“I lived it. The rest is just details.” Richard Flanagan is explaining how he wrote his new book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, to a room full of literary fans at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The work has just been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, an award which he has won four times in the past two decades. With a profile like his, it’s hardly surprising there’s a big turnout at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Mr Flanagan’s casual outfit – classic blue jeans, dress shoes and a dark jacket – is in stark contrast to the venue, the 134-year-old Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. The room reflects the charm of another age, with chandeliers dimly spotlighting the gold embellishments in the paintwork and the display cabinets of shining treasures.
The atmosphere is plush, warm and inviting, and the audience are seated in comfortable silence upon soft red chairs. Some women are even knitting as Richard stands to read from his new novel; the chosen chapter describes the main character, Dorrigo Evans, spotting an old love on his return from war. Evans realises that “he had got … love wrong”, and because of his poor decisions their love was lost forever.
Although the book describes atrocious events occurring during World War II, literary critic Geordie Williamson, who spoke with Mr Flanagan at the Carrington on Tuesday, remarks that this “beautiful passage is … probably the worst thing that happens in the book”.
It’s an interesting point to make, and Mr Flanagan doesn’t object. The author says he has always wanted to write a love story but has been terrified that, because it is such a common and relatable emotion, critics and fans alike would judge his attempt harshly.
Mr Flanagan “put off [writing a love story] for about five novels”, and so The Narrow Road to the Deep North is something his fans have never seen from him before.
At its core, the book is a love story. Mr Flanagan believes that “war is a magnificent way of conveying this truth of love … because love redeems stories of war, and war illuminates stories of love”. It’s a beautiful way of describing the union and cooperation of two seemingly opposite themes, and also explains his thinking in setting a love story about an ex-serviceman against the backdrop of World War II.
Dorrigo Evans was partially modelled on two people: the first, highly decorated Australian hero Weary Dunlop, a surgeon and prisoner of war during World War II. Mr Flanagan says Weary’s heroism was based upon the fact he “didn’t agree to certain things”, and as a result changed things for the better.
Mr Flanagan’s own father, also a prisoner of war, was the second model. Although there are similarities between Dunlop, Flanagan senior and Dorrigo Evans, Geordie Williamson notes that Evans is flawed, and not nearly as conventionally “good” as either of the two real-life models.
Chuckling, Mr Flanagan agrees, saying he didn’t like Evans by the time he’d finished creating the character. But he wants readers not to like or pity his protagonist, but to “find something that resonates with their own soul”.
He is speaking now of his relationship with his father. “I’m a child of the [Thai-Burma] death railway, and in the course of writing the book I came to see how much it shaped me.” Mr Flanagan completed his book on the day his father died, and says he found the writing journey to be an “utterly cathartic act”.
There were many gaps in his understanding of his father’s life, and the way in which his behaviour was influenced by his time as a POW. “As you write a story,” Mr Flanagan says, “you jadedly seek to journey into your own soul.” Writing the book helped him fill in the gaps.
Mr Flanagan tells of a woman who wrote thanking him for the novel. The daughter and granddaughter of two ex-soldiers, her menfolk had problems integrating back into normal life. The woman said she felt “as though the book put its arms around me”.
This sentiment was echoed by two other women who got to their feet at the Carrington. One said the novel “opened the veil to her father’s experience”.
Pleased his journey has helped others, Mr Flanagan says: “War is incommunicable, and it is the job of writers to communicate the incommunicable.” And he reflects on the personal and revealing nature of being a writer: “Your soul erodes as you write. The best of you exists in your books.”
Yes, fiction is made up, but for Mr Flanagan his deep connection with the subject matter in this work was simply to have “lived it. The rest is just details”.
The winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award will be announced later this year.