Patrick Flanery: An American abroad lives in black and white

The former literary scout sets his debut novel in post-apartheid South Africa – and creates another, fictional writer. By James Kidd

About a decade before Patrick Flanery wrote his highly impressive debut novel Absolution, he worked as a literary scout in New York. The job description was simple: read the cream of contemporary fiction and assess for possible film adaptation. When I ask what Flanery the bookish cool-hunter would have made of Absolution, he laughs long and loud. "Oh gosh," the 36 year-old replies, "I would probably offer the verdict I used to give books I really loved: 'This would make a great prestige piece.'"

The laughter hints at slight nervousness (this is one of his first interviews) and possible embarrassment. But his response reveals something about Absolution too. Although far from unfilmable (it has hints of a thriller and a devastating plot twist), the novel is nevertheless challenging and self-consciously literary.

Set in South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s, its multi-layered narrative is framed by a series of interviews. In one corner is the formidable novelist Clare Wald; in the other her biographer, Sam Leroux. Sam probes Clare's writing, political beliefs and views on censorship. Clare investigates her own past: her murdered sister and her missing-presumed-dead daughter. In Flanery's South Africa, truth and even reality are fluid and contingent. "There's a constant awareness that other points of view are as valid as one's own."

Flanery is not, on the surface, an obvious candidate to explore the conscience of post-apartheid South Africa. (Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he has lived in the UK for the past 11 years; he earned a PhD at Oxford before teaching part-time at Sheffield University.) Yet surfaces, whether in Flanery's life or fiction, require careful probing. He dresses, by his own admission, like a Republican ("I walk around in Conservative drag"), but is the son of liberal parents, and can recall feeling depressed after Ronald Reagan's election victory in 1980. He was five years old. "I remember vividly the sense of sadness and defeat."

Although he is distinctly more accommodating than the intimidating Clare Wald, Flanery does share something of her well-maintained circumspection. He describes Absolution's composition as "very honest, and unguarded ... which is interesting because it's very much about being guarded." In conversation, he speaks more fluently about literature than himself. An enquiry about whether he's enjoying the interview provokes lengthy consideration. "It's not an unpleasant process," he says. "It requires thinking about where the barriers are placed."

Perhaps conscious of his status as an outsider, Flanery is especially careful whenever the discussion turns to South African politics. When I ask, for example, whether white South Africans still feel complicit with the apartheid regime, he says: "I don't want to project myself into that position. I would guess the current feeling is that one thinks of oneself as a beneficiary of Apartheid, even if one was opposed to it."

Absolution began life in 2005 as a series of abstract dialogues exploring the relationship between writers and censorship. Flanery's initial interest may have been philosophical (he adds: "pretentious"), but the story expanded through powerful personal investment. "It grew from feelings that we were in a very dark historical period. Being an American living abroad, I felt that I couldn't protest against the war [in Iraq] without being deported. This might have been completely irrational, but it linked into my status as an American under a regime I didn't agree with." Flanery bursts out giggling. "I call Bush a regime ..."

The South African setting took a further four years to appear. The choice can partly be explained by Flanery's partner, a lecturer who was born in Port Elizabeth. "I've spent a lot of time in South Africa with extended family and friends, and living in domestic spaces. But having a partner who could read [Absolution] and say 'That word is not quite right' was very useful."

Flanery has clearly developed a deep affinity for the country and its people. He traces the origins of this sympathy to his upbringing. "South Africa was present from a young age," he explains, courtesy of his parents and his education in the de-segregated schools of inner-city Omaha. "I grew up with a consciousness of the problems of American race. South Africa provided, and continues to provide, a very interesting parallel model for Americans." The model was not always faithful, however – a lesson in caution when representing South Africa from the outside. "The anti-apartheid struggle had been presented in school as non-violent. It was very unsettling to learn that violence had to be used as a tool."

Flanery has no patience with those who conflate a term like "freedom fighter" with "terrorist" when discussing the anti-Apartheid movement. "'Terrorist' and 'terrorism' are not appropriate to describe the liberation struggle. What I was trying to do in Absolution was suggest there was moral ambiguity on both sides, or at least that ordinary people had to make impossible choices."

Absolution arrives with great expectations, which have been borne out by its positive early reviews. Not that Flanery will read them. Indeed, he is still getting used to his book being a public object. "For so long I was writing it with little belief that anyone would read it, apart from me and my partner. What's strange is to engage in a dialogue about a book that feels deeply personal, even though it's so far from my own experience."

A second novel, set in the American Midwest, is already complete. Will it be any more autobiographical than Absolution. "No, not remotely," Flanery laughs. "Who would care about my life in the Midwest during the Eighties and Nineties? It was completely normal, comfortable and boring." Somehow, I doubt it.

Absolution, By Patrick Flanery


" ... You know I don't ask for absolution, since that's something you don't believe in and therefore can't give, or won't give. I only offer this document as my version of the truth, a truth among many. Bernard's truth would be different, but he can't speak. Sam's truth would be different still, and he may yet speak. If you refuse to absolve me, will you also refuse to judge me, or does judgment belong to a different order of ethics?"

Atlantic £12.99

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?