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Wall Street Journal Interviews Author Richard Flanagan: "The best thing I’ve read this year, far and away, would be Elena Ferrante."

Date: Sep 9 2014

Australian author Richard Flanagan is having a good day. He woke up at 3 a.m. to a phone call informing him that his novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The judges will announce the winner from the six shortlisted titles on Oct. 14.

Mr. Flanagan, who has written six novels, is one of the best-known contemporary fiction writers from the land down under. His latest book follows an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp in 1943.

The 53-year-old author took a break from his hectic day in Seattle, where he is promoting “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” to catch up with Speakeasy about the prize and his favorite reads. Below, an edited interview:

What were you doing when you heard the news?

I was woken up by a journalist from Australia ringing about it. I knew that if I woke up to sun creeping through the curtains, then I would have to enjoy this Seattle day and not worry too much about the other bits of my life. But I knew if I was to be rudely woken, the only appropriate response would be gratitude.

What are you reading these days?

The best thing I’ve read this year, far and away, would be Elena Ferrante. She’s an Italian writer and I just think she puts most other writing at the moment in the shade. She’s marvelous. I like her so much I’m now doing something I only do when I really love the writer: I’m only allowing myself two pages a day. And I didn’t bring her along on this book tour because I just wanted to save those pages. I’m sort of rationing her out over the next year. The book that would be good for people to begin with would be “The Days of Abandonment.” I think that’s a wonderful introduction.

What’s the first book you remember reading?

I grew up on comics originally. I read comics, science fiction and then, at about the age of about eleven, I saw Camus’s “The Outsider” and I read it. I just didn’t know you were allowed to write books like that. I didn’t understand it in the same way that I didn’t understand the adult world but wanted to be part of it. It seemed to speak to that strange mystery at the center of life. I didn’t fully comprehend it. I think that unless I’d read all that—those comics and science fiction—I wouldn’t have understood the distinction. I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I could see that this was true to something fundamental in the way those entertainments weren’t. And I just thought that was so extraordinarily exciting.

What book have you read the most times?

“Anna Karenina.” Maybe 8 or 9 [times], or something—not that many, I guess, but it is a rather fat book. I try and read more and more slowly as I get older because it’s sort of better. There’s a line in this novel I have out now that a good book compels you to reread the book and a great book compels you to reread your own soul. That’s what “Anna Karenina” is. The oddity is that each time you read the book and are compelled to reread your own soul, you discover that you’re different. You discover all those things in that novel, and in yourself, that were hidden the last time your read it. As a novel, it seems to grow larger and more extraordinary every couple of years when I go back to it.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Well embarrassingly so, yes. I grew up in a little mining town in a very remote part of Tasmania buried between those rain-forested mountains, a mining town of about 500 people. I wanted to be a writer before I could even write.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I don’t know what I would have become. I never contemplated doing anything else. When I look back on it now, it was such a terrible arrogance and vanity to think I could be this thing from Tasmania. You have to understand, no one was a writer where I came from. And it was sort of shameful to say it. It was boasting and absurdly ambitious in a world where ambition was just crushed and denied that someone would wish to do such a thing. I didn’t actually confess to the fact I wanted to be a writer until I was in mid-twenties to my parents. It was like coming out of the closet.

What’s the heaviest book—literally, in weight—that you’ve read?

Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.” It’s sort of said to be a 20th century “War and Peace” centered on the battle of Stalingrad. It’s an extraordinary book. That was very heavy—I was worried that I might dislocate limbs in bed with it. But it’s a great book for anyone to read.

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