Richard Flanagan, who set latest novel amid raging Tasmanian wildfires, sees Bay Area parallels

“You have lived the same horror,” said Flanagan, who is appearing in a live program with the Bay Area Book Festival this evening.

Richard Flanagan. Credit: Joel Saget

Bay Area residents are all too familiar with the unsettling horror of wildfire season—breathing is a hazard, neither indoors nor outdoors is safe, and the sun turns an apocalyptic blood red.

The Bay Area Book Festival is connecting our local climate disaster to one across the world in Australia with a live program this evening featuring author Richard Flanagan, whose new novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, has been described as “a magical realist tale of ecological anguish.” 

“All of us are dreading the return of fire season in Northern California, and there could be no better book than A Living Sea of Waking Dreams to start to cope with those fears,” says Cherilyn Parsons, founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival. “We aren’t alone in this horror — Richard wrote this novel during the fires that raged through Tasmania and Australia.” 

Flanagan, an environmental activist, journalist and author who won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, told Berkeleyside, “You have lived the same horror and perhaps have the same terror of tomorrow that we do in Australia. Perhaps you also know the pain of losing your home while never leaving it.”


As summer approaches, Berkeley is on edge for the impending wildfire season. Last year, Berkeley residents experienced a double dose of stress with the combination of COVID-19 and the threat of fire and smoke. Berkeley residents, who were already experiencing cabin fever as a result of shelter-in-place, were discouraged from going outside due to poor air quality and the risk of respiratory damage. Air quality issues in Berkeley edged into mid-September. Flanagan writes about a similar climate dystopia in Australia and its accompanying emotions in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. 

There is an Australian word used to describe such large, complex feelings—solastalgia. It was coined by a sociologist, Glenn Albrecht, in the early 2000s to describe the emotions of those who had known either persistent drought in rural Australia or the impact of large-scale open-cut coal mining in New South Wales,” Flanagan says. “In both cases, people experienced sadness, despair and distress exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness over remorseless change. The challenge for me in writing the novel was finding a language that might speak to both that sense of grief and the necessary possibility of hope.”

Set in Tasmania, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams tells the story of a family that is navigating death as wildfires rage and horror stories fill newsfeeds. The main character, Anna, checks her phone compulsively for news. However, as she consumes media and is consumed by fear, some of Anna’s body parts begin to disappear. Flanagan uses fractured language that expresses the speed of modern life punctuated with overconsumption and the inability to slow down. The novel weaves together the complexity of grief, fear and hope, as it ponders the losses of species, landscape, relationships, and self. 

Parsons says that Flanagan’s novel, “speak[s] to the deepest challenges we face, not only climate change but the erosion of connection with each other and our ability to see each other and the beauty around us. It speaks to our climate woes but also the cultural and emotional woes, the deep fears, that contribute to it.”

Joining virtually from Tasmania, Flanagan will be in conversation with poet Jane Hirshfield. Her book, Ledger, is a work of personal, ecological, and political reckoning that intersects with Flanagan’s work. Both authors’ work resonate with the Bay Area as the global community navigates ecological disaster. Flanagan says, “Naming things is only a beginning, but it is always the beginning of making new, better worlds.”

Thursday, June 3. 7-8 p.m. Recording available for 10 days after the live experience. $20 general admission. $40 with a copy of The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. 

Also this week: 

OPEN STUDIOS Stop by the East Bay Open Studios, located in individual studios across the Bay Area, to check out the work of over 100 local artists. Virtual visits are also available. June 5 and 6, and June 12 and 13.

AAPI STORY TIME Don’t miss out on this virtual Asian American-centered children’s story time. They will be reading Mượn Thị Văn’s Wishes and Michelle Sterling’s When Lola Visits. Sunday, June 6. 1-2 p.m. 

HEARING MUSIC Want to improve how you listen to the nuances in music? Join Rhythmix Cultural Works’ “Inner and Outer Hearing” workshop that will help you sharpen and broaden your listening. Two-part virtual workshop: June 7 and June 14, 7-9 p.m. $50 for both days.