Death of a River Guide, 1994
The Sound of One Hand Clapping, 1997 (adaptation of his screenplay)
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, 2002
The Sound of One Hand Clapping, 1998
A Terrible Beauty: History of the Gordon River Country, 1985
“Joyce’s Politics and Mine,” 1988
Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich, 1991 (with John Friedrich)
“Parish-Fed Bastards”: A History of the Politics of the Unemployed in Britain, 1884-1939, 1991
“Stripped Naked by Film,” 1993
“The Stars and the Mountains: A Politics to Reclaim the Commons,” 1995
The Rest of the World Is Watching, 1990 (with Cassandra Pybus)
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, trapped in the rocks of Tasmania’s Franklin River, the story is told through flashbacks of his life and the lives of his ancestors. The novel won the Victorian Premier’s Award for First Fiction in 1995 and the Australian National Fiction Award in 1996.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Flanagan’s second novel, began as an idea for a film. Flanagan worked on the script in 1991 and continued revising as he completed Death of a River Guide. Producers were not interested in the film concept, however, so Flanagan decided to rewrite the story as a novel. It has sold more than 150,000 copies in Australia and was the winner of the Australian Booksellers Book of the Year Award and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction. The story begins in Tasmania in 1954, at a construction site where Eastern Europeans, who have come seeking new lives, are living an isolated existence and paid laborers’ wages. Sonja, daughter of a Slovenian, must weather her mother’s suicide and her father’s abuse, finally escaping to Sydney while in her teens. At thirty-eight, she returns to reconcile with her father and, with the support of families who knew her mother, bear the child she had planned to abort. Shortly after its publication, producers and investors finally saw the potential for this story as a film. Flanagan again wrote the screenplay and also directed the film, which debuted in Australia in April, 1998. This dark drama had its world premiere in competition at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Bear for best film.
Flanagan’s success as a novelist propelled him into the spotlight as a leading figure shaping the national prose of Australia. He writes about Tasmania with love and accuracy, looking at it neither as some type of gothic horror land nor as a utopia but rather as a complex island populated by a wide variety of people who share experiences and, sometimes, dark secrets. Flanagan believes that the Tasmanian people have spent too long feeling ashamed of their convict ancestry and, through his fiction, comes to terms with those tensions.
His third novel, Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, is an imagined autobiography of a real nineteenth century Australian criminal. The novel opens with a prologue by Sid Hammet, a dealer in fake antique furniture, who discovers a copy of a book of fish paintings by the convict William Gould. Flanagan takes liberties with known facts about Gould, making him a forger who was sentenced in 1825 to transportation from England to Tasmania. During his voyage and experiences in the colony, Gould falls back on his untrained artistic talents to earn favors from those in charge. No less interesting than the story itself, the physical appearance of this book is Flanagan’s testament to the everlasting appeal of the book as an art form. Printed in six different colors, it includes Gould’s illustrations and a cover that appears worn and aged, as though it was just discovered in a junk shop. This wildly inventive novel won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2002.
When not writing novels, Flanagan continues to work as a river guide and also writes in various forms, including film and television. He lives in Tasmania with his wife and three daughters.