumens of a drizzly inner Melbourne. Unlike his earlier and most evocative novels, First Person sets it lens onto a hostile and inhospitable city that the con man Heidl personifies with a mesmerising veracity.

By the time Kif Kehlmann makes it back to his family, the emotional home that he leaves behind at the beginning of the novel has itself become a strange and unwelcoming place.

When Flanagan reflects on this depiction of Hobart and his earlier illustrations of his home state as a whole, he can easily appreciate how the Tasmania in his own literature has remained something of a mystery.

“I used to write about the place because I found it fascinating” he says. “I still write about it because I am yet to understand it. This is true even though as a person I have been so much shaped by it.”   

In Conversation with Richard Flanagan on Tuesday, Oct 3, features Flanagan talking with Newcastle Writers Festival director Rosemarie Milsom about his writing life and his new novel First Person. The event is at Nex, Wests City, corner of King and Union streets, Newcastle West. Tickets $15 (Eventbrite).