Mark Rubbo interviews Richard Flanagan
Our Managing Director Mark Rubbo chats with Man Booker prize winning author Richard Flanagan about his new genre-bending novel, First Person.
Your new novel First Person has some connection to your own experience, in that it is about a young writer who is commissioned to ghostwrite the memoir of a notorious conman. You were commissioned to ghostwrite the memoir of notorious conman John Friedrich. Why did you decide to write a novel based on this experience?
Why not? At some point someone would have, and I thought better me than them. Perhaps too I grew to be haunted by how Friedrich – in his solipsism, in his narcissism, in the power of his lies to corrupt and destroy – how he, in his dark visions, began to seem a harbinger of a terrifying new world that was coming into being.
Is it inevitable that people will read it as your memoir? I remember when Monkey Grip came out, some scallywags printed a ‘Who’s Who in Monkey Grip’. Will they do the same here? I want to know who Ray is.
Greasing the great social changes of recent years, driving the new inequality and perpetuating the new powerlessness, is the cult of solipsism, a cult that leads to everyone on their various social media wanting to be the first person and yet each person feels more than ever that nothing offers them any insight into their own mystery. Every first person feels themself ever more alone and lost, and prone to the great pandemics of our age: depression, sadness, emptiness.
I became interested in the current vogue for memoir, the literary equivalent of the selfie. We have been encouraged to search for meaning within ourselves, and in art that has manifested itself as an explosion in the cult of memoir. Everyone writes memoir now, and sometimes it seems that the less you’ve lived the more valid the memoir. For all I know, as I write publishers may be signing ultrasounds for three-volume memoirs. The cult of memoir arises out of a sense that only stories rooted in demonstrable experience have meaning for us, that invented stories cannot do justice to our world.
And that is why I had no desire to write a memoir of my time with Freidrich, but to write a novel, doing what novels should, and that is ask questions of us. I want this novel to be a defence of novels, to argue for the power and necessity of fiction, of stories, in a world that believes truth resides in numbers, whether it is the numbers of neo-liberalism, or the numbers of the tech imperialists. And so the novel is about books, and it’s about writing –that strange struggle, its beautiful alchemy, and the necessity of story, invented story, that defines us as a species different than any other.
Scott Fitzgerald, who was both Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, as well as Daisy and Myrtle, Dick Diver, Nicole Diver, and Monroe Stahr, correctly observed that no biography could be written of a novelist as they were not one character but hundreds.
Perhaps we all contain multitudes. Anyone who reads a novel as a memoir is in error. Anyone who does not read a memoir as a novel is even more mistaken.
But I can reveal that Ray is Mark Rubbo.
Kif, the writer, arrives in Melbourne, there’s nothing he sees that he likes; he’s being manipulated by the publishing CEO and Siegfried Heidl, the conman. Is he powerless?
I have no idea. We seem to live in an age that thinks all is defined by power – who has it, who doesn’t. Foucault, who is to blame for a lot of this thin reduction of human life, transformed his proclivity for sado-masochism into a motif for all human life. That he did it with a certain brilliance doesn’t mean he was right, but nothing alters reality more than an unrealistic idea. The consequences for the modern world have been incalculable: everything from the plotting of Game of Thrones to Donald Trump to Manus Island stands in Foucault’s debt. But Mark, do you think human affairs might not just be a little more complex, a little more hopelessly entwined than just who has and doesn’t have power, who subjugates and who is subjugated? Kif is a mess of many things. And so too perhaps us all.
At one point Kif writes that his ‘novel mattered more than anything else’ and then ‘it’s okay to write rubbish’. Can you as a writer relate to that?
Not particularly, but I did wish to write a book about the strange act that is writing – it’s struggle, it’s labour, it’s essential mystery. Above all other things writing is always about exploring all that you don’t know.
As the project goes on, Heidl seems to become more and more manipulative. A Faustian bargain?
It only occurred to me when I had finally finished the novel that it might be a retelling of Faust for the age of Trump. But it wasn’t my intention. Maybe a writer only discovers their subject when their book is done.
Fortunately your career as a writer didn’t go the same way as Kif’s. Were there times when you thought it might?
I thought I might go under several times. But I never thought I’d sell out, easily bought though I am.
I know you’ve always taken an interest in the publishing industry; some of the characters and practices don’t come off too well. How do you see the industry now and what do you think is its future?
Well, the book industry is not TV, nor is it film, where behaviour that would make a North Korean despot blush is routine. For another it is full of book people, who still believe books matter. And in a world where the other avenues for thought and discussion are either closing down – politics, mass media – or where it is being enclosed and monetised – social media and the net more generally – books become more rather than less important.
Mark Zuckerberg has said that privacy is no longer an accepted norm. More recently he has gone further, speaking of Facebook’s intention to liberate us from secrets. ‘The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,’ he said. ‘Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.’
Reading and writing remain deeply private acts. In an ever more conformist age, when one of the most powerful corporations in the world wants such private acts ended, books have become a subversive voice. And books, despite reports of their imminent death, continue to grow in popularity and influence. Ignored by mainstream media, books feel like the new counter culture. It feels like a great place to be.