In conversation with Craig Silvey

I understand that literary conversation events in Canberra go best when the subject is political. I guess it’s the nature of the beast – that is, of living in the national capital. But for me, it’s the fiction writers that I want to see, and we do get some interspersed amongst the run of historians and journalists that we get. Even so, it’s been three years since I attended an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event, due partly to the pandemic which halted the program for a while and partly because I have a pretty full dance card. However, Mondays are often free, so Mr Gums and decided to check out Craig Silvey. I’ve only read his best-selling Jasper Jones (my review) but that’s because you can’t read everything. I would like have read Honeybee. Tonight’s focus, though, was his latest novel, Runt.

The conversation was conducted by local author Irma Gold, who is no stranger to this blog. She’s always good in the interviewer’s chair, being both warm in manner and astute about writing – and so it proved again tonight.

The conversation

After MC Colin Steele did the usual introductions, Irma took over and introduced Silvey and the book we were there to hear about. Runt is, she said, a middle-grade children’t book. It features a solitary girl, Annie, with a penchant for fixing things, and the dog, Runt that she befriends. Irma found Runt a heart-warming book, which was lovely to read to her 11-year-old son. She believes it is destined to become a children’s classic. It would, both she and Colin Steele said, make an excellent Christmas gift. What a shame our grandson is only 4.

Irma Gold and Craig Silvey, 2022, ANU

After some light-hearted banter with Craig about a Fremantle biscuit artist – who knew? – Irma got down to business. Noting that Runt represents a new audience for Craig – that middle-grade age – she asked what his favourite book/s had been as a child. Craig replied that he’d been a voracious reader as a child. (Show me an author who wasn’t!) He loved a range of books, including those traditional classics like Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books, but then he made some points that were specific to him. For example, he liked books that made him feel things, and named a short story by Paul Jennings titled “Busker”. It was the first story, he said, that made him cry. Another favourite was Goodnight Mr Tom, which elicited sounds of agreement from the audience, and which, he later realised, might have partly inspired Honeybee.

He also liked books that made him laugh, and he mentioned Roald Dahl, Paul Jennings again, and the James Herriot vet series.

After this, there was some discussion of Runt, which is set in the perfectly named country town of Ups and Downs. There are Annie and Runt of course, and some villains, including the farmer, Earl, who is also a collector. One of the things he collects is water! Earl is buying up farms to get the water, and wants Annie’s family’s farm. The plot revolves around Annie’s plans to save the farm. There was more chat about the story and the characters, which include the wonderfully named 13-year-old Fergus Fink, and then we moved onto setting and themes.

Irma noted that Craig had grown up on an orchard in a small country town, and asked whether this had inspired Runt. Craig responded that the novel was an “affectionate love letter to country life“. He loves country people – their use of understatement, and their dry humour – and the country makes for great fiction settings because it is “exposed to the whims of elemental forces”.

This led to a discussion about the relevance of climate change to the book. Craig observed that water policy and climate change are putting people under pressure, and that villain Earl’s avarice is boundless. There are subtle messages in the book, including the fact that people are more important than hoarding/collecting things!

Irma commented that Runt is very different to Honeybee, but it does encompass diversity. Craig responded that he writes about Australians in Australia, and that we are a diverse country. Irma then said that the book had a contemporary setting but a very classic feel. Craig replied that he wanted classical elements underpinning his text but that, for example, a 13-year-old boy’s aspiration now would be to be a YouTube star. Of course!

From here Irma turned to screenplays, because each of Craig’s books have or are being adapted to film, with Craig also writing the screenplays. There was discussion about the screenplay writing process, and how Craig, “wrote them sort of together”. Film development for Runt is already underway, with production possibly starting next year.

Craig had some interesting things to say about writing screenplays versus novels. There are rigidities to screenwriting that you don’t have in novel writing, he said. The screenplay format can be too restrictive to let your creativity fly, so he enjoys novel writing, but, conversely, writing screenplays reins him in as a novelist, which has benefits.

Irma’s next question concerned publishing and the fact that Craig has been published for 20 years now. How has publishing changed? Interesting question, responded Craig. For him, the biggest change is in the post-publishing aspect. Back in 2004 when his first novel, Rhubarb, was published, we were not as “connected” so you had no idea what was happening with your book. Now, with social media, you get immediate recognition and can see what is happening. Reviewing is democratised and it is “a really beautiful thing”, he said. (As a blogger, I appreciated this.)

Publishing, itself, though is still painful. You take this tender part of yourself and you expose it to the world. So, while his success means that he no longer has to do the “shitty jobs” he had to do when he was 19 and writing Rhubarb, in terms of writing, he still faces the blank page with the same uncertainty. This is essential, though, to being a writer: you need to “straddle the pain and struggle” but you need also to balance it with hope and pride. Such a mentally healthy attitude.

On whether he was always going to be a writer, Craig talked about meeting his first writer, Glyn Parry, at school, when he was 14. He realised, suddenly that writers were human beings and it could be a vocation. He wrote to Parry, and got some great advice: “Don’t become a writer, be a writer”. Craig didn’t go to university. Instead, he did menial jobs and read and read – and “forensically examined novels.”

After a delightful little interlude discussing his career as an electric ukelele player in a band called the Nancy Sykes (inspired by Dickens, of course). During the band’s short life, they apparently played Shaun Tan’s bride down the aisle! A little later in the interview there was another fun interlude, this time about his being a finalist in Cleo’s Bachelor of the Year contest and being described as “the thinking woman’s buttered crumpet”. It was an entertaining story, but I’m not going to spoil it just in case you get to a launch and hear it yourself. Instead, back to the writerly life.

Irma asked Craig whether he enjoyed book tours, and the response was immediate. He loves it and is deeply grateful to anyone who comes out to hear him. Novelists lead bifurcated lives. They tease stories out of themselves, then release them to the audience at which point they become each reader’s to appreciate and define. He said most authors, like himself, feel profoundly empty when they finish a book, but engaging with readers fills him back up again.

Q&A

These sessions are always well-run, resulting, always, in time for a Q&A. There were some excellent questions. Canberra didn’t let Irma down!

On getting the voice of a teenager, and whether he sees hope in younger people: Craig said that he has gravitated to teenage protagonists (though Annie is I think pre-teen), because everything is amplified at that age. The bubble your parents keep you in is pierced and you start to recognise the truth of things. It’s a time of profound change, when you start to define who you are, where you’re going. He likes to pair his protagonist with something opposite that can provide the catalyst for change. As for hope, he said that Runt‘s protagonist Annie’s hope is infectious. She inspires change, kindness, generosity, hope.

On diversity and the challenge of writing characters outside his own experience: (This would have been my question if I hadn’t been taking notes and had to get up and go to a microphone!) Craig responded that the further his character is from his own experience, the more responsible he feels. His practice is to connect with the appropriate community, as he did with the trans community for Honeybee. I loved Craig’s response to this question. He had three rules of thumb for writing ethically: do no harm; your purpose must have merit; and execute properly. Ethical writing is something we must discuss, he said. Responding to a follow-up question on Honeybee, he said that while the trans character doesn’t announce herself at the beginning, it was clear to all audiences that she was trans. His writing was informed by the trans community. The risks trans people take in disclosing themselves means that his character would not have announced their trans nature immediately. His character Sam is slow to trust, which is true.

On film adaptations and how he feels about giving over control: Craig said that he has screenwriter all his novels which partly answers the question! However, filmmaking, he continued, is a vastly collaborative process which is the opposite of writing a novel. He said that seeing Jasper Jones brought the screen was one of the most extraordinary moments of his life. It’s a communal artistic pursuit, and the result can be something larger than you are capable of conceiving on your own.

Irma closed by reiterating that Runt was a “really beautiful book” and that Craig had been compared to Roald Dahl. That is an accolade worth having. Having not read the book, I can’t say whether I agree or not, but I can say that Craig came across as a genuinely positive yet thoughtful and serious-minded person, and that Irma did a great job of bringing it all out. Thoroughly enjoyable – and there should have been more people there!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
10 October 2022
Podcast available at SoundCloud

25 thoughts on “In conversation with Craig Silvey

  1. I feel a different sort of frustration. I am less and less willing to traipse into the city these days, so I value author events at local libraries. But they nearly always feature authors of genre fiction — crime and YA, mostly, or commercial women’s fiction, and there’s hardly anything for us.
    And I think this is so unfair to authors of LF, because they typically get less sales than the others do, and they need the publicity more.

    • I understand what you are saying, Lisa. I guess it’s not surprising that local libraries will focus on what the majority of their readers will read, which is genre? We are lucky here that the “city” is easy to get to – there’s no real traipsing. For us, and we are not inner Canberra, it’s about a 20-minute drive, and we could park in the building carpark.

      Colin Steele’s programs are wide-ranging but I often have to miss the ones closest to my interests, because – too much to do.

  2. If you want another author event – if you can tear yourself from the dance floor – I think I saw Jane Rawson will be talking in Canberra soon. I might buy Runt for Ms 11, though her mother is even fiercer about women authors for girls books than I am.

    • Oh will she, Bill? I will see if I can find out about that. I hope it’s not when we are in Melbourne again.

      I understand Ms 11’s mother, but note that Runt has a female protagonist who clearly acts with agency. I think that might fill the bill. (I think she’s also 11.) Also, we do have some great male writers for children and they shouldn’t be ignored. We should just make sure that our women writers are ALSO supported. (I went to hear Paul Jennings speak once – took my son who loved him at the time – and he was so inspiring to hear. Did your kids read him like Silvey and my son did?)

  3. I’ll second your friend’s comments about Rhubarb. During the decade or thereabouts of “Silvey silence,” I was routinely rubbished by people when I told them that I thought it was a better and more original novel than Jasper Jones. I still hold to that statement. However, you should definitely also read Honeybee; it’s excellent. A great book to make a comeback with, and totally engaging.
    Just a few other comments:
    – Goodnight Mr Tom: I had to study that book in Year 10 lit. I don’t think it had been made into a TV mini-series at that stage. My memory is that I found it a bit too sentimental, but my impressions might have been a bit off. I remember doing The Merry Go Round in the Sea a couple of years later and hating it, and I suspect my impressions were WELL off in that instance.
    – “Reviewing is democratised, and it’s a beautiful thing.” Yes, perhaps. Unfortunately, so are snark and ignorance. Perhaps that’s the price of democracy.
    – Three rules of thumb for writing ethically: I’d like to expand the list a little – Consider refraining from writing about things that it would be better, for reasons of representational inequity, for somebody else to write about. Consider writing about your own impressions and experiences of other people’s cultures, experiences, beliefs etc., rather than transcribing other’s viewpoints and histories. And if you do record your own impressions in this way, be careful that they do not misrepresent or take agency away from others.

    • Oh thanks for all this Glen. I will try to read Rhubarb and Honeybee.

      Re Goodnight Mr Tom. I read this to one of my children and I seem to remember thinking it was a great story but not great writing though my memory may be failing me. Ha ha re Stow. My favourite off-impessions story was writing an essay on Gone with the wind when I was 15 and ending with the point that Margaret Mitchell was a better writer than Charles Dickens! My teacher very generously said, simply, “I hope you will not always think so”. I thought I would of course, but she was right.

      Re reviewing, Silvey was very generous. Of course you are right but there are downs to every positive.

      Far additions to writing ethically.

      • Oh, that’s hilarious about Mitchell and Dickens (“Ashley! Oh, Ashley!”). As you say, very generous of your teacher. I’m more familiar with Stow’s poetry than I am with his (adult) novels. I intend to rectify that one day. At the time, I was probably hankering after Midnite too much, which I had as a pre-adolescent, and which I still think is brilliant for what it is.
        Yes, its foolish, even churlish, for authors to forget the importance of the reading public, and the readerships that the more fortunate or worthy ones are able to build up. But given that artists usually have to contend with any number of insecurities, I do have sympathy with those who say they never go anywhere near Goodreads and the like. Some won’t even read the more curated reviews they receive.

        • Oh, I’m glad I gave you a laugh Glen (it always gives me a laugh) – and apologies for the typos. I was doing writing to text on my iPad under pressure and, as usual, not checking what it was writing.

          I must read Midnite.

          Yes, I agree. I can completely understand authors not going near GoodReads. It’s okay to not like a book but there are ways of saying that that is constructive rather than cruel, destructive, unkind.

  4. Always interested to understand how authors approach (or feel about) screen adaptations of their work – I’ve heard Tsiolkas talk about this most recently (he’s of the ‘hand it over to someone else’ camp). As for Jasper Jones… having had three kids study it at school, having read it myself, and having seen the play and the movie, I have no more thoughts about it 😀

  5. To your comment about all writers being voracious readers: I was surprised when I learned that Mercedes Lackey, whose work I’ve read a LOT of, does not read, especially any fan fiction. It’s easy for people to see a tiny connection to some other book and accuse her of plagiarism, so she’s avoided reading for ages. Funny, though, that she actually created the throne that’s so famous in Game of Thrones years before George R.R. Martin ever wrote his novels. It feels quite directly like plagiarism, but she just let it go.

    I would say that I like country setting novels for the same reason as Silvey, but I hadn’t realized the degree to which the elements randomly affecting a community also enhances my enjoyment of such novels. Things just seem to happen to these characters because of the elements, and how they respond or react is part of the good stuff. I’m thinking of Eleanor Dark’s book Lantana Lane, and also the numerous folk horror novels and movies out there. Wicker Man!

    • Hmm, I read this comment Melanie, and thought I’d responded. Either I didn’t, or I did via the WP app and it got lost, which seems to happen sometimes. As I recollect, I commented that there are always exceptions to the rule! While most writers seem to be (say they are) voracious readers there’s always someone who isn’t. Interesting, though, that she fears accusations of plagiarism, though it’s understandable.

      I like your comment about small community set novels. Of course you’re right that small communities tend to be the perfect setting for horror – that’s probably one situation where I don’t particularly like small communities. Ha ha!

      • Yes, folk horror! Small community weirdness. I recently learned all the extras in Wicker Man were actually people who lived on the island where they filmed. Perhaps these people were truly small community weirdos. How exciting!

  6. Hi Sue

    Just wanted to say thank you for this very lovely write up and so sorry to miss you there. I had two boys at home and needed to dash back to them. Hope everything is wonderful in your world!

    Irma x

    Irma Gold author & freelance editor Co-host, Secrets from the Green Room podcast Ambassador, ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge Ambassador, Save Elephant Foundation Website http://www.irmagold.com/ | Facebook https://www.facebook.com/IrmaGoldAuthor/ | Twitter https://twitter.com/Irma_Gold | Instagram https://www.instagram.com/irma.gold/ | YouTube https://www.youtube.com/user/irmagold | podcast https://www.secretsfromthegreenroom.com/ Sign up to my newsletter here http://www.irmagold.com/blog THE BREAKING (debut novel), out now WHERE THE HEART IS (kids picture book), out now SEREE’S STORY (kids picture book), out now

    Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwnB2ndUZ7Y Fergie, Duchess of York, read Where the Heart Is

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