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Flanagan was born in Longford, Tasmania, in 1961, the fifth of six children. He is descended from Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land in the 1840s. His father is a survivor of the Burma Death Railway. One of his three brothers is Australian Rules football journalist Martin Flanagan. He grew up in the remote mining town of Rosebery on Tasmania's western coast.
Flanagan left school at the age of 16. He returned to study at the University of Tasmania, where he was president of the Student Union. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours. The following year, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Worcester College, Oxford, he was admitted to the degree of Master of Letters in History. Flanagan wrote four non-fiction works before moving to fiction, works he has called "his apprenticeship".
In the foreword to Flanagan's first book, A Terrible Beauty - History of the Gordon River Country (1985), Bob Brown wrote:
"Australia has not heard the last of the Tasmanian wilderness nor, I happily predict, has it heard the last of Richard Flanagan."
His first novel, Death of a River Guide (1997), is the tale of Aljaz Cosini, river guide, who lies drowning, reliving his life and the lives of his family and forebears. It was described by "The Times Literary Supplement" as ‘one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing’. His next book, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998), which tells the story of Slovenian immigrants, was a major bestseller, selling more than 150,000 copies in Australia alone. Flanagan’s first two novels, declared Kirkus Reviews, ‘rank with the finest fiction out of Australia since the heyday of Patrick White’. Gould's Book of Fish (2001), Flanagan’s third novel, is based on the life of William Buelow Gould, a convict artist, and tells the tale of his love affair with a young black woman in 1828. It went on to win the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Flanagan has described these early novels as 'soul histories'. Flanagan’s fourth novel was The Unknown Terrorist (2006), which "The New York Times" called ‘stunning . . . a brilliant meditation upon the post-9/11 world’. His fifth novel, Wanting (2008) tells two parallel stories: about the novelist Charles Dickens in England, and Mathinna, an Aboriginal orphan adopted by Sir John Franklin, the colonial governor of Van Diemen's Land, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin. As well as being a New Yorker Book of the Year and Observer Book of the Year, it won the Queensland Premier's Prize, the Western Australian Premier's Prize and the Tasmania Book Prize.
His most recent book is a collection of non-fiction, And What Do You Do, Mr Gable? (2011).
Flanagan has written on literature, the environment and politics for the Australian and international press. Some have proved controversial. "The Selling-out of Tasmania", published after the death of former Premier Jim Bacon in 2004, was critical of the Bacon government's relationship with corporate interests in the state. Premier Paul Lennon declared, "Richard Flanagan and his fictions are not welcome in the new Tasmania."
Flanagan's 2007 essay, 'Gunns. Out of Control' in The Monthly, first published as 'Paradise Razed' in the Daily Telegraph, inspired Sydney businessman Geoffrey Cousins' high profile campaign to stop the building of Gunns' two billion dollar Bell Bay Pulp Mill.
He worked with Baz Luhrmann as a writer on the 2008 film Australia. A painting of Richard Flanagan by artist Geoffrey Dyer won the 2003 Archibald Prize. A rapid on the Franklin River, Flanagan's Surprise, is named after him.