In 1991, as a young writer trying to finish his first book, Richard Flanagan found himself faced with an offer he couldnâ€™t refuse.
â€œI was offered $10,000 to write [an autobiography] in six weeks,â€ Flanagan told Guardian Australia. The book, ghostwritten by Flanagan, was Codename Iago: the autobiography of John Friedrich, one of Australiaâ€™s most notorious conmen. â€œI was labouring at the time, broke, and my wife was pregnant with twins, and we were in pretty desperate straits. So I took the job. In the third week, John Friedrich shot himself dead and I had to finish the book.â€
Friedrich had been just six days away from standing trial on charges relating to the $296m fraud of the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA) when he committed suicide, on 25 July 1991. The coroner found that â€œJohnâ€ Friedrich was actually a German national named Friedrich Johann Hohenberger â€“ though his widow would later tell reporters that she was still â€œnot sureâ€ of his true identity.
Announced on Monday, Flanaganâ€™s forthcoming novel, titled First Person, will draw from his experience as Friedrichâ€™s ghost-writer, taking as its premise an almost identical circumstance to that of Flanaganâ€™s own: struggling writer Kip Kehlmann has six weeks to ghost-write the memoir of a con artist, Ziggy Heidl, for which he will receive a much-needed paycheck.
As the writing process develops, and he is taken deeper into the world of the charlatan, Kehlmann begins to fear that Heidl is not simply dealing in slippery stories, but is changing â€“ perhaps even erasing â€“ him.
The new novel will be Flanaganâ€™s first since his Booker prize-winning 2013 release, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Flanagan said he learned a lot from his time with Friedrich, about how lies â€“ or â€œpoisonous storiesâ€ â€“ act upon our consciousness. Friedrich had not only persuaded bankers and corporate high-flyers to lend him and the NSCA millions of dollars, but also generated rumours that implicated the NSCA in drug running, arms dealing and military espionage â€“ stories that the coroner later deemed to be â€œproducts of fantasyâ€.
â€œI began working with him with a certain arrogance, which I quickly realised was an absurd thing because he was a master at inviting other people to invent the worlds he wished them to live in,â€ Flanagan said. â€œAnd perhaps thatâ€™s the world weâ€™re in now.â€
The writer said Friedrichâ€™s story stayed with him because it seemed to reflect the growing concerns of â€œa very solipsistic ageâ€: â€œItâ€™s a very strange time where fictions are presented to us as realities, where reality seems fictional, and it seems to me thereâ€™s no better way to write about that than to write a story about what lies are, what fiction is, and to use the form of the novel to do it.â€
For Flanagan, novels have a unique ability to get to the heart of the human experience: â€œThe history of literature is really a Milky Way of thieves and robbers who steal from everything. But in that strange alchemy thatâ€™s writing it becomes something else. And itâ€™s that something else that radiates light.â€
Written in the style of a memoir, inspired by his own experience, but very firmly a work of fiction, Flanaganâ€™s novel is also a comment of sorts on the â€œcult of memoirâ€ that he sees growing within literature, particularly in the American market â€“ the proliferation of the idea that the only authentic way to write about the world is through autobiography.
â€œThereâ€™s this idea that a novel can no longer represent reality; that only memoir, which is rooted in an idea of an authentic experience, can. And I think thatâ€™s a nonsense.â€
In spite of the resounding acclaim for his previous novel, he said he doesnâ€™t feel any pressure to repeat past successes. â€œI think as a writer you canâ€™t be concerned with success or failure, you just have to be animated about what you write.â€
First Person will be out through Penguin Random House in Australia in October, is scheduled for UK release in November and the US in April 2018.