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

Impressive reading initiative from the University of Canberra

How proud am I? Not that I had anything to do with it, but the University of Canberra, in my city, has launched an inspiring initiative which it calls the UC Book Project. This is a project whereby every student (yes every student) who commences a course (yes any course) at the University of Canberra in 2013 will be given the same book, in print or electronic form, and will be required (yes required) to read it!

The aim of the project is, according to the University’s website, “to enhance the first-year experience of students, increase their knowledge of contemporary and global issues, and foster a sense of community among students”.

Have you ever heard of such a thing? I hadn’t, but apparently, according to the project’s major proponent Professor Nick Klomp*, many universities around the world have a “freshman or common reading program”. How can a university manage to ensure that every student in every course read one particular book? Well, the website says that:

Different courses will incorporate the concepts and content of the book in different ways, and there are several activities planned for the year for which students will need to have read the book.

The University will also encourage students to engage in an online discussion about the book. Anyone will be able to read the discussion but only staff and students will be able to post comments. Fair enough.

Ok, so what’s the project’s inaugural book? Just wait, it’s coming, but first I want to tell you that it was selected by a panel comprising Deputy Vice Chancellor Nick Klomp, Professor of Arts and Humanities Jen Webb, Director-General of the National Library of Australia Anne-Marie Schirtlich, Patron of the National Year of Reading William McInnes, and local award-winning author (whom I’ve reviewed twice in this blog) Nigel Featherstone. What fun they must have had trying to choose one book!

Anyhow, enough rabbiting on. It’s time to tell you the book: Craig Silvey‘s Jasper Jones. This Western Australian novel made quite a splash when it was published in 2009 and is, I think, a great fit for the purpose. It’s readable and not too long; it has a good plot that draws you along, and some wonderful dialogue; it’s a coming-of-age novel but is not specifically young adult; and, without it or me being crass, it ticks some boxes relating to multicultural and indigenous Australia. In a word, it’s real in a way that should appeal to a wide range of students. I read and reviewed Jasper Jones here (early in my blogging career).

Congratulations to the University of Canberra for a truly wonderful initiative and many thanks to Nigel Featherstone for bringing it to my attention. I can’t believe how hard Nigel works for literature in the ACT region (and Australia) while still managing to write himself. I dips me lid to ‘im!

* And, readers, would you believe that Professor Klomp is a scientist!? I dips me lid to ‘im too!

Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (Review)

Jasper Jones cover (Courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Jasper Jones cover (Courtesy Allen & Unwin)

What is is about coming-of-age novels? Why do we like to read them long after we’ve (hopefully) come of age ourselves? Is it because we like to compare our own experience with that of others? Whatever the reason, it is clear that we do like to read them because they sure keep being written and published. In my few months of blogging I have already written about two, and have now read another, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones.

Like many, though not all, such novels, Jasper Jones has a first person narrator. It is set in a small country town in Western Australia in the late 1960s, and the protagonist, Charlie, is the nearly 14-year-old son of a high school literature teacher. He is a reader and therefore, almost by definition in the world of teenage boys, not “cool”. The book opens with the town’s bad-boy, Jasper Jones, knocking on his window in the middle of the night and, to Charlie’s surprise and delight, asking him for his help. The plot revolves around the shocking help that Jasper wants, how Charlie responds and the impact on him, his friends and family.

It is  a pretty dark and gritty story, and Silvey, mostly, controls it well, though there are times when he pushes the melodrama button a little too heavily. Silvey teases us at the beginning with the notion that the book will be a re-setting of Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird. There’s a death, an indigenous person likely to be blamed for it, a much maligned apparently “mad” person,  an apparently thoughtful and wise father AND Charlie’s own regular reference to the book and to how Atticus Finch might think in particular situations. However, fortunately I think, Silvey is a little more sophisticated a writer than that and Harper Lee’s book functions more as a frame for the story and the ideas being explored than as a direct model for the plot.

One of the things I like in the novel is the friendship between Charlie and his Vietnamese refugee school-mate, Jeffrey Lu. I’m not a teenage boy but I have known some in my time! The dialogue between the two boys rings pretty true – their puns, their ribbing of each other, their jokey arguments. True too is their uneven burgeoning interest in the opposite sex – Charlie is attracted to classmate Eliza Wishart  and to enjoying some “sassytime” with her, while Jeffrey’s focus is on making the town cricket team.

The novel is neatly plotted – and while some of it is predictable it is not all so. The fact that Charlie fears insects seems to be resolved when we discover that his love-interest Eliza has a similar fear – but it reappears again, cleverly, in the denouement. The story is well-paced, and it deals with a range of side issues, such as racism (against the Vietnamese refugee family, and the “half-caste” Jasper Jones), on top of the usual coming-of-age ones, such as loss of innocence (in several meanings of the word). Many of the characters could be seen as stereotyped – the “bastard” cricket coach who aligns himself with the “boorish” bully boys, and the cold-hearted status-seeking shire president, to name two – but most of them work despite this. Charlie’s mother though stretches the imagination a little too much: she has married down, she has been forced to live in a country town too small for her, and she has lost a child. This does seem a bit of overkill and the panning out of her part of the story feels a bit like one too many layers in the book.

One of the concepts that Charlie explores is that of “timing and chance”. He learns that despite your best laid plans, time and chance sometimes take over and there’s not much you can do about it. Another issue that runs through the book is that of reading, words and language. Early on Jasper Jones tells Charlie he trusts him because:

But I hope you might see things from my end. That’s what you do, right?  When you’re reading. You’re seeing what it’s like for other people.

With this coming near the beginning of the book, it’s not surprising that Charlie’s ability to empathise, to see things from other points of view, is pushed to the limits as the story progresses. Charlie, whose ambition is to be a writer, also learns about the limits of words, about when they are useful and when they are not, and about finding the right ones to use when they are.

There are many thematic and stylistic things that can be talked about in this book, making it a good one for discussion but, in the end, it is a fairly traditional coming-of-age story in its style, tone and structure. That said, if you like such stories, as I do, there’s a good chance you’ll find this a compelling and entertaining even if not a particularly challenging read. And is there anything wrong with that?

Craig Silvey
Jasper Jones
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009
368pp.
ISBN: 9781741757743