Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Leigh Sales
Tasmania’s first Man Booker Prize winner says coming from illiterate grandparents and a remote part of the world means he never expected such an honour, but he counts himself lucky to be part of ‘one of the great inventions of the human spirit’.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan has become only the fourth Australian to win one of literature’s greatest honours, the Man Booker Prize. The judges described Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North as a book of extraordinary elegance and force.
ANNOUNCER: And that winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction is The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
LEIGH SALES: One of Tasmania’s favourite sons was pleased to make the Booker longlist, shocked to make the shortlist and stunned and delighted to win. Flanagan raised some eyebrows by breaking protocol to kiss the Duchess of Cornwell, upholding a proud Aussie tradition of inappropriate Royal manhandling.
His acclaimed book is set during the construction of the Thailand-Burma “Death Railway” during the Second World War and was inspired by and dedicated to prisoner of war 335, his father, Archie. Mr Flanagan senior died aged 98 on the day his son completed the novel.
Richard Flanagan is only the fourth Australian-born novelist to win the Booker Prize alongside Peter Carey, Tom Keneally and DBC Pierre. The judges call his book a masterpiece.
ANNOUNCER: I’ve judged a few book prizes in the past and I don’t think I’ve ever called a book that.
LEIGH SALES: Bookstores were today preparing for a rush of readers.
MAN: My wife emailed me this morning – we live in Hong Kong – and said as long as you’re in Sydney you have to find this book because it’s already sold out in Hong Kong.
LEIGH SALES: And the 2014 Booker Prize winner, Richard Flanagan, joined me a short time ago from the BBC’s studios in London.
Richard Flanagan, we sent a driver to pick you up there in London a little bit after 6.30 am. It does seem obscene that we’ve dragged you out of bed so early the morning after winning the Booker.
RICHARD FLANAGAN, MAN BOOKER PRIZE WINNER: Yeah, no, well it’s been a crazy time. I’ve had about two hours sleep and it’s back-to-back interviews again today, as it was last night, I think through to God knows when – next year. It doesn’t seem to end at the moment.
LEIGH SALES: A lifetime perhaps once you’ve won something like the Booker.
RICHARD FLANAGAN: Well, pleasant as it is, I certainly hope not. I hope to get back home and have a drink at the Hope and Anchor, but I understand they’re already assembling there without me, the bastards.
LEIGH SALES: They are actually, Richard, and speaking of which, as a little bit of a surprise, we actually put a camera down there so that you could hear what’s going on. Your mate Lindsay Tuffin’s crowd-wrangling. Lindsay, what’s going on down there?
(Cheering from assembled group in a Hobart pub)
Lindsay, what’s been the reaction down there in Hobart to this news?
LINDSAY TUFFIN, FRIEND: Ah, the – there has been, Leigh, an incredible lightness of being, which is the only way that I can describe it. There has been – the entire island is – well, half of the island at least is completely ecstatic.
(Cheering from assembled group in a Hobart pub)
LEIGH SALES: What do you say to all your mates down there, Richard?
RICHARD FLANAGAN: Oh, well, I can’t wait to catch up to everyone and I’m – look, I’ve had so many hundreds of emails and texts, I will get back to you. I’ll buy you all a drink when I get home.
LEIGH SALES: Oh, you guys are going to hold him to that, I’m sure.
LINDSAY TUFFIN: There is absolutely no question of that. But not just one drink, Leigh, I think we require a significant quantity of ale. Is that not right?
LEIGH SALES: Richard, I think you’d better keep aside some of your prize money for this very important party that you’re going to be having in Hobart. Look, let’s …
RICHARD FLANAGAN: I think it just went.
LEIGH SALES: Look, let’s come back to you there in London and have a bit of a serious chat about the novel. Why did you choose the subject of the Burma Railway for this book?
RICHARD FLANAGAN: Well I dedicated the novel to prisoner san byaku san ju go, which is the Japanese words for the number 335 and that was my father’s number in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. He was a survivor of the “Death Railway”, of being a slave labourer in Japan. And I realised at a certain time I carried many things within me and I wouldn’t be able to go on as a writer unless I somehow found a way of writing about them. I think it sometimes falls to a writer to have to seek, no matter how hard, to communicate the incommunicable. I did, though – the way I set out to do it was to write it as a love story, and in the end, the book is about the many forms of love and what love means. But it took me 12 years.
LEIGH SALES: I’m sure that your Dad’s been much on your thoughts over the past 24 hours.
RICHARD FLANAGAN: I’ve tried not to think about it, but my daughter Rosie sent a beautiful message to me last night saying she could – she’d been feeling him all day around her before the decision was made and, you know, I’d like to think that was so.
LEIGH SALES: You revealed today that – sorry, yesterday, your time there in London, that when you finished writing this book, you contemplated getting a job in mining in Northern Australia. Why had it come to that?
RICHARD FLANAGAN: Ah, well just writing’s very hard and I’d run out of money and, you know, I’ve had – you know, I’ve had a very good run as a writer and – but sometimes that happens, you know. It is the hardest gig in town and I’d spent a long time on this novel and things were looking pretty black for me. But thankfully, that didn’t come to pass and, you know, I’m able to go back and keep on – go back to the table and keep on writing and I’m very grateful for that.
LEIGH SALES: What does it say, or does it say anything, about the state of publishing when one of Australia’s most accomplished and successful and well-known writers can’t even really make a reliable living out of it?
RICHARD FLANAGAN: Well it’s the same around the world. I’ve got wonderful publishers in Australia and I’ve got many readers in Australia, but, when you only – you know, when it takes so long to write a book, things can become difficult. But I don’t think it does to complain about it at all, Leigh, because no-one asks you or expects you to be a writer, it’s something you choose. And if so, if you’ve been lucky enough to be allowed to keep on going back to the table, as I have been for, you know, the best part of 25 years, you just have to be grateful and sometimes you just scrape through and sometimes, like today, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. But you have to just be pleased as long as you’re able to keep on writing and no-one blows the whistle on you and it hasn’t happened yet – it may, but so far, so good.
LEIGH SALES: Let’s cross back to Hobart just for one final word from your mates there before we go. Last message for Richard?
LINDSAY TUFFIN: Hip hip!
ASSEMBLED GROUP: (In unison) Hooray!
LEIGH SALES: Richard, congratulations. Thank you very much. Have you got a final message for your fans and your friends in Australia?
RICHARD FLANAGAN: I’m really delighted to be bringing this home to Australia and I just hope everyone can take pleasure from it. You know, I came – you know, I said last night I didn’t come out of a literary tradition, I came out of a tiny, little mining town in the rainforest on an island at the edge of the world, that my grandparents were illiterate and I never expected to be standing in that grand hall here in London, as I said last night, being so honoured. And I really believe that novels, words are one of the great inventions of the human spirit and I’m very proud to be one of those who’s been allowed to practise the art of it.
LEIGH SALES: They absolutely are. Richard Flanagan, congratulations again. Thank you very much.
RICHARD FLANAGAN: Thank you, Leigh, and thanks everyone in Hobart.