October 21, 2014

Richard Flanagan burned unsuccesful drafts of his Man Booker Prize-winning novel


Richard Flanagan with a book he's probably not going to burn.

Richard Flanagan with a book he’s probably not going to burn.

Richard Flanagan who won the Man Booker Prize took 12 years and five drafts to complete his award-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The completion of the novel was not only a long one, but a violent one, The Guardian reports:

He deleted each unsuccessful attempt from his hard drive and burned the hard copies. Not “put out in the recycling”, but actually burned. In some ritualistic bonfire, perhaps? “Just on the barbecue, with matches. Yep, I often lit the barbie with old drafts.” This was about total erasure. “By burning them, I had to start over anew … When you bring the old back in, it’s dripping with gangrene – you have to have it all gone.”

Which makes the writing of the novel sounds as about as laborious as the construction of the Burma Railway on which it focuses.

Yet, Flanagan is by no mean the first to burn a manuscript. Edward Gibbon burned his manuscript History of the Liberty of the Swiss back in the eighteenth century. No surprise, there is a long history of Russian book burning: Nikolai Gogol burned his sequel to Dead Souls. During the height of the Soviet scarcity, Mikhail Bakhtin literally smoked his manuscript on realism and the novel due to a dearth of rolling papers. James Joyce burned his play A Brilliant Career though it did not stifle his own.

Coincidentally, there has been a surge of once-thought lost manuscripts being rediscovered. The Grolier Club is opening an exhibition “Evermore: The Persistence of Poe,” displaying a never-before-seen manuscript copy of “The Conqueror Worm,” (which might be about ebola, in our humble opinion) thought lost until it was rediscovered in 2013. Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major was recently fortuitously discovered in a dark corner of Budapest’s National Szechenyi Library, having been thought lost for more than two hundred years. And a hidden section of the Magna Carta was recently revealed using near-infrared spectroscopy and high-resolution digital microscopy.

So, what is to be said about manuscripts being burned and recovered: disappearing and reappearing. Blended together, it seems mystical—a phoenix rising from the ashes. But after twelve years of writing and barbecuing Flanagan deserves the book for his frustration alone.