LIVE | Richard Flanagan at The Capitol discussing ‘Question 7’

LIVE | Richard Flanagan at The Capitol discussing 'Question 7'

Richard Flanagan is a Tasmania writer. Question 7, his latest work, was published in 2023 and will no doubt become that rare thing - a commercial bestseller that attracts critical acclaim.

His novels Death of a River GuideThe Sound of One Hand ClappingGould’s Book of FishThe Unknown TerroristWanting and The Narrow Road to the Deep North have received numerous honours and are published in 42 countries. He won the Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North in 2014.

Richard has been interviewed on The Garret before, and you can listen to his thoughts on his previous novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, here.

This recording took place on 9 November 2023 at RMIT Capitol for The Wheeler Centre. Thanks go to the phenomenal team at The Wheeler Centre for sharing this audio with us.

LIVE | Richard Flanagan at The Capitol discussing 'Question 7'


ASTRID: Good evening. Thank you all for being here tonight. I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners on whose lands we meet to discuss storytelling tonight. I think in the year of the Voice and the Referendum, it's important to remember that sovereignty was never ceded, and this always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Richard does not need an introduction. But before we welcome him to the stage, I wanted to remind you of just a few key points. Richard, as you all know, is a remarkable writer. His works are highly awarded, but also beloved by readers. Richard won the Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which does have resonances in his latest work, Question 7. Richard, will you join us on stage? And can we have a round of applause?

It is an absolute delight to be here with you. Congratulations on Question 7, I find myself struggling to adequately describe Question 7, so in an what's kind of an unusual step, I want you before we begin to discuss Question 7. I'd like to know the literary influences because this is a text, so loaded with previous writers and text and artists.

RICHARD: Well, first of all, I should say, it's lovely to be here with you Astrid, and thank you all for coming. I'm a little more nervous than I normally would be because my beautiful daughter Eliza is here tonight, and I know she'll hold me to a high bar after if I say anything foolish. And hello, Eliza. Your question was about literary influences. I think perhaps, you know, that's the library of a life in two ways.

It is all the books I've read. But more than that, it’s about trying to describe a lost world and tried to find a way of describing that. And in that, I wasn't really looking towards literary models. I was interested in the way we create stories, but we're also created by stories. I was very conscious that. During COVID, I realized that the world I'd grown up in and taken for granted, that material world of plants and animals and birds and fishes and so on, had ceased to exist. And along with it, a world of values, always taken as permanent, that too, had vanished. And that vanished in this vast revolution that is so huge, and so overwhelming, that we don't even have a word for it. But everything has changed fundamentally in the last few decades, and we live now in the strange alternate things. I wanted to describe what the world was like before that revolution, and also the values that people once had. Not so much social values, but the way they related to each other, and also to the Earth itself. It was trying to recover all those sorts of things.

And in that, Orwell once said that the hardest thing to describe is what's in front of your nose. And similarly, for me, it was trying to abandon ideas of literary influences and trying to just write as simply and as clearly as I could. I'd had a health scare. I wasn't sure if I would be able to write another book, or if I wrote one, how much how it needed to be a short book. And I needed to ask, I wanted to ask, a lot of questions in this book about things that concern me. I was searching for a form that I could do that, and I strove… I always loved those artists like Matisse who in their final years went to something fundamental, just shapes, forms, colors, and created things that were beautiful and comforting. I wanted to try and do something similar, and I wanted not to try and emulate things I'd written in the past or read in the past, but to create a book of lightness. I started taking things out and the more I took out the lighter the book became, and strangely the more there was in the book. I think it is readers who create books, not writers, and reading is an ever more creative act than writing. And if you just suggest things, readers then discover, not your literary influences, but they discover their own worlds and their own lives. And in that way books are made and books continue to live.

ASTRID: You actually have a beautiful passage about reading and readers towards the end. And I have questions on that for you, Richard. But I kind of want to come back to literary influences because the title of the work question seven is a reference to check off a literary great. So for those in the audience, I would like to interrogate or maybe explain, you know, what question seven is, and why it almost holds the work together by being unanswerable. Can you talk to question seven.

RICHARD: Well, Chekhov is one of my favorite writers. Many years ago, I came across a book of his earliest stories, which are little known, because they were just sketches that he knocked out to make money. They were comic sketches, and he wrote them to support himself as a student and to support his family. One of them was just a series of those mental arithmetic questions you get asked to do at school. And question 7, in this list of questions goes something like this:

On May 31, a train leaves Station A at 3am and is to arrive at station B at 11pm. Just before the train is about to leave, the order comes that it must be at station be at 5pm. Who loves longer a man or a woman?

That's question seven. It's three sentences, and it's a joke. It's an absurdist joke. And yet implicit within it is the future genius of Chekhov, because, in his beautiful stories, you start with something that's seemingly very realistic – you know, a woman sitting at a dinner table, a man riding through St. Petersburg – and then at some moment, the story flips and these people are beset by the everyday problems we all have. But somewhere in the story, and it's always mysterious Chevov’s stories, there's this non sequitur where the story flips. And we've gone to the secret world, not our public worlds where we are concerned about our jobs and getting from A to B and all the practical problems we have, but about the things that really concern our hearts and souls about who loves longer, why we love and how to live.

During those long, dark years of COVID, I realized I'd grown old. And like many people coming out of COVID, I began to wonder what it is to live not, not simply to exist, but how to live. I think this is a question that concerns so many people and you see it in everything from the Great Resignation in the West to the lie flat movement in China to people leaving the city with an idea of one sort of life to go to live in the regions in search of a different sort of life. I wanted to look at that question of what it is to live. And in a sense, that's what the books about.

I often thought about my father when he returned from the war. My father was a prisoner of war for the best part of four years. And at the end, he found himself a slave laborer working in a coal mine that ran under the Inland Sea in Japan. He was 80 miles from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. And my father at that point, he told me many years later, he was ready to die. He'd given up hope and he knew he wouldn't last another winter. At that point, the war was set to drag out for another year, and my father would have perished instead. It is the great irony of my life that I've long been aware of – the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Tens of thousands of people died in that great crime. And then a few days later, the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and more tens of thousands of innocent people were slaughtered there. And because of those crimes my father lived, and 15 years later I was born in a little country town in Tasmania.

Later on, much later on, I wrote this book, and now you're all here tonight listening to me talk about it. And that, in a sense, is where I come from. That bomb. And I began to wonder about the bomb and why the bomb. Why was it dropped there and where did it come from?

What I discovered is that the bomb doesn't really arise in the so often told history of scientific progress. The bomb begins with a kiss in front of a bookcase in an Edwardian drawing room in 1911 when a 42-year-old writer called HG Wells – who was then one of the most famous writers in the world, above all for his invention of a new genre, which we now know as science fiction – kissed an 18-year-old rising woman writer of quite a brilliant disposition, called Rebecca West. Wells was a proponent of free love. He was a womanizer, but he was really terrified of love. And Rebecca West didn't just want sex, she wanted love, she wanted the whole package, and this terrified Wells, she so terrified him that he wrote to Rebecca West, cutting off any further possibility of relationship and he fled to his mistress’s chalet in Switzerland where he wrote a book which was about a fire that consumes the world, because Rebecca West wrote to him about how he was frightened by the fire of her love.

In Switzerland, he invents this new weapon of mass destruction, which was actually founded in the reality of scientific research at the time, because Wells’ actually had trained as a scientist and was well read in the latest scientific literature. He called this weapon that was the size of a pineapple and could destroy whole cities the atomic bomb. And that atomic bomb, he recognized in the research of the scientists the extraordinarily destructive possibilities, their discoveries in Edwardian England, long before the scientists themselves did. The book was a terrible book. The Times Literary Supplement described reading it as like trudging through porridge, and the book was quickly forgotten. Wells reunited with Rebecca West, they had a child, years passed, but the idea of the atomic bomb remained resonant with some prominent people.

Winston Churchill was one, but another was a young Hungarian refugee called Leo Szilard, who in 1933 had just read Wells’ The World Set Free, this novel about the invention of the atomic bomb. He'd heard about a lecture that great nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford had given, in which he dismissed any talk of energy, or power, or weaponry being devised from the splitting of the atom. It was complete, in Rutherford's words, moonshine, and it was an impossibility. That was the received wisdom in nuclear physics at the time. But see, Szilard – who was both a student and friend of Einstein's – didn't accept this, and he didn't accept it because he was haunted by Wells' book. He thought and thought about all that Rutherford didn't know. He had fled Berlin to London, and it was standing at the Southampton Road traffic lights and Russell Square in London, looking at the lights change from red to green, that he suddenly had this vision that was at once terrifying and absolute, in which fiction and physics, science and literature, the past and the present, and the future all came together. He came up with the theory of the nuclear chain reaction, which was the whole basis on which the atomic bomb would be developed. He acknowledged again and again that his inspiration for this was a novel by HG Wells.

Jump cut, six years to 1939, Szilard has become so terrified by the possibility that Nazi Germany will develop an atomic bomb that he goes to Einstein and together they petition Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President of the United States, to begin a program to develop an atomic bomb that leads to the Manhattan Project, and ultimately to the atomic bomb being dropped 80 miles from where my father worked naked beneath the Inland Sea of Japan, and then 15 years later to my birth.

So it's often said that poetry… Well, Auden famously wrote in his beautiful elegy for WB Yeats in 1936, that poetry makes nothing happen. That's often quoted about the irrelevance of literature, but a novel destroyed Hiroshima, in a sense, on the progeny of that novel.

ASTRID: Quite the reaction. Question 7 as a work, as a text, and also how you just articulated it, Richard, is one of the most profound articulations of the power of words and the power of literature that I have come across. And when we think back to all the works that Wells put out there, War of the Worlds, everything, he influenced people. And Richard, I think it's safe to say that you influence people, your fiction, your non-fiction, all of your work. And given the power of some books, and some words and some ideas that are presented in fiction, do you feel a responsibility with the ideas that you put out in the world that may very well influence someone?

RICHARD: Well, I feel the responsibility to the truth. I think it matters when you write, certainly, when you write journalism, or the history of these sorts of things. You journey, outwards from yourself, and you must describe what you see and touch and feel as accurately as you can. You should be clear when you make commentary on what's commentary and what's description. I think there is a strong reason why the truth is repressed, again and again, in so many spheres of our life, because I think people have a hunger for the truth that's as real as their hunger for food or for love. And like food and love, they instinctively know the truth when they're presented with it.

I think in our country, we've always been unknown to ourselves. We've been deceitful about ourselves all our history because we've refused to acknowledge the great violence of our origins. We're uncomfortable with our artists because an artist doing their job properly rubs against the grain to reveal the truth. I feel the responsibility for the truth and that sense, but there is another form of truth that story reveals and the invention of story, and that truth is about the mystery at the heart of us. And that sort of truth doesn't propose answers. It just reflects the strange chaos and mystery of who we are back to us in a way that hopefully, reminds us that we're not alone, that both in our worst aspects and our best, we share things with other people. Chekov was once asked what he thought of Tolstoy's greatest novel Anna Karenina and he replied, it frames the question correctly. And that, for Chekhov, was the greatest compliment. I think when fiction does its job properly, it's not like politics, it's not like philosophy, or psychology or religion or science. It doesn't pretend to have answers. But if it does its job properly it frames the questions correctly. It is for the reader then, to think about those questions and draw their own conclusions based on their own experiences of what life is that chaos and that confusion and that strange mystery.

ASTRID: Question 7 is all about strange mystery. It is also very personal to you and your family, your parents, and Richard has agreed to do a short reading.

RICHARD: Thank you, Astrid. As I said, I want it to contain many things. But at its heart, it's really a homage to my mother and father and my island home. This is a passage about my mother and father.

My mother and my father, different as they were, he with his reserve, she with her passion; he with his distance, she with her engagement. My mother and father, born to poverty and grateful to the point of astonishment that their children had all lived, that they did not want for food and knew pain only rarely, fully accepted the unequal terms on which the world had come to them. For they were alive and lived. On only one matter would they not budge: the inviolability of their souls that they somehow kept beyond corruption.

My illiterate grandfather understood something fundamental. ‘If you don't have principles,’ he once told my father, ‘you might as well jump off the end of the jetty.’ Inscribe that above every parliament and board room entrance. ‘Crayfish to no man,’ Tom, my father's brother and a labourer all his life, once said. Tattoo that on every politician and journalist forehead.

Tom died playing darts in the St Leonard's Hotel. Great-uncle Babes used to play piano at the St Leonards Hotel as well as at Ma Dwyers. One night there was a brawl and his songbook was torn in the melee and scattered over the floor. Babes – Babes because he was the thirteenth of thirteen children – well-primed himself, grabbed random pages off the floor and continued playing seamlessly, passing from ‘Home on the Range’ on the ripped left-hand page to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on the torn right without missing a single note.

My mother and father had a similar gift, of stitching together torn fragments into some harmony amidst the melee of daily life. My mother and my father in their stories and jokes, in their generosity and kindness to others, asserted the necessary illusion their lives might mean something in the endless tumult of this meaningless universe. For them to live, love had to exist, the love they valued above all things; they lived that love and they fought for that love and they defended that love. With the passing of time this illusion became their hard-won truth. It was a form of magic and they the magicians.

In my vanity, I had always thought of them as naive. Only now writing these words do I finally see the naivety was all mine.

ASTRID: It's an unknown, unanswerable question. It feels appropriate to ask you about Question 7. But how do you think your parents would feel about this book? I know they have passed. And the reason why I ask is I was struck by a quote that you wrote about your dad in a different passage of the book. It was about books. And you wrote, ‘I have always felt slightly ashamed of my books. For I sense, they and me with them, had somehow disappointed him’. And that was in reference to your bookshelf and wide reading. It was not the books I'd written.

RICHARD: Yeah, it was. It was… as a writer, when I was young to have books in Mum and Dad's home. We were we were library people. So many people once were, there was one little bookshelf, you know, waist high with three shelves that had some photo albums and a handful of books. That was it. And we went to the library. My father came to my house one day and he saw my bookcases with all the books I had. And he asked me why did I have so many books? Couldn't I use the library? That's when I felt a shame because in a sense, he was right. He had no interest in material things. He had no interest in achievements of the conventional type. What mattered to him was that people were kind and good to each other. And that idea of love that I talked about, and that extract I read, was for him and my mother closely allied to ideas of kindness and goodness.

After I wrote my first novel my mother said to me, my mother was a woman of quite large ambition for our children, she hoped I'd make a good plumber. It was, it was that sort of world, you know. And although I was writing the book – I wanted to be a writer from before I could write – I didn't dare tell my parents till I was 27, because I already had children. And I knew they were concerned about how I would look after my family. What mattered to them was being a good father and a good husband, and the rest was irrelevant. So after I'd written my first novel… it's very hard when you write your first book, because you don't know if it is the most monstrous vanity, and a lot of the rest of your life has to slip in order to undertake that immense labor. And no one can know if that book is good or bad, or if you can write or not, and least of all yourself unless you're the most depraved ego. Luckily, Fortune shined on me and the book was published and it met with small good favor, and after it came out, my mother said, well, you've had your fun now you need to find a job. But I think there's no memory without shame, because she was right, you know, it was a difficult path. And once you have children, that has to be your primary duty, and it was, to an extent, an irresponsible path, because no one can ever say to a writer, we were talking and writing isn't a career. You know, if you're very lucky writing very occasionally, the sun shines on you. But for most people’s writing life, you'll be in the in the shadow. That's the story of all those writers we love, you know, it's a very difficult path. So, in that world, where my parents were concerned, a bubble with kindness and goodness, much as they were, the written word mattered to them. But it had to be secondary to those things.

ASTRID: You just answered so well my question about reading. Richard, I have another quote for you, and it riffs off what you just said. You write in Question 7, ‘of the many necessary illusions that enable a writer to write, a paramount one is vanity they can write a good book, and the other conceit is that a good book will be read by good readers, people with the insight to recognize what is good within it.’ Everybody here is here because of you, Richard, and because we'd like to read your books. I suspect that everybody here would like to think of themselves as a good reader and a good reader of your work. But I'm interested in how you think of us? What makes us good readers, even though you will never meet most of us. We sit alone at home with your work. What do you think we're doing? Or what impact do you want on us?

RICHARD: Well, above all, I want you to enjoy it. I would hope, you know, I hope it would bring pleasure. But I think, paradoxically, a book survives to the extent it's misunderstood. You know, I never know why writers wish their work to be understood. The intentions and ambitions that writers set out with to write a book are the least interesting thing you can know about the book. And once I started being published as a writer, and then started traveling Australia and then the world with my books, was to discover that they meant so many extraordinary things to people who clearly were extraordinary themselves, none of which I've ever intended. And it’s quite disorienting to discover that what makes books, what brings books alive, are not your words but the extent to which a reader grants that the authority of their soul and their history and their life. If readers show your books that grace, then they live and they continue to live. I've had many beautiful experiences that moved me deeply. There was a Moroccan Berber woman came to Tasmania recently, whose lives in France and is writing a doctrine on my work because she first read them in Morocco, and found them deeply resonant with her Berber world there now. It makes no sense. Why would it? And yet, you know, I like Russian novels from the 19th century, and I feel like they were written just for me today in the 21st century in Hobart, Tasmania. So they are the illusions, the necessary illusions that we love. I think literature is, as that noted little reader Marilyn Monroe once said, I don't fool men, I just let them fool themselves.

ASTRID: Well said Marilyn Monroe.

RICHARD: I think it is a beautiful, I mean, seriously, you really do learn and it's made me a better writer listening to my readers, because the less you tell the reader what to think in your stories, the more you just lay it out, the more they will decide what the story is. And sometimes I think there is this idea of good readers and bad readers, because I talk in Question 7 about my father, although he was very well read in poetry, his reading was principally two newspapers of disappearing quality, the Launceston Examiner and the Hobart Mercury. He would read these cover to cover, and in them he would find the vast cosmic tragicomedy of all humanity, and he would have these excerpts from you will go over there and you'd want to read something from an in memoriam column or a football report or, you know, some very small local incident, because he was a wonderful reader. He found these things and they amused him, they moved him. He once said there was more wisdom in a Mercury in memoriam column than there was to be had in the book of poetry. That's because he was a very good reader. I was so taken with this that I was going to write a novel at one point, that was about a bad novelist who just happened to have some good readers who found and who wrote all these extraordinary articles about what the things they found in his work. And then the writer dies, and there's more brilliant readings, and the writer becomes elevated as the greatest writer in the nation's history, and then all his banal and hapless phrases become cornerstones of the national language, simply because of good readers. You know, I think we can even look at our own history and see examples of this if we were to dwell upon it long enough.

ASTRID: So selfishly, I would like you to write that book, I think that would be a fascinating comment on contemporary publishing. Not yours, by the way.

Richard, this work does really share a great deal of your parents and the life that they gave you and your family, you also go back further in time you go to your maternal grandmother, called Mate. And through your reflections on her experience, and how she lived with you and your parents, you also start to interrogate the last 250 odd years of Australian history, and specifically, Tasmania. You mentioned earlier, the great silences in our public discourse, the great silences in our literature, and you open up these questions for the reader through your own family, and through just the idea of living in Tasmania and loving Tasmania. And what does that mean now in the 21st century? And I wanted to ask you, Richard, and I know you gave an address earlier this year at Sydney Writers Festival, but you know, less than a month after the Voice I do want to ask what is the role of literature, including Question 7, in truth telling in Australia at the moment

RICHARD: We went from Mate to the Referendum…

ASTRID: It was a stretch but that's where my reading went. I'm so sorry.

RICHARD: No, no, I'm just thinking how to frame an inadequate response. You know, Mate was like a character out of Tennessee Williams.

ASSTRID: She's very exciting to read.

RICHARD: She was a woman of innumerable pretentions, and even more hatboxes, and she lived with us, and her greatest pretense was that she was of free settler stock. And for some reason, I always got on with her well, because I love listening to her stories. As she neared her end, she one day told me that she thought her grandfather whom she spoke often may have been a convict. You have to understand about Tasmania, that for a quarter of its history, it really is the issue of two things. It's the issue of a genocide, and a slavery system that today we call convictism, and for a quarter of its history, it was this totalitarian state that ran a slave society, and successfully – well, nearly successfully – executed a complete genocide. For her to admit that we had any connection with this huge trauma was extraordinary. My younger sister went to the archives and discovered that he was not only a convict, he was a political prisoner. He'd been a member of an Irish secret society, the White Boys, and been sentenced for ‘whiteboyism’, as it was called. Then we started discovering all sorts of things everywhere. We weren't free settler people at all, we were convict people. In Tasmania, there was always this extraordinary memory. You remember, as a young man, you couldn't bring a girl home without gossip about their great grandparents. There was a certain sort of memory one way, but there was nothing about these extraordinary traumas.

And then in the book, I recount how after my father died, my sister discovered in his desk, amongst other correspondences, a letter from a deceased cousin in which she talked about how in my grandmother's family they'd been told, never ever to talk about that the fact they were Black outside of the house. We don't know if this story is true or not. It would explain a lot about my father if it were, and I talk about that in the book. But in a sense, I think it points to something else which I also go on to discuss in the book. And that is, I think, culturally, whatever the truth of these stories, there wasn't just… we tend to repeat this lie, whether we're on the Left or the Right, that after the invasion everything about a 65,000-year-old culture was destroyed except in some very remote parts of Australia, the culture was destroyed and obliterated and vanished. And I don't think, on the evidence that I see in Tasmania, from my own personal history, that this is the case at all. I think there was an equal process of Indigenization, the many, many ways in which the invaders met the invaded, and in the merge something new happened. We became not a European people, and nor are we an Asian people, we are something else, we are something different, and that Indigeneity is strong within our mentality, the way we think about so many things. Our culture is different because of it. It doesn't make us Indigenous, but it makes us different. And I think it points to the way in which if we would open up fully to Indigenous Australia, then we would open up to the possibilities, to the world, that that 65,000-year-old experience and the largeness of it, we could become an utterly extraordinary country.

I don't feel and I do not believe that the Referendum result was the end of anything, I believe it was the beginning of something. And I believe there is a river of goodwill and of understanding that we are different because of Indigenous Australia, because of the possibilities that offers. That river did not end with that Referendum vote, and that river is only going to grow bigger, wider, stronger, and the day will come when we will reach the sea of being a truly free and honest country.

ASTRID: I believe you Richard and I look forward to that day. I have no idea what this discussion is like for you in the audience, but Question 7 loops back around all of these questions constantly. There is no linear narrative, we go from Hiroshima to your parents to HG Wells to Tasmania woven throughout, and your grandmother Mate. What you just shared about your family's history actually brings us back to HG Wells, which is kind of where we began this discussion. His earlier work that was famous, The War of the Worlds, as you discussed in Question 7, The War of the Worlds refers to Tasmania, and the genocide in Tasmania. And I wanted to kind of ask you, Richard, about all of these looping intricacies in the work must be really difficult to write. But also, the experience of reading it literally going from Hiroshima to Tasmania to you know, your parents, sometimes between pages. It's quite extraordinary. RICHARD: Well, I wanted the book to have an in country sort of feel, and a musical feel. But I grew up in a world where time was circular. The stories I grew up with, you know, sitting down to the kitchen table when there's all these other kids and uncles and aunts because we were a clan mob, and all these different people coming through the house and the stories they told one another. Were always circular. They didn't progress in a linear way. They went back into the past and into the future and they digressed. That's how I understood stories. And that's how I understood time. Only later when I went to Oxford to study as a historian did I discover that there is this other idea of time, the European idea of time, which is linear, which proceeds like a train track stopping at all stations of human development and thought. It makes sense in Europe, it makes sense in America, but it doesn't make sense here. And in the writing of this, as I discussed at that closing address at the Sydney Writers Festival, I was sent this extraordinary essay by a young new woman called Sienna Stubbs.

It is about how in the Yuin language there is a fourth tense. We have three tenses – past, present and future. They have this fourth tense which is when something happens now it is also simultaneously happening in the past and in the future. Sienna uses this example in her essay of making fish traps. When you go to make fish trips on the beach, up there in northeast Arnhem Land, you're also simultaneously making it with your ancestors 1000 years ago, and you're making it with your descendants 1000 years hence. I found this idea at once completely astonishing and utterly familiar, because it accorded with the way I'd been brought up to understand the world. When you think about it, it is such a liberating idea because it creates a sense of responsibility to our past, but also a sense of responsibility for our future. It places us on the earth, it also is a comfort because it proposes really, that we don't simply live in this short fragment of time but that we, by showing some humility to this idea of circular time, we have an existence that transcends our physical bodies. I find it a very beautiful idea and a powerful idea. I've written this book, really, seeking to use those ideas of the fourth tense. Because, you know, we often think of outsiders as the most tragic of diseases, what really happens is people lose their past. That's what they lose, they lose their memory, which is their past, this book was trying to connect all the different paths that are my present and will also be my future.

ASTRID: At the end of Question 7 you share something from your past with us, the time you almost died on the Franklin River. I don't want you to, I'm not asking you to talk about that. But it's a gift. For those who read Question 7 you are sharing that experience, and it is a gift to us as readers. And my final question to you is, why give us that gift? What was the impulse to share that with us?

RICHARD: Because I knew from the beginning it was necessary to make sense of the book, because my struggle after that experience… not my struggle, it was my the recognition, the knowledge I gained from it was that really I lived in a dream, that all that was real to me was that time trapped in that river in that darkness underwater for so many hours. And I know one day, I'll return to that reality, and all that time between is simply a dream. What matters in that dream are the people I love and who love me, and the marvel of this world, and the great joy and wonder that it gives me every day. That's that was the point of including it.

ASTRID: Richard, thank you for Question 7. Thank you for your generous answers. Can we have a round of applause?