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