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Every week in July and August, CBC Books will bring you the Writers & Company podcast, an encore presentation of those great full-length conversations.
This week's Writers & Company podcast features Eleanor's 2002 interview with Richard Flanagan. Flanagan was the winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize, beating out Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer and Alice Munro, with his breakthrough novel, Gould's Book of Fish.
This interview originally aired on January 5, 2003.
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When the Edinburgh-based judges presented the International Commonwealth Book Prize to Richard Flanagan in 2002, they said that they found his work to be "the most controversially difficult and demanding of the four books that were before" them, and that they "detected in it a touch of genius" that they believed gave "it enduring significance." They went on to describe it as "Dantean, Joycean, even grotesque."
The book that received this lavish praise was Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish, a historical novel, set (mostly) in 19th-century Australia, specifically in the penal colony of Van Dieman's Land, or Tasmania. It's also based on a real, historical figure: William Buelow Gould, an English convict forger who was ordered to paint the fish caught locally around the island.
Gould's 26 paintings inspired Richard Flanagan to create his own work of art — not simply "a Novel in 12 Fish" as he puts it — but also printed in different coloured inks to reflect the mood and conditions of the original. For instance, dried-blood red, the deep purple of ground-up sea urchin spikes or cuttlefish ink.
Flanagan was born in Tasmania in 1961, the fifth of six children in an Irish Catholic family that was descended from convicts transported during the Great Famine in the 1840s. He spent his childhood in a mining town and left school at 16 to work as a bush labourer.
His mother wanted him to be a plumber, he wanted to be a carpenter, but there was a recession and he couldn't get an apprenticeship, so he ended up going to university, getting a degree in honours history and winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He discussed his life and why he turned to writing with Eleanor Wachtel in 2002. Listen to their illuminating conversation above.
Gould's Book of Fish
by Richard FlanaganBuy this book at:
"Gould's Book of Fish
is a marvelously imagined epic of nineteenth-century Australia — a world of convicts and colonists, thieves and catamites, whose bloody history is recorded in a very unusual taxonomy of fish. Widely hailed as a masterpiece and a work of genius, it stands out as one of the best novels of recent years. Billy Gould was a forger and thief sentenced to life imprisonment in a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land — now Tasmania. After six months he escaped and boarded a whaler for the Americas, but before long his adventures landed him back in prison. The prison doctor Lempriere utilizes Gould's painting talents to create an illustrated taxonomy of the country's exotic sea creatures, which Lempriere madly believes will assure his place in history and the Royal Society. Lost and re-created, destroyed and hidden, Gould''s book finally resurfaces in the present day littered with scrawls recording his unutterably strange life — part freewheeling picaresque, part tragicomedy — and that of his country, a penal colony, settlement, and magical space populated by generals, visionaries, and madmen."
Read more at Grove Atlantic