A KISS FOR RICHARD FLANAGAN
Last night, I caught the tail end of the Man Booker 2014 prize, which was won by Richard Flanagan for his novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’ Flanagan, an acclaimed screenplay writer, drew on his father’s horrific experiences during the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War II to write his story. Amid the televised congratulations, I learnt a couple of things that made me do the equivalent of screeching to a halt.
The first was that Flanagan had written five novels and destroyed each, deleting the works even from his hard drive because he didn’t think any of them either did justice to the subject or paid respect to what his dad had endured. I don’t know how difficult this must have been for him. He maintains that he just set light to his manuscripts. I suspect there was a lot more going on inside his head than thoughts of literary arson.
I have deleted passages from my own work. The first time (after a lot of sighing and cursing) I felt a major sense of loss. I’ve manuscripts lurking in the attic that, thankfully, will never see the light of the day. I keep them because I kid myself that they might come in handy, that I might even nick a bit while knowing, deep down, there is more likelihood of a squadron of pigs flying over our house. To explain to a new writer the importance of the delete button requires a modicum of tact, charm and insistence. ‘But I really like that passage. It’s my favourite and it took me ages to write’ is often the riposte. But if it drags on pace, is utterly irrelevant, or out of context, it will do more harm than good. ‘Yes, but…’ and so it goes on. Excision is not an easy sell.
Flanagan took twelve years to write his winning novel. As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘Heck, how did he earn a living?’ The truth is that with a wife and three children he struggled and he is not ashamed to state it. Thank God for some honesty on the subject. For every writer who makes a fine living from penning novels – and I don’t use the verb to disparage – there are hundreds who barely scrape by. Most writers recognise this. Others don’t. When we were thinking about having a conservatory to create more space (we’ve since jettisoned the idea) I was advised by a good writing friend not to mention that I’m a writer. Baffled, I enquired why. ‘Because they’ll think you earn a ton of money,’ she said. We put it to the test and she was right.
So Richard Flanagan gets my vote for more than writing a sublime novel that had the judges falling over themselves. However harrowing the story, however gut wrenching, it’s gone straight onto my list of must-reads. Frankly, I want to kiss the man.