IT’S a cliché but true that the world was different after September 2001. I felt I had become a stranger to my own time. The way I had of thinking about the world didn’t seem to work anymore, and the way I had written books suddenly seemed no longer relevant.

And then I had an odd personal experience. This is a very small story, and I don’t wish to make too much of it. But it had a very large effect on me.

I became involved, largely by accident, in the old growth forest debate in Tasmania. I wrote an article in the Melbourne Age suggesting there was a curiously close relationship between the Tasmanian government and some large corporations, in particular, with one large company, Gunns — the largest exporter of hardwood woodchips in the world, all Tasmanian, much of them from native forests.

All hell broke loose. For a week I was front page news on my home island. Lies and scuttlebutt were said about me and appeared as news. And I had no recourse. The local newspaper refused to publish my writing. The then Minister for Forestry (now charged with conspiracy) had called me a traitor in Parliament, and the Tasmanian premier now publicly declared that neither me nor my writings were any longer welcome in ‘the new Tasmania’. But it wasn’t that which shocked me.

It was the way the media seemed more than happy to run with the government spin with almost no questioning of it, and the way most people believed most of what they were hearing and reading. People, I realised, thought I was who they were being told I was. For many, the lies of others were to become their truth about me.

And I was far more upset by this than I could have believed possible. I felt something far worse than humiliation, a sense that something deep within me had been taken away. It’s a very hard experience to convey for those who haven’t experienced it.

It was being done to protect power and money

And then I realised that what was happening to me was but a very small example of what was happening in a much larger, much more horrific way around the world. It was clear that endless lies were being told about Muslims, terrorists, Iraq, refugees, our own freedoms and liberties, and it was being done to protect power and money, and no one seemed to care. And the target of all this hate, all these lies were always the weak and the powerless, the battlers.

It became possible to say anything outrageous, and the more outrageous the more publicity it got. Aborigines hadn’t really suffered. Refugees weren’t really genuine. Torture wasn’t torture if Americans did it, and Australians were doing their Australian duty doing whatever Americans told them. To protect our freedoms as Australians, laws were passed here in Australia whereby people can now disappear and we will not know, and no one cared about that either.

The one thing that no longer mattered was the truth. And so when I hear a senior American official say that the three prisoners who committed suicide at Guantanamo Bay were committing an ‘act of asymmetrical warfare’, a publicity stunt, I know it’s not comedy but our age.

I wanted to write a book that somehow captured all this madness. But I needed a story that would make it work. It was no good doing it about a Muslim, or an Arab, or anyone like that. I wanted people who weren’t Muslim or Arab to read this book and think: it could be me they come for next. And the truth is, as I had learnt, it could be you. And if that happened, what would an ordinary person do?

This book is as different from Gould’s Book of Fish, as that was from The Sound of One Hand Clapping, and as that was from Death of a River Guide. It’s not a do gooder lefty book and it’s not a politically correct book.

I am exhausted by having to listen to shock jocks and read opinion columnists

But I don’t like Australia much anymore. Because it’s my country too, and I’m tired of watching it slowly being trashed and sold out. I am weary of the interminable crap about property prices and Howard’s generation and investment seminars and what I should do with my super. I don’t like the racism, the materialism, the inescapable stupidity, the way in which we embrace everything American, be it another fucked up war or another series of West Wing or letting them anally rape an Australian citizen and keep him locked up in Guantanomo Bay, and I don’t like the way we’ll cop just about anything now and smile as long as rates stay on hold. I am exhausted by having to listen to shock jocks and read opinion columnists and accept their nonsense that has created an Australia where a skinhead Nazi with a flag draped around his body on Cronulla Beach is seen to be more Australian than a Muslim or someone of Middle Eastern origin.

And I don’t like the way we stopped believing in what was unique and extraordinary about ourselves — our land, our black identity, our mongrel society, our strong democratic impulses — and lost faith in the worth of our own culture.

And so I searched for a story that might explain to myself what had happened and what it meant and what it might yet mean. I hung out in Sydney with cops around Kings Cross, with junkies and with pole dancers, with homicide and counter terrorism police and set about making my mirror to what we had become.

I took the book from everywhere — radio ads, infotainment programmes, newspaper headlines, pub talk. A lot of what is most disturbing in the novel are quotes from shock jocks and politicians — no one, I felt, was doing fiction better in Australia than those clowns.

All my books until now have been about love, land and memory, but now I wanted to write a book about the opposite, about people for whom love wasn’t sufficient and money was enough; who were lost and who had no connection to history or place; yet for whom tomorrow wasn’t a promise but a growing threat.

I wanted it to be a Trojan horse of a book

For this new subject I changed my style, writing in a different way to my previous books. The sentences are short, the words small, and I want the reader to pass through the words as the eye does through a window, and see straight into the story. I wanted it to be one of those books people read in one or two sittings and feel like they have been in car smash and their life ever after is a little changed. I wanted it to be a Trojan horse of a book, a book that everyone would want to read, but having read it, some ideas escape into the citadels of suburban lounge rooms and people once more begin to think and question.

I searched for a tale that would allow me to do this. I ended up with a story about four days in the life of a Sydney pole dancer called the Doll, who one day sees herself on national television being described as a terrorist.

The Doll is a flawed woman, mildly racist, obsessed with money, who finds her life suddenly being destroyed by the things she has up until that moment most firmly believed. As the novel gathers pace, a wholly fictional case is built up against her in a few short days. As the hunt for her gathers momentum, the denunciations of her grow in vitriol, as each innocent fact of her life is given a malevolent interpretation, as the public’s fear of her becomes absolute and the fear is used to ensconce the powerful in their positions of influence. The Doll realises her life is slowly being taken away from her, that everything she has hitherto believed in, all her own biases and indifference, is now being turned on her in order to destroy her.

It’s not a story that offers comfort to any point of view, either left or right. Its portrait of Australia may not please all. I expect it to arouse controversy. But at the least I hope it is a riveting read about our world, now.

And perhaps it may remind a few readers that books matter. That books aren’t just novelty items or celebrity front list accompaniments, one more marketing platform for the famous and the powerful. That books are the last thing left that we have that remind us that we are not alone. Because in a world where the road to the new tyrannies is paved with the fear of others, books show us that we are never alone, nor in the end that different, that what joins us is always more important than what divides us, and that the price of division is ultimately the obscenity of oppression.

And if the book achieves nothing more than reminding one or two readers of these truths, if it encourages but a handful more of people to pick up just one more book that similarly offers a defence of what it is to be human, my creditors will be, as always, disappointed, but I’ll judge the book a success.

Richard Flanagan

And then I realised that what was happening to me was but a very small example of what was happening in a much larger, much more horrific way around the world. It was clear that endless lies were being told about Muslims, terrorists, Iraq, refugees, our own freedoms and liberties, and it was being done to protect power and money, and no one seemed to care. And the target of all this hate, all these lies were always the weak and the powerless, the battlers.

It became possible to say anything outrageous, and the more outrageous the more publicity it got. Aborigines hadn’t really suffered. Refugees weren’t really genuine. Torture wasn’t torture if Americans did it, and Australians were doing their Australian duty doing whatever Americans told them. To protect our freedoms as Australians, laws were passed here in Australia whereby people can now disappear and we will not know, and no one cared about that either.