The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize is annual award of £10,000 granted to an author for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place. Patrick Flanery has been shortlisted for the prize for his debut novel _Absolution_, set in South Africa against the backdrop of the Apartheid.
Gripping and provocative, Flanery’s first novel has not only earned him this nomination, but the compliment of being “a talent to keep an eye on”, according to the New York Times. Here, he kindly takes the time to answer The Boar‘s questions.
Q: For our readers that aren’t familiar with Absolution, could you summarise the novel for them?
A: Strictly at the level of story, Absolution is about a South African expat, Sam Leroux, returning to Cape Town after many years in New York to undertake research for the official biography of an eminent aging South African novelist, Clare Wald. Sam’s return coincides with Clare’s own attempts to discover what happened to her daughter, Laura, who was involved in the liberation struggle and disappeared in the 1980s. Between Sam and Clare there are buried connections which both of them recognize, fear, and struggle to reconcile as they navigate a landscape of memory projected against contemporary security paranoia.
Q: You were born in California and raised in Nebraska, if that’s correct? What was it then that drew you to South African history?
A: I grew up in the 1980s, and South Africa was frequently in the news. Its history and current events were taught in the federally desegregated schools I attended in Omaha, and it was the subject of films like Cry Freedom, which my parents took me to see. So the country was long in my consciousness, and then, when I was studying at Oxford, I met my partner, who is South African, and began travelling frequently to visit the country, as well as researching South African literature and film. At the nexus of those influences is, I suppose, the germ of the ideas and experiences that produced Absolution.
Q: You’ve had lots of success and praise from reviewers, have South African academics commented on your novel?
A: One of the first reviews in South Africa (published in the country’s leading weekly newspaper) was by Michael Titlestad, a Professor of English at Wits University in Johannesburg, who dealt with his feelings of initial uncertainty when he heard that an American had written a novel about South Africa. The review is very positive, but also a fascinating working through of what is, in one sense, an entirely understandable response to an ‘outsider’ attempting to do justice to the country, its complex history, and perhaps even more complex present. At the Cape Town Open Book Festival last September I had a public conversation with poet and academic Kelwyn Sole, whose reading of the book, and great support for it, was both encouraging and enlightening. I have had more personal expressions of support from other friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Predictably, there are some South African readers who have been critical of the novel, but I think this is inevitable whenever one chooses to write about any contested territory, whether geographic, social, historical, or psychological.
Q: As a debut novelist, how encouraging is it to hear positive reviews?
A: Of course it’s hugely encouraging, although to be honest I have read only one or two reviews in full, and had snippets of others passed on to me. Praise is welcome, but can also be distracting.
Q: What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize?
A: Prizes matter, however much one might sometimes wish they didn’t. The landscape of publishing is such a crowded field that what prizes do, in the best instances, is draw the attention of readers. More than that, though, it is gratifying and humbling to be shortlisted alongside writers like Zadie Smith and Philip Hensher, and to be chosen by a panel of judges whose work I so respect.
Q: Does the process of writing a novel come easily to you?
A: The initial drafting comes easily, although revision takes much longer. Absolution had an unusually protracted incubation, because I had no sense of the shape of the book at first, and then I abandoned it for some years. Once I returned to it, I needed about a year to find my way back into the characters, amidst the distractions of teaching and academic research. The second book, Fallen Land, didn’t take nearly as long – less than two years. In that case, having a plan made a great difference, even though I abandoned it halfway through and wrote a very different book than the one I’d originally intended.
Q: You’ve cited E.M. Forster and T.S. Eliot as influences. What about their work affects you or inspires you as a writer?
A: I don’t think of Forster and Eliot as primary influences, although they are members of a much wider canon to which I refer: each offers particular lessons that continue to inspire, or to which I might (sometimes) choose to respond. With Forster it’s the keenness of his social observations, and even the often-lamentable vagueness of his humanism; life is inexact, muddy, usually quite imprecise, and whether he intended it or not he captured that vivid psychological and social uncertainty. With Eliot it is, I’m afraid, a certain cold detachment, the sense of displacement that resonates through his work, but also the balanced and symphonic polyphony of The Waste Land —that more than anything is what I admire. Alice Oswald manages something similar in her extraordinary work _Dart_, a marvelous harmonizing of the documentary, the classically allusive, and the utterly original.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the experience of reading Absolution?
A: I hope they’ll want to read the next book! But seriously, I hope, if nothing else, that they find in its pages the impulse to meditate on the possibilities and limits of memory, confession, and reconciliation. That sounds very earnest, but it’s a book on a serious subject, although one not without a certain sense of humour.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A: Find the right primary readers and develop a circle you can both respect and trust. It’s not productive giving a draft to someone who will do nothing but praise, and equally useless to have someone reading who doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do. Good feedback should neither delude nor destroy.
Q: Can we expect a follow-up novel any time soon?
A: My second novel, Fallen Land, is published by Atlantic Books [in] May, and by Riverhead in the US in August. It moves away from South Africa to America’s Midwest, where I grew up, although it shares some thematic concerns with Absolution: a preoccupation with the vulnerability of the home, the phenomenon of carceral societies, mass surveillance, dispossession, and race relations.
Absolution was published by Atlantic Books 21 March 2013. (Paperback £7.99)
His second novel, Fallen Land, will be published by Atlantic Books 7th May 2013 and can be purchased as either a hardback £12.99 or an eBook £8.99