Birnbaum v.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Richard Flanagan

A conversation with Australian novelist Richard Flanagan about the erosion of book culture, Nicole Kidman’s genius, and souls that are ever underline-able.

There may be a burgeoning Tasmanian literary scene, but I am unaware of it. On the other hand, if a backwater location produces a wonderful storyteller like Richard Flanagan, that should be sufficient to put it on the cultural map.

Flanagan published two well-received novels, Death of a River Guide and The Sound of One Hand Clapping (which Flanagan also directed as a film) before he gained some American attention with Gould’s Book of Fish, which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2002. The conversation below took place in 2007 coincident with the publication of The Unknown Terrorist, which had been written against the background of the depredations of the so-called War on Terror and was dedicated to David Hicks, one of the more egregious cases of miscarried justice we know about.

Richard Flanagan has since written a wonderful novel, Wanting, which examines Charles Dickens’s amorous affairs. In the conversation below, we don’t talk much about the unknown terrorist, but Flanagan has a lot to say about books, writing, and, dare I say, social justice.


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Robert Birnbaum: Like some of your countrymen, are you interested in moving to the United States? Taking up residence in the United States? Like Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally? Peter Singer? Janette Hospital?

Richard Flanagan: I don’t think Keneally lives here.

RB: He doesn’t?

RF: Keneally lives in Sydney. I think he’s a frequent visitor.

RB: He teaches at U Cal—

RF: He gets about, as I understand it. He lives in Sydney. Look, I could be completely wrong about this.

RB: Would Peter Carey be the only Australian novelist living in the United States?

RF: I don’t know. I’m sure there are others, but none come immediately to mind.

RB: So the answer’s “no,” you’re not interested in living in the United States (laughs).

RF: Well, the answer is not that, because it was presented as a negative. I’ve never considered it. I haven’t considered leaving Australia, so you’d have to take that step first to want to leave, I suppose, and then you’d have to cast about to where you would wish to live. So that’s not presented in that way—it leaves me only with the choice of giving you an answer which I don’t have at all. I think it’s a very liberating thing for a lot of writers to live away from their country. So many great books were written in exile. You have to think of Ulysses being written in Trieste; to think of Marquez, writing One Hundred Years of Solitude living in Mexico City; Bolaño, writing Savage Detectives

RB: In Spain.

RF: Yeah, in Spain, and on and on and on. Bolaño in Barcelona. So I’m not predisposed against the idea, because it seems creatively liberating. It’s just that I haven’t thought about—

RB: I’m extrapolating from reading The Unknown Terrorist and getting the sense of your disillusionment with what seems to be the sort of commercialization, market-consumerist society present in Australia. Which is exponentially present in the United States. If you find that difficult to digest, I was just thinking that if you had considered the United States at all you would find that even harder to digest.

RF: Well, I don’t know if it’d be any harder or easier. I think I wanted to write a book that was, you know, that in hopefully some small way might serve as a parable for the strange and often dark times in which we seem to be sleepwalking—not only in Australia, but here in America, and in Europe. Throughout the West. And I wanted a story that would hopefully be resonant, not just in my own country, but in Birmingham or Boston or wherever. And to do that, to succeed in that—and it is for the reader to judge the success or failure of the book—but I do know as a writer you have to endeavor to locate something like that very concretely, in a specific reality. So it is very firmly rooted in Sydney. You get a few suburbs and a handful of streets in Sydney, and in Australia. And it is true, like many Australians over the last couple of years, I’ve come to feel ashamed of my country.

RB: Are you a patriot?

RF: I’m neither a patriot, nor am I unpatriotic. I’ve just come to lose most beliefs—

RB: You’ve come to lose what?

RF: I’ve come to lose most of my beliefs. I just think in the end, you should only believe in what you can see and hold: the people around you, the world you can touch. The last hundred years have been really an era in which abstractions have become the most murderous weapons we have. So, you know, for good reason we organize—cities, states, nations—and they can be good and proper things, and we need to—we need to be vigilant, to make sure they’re not hijacked by adventurers and criminals.

RB: Hmmm.

RF: But I think equally the best chance adventurers and criminals have got is when we start believing in nations as an abstract ideal, when we go about thinking there are virtues that are specifically American or Australian, or bastards that are specifically someone else—axises of evil poised against us. Once we get into that sort of fallacy of thinking, then terrible things start becoming possible.

Politics seeks to place man at the center of the universe, in opposition to it, whereas love fills man with the universe.RB: Do you think maybe you’d like to go back to Tasmania and organize a local chapter of the People Reluctant to Kill For Abstractions?

RF: I was just reading that online [George Saunders’s article] before you came in. I mean, I only got halfway through the essay when you spun on the cassette here. Good to see how on the ‘net too, at the end of the day we’re just counting on an old analog recorder (laughs).

RB: Right (laughs).

RF: I mean, you know? As John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in the Beatles, I don’t believe in Zimmerman, I just believe in me—”

RB: The Beatles also said “All you need is love.” I don’t think you think that’s true, do you?

RF: I say in this book, “Love is never enough, but it’s all we have.” You need more, but it’s not on offer and in the end, that’s all you’re left with. So, I think you come to a point where you have to choose where you take your compass from in this life, whether you look to the despair that’s everywhere, or whether you look to the hope. And, I think if you look to politics, that is almost always an expression of what’s basest and worst about us. It’s necessary—it’s better that we have better politicians than worse ones, but also in this new novel I say how politics is the enemy of love. Politics seeks to place man at the center of the universe, in opposition to it, whereas love fills man with the universe. It is utterly the opposite idea. And I think the world does progress to a better place through the thousands, millions, the countless acts every day of kindness by everyday people—it’s that that makes the world better. You know, it would be easy to scoff at that notion, and think that, because you can’t make a politics from it, but it’s precisely for that reason that I like it, because it can’t be used to murder people.

RB: Yeah. I can’t remember who said it, but I remember somebody saying, “A patriot is someone who saves his country from his government.” And sadly enough, I don’t see a lot of those people, or they’re not that visible.

RF: Well look, it’s a funny thing, coming from my country, because as I think of it—as it increasingly appears to be—you’ve had an administration that has committed criminal acts around the world. Nevertheless, it was American people who uncovered the truth about that criminality, and in my country, no one stood up and said anything, no one, no one got mad at him, politics on either side—

RB: Didn’t someone in Parliament boo Bush?

RF: I was about to say, “in the major party.” That’s Bob Brown, the leader of the Greens Party in Australia, and I mean, he’s a remarkable man, and that was a remarkable act. And interestingly that was an act that Americans are more tolerant of than Australians. And Bush, oddly—well not oddly, I think it’s an American thing, I think he recognized that it was his right to do it, I’m sure he was privately annoyed about it—but publicly he shook his hand and moved on. Whereas all the Australian politicians were angry.

RB: They were embarrassed?

RF: Embarrassed and so on. But you know, in your country you did have prominent public people in your major parties. You had prominent journalists, and you had other public leaders who did stand up. Not many—you could say not enough—but every country goes through a dark period. The measure of the worth of a country is whether it’s got institutions and traditions that can stand up to it. And I think if you applied that test to the U.S.A., it fared better than certainly Australia did. And I, you know, I hate saying that because I’m not a patriot and I barely understand my country, and I wish it was a better country than that. I think, you know, Australians delude themselves that they’re great anti-authoritarians, they’re individual, they’re classless, but it’s a very conformist society.

RB: Do they think they’re not racist?

RF: Why do they think they they’re not racist? No, I don’t think they entertain that delusion.

RB: Is the dedication to your book the same in every country that it’s published?

RF: Yeah, the book’s identical in every country.

RB: OK. So who in Australia, who stood up for David Hicks?

You know, it’s a strange world we live in, that you can be immediately hot-wired into a day. RF: Well, in the end, a lot of people, but in the beginning, nobody publicly. Two people: his father, and, interestingly, an American marine lawyer, Major Michael Mori, who was appointed to defend Hicks. And Mori believed that what was happening to Hicks was illegal under your law, and that Hicks had been denied due justice that he would be entitled to under your American system, and he pursued these ideas with a vigor, a clarity, and a dignified courage that is to the eternal credit of the best of what this country is. David Hicks—if your readers know him—the book’s dedicated to him. He was Guantanamo Bay prisoner no. 002. He trained with al Qaeda before 2001. His story’s a fascinating one. I think he was a bit of a lost young man. He was, did, various jobs:kangaroo-skinner, horse-breaker—ended up working in Japan in the Japanese horse industry as a horse-breaker—sees what’s happening in Kosovo during the time of the ethnic cleansing there, andgoes to Kosovo to help the Kosovars. And he ends up joining the then-CIA-funded and American-supported K.L.A.—Kosovo Liberation Army—just as the war ends, and he never sees any action. He becomes attracted to Islamic ideas. He goes to Pakistan. He becomes more and more interested in Islam, and more and more interested in its mutant issue—Islamism, the violent prelude to Islamic fundamentalism—and he ends up going to an al Qaeda training camp before 2001. Now, this isn’t a crime under U.S. law or Australian law—or, it wasn’t a crime at the time.

RB: Right, right.

RF: After 2001—after September 2001, he’s back in Pakistan, and he goes back into Afghanistan to get his possessions out, because he’s got things he’s left in Kandahar. He’s driving back across the border when his taxi driver sells him to the Northern Alliance, who then sell him to U.S. Special Forces for 1,000 U.S. dollars. According to Hicks’ testimony, he’s then, after a time,taken onto a U.S. warship, where he’s beaten by—he’s got the bag over his head and he’s beaten by people with American accents, and anally raped by people with American accents. That testimony hasn’t been independently investigated, but the detail of it isof a piece with more and more that’s coming to public knowledge about the way these people are being treated. He was then sent to Guantanamo Bay, where hewas a prisoner in solitary confinement for up to 18 months. His conditions were hellish, he was subject to a fairly awful regime, you know. According, again, to his own testimony, he was held with another Australian who’d been tortured in Egypt under the rendition program, told that he would be sent to Egypt and tortured. He has accounts of beating, sleep deprivation and on and on, all of the things that we—no need to go on there. Slowly, feeling changed in Australia, and in the end it became such an issue, because all anyone said was, “Bring him home, put him on trial, and if he’s guilty, then do his time, and if he’s innocent, let him walk free.” The overwhelming legal opinion was he was guilty of no crime, and therefore he would walk free, because there were no crimes he could be found guilty of. He consistently pleaded to come home, and he stayed there in the end not because of the American government, but, because the Australian government was so sycophantic to the Bush administration, they were happy to hand over this victim who suited the purposes of the politics of the day—because he was a non-Middle Eastern man who’d been paraded out as the first show trial—to show that the administration wasn’t simply biased against Middle Easterners.

RB: Yeah, right.

RF: So the issue became so hot, we’ve got a national election coming up this year, it became a major, major issue that threatened our Prime Minister John Howard’s chance for power. He cooked up a deal with your Vice President Dick Cheney, whereby Hicks has been offered a plea bargain he agreed to. He’s pleaded guilty under your U.S. Military Tribunals Act of 2006, which makes admissible the use of torture in testimony, and which also prevents American citizens being tried for war crimes, among various other things. Under that Act he pleaded guilty to being a member of al Qaeda, and having provided material assistance to al Qaeda. He also had to state at the trial that he’d never been illegally or badly treated by the U.S., which flies in the face of everything we know about the treatment of prisoners there and about his own testimony on another occasion. And he had to also—and I think if the American people are really cognizant of this, they’d be truly appalled—he had to sign a gag order preventing him from saying anything about his treatment in Guantanamo Bay for 12 months, and the purpose of that is to silence him during the Australian election so that he won’t damage the chances of Howard being returned. Now, Amnesty International has written very strongly about the injustice of it. Leading jurists in Australia have attacked it as a political show trial, and believe that the trial is illegal.

RB: So if he, for instance, violated that gag order, what would happen to him? Would he be brought back to the United States to be—or would he be tried in Australia?

RF:You’re asking me legal—I’m slightly out of the loop, I’ve been touring this book for about four weeks—but when I left Australia, Hicks had been given a nine-month sentence, was expected to be—which had to be served from then on. None of the previous five years of hell counted for anything. He was to do two or so months in Guantanamo, then be returned to an Australian prison. The legalities of it would be beyond anybody, I think—

RB: Right, right.

RF: But even the Australian government has now said they’re not sure the gag order can be applied; but I’m sure lawyers will wrangle over this, and—

RB: I’m sure some number of British media and publishers will be scrambling for a story. There is a story there to be told and talked about, maybe that’s to the good, that somebody’ll fight that battle.

RF: The lawyers are lining up too to serve out the American and Australian governments. So, I think a whole lot more is gonna come out about what really happened at Guantanamo.

RB: How much, how much was Hicks’s story in your mind as you wrote The Unknown Terrorist?

RF: Not, not so much. But I actually thought it was just a great story that summed up the madness of the era, because who would’ve thought—in either this country or mine—we would’ve had government that condones torture, that condones the deprivation of all liberties and freedoms of a citizen of one of their countries on what is—what they claim to be a crime, but for which they produce no evidence? Now, the thing that disturbed me about Hicks was, most Australians accepted it for a long time. Now if you’re willing to accept that, then it’s not a very far step till you’re willing to accept the wholesale incarceration of many people, simply by uttering the word “terrorism,” “terrorist threat,” and in Australia we brought in this raft of draconian legislation not dissimilar to your Patriot Act whereby we have secret trials, secret imprisonment. I mean it’s very draconian in Australia, and if a journalist were to report on somebody who he or she felt they’d been wrongly imprisoned, that journalist could also be secretly tried and secretly imprisoned, and they don’t know anything. Now the road to tyranny is never paved with coup d’etats, it’s paved with the slight erosions of liberties. So no, Hicks wasn’t front—I just felt at a certain point it was just inhumane and wrong, you know, there was just some fundamental decency that had been wronged with it.

RB: What’s your experience of September 11th and events—I mean, how—do you have friends in New York? Did you watch it continuously, the loop of the buildings being destroyed, what is your—?

RF: Yes, yes, you know, yes. I watched it on a remote island off the island of Tasmania, so I did feel distance, but I then had friends there who I was in touch with straightaway, and you know, it’s a strange world we live in, that you can be immediately hot-wired into a day. In fact, it was a strange experience because then I had the same feeling with the London tube bombings, you know, because I had many good friends there in publishing, and some who worked very close by and used those tube lines. And I was meeting them very, you know, straightaway, if you could get through, which, you know, I got through intermittently, but—a friend of mine was actually killed in one of the first Bali bombing, so these things, I mean it’s a cliche to say but true, they’ve created a different world for all of us.

RB: Is the phrase 9/11, September 11th, is that sort of a buzzword even in Australia? Is there another phrase, is “9/11” universally used and understood?

RF: Yeah, because your country is so powerful. I mean, there’s a character in the book who talks about Srebrenica, which I think is really the moment that this dreadful era begins, because that was the moment when I think we revealed that we didn’t care. You know, the argument about the Holocaust, the one argument—and it’s still debated, you know, and I know there are people who come down on both sides—one of the arguments for the West not having done more is that they could not know. Now, I know that there is a strong school of thought that the West did know—

RB: Yeah!

RF: But the West found it hard to believe. Now, particularly after all the propaganda stories after the first World War. Now I know that there’s an argument that the information was out there in ‘43 and they just weren’t listening to it—whatever the truth is of that, there is no question that the West did know what was going on in Yugoslavia, in Srebrenica, and no one cared when those 8,000 people were massacred on that day, and we don’t really remember that day at all, and because we don’t remember that day, I think slowly events began to build up that led to September 11th.

After Bali, we didn’t feel that we had to go to war. We felt it was an act of criminal murder on an appalling scale.RB: I have a slightly different interpretation, if I may, which is, I don’t think that Srebrenica and Serbia was the beginning of this. I think, you know, look at the United States’ relations to Central and Latin American countries since World War II, and you have, you have essentially Nazi, Fascist totalitarianregimes in Guatemala, Honduras, eventually in Chile and Argentina. They created the process of “disappearing,” which might even, in fact, be crueler than concentration camps, because then you have remaining families who have no clue what happened to their offspring, their relatives, and could never have any peace to know. So, you know, I don’t—it’s like, when people say, “Oh, it was so peaceful, America was so protected, and then we were made vulnerable in 2001,” well that’s bullshit! The, the idea of peace is not “no war,” it’s the cessation of the rumor of war, and there’s always been the rumor of war since the end of World War II. We’ve got a security state since World War—since the end of World War II. We’ve spent billions of dollars on armaments and spying and all this stuff, and we’ve had little—things around the world, you know, little mini-Holocausts and crimes, so I don’t—it might be safe to say that 9/11 changed things for people who weren’t paying attention.

RF: The reason 9/11 alters everything is because the U.S.A. is power mad, and the U.S.A. decides that it will polarize the world pursuing certain mad vendettas, the hubris of which will be visited not only on your country, but on all countries. I think that’s where it is fundamentally really different, and I suppose, you know, as with any historical argument you can seek to place the beginning, but certainly after it, it is strange—

RB: But there’s a different tone for sure, I think you’re right, there is a different polarization that we haven’t seen for a while.

RF: I did nearly put the Cavafy poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” I nearly put the last stanza of that, which for those of your readers who don’t know—clearly you do—has as its conceit everyone at home is terrified that the barbarians are about to march in, and then finally in the last stanza comes the news that from the borders there are no barbarians, and the final line is, “What are we to do? The barbarians were a kind of solution.” And I think after the call of war there was a need to find an enemy, a deep, deep psychological need to find an enemy, and what intrigues me is that, I know after Bali, we didn’t feel that we had to go to war. We felt it was an act of criminal murder on an appalling scale, and that’s how Indonesians viewed it, and they hunted those people down. And I mean, it’s easy to make a lot of criticisms of a country like Indonesia, but to that extent their response was right: these people are simply murderers, and they should be hunted down like murderers, they should be tried like murderers, and if they’re found guilty, then, you know, justice runs its course. But, there was a certain mentality here that wanted the barbarians, and in their absence they created them, and they imbued the world with the power of their own nightmares.

It’s very easy to hate a single person, and see them as redolent of all evil.RB: Tell me something. Vargas Llosa, I think, wrote a book called Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and the running gag, if I remember correctly, is the fall guys, the scapegoats in that book, is the Bolivians, and then somebody made a movie of that which was called—Tune In Tomorrow. Peter Falk was in it, and Keanu Reeves, and Barbara Hershey, and in that movie, the Albanians were the, you know, scapegoat, fall guys. Is it the case that the Lebanese in Australia are like the dog that everybody wants to kick?

RF: Well they are now, I mean—

RB: Are there a lot of Lebanese in Australia?

RF: Lot of Lebanese, yeah.

RB: Disproportionate to the Lebanese communities in the rest of the world?

RF: About that I couldn’t say, but we’ve got a lot of Lebanese. We really were very—we’re actually a much more polyglot country than even the U.S.A. I’ve forgotten exactly the figures of people per capita born outside of Australia, people born outside of, say, England, but they’re far vaster than the U.S.A. And we were really remarkably successful up until about a decade ago, and then slowly we’ve had this politics in which we’re encouraged to—we’ve lost our ideas of tolerance and empathy, and we have this debate about national values, which is a cloak for a terrible new intolerance that continues to morph into a violent xenophobia that has led to race riots for the first time in a very long time in Australia. We had them before, but a century—

RB: Aborigines versus whites, or other nationalities?

RF: No, no, against Chinese. There are smaller examples against other ethnic groups. But I mean, on a world scale—I mean, what happened to the Aborigines—it was an invasion, and it was an ongoing war over the land, the consequences of which are still being felt. But, but it was something new to—what happened to the Lebanese—the racism was being directed against the Aborigines and the Asian immigrants, and then in the wake of September 11th it swung toward Muslims, and the largest Muslim group were the Lebanese, and—we have, second- and third-generation Lebanese who fiercely identify as Muslim Lebanese and I think the reason for that is we’ve created a much more frightened and pragmatic society, and people feel the need to band together, to often resort to violence, when in the end these things aren’t political, they’re intensely human. And the solution to those problems isn’t in encouraging further fear of others and making people think that we’re divided. It is in reminding people about all that we share and reminding people that that is far larger and far more significant than the things we’re told actually divide us. But in Australia there were—[cell phone rings] Ah, sorry, mate.

RB: I forget what we were talking about.

RF: Lebanese.

You must hope that somewhere between the ambition and the failure is something that might appeal to the reader.RB: Oh, yeah, well, you were also talking about sort of replacing the politics of fear and hate. Who’s gonna do that?

RF: I’ve got no idea who’s gonna do it.

RB: (laughs)

RF: I don’t know who’s gonna do that. But what I do know is that we place far too great—we believe too much that politicians are autonomous, that politicians are the ones who take us certain places. And in that regard I don’t think, for example—that’s why I don’t think politics really interest me that much, because replacing Bush with whoever won’t really change America any more than replacing Howard in my country. It’s very easy to hate a single person, and see them as redolent of all evil, but the truth is, they get away with it because we allow it, and in the end sometimes they express certain things about us, often things we don’t like about ourselves. They express it. Things change because of thousands of conversations, millions of conversations, like this one we’re having. They change when we honor in the smallest ways, on the street, in the kitchen, in our daily lives, the courage someone else might’ve had simply by saying, “No, I don’t agree,” or the decency they might show by admitting to feeling empathy for somebody we see suffering who we normally walk by, or you watch on TV and feel nothing, and it’s that—it is those things that, in the end, lead to a change in politics. It doesn’t much matter—I mean, I think in a way they are idiot savants—

RB: Politicians?

RF: Yeah. The great ones merely have a very good capacity to tune into what the people are and where the people are—

RB: Mmm.

RF: But it is for us to address those matters in our own lives.

RB: What value do you place on your own work, being a writer? What—how important is what you do to contribute to a better world, or a world that changes this hatefulness that’s propagated?

RF: Well, I place no value on my own work, but I have a—I do have a powerful belief in books.

RB: Mmm.

RF: I think they’re one of the great inventions, they’re one of the great defenses of the human spirit—

RB: Well, it’s possible one of your books helps that, but I hear what you’re saying.

RF: Well, that’s—well, I don’t much like my own work. I have books I love and when I write my own books I have a great animating dream, and then I get them back in the box one day (both laugh) and I realize the extent of my failure, and I suppose you must hope that somewhere between the ambition and the failure is something that might appeal to the reader. But that doesn’t matter, you know, I’m not fussed about that. I write because I do love books, and I think books matter more than ever, because they’re one of the last vehicles we have left that can speak untrammeled by the dictates of power or money.

RB: Yeah.

RF: They’re one of the great forms that still remain open to us. When one individual speaking their own truth can, if they do it with enough craft and integrity, be heard across the continents, over the seas, through generations and over the chorus of the armies of paid propagandists. So I think they’re going to become more, rather than less important to us, and I simply—I take a great joy in sitting down at my desk each day and feeling that I belong to that tradition, and being part of that, you know, library of extraordinary—you know, that library of wonder.

Flaubert wrote about Rabelais and Cervantes, “How is it they achieve their effect?” There is no style. That is their genius, there is a soul. And the soul is ever underline-able.RB: Yeah. Which would you rather do, read or write?

RF: I sometimes wonder if I write simply because it makes me a better reader. I don’t know if reading ever made me a better writer, but I certainly, I am more in awe of great books now than when I began writing. Because as Flaubert wrote about Rabelais and Cervantes, you know, “How is it they achieve their effect?” There is no style. That is their genius, there is a soul, you know? And the soul is ever underline-able. You know, it is ever one of those glorious mysteries. Borges says something similar, where he says the mark of a great work is its capacity to survive unscathed the fires of translations, the floods of misunderstandings, and still be seen—and still accumulate meaning. And then Borges, who was a great translator himself and very interested in questions of translation, wonders why that is, and he thinks that is, again, because there is some soul to a book, and it’s that which can survive all those horrors.

RB: Why did you become a writer?

RF: I just think I was one of those hopeless cases who was always going to be one. In fact, after my first novel was published, my elder sister—I’m one of six kids, one of the younger ones—she rang me up and said to come over to her place and she had out on the kitchen table these little, um, these little books, and what they were, were books I’d written for her when we’d lived in this little mining town in Tasmania on the very remote west coast. And it was just this little, you know, little, small, hard mining town surrounded in this sort of womb of rainforest and mountains with a rough old muddy track out of it, and she was at teacher’s college, far, far away in a town called Launceston, and I used to write these books and get my mother to staple them and bind them with black electrical tape and send them to my sister, because I wanted her to know, you know, we still loved her and, you know? And—but the thing was, I couldn’t write words, and they were just scrawls in the shape of words and sentences, where I put an occasional little picture.

RB: (laughs) Yeah.

RF: And I was mortified.

RB: That she kept them?

RF: Not that, but that you would want to be a writer before you can write. That’s a terrible thing. I think Conrad said the only thing worse than writing is not writing, you know. There’s a certain madness you’re possibly condemned to. And then who else would employ me now, Robert?

RB: So you’re pretty much committed now, right? You’re not gonna take up skydiving, or soccer—or, you call it “football”—you’re gonna be a writer for the foreseeable future, yeah?

RF: Krzysztof Kie?lowski, the Polish director, they said to him once, why do you continue to—

RB: The deceased Polish director.

RF: Yeah, the deceased director of Blue, White, Red, and The Decalogue, they said, why do you direct now, and he said, once it was a passion, now it’s the only thing I know how to do.

RB: Yeah, it’s funny how that happens.

RF: But I must say, I had some crappy jobs when I was young, and I actually write for that glorious moment of utter liberation every morning when I’m allowed to sit down at a table and write some sentences, occasionally a few of which I think are not too bad, and I can live in this dream of the story and the story liberates me from myself and allows me to occasionally, you know, glimpse something of the soul of things. But, that is all I ever wanted to do, and I’m allowed to do it, and I came from a world where people didn’t write, that’s not what you did, you know? You dug holes and you chopped down trees, but I didn’t do that, and so I’ve been very lucky, and I think I probably love it more and more, really.

The only thing worse than writing is not writing, you know. There’s a certain madness you’re possibly condemned to.RB: So I don’t know how much this is, how prevalent this is in your part of the world, but, what happens when you meet writers from the United States who are trained in writing programs, have MFAs, have, you know, ornate theories of literature and criticism and story and—or, do you in fact, do you know many American writers, do you talk to many American writers?

RF: Not really. I’ve met a few of them, keep in touch with a couple, they’re lovely people—I mean, it is your system. I don’t think it’s— I, personally, am not enamored of it, myself. I think—because it creates the illusion for many that it’s—not the best, but for many that writing is a bourgeois career, and they think you can do the law or medicine, or you can do writing. And then of course they come out, and, you know, even people who do well are appalled, you know, ‘cause they manage to get a first novel out, they struggle with that, they get it out, they sell 5,000 copies, get a, you know, a dutiful notice in some major paper and that’s it. And they’ve made no money and they’re not like a doctor or a lawyer (laughs). They’re very poor, and in the end they get driven back into the creative writing schools, and once you’re there—I think it is difficult, but some people do it, I mean some very fine writers do it—but they, a lot of them get trapped into becoming academics. Because in the end, the way you’re rewarded is by playing the academic game. You have many fine writers, but writing is so under attack in your culture and it’s a whole combination of things, it is—

RB: I don’t think writing is; reading is.

RF: Yeah, well that’s a good point. Well, books are, books that matter are.

RB: Yeah, yeah.

RF: The writing of them is, and the reading of them is, because, you have this dominance of a few large chains, and the problem with that is that they want, ever more, the books that work for them. No one intends this, no one means this, and these places are full of good book people—I’ve come across them everywhere—but the unintended consequence is that it becomes more and more about celebrity frontlist. I was just in San Francisco and the media escort I had takes about 300 authors ‘round a year. He’s got a company, and I said, “Who are the most popular in the last year?” Two porn stars. That’s where the U.S.A. is with book culture. You know, and at the same time you got an ever-greater culture of publishing power in a few houses and again the economy’s main—they need to publish larger print runs, larger print runs, need more publicity, more publicity, you need angles, you need celebrity here—

RB: There’s a counter-valent force, though I don’t know how much it counter-vales. For instance, the internet has democratized things such that there are literary, big and small literary magazines that are existing and surviving—not necessarily thriving—small publishers still continue to publish wonderful books, and speaking about dutiful, you know, sooner or later the gatekeeper reviewers end up dutifully reviewing those books, so it’s not easy, and, I don’t know when the so-called “transformational moment” is really gonna be here, but I think, you know, the fires aren’t going out quite yet.

The first time I went to Mississippi, I went to get my hair cut and the hairdresser started up about Kafka’s Metamorphosis.RF: No, no, yeah, of course, and it is always amazing what happens, but it’s—there’s a couple of interesting things. Books work best in small units: small publishers, small bookshops, when you have such a commitment to such a rampant free-market ideology that you allow the ideological subsidizing of book prices—which is what happens in major stores because they’re used as loss-leaders—then you destroy much of the market for any of the books that might matter. And in Europe, where you’ve got a fixed retail price, you have a floor under all your small retailers—what you’d call your “main street” retailers here—and you got a floor under your small publishers. Now, the house that publishes me in Holland, for example, is a very successful house that publishes translations of foreign authors; they make 20 percent net profit. Now that would unthinkable in the U.S.A. for someone in the U.S.A., even publishing Dan Brown. People in Holland are much more literate than people in the U.S.A. People in Holland read all sorts of books because they’re able to get them. What you have here is a readership denied that choice because of the way—because of this, absurd, ideological commitment to an unfettered market.

RB: I’m not sure they’re denied the choice. Again, I think the internet has allowed a lot of freedom and—possibilities.

RF: But the problem with the internet—I’m not hostile to the internet, don’t get me wrong—but, you have to be honest about what it can and can’t do. For example, I was down in Mississippi on this tour a couple days ago. I was talking to the bloke who owns Fat Possum Records, which has brought out all that sort of new blues stuff out of North Mississippi over the last 20 years. Now, he was saying he actually makes more out of a download than he does out of a CD, but, it’s bad for them. Why is it bad for them? Because on the ‘net, people only go to what they know, but if you go into a good CD shop, people turn you on, say, “Have you heard R.L. Burnside or whoever it is from Mississippi, this is amazing.” You get that in books in Holland, and it’s much harder to get here. Of course you can get it here, you’ve got some of the great independent bookstores in the world, you’ve got great—

RB: Two of them in Mississippi—

RF: Yeah, Mississippi is extraordinary. You know, it’s always in the belly of the beast, you know?

RB: (laughs)

RF: When I first went to Oxford, Miss., and I discovered a town that had reinvented itself through books and writing, and it was the town of Whitman and Twain, of Emerson, of Faulkner. I mean, it was all that was best and most glorious about your traditions both as a literary culture and as a people in this one tiny place. And I always love the story of Larry Brown, who was the head of the fire brigade, starts going into this wonderful bookstore in this tiny town, resolving to read all the great books, and then resolving after he’d read them that he would write one himself.

RB: Yeah.

RF: And he did. And you know, the first time I went there, I went to get my hair cut—not that there’s much of it—and the hairdresser started up about Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

RB: (laughs)

The ‘net’s rising up not because the ‘net has any inherent or intrinsic worth. It’s rising up ‘cause there’s nothing else.RF: And she said something most people miss: she said how much it made her laugh. And it is very, very funny.

RB: Yeah.

RF: I met a carpenter there the first time who was up in arms about what he felt was the fact that Cormac McCarthy had too much an unhonored debt to Faulkner, which I thought, you know—

RB: (laughs)

RF: But people there, that’s the other things they talked about, because they were given the possibility of it, which is denied so many of the rest of us. So, there’s always, yeah, there’s always hope and people are amazing and they find ways, but I think that the thing I don’t like about the discussion of the ‘net is it thinks the technology does things. It’s not the technology, it’s always the people, you know. And I mean I, just in the short time I’ve been on this tour, there’s this thing that, you know, the blogs that are going to take over from the old reviewers, and how much more democratic and liberating it’ll be. Well, I can tell you now, in the end you end up with all the same dynamics, there’ll be—

RB: There’ll be gatekeepers.

RF: (laughs) There’ll be gatekeepers, absolutely. And there’ll also be wonderful, generous people—there’ll be politics of vengeance, and there will be those who seek to build, in your long-gone critic Malcolm Cowley’s wonderful words, a larger, more generous house of American letters. It’s the people, always the people.

RB: Yeah, yeah. Well, I—yeah, well, somebody weighed in—Patricia Holt, Pat Holt, who used to be, who was the book editor at the SF Chronicle, has her own website where she discusses various issues. And her stance about this, the disappearing, you know, review space in the papers and stuff like that was that one thing is, book reviewers, editors should be doing a better job of the books they chose and the reviews they wrote; that the failing, in addition to the disappearance of space, was the quality of the reviews and the subjects. That, you know, you know, they were just—book reviewers were out of touch. They’re not serving a readership, they don’t care about a readership. They’re serving you know, a smaller—a choir, they’re serving the choir, you know? So I thought that was an interesting, contrarian view to the pissing and moaning that the space is disappearing and that’s a terrible thing for literature.

RF: Coming from another country, what you see here is that there was so little public space for books, and the reason people are even talking about the ‘net taking over is ‘cause there was bugger all left anyway. I mean, the ‘net’s rising up not because the ‘net has any inherent or intrinsic worth. It’s rising up ‘cause there’s nothing else. There is nothing else. And that is a failure of this culture. I, you know, I don’t know enough about your culture to know when it happened, but it—there was a moment when writing, writers, books seemed to really matter here, up ‘till—correct me if I’m wrong—up to sometime in the ‘60s, something really changes. And there is some historical and cultural explanation for it. And now it’s like, you know, the ocean’s come up and everyone’s complaining about, you know, the last little hillock they’re all crowded on.

RB: Mmm.

RF: That’s not the issue; it is that everything else was lost. And what stunned me from my first visit here as a writer is that there are all these interesting writers who have important things, interesting things to say about this country, but who do you, who do you see on your television, who do you see? Sort of C-grade people who’ve been on reality T.V. shows, I mean, offering opinions about Iraq, or—and you think, I mean, godspeed to them, but, when did it happen that writers ceased to matter here? And when did it happen that literary writers stopped to sell in any quantities here? If you look at the print runs of your literary writers, you know, often we outsell them in Australia, a nation of 20 million, as opposed to your nation of 300 million. So there is—there is this much larger crisis that has been going on for about 30 years, and this was just the last act of it, I think.

Someone said he liked books that smell of sweat. If books smelled of sweat, this one really would be rancid.RB: Yeah, well, it’s the swamping of celebrity culture over all areas of culture, you know, so that the writers became more important as, you know, items in gossip columns, connected with glamour things like what movies are made. Richard Yates’ book Revolutionary Road is finally going to be made into a movie, and the reason it made the news is because Leonardo DiCaprio is going to be in it. I doubt that Revolutionary Road would’ve gotten any attention at all if a major star wasn’t in it—but that’s a very good topic. I soon have to go pick up my son, so, uh (both laugh)—I pick him up from school. So, what’s next for you? You’ve gotta spend some time in this country talking about this book.

RF: Yeah.

RB: You are committed—since you can’t do anything else, you’re gonna be a writer. Do you know what you’re gonna work on next?

RF: Yeah, I’ve already got a new novel underway. I want to write a—I just want to write a story about love that is sort—that has some quality of serenity and grace about it. Again a very different book; I think you should never repeat yourself.

RB: No, you don’t do that.

RF: No, well, I think you cheat your readers and you deceive yourself, because in the end you offer things that once—I mean, all a writer’s trying to do is achieve a transparency between their soul and their words, but something that achieved that for a time, if repeated, will just cloud, cloud back over, make that transparency impossible. So to get back to that same place, you have to constantly seek to become a better writer. But I’ve been working on this new film with Baz Luhrmann, this epic in Australia [Australia—ed.] that he’s shooting with Nicole Kidman, so I’ve enjoyed that, he’s—

RB: She’s become a wonderful actress in the last three or four films she’s made. I never saw her talent before this kind of movie she’s made, starting with Human Pain—no—The Human Stain, and even Cold Mountain I thought was pretty good, and Birthday Girl was another—she’s terrific, really takes chances, you know?

RF: Yeah. We did a week of rehearsal with her and she—you know, scenes that we were unhappy with on the page, she would suddenly invest something in them and we would see a whole range of possibilities, things we could do with the character and the scene that weren’t there before. In that moment I realized she is genuinely very, very talented, you know, and so there—yeah, I mean, she was—she has got something significant.

RB: One last question: What are the odds that one day you’ll write a book that you’re pleased and proud of? Pleased with and proud of?

RF: Oh that’d probably be a terrible book. It doesn’t—there’s no chance, because I think, uh—

RB: (laughs)

RF: You know, the only strength I’ve ever had as a writer is an awareness of the mediocrity of my own writing, so there’s nothing I don’t think can’t be rewritten.

RB: So you would argue with people who adore your writing, and find it genius, which I’ve—in reviews I’ve read. You would argue with that.

RF: I think that’s all just a form of incomprehension, those sort of statements, and it’s my job simply to try and make the best book I can each time, and uh—

RB: Was The Unknown Terrorist that—the best book at the time?

RF: I don’t have any doubt of that.

RB: You left it all on the field, as they say in sports in this country.

RF: Yeah. Someone said he liked books that smell of sweat, and if books smelled of sweat, that one really would be rancid.

RB: (laughs) Well good, thank you very much.

RF: Thank you, it has been fun.

RB: Good.