The Interview: Richard Flanagan on First Person
The follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-Winning triumph, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, First Person, is a twisting thriller about a penniless writer, Kif Kehlman, offered a golden ticket in the form of an opportunity to ghost-write the biography of a charismatic, notorious criminal, Siegfried Heidl.
A novel that questions the nature and value of truth, First Person is a story about the very act of storytelling; a story for our times that examines the fundamental value of fiction to how we shape and live our lives. In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, Richard Flanagan discusses truth in a social media age and why he believes fiction matters, now more than ever.
Do you think fiction as a genre is becoming ever-more problematic in a post-truth age where everyone is composing their own life fictions every day?
No, I think the opposite actually, I think it’s more important because we don’t live in a post-truth age. There’s this idea that we live post-truth – which isn’t true - and the idea, which is the corollary of that, that reality has outstripped fiction and therefore the only literature of worth is literature grounded in experience, which means memoir. I think what has actually happened is that untruth has outstripped truth which only makes the truth more important. What’s happening when people tell a lie in the morning then contradict the lie with another lie at midday and then again in the afternoon is not just a confusion of what they’re saying, the very idea of the truth is then under attack and when you have the idea of the truth being corroded then that becomes a very dangerous time for society. I think that the novel then becomes a much more important form to talk about why truth matters, what truth is, because I think fiction is, at its best, a very expression of truth.
I think what defines us as a species is the way we define our lives through stories; you can have poisonous, destructive stories that we call lies or you can have liberating stories which is what I call fiction and novels. That’s a choice we make, what fictions we want to set our compass by.
All the other public spaces for discussion and debate begin with closing down, whether it be politics or media or the initial promise of the web darkening into something quite disturbing. What remains is the novel and it remains but it becomes more important because it’s one of the last forums we have left because it’s deeply private. At a time when privacy is so under attack by the most powerful corporations and governments, when you have all these voices not wanting you to have a private life –which was always the greatest dream of totalitarianism – and you have reading which is a deeply private act, then reading becomes subversive and books become the new counterculture. So I think they grow in importance rather than lessen.
Do you think we underestimate the extent to which we’re all engaged with storytelling all the time, how much stories shape our everyday lives?
I don’t think we realise how much we live by them. We call them politics and religion and nation and so-on and the novel is really, to me, the highest experience of storytelling. When you’re writing a novel you’re not just writing an entertainment but an entertainment that arises out of this profound and intellectual and aesthetic and spiritual tradition so it comes freighted with a great power really.
I’ve thought a lot about this and I think really, you can have liberating stories, which is what novels are, or pernicious stories which is what a lie is. In this age when the very idea of truth is under attack a novel which should express something about the author’s soul is a necessary answer to this idea that there is no truth. You know when you read a good novel that there’s something fundamentally true in it.
One of the things I found both spellbinding and also profoundly unnerving about this novel was that it never lets you get comfortable, at times moving quickly from the very funny to the darkly foreboding. It reminded me of what fiction can be – namely something novel, something new. To what extent did you want to pull at the boundaries of what fiction can do?
I think unless you’re doing something new you’re not really writing anything worth reading. If you have a way of writing you’re comfortable and you repeat it what was at the beginning a way of getting at some truth becomes tired and weary and it starts to become clichéd and at that point your deceiving yourself and cheating your reader. So it’s much better to constantly go beyond what you and your reader expect in the hope of trying to illuminate some truth. I think art should be about change. Every book I write, I try and write something totally different from the last, I try and break the mould because I think that’s what the job is.
There seems to me to be the echo of a modern Prometheus story within this novel in its depiction of the dual edged sword of artistic creation as both vivifying and destructive – was that a conscious influence?
That's something I’ve believed for a long time but I didn’t realise that was to the fore in this novel. There’s an idea that’s taken hold, that arises out of creative writing schools, that writing is a career but it’s not a career and I think the more that you write the less there is of you. It is a Promethean contract you make, so I agree. I’m surprised you found it in the book but I do believe that strongly.
The characters you write about in this book are deeply compelling, I found myself completely mesmerised by them, but they’re not always easy to like. What was it like as a writer to be locked into their company for the duration of this novel’s genesis?
I don’t find that difficult myself. What I do find difficult is to write even one good sentence. That’s the struggle, having the words in the right order so that they convey the larger, more abstract things you’re feeling. I don’t feel myself possessed or taken over by characters, I’m always very conscious of writing a whole book that has its own structure. A novel without structure is like a jellyfish trying to be a white pointer, it has to have structure and everything has to serve that structure. It’s making sure all the rhythms and the music of the novel are correct and if a character interferes with that then they have to be rewritten and cut back or more has to happen. It’s more what the book as a whole is saying or attempting to say.
What is true is that writing takes you to a strange place. That’s true because the role of a writer is to daily go inwards into their own soul and discover all the possibilities of what they are. But really those possibilities are what all of us are. I think that what I love about novels is that they remind me I’m not alone, whether it’s Anna Karenina or Hannibal Lecter you recognise something of yourself in each of them. It used to worry me more but now I think everything you write is what you don’t know and it’s fascinating. I think writing is very much akin to reading; we can be shocked, appalled or frightened but we’re not fundamentally frightened in the same way as we would be in life, we’re always conscious it’s a book. What we recognise in it is aspects of ourselves and that’s what can trouble us, the book is just a trigger.
Kif lives in fear of his own inability to transform what he experiences into the right words on the page. To what extent did you want to try and capture that space between experience and the written word, of how writing is not pure thought or pure experience but something else much more intangible?
A novel’s a crack diary of your soul for the two years, or however long, you spend writing it. One of the things I was most interested in writing about was the very act of writing because it’s not written about much. It intrigued me to write what happens when you write. One thing I’m conscious of - it’s something everyone is conscious of – is that you have these moments, for example you might step out of this building and you might just see someone get out of a car, someone embrace someone, some very everyday event but you know that you’ve seen a world and several lifetimes in as many seconds, something has turned within you. As a writer you know that you could write ten novels and never capture all that you felt in that moment. Everyone has those moments and that was just something, an aspect of living and writing, that I wanted to get in the book.
I think another thing about the character of Kif in this book, is that he’s like an actor giving voice to the character of Heidl, but because there’s no real substance to Heidl, Kif finds that he becomes him. Kif’s not really anybody and he finds that this identity is so much stronger than his sense of himself that he’s unable to resist it. That certainly happens with actors, they go out to sea again and again and then one day they don’t know how to get back to port.
There’s a kind of Faustian devil’s pact in this novel I think. It reminded me of something Tony Schwartz said about writing The Art of the Deal: ‘I was divided between the Devil and the higher side.’ Is this novel a story of another kind of deal with the devil?
I might sound obtuse but what I’ve learned in novels is not to plan, not to be consciously thinking about it and so it wasn’t until after I’d written it that I realised there was a Faustian element in it. The difference in this story would be that in classic tellings of the Faust story there’s a moment, a fall. With Kif it begins with an arrogance of feeling morally superior and intellectually superior and then finding that he’s deeply attracted but thinking that his moral superiority will mean that he’ll never do the deal. It’s only long after that he understands what he did, he’s not conscious in the moment of what he’s doing.
I like those books that are mirrors, where you find you’ve gone through the mirror to the other side but you can’t understand where and how. It’s embedded in our psychology how we become someone else and so it’s only at the end that Kif comes to know that he lost his freedom and yet he can’t understand how and why.
This is a novel which self-consciously pushes the boundary between fiction and autobiography and its premise is very close to your own real-life experiences. Did you have any qualms about bringing your own life so directly into play and the kind of questioning that would expose you to?
What intrigued me about that is that God gets all the good stories but a novelist always has to make do with the merely plausible. If I told no one that part is true, or largely true, people would think it’s a bit contrived. What I’ve learned as a novelist is you can’t be frightened – well, you are frightened but you can’t give in to your fears - because you have to have courage or otherwise you’ll never write anything worth reading.
The novel is set in the 1990’s but it seems to be very much a foreshadowing of the world we’re living in now, particularly perhaps in the cult of personality we’re in thrall to. To what extent do you see this as a state of the nation novel, a black mirror of our times?
In Australia people started talking about the book as a parallel for the Trump era, but really the world we’re living in now begins in the early nineties with the collapse of communism but it needed the passage of time to reveal it. I needed to have the characters in the novel have a life after the event, so there’s the possibility of the reader gaining some distance and also to isolate it from now so that people would read it as a story rather than a commentary. I thought about setting it in the present but I didn’t know how to then get that perspective for the reader. It’s what you have in fairy stories that device of ‘so many years passed…’ but, like all devices in fairy stories, it’s very important.
In the character of Ziggy, you present a very charismatic and powerful figure. Do you see First Person as a novel about the power of personality for an age in thrall to a cult of the individual?
I was most interested in this collapse of privacy that we’ve all signed up for. I wanted to show how someone could do that and achieve that by slowly finding out small details. How, without you knowing it, you might become enmeshed because you’d given away that sacred thing, your own mystery, to another person. Really, the Heidl character is someone who is the first person in his own world and I think there’s something of that solipsistic vision (which is what is now what is so encouraged on social media) where everyone’s their own first person. I think it is somehow profoundly linked with these pandemics of sadness and loneliness and emptiness, these things we feel are hollowing out something fundamental in our society. They’re linked because this idea of the first person, someone who wants to be the centre of their world, in the end is a lie. We live socially, we don’t exist alone, we exist through other people and social media doesn’t really allow for that, there’s a paradox in the name. So I wanted to write about how you would acquire power over other human beings and the consequences of that when you agree to it.
It’s certainly something that comes across in the novel, that sense that the more of yourself that you give away, as a commodity, the less of yourself you have for yourself.
Yes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that each of us have a public life, a private life and a secret life. Mark Zuckerberg said that in a very short time people won’t have one identity at work and another at home, they’ll have the ‘integrity’, as he put it, of one identity which is your online identity. That is also the ambition of a totalitarian regime. Once you have no private life, you’re completely lost.
I think these are quite profound things really and I think the question of whether there’s truth or not might be the question of the age. We believe that progress and freedom go together but you can have progress without freedom. I think what holds them together is truth, that’s the rickety hinge that connects progress and freedom, but if we can be persuaded that there is no truth then the hinge falls off and then we’ve reached a very dark place indeed.