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Richard Flanagan on writing ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’

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Over 12 years, Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan wrote five completely different versions of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” his spectacular new book about the construction of the Death Railway during WWII. But all that revision paid off: The novel is now on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Speaking Thursday night at the Australian Embassy in Washington, Flanagan described his research — close at home and far afield — on this horrific industrial project carried out by the Japanese using hundreds of thousands of slaves.

Flanagan’s father was one of the many POWs forced to work on the railway in Thailand (then called Siam). He patiently answered his son’s “endless questions” about daily life in the camp, the smell of tropical ulcers, the symptoms of cholera.

“But I did not want the book to be about him,” Flanagan said. “As much as his experience and perspective would influence it, I did not want some fictionalized version of his life. As much as it was about my father and me, it had to escape us both.”

His research took him to Thailand, where he walked along the overgrown remains of the Death Railway and the site of the camp where so many of his father’s friends were killed by labor, torture and disease.

Finally, in 2013, he traveled to Japan and met with some of the surviving guards who worked on the railway, including a particularly sadistic one nicknamed the Lizard, who had been sentenced to death for war crimes. (The sentence was later commuted.) During their surreal meeting, Flanagan asked the now gentle, old man to slap him as hard as he could — to reenact the sort of treatment that guards doled out constantly during the war.

But just as he reluctantly began to slap the novelist’s face, an earthquake hit the city, and Flanagan caught terror in his eyes. “I saw the Lizard frightened,” he said. “Wherever evil is, it wasn’t in that room with that old man and me.”

When he got back home, he told his father about the Japanese people’s gentleness, their apologies and their requests for forgiveness. His father, then in his late 90s, immediately lost all memory of his time in the camps.

On the day Flanagan sent off the finished manuscript to his publisher, his father died.