Craig Silvey: Award-winning novelist

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image-craigsilvey200Craig Silvey was only 19 when he finished his first novel, Rhubarb. It was published two years later in 2004 and won Craig The Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist award. The book was hailed by critics and readers alike and was chosen as the ‘One Book’ for the Perth International Writers’ Festival in 2005, and was included in the national Books Alive campaign.

ln 2005, he wrote a children’s book with illustrator Sonia Martinez, called The World According to Warren. His second novel, Jasper Jones, has just been released and has already garnered rave reviews. It has been compared favourably to the classic, To Kill a Mockingbird and promises to be as successful as Rhubarb was five years ago.

Silvey grew up in rural Western Australia and now lives in Fremantle. His latest project is a band, The Nancy Sikes!, for which he sings and writes.

Click play to listen. Running time: 24.21

Jasper Jones

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
So Craig thanks for joining us today.

Craig
Thanks very much for having me.

Valerie
Now it’s been five years since Rhubarb so that’s quite a long time between novels. What have you been doing in the last five years?

Craig
Well that’s an interesting sort of question. What sort of ended up happening was Rhubarb sort of took off in ways that certainly exceeded my expectations. Well Rhubarb exceeded my expectations when it got published. There was a little bit of time touring with that.

Then there was this second novel that I had started working on and that got shelved. Then Jasper Jones came about and in between them I have been writing songs and trying out lead and travelling and all that sort of thing. It’s been a fair busy five years.

Valerie
So it’s been a busy, creative kind of life. Did you always know that you wanted to write and be creative even when you were younger, when you were little?

Craig
I’m not sure. It’s more a compulsion really. It’s not something that I ever really over thought. It was never this thing of academic inquiry for me. I’m not sure if I ever expected to be an author.

I’d never really thought it like a decision that I made. It’s just something that I have always done and sort of how that I personally try to make sense of things. When I’m writing it’s the place where I feel best about myself, much though it sort of strips me down and almost kills me. I’m genuinely happiest when I’m working on a novel or doing something creative. It’s just something that I naturally gravitate towards for some reason.

Valerie
Tell us how Rhubarb came about. When did you first start writing it? What were you trying to achieve at the time and what happened in terms of a final outcome? Tell us about it.

Craig
I finished school more or less sort of to please my parents. I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to leave home and move to Fremantle and write a novel. It’s just everything that I wanted to do and I was focused on that since I was 16 or 17.

I know during my last year of high school I was starting to do note notes on Rhubarb and starting to flesh it out in my head. So that’s what ended up happening. I moved out of home and rented my own place and I did all the shitty jobs that no one else wanted to afford me the time to write.

I went into it with absolutely no idea of what I was doing and I still have no idea. But I was very naïve and it took a great deal longer than I expected. But no, there it was at the end of three years of long toil and hard work it was sort of there. It was finally finished.

Valerie
Did you always expect that it was going to be published?

Craig
No, not at all. I’m a great believer in that sort of sense of apprenticeship and I knew that it would take a great deal of development and learning the craft. No I never expected it to get published. I just saw it as being some sort of improvement. But I was stunned and thrilled that people reacted so well to the story.

Valerie
What did you do when you talk about an apprenticeship? What did you do to hone your craft or learn how to improve it?

Craig
I think that it begins and ends with simply practicing the craft and reading as much as you can and as broadly as you can. Just imbibing as much information as your body can handle and reading as broadly as you possibly can. And that is going filter into something unique hopefully if you practice the craft enough. I think that it is just simply the time spent with your project. That’s the way that it tends to be working for me.

Valerie
You’ve been compared to Tim Winton and your latest book has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. what do you think when you hear those sorts of comments and praise about your work?

Craig
Look, it’s slightly insane. First of all it’s very, very flattering, well less so for Harper and Tim. But I think that I tend to be fairly grounded about that sort of thing especially since we tend to live in a kind of hysterical media culture where things need to be instantly acclaimed as the next something or the best since. It’s a way for people to identify with a piece of art that they know nothing about.

The same thing happens with music. It sound like or it references this but I don’t know. I think when I have sold 50 million copies and my books are on the shelves in 50 years then maybe I will think they are some credit. But for now, I’m a little more grounded.

Valerie
Tell us about Jasper Jones. Tell the listeners what it’s about.

Craig
Jasper Jones is a coming of age/regional mystery southern gothic love story. It’s a sort of mongrel of genres which came about. It was supposed to be a novella but it quickly got big on me. The best way for me to describe it is to give the opening where we start with Charlie Bucktin who is our book’s narrator and he is 13 years old. He’s sort of waif-ish and bookish and tall and very thin. He lives in a country town called Corrigan.

He’s ostracized in this town for being this intelligent, sensitive boy who loves books and wants to be a writer. So we open the book late one night he’s reading in his sleep-out and there is knock his window and it’s Jasper Jones. Now Jasper Jones is sort of the antithesis of Charlie. He’s more or less an orphan. His mother has passed away and his father is next to no good, so he’s a very rebellious, independent spirit in the town.

He’s also blamed for everything. He’s the kid that this town of Corrigan, he’s the rug under which they sweep their shit. He’s mercilessly sort of marginalized in this town. Jasper has knocked on Charlie’s window and he’s urgently asking for his help. Charlie doesn’t know Jasper but he’s this sort of distant figure of intrigue for him and he’s terrified but he desperately wants to impress him.

So he goes out into the night and Jasper takes him to a secret glade in the bush and shows him this discovery which Jasper which is sure that he is going to be blamed for. He feels that he is imperilled by it simply because of the town. It’s a bit because of the way that it looks and so he’s abjuring Charlie for his help to help him solve this mystery.

That’s where the book begins but it really turns into this sort of treatise on the machinations of the town, about myth and coming of age, and all sorts of things in a way that I didn’t sort of expect when I was writing the piece.

Valerie
So the themes can be very adult although your characters are relatively young. Have you aimed this at the young adult market or are you thinking that adults are going to be reading it as well?

Craig
I don’t think that. I never really have had the luxury of thinking about an audience. I think that sort of thing never really occurred to me during its inception and its development. It’s always just really about the story and about fleshing out the characters and working out why I wanted it to be told and why I cared about these boys and what was sort of lurking beneath it all.

I don’t think that I’m at the stage where I can be really fussy about which group of people reacts to it the best. I just sort of hope that it reaches everybody and I don’t want it to be exclusive of any group. But having said that, I’ve sort of become aware especially when the language of Jasper Jones sorted itself out that it was a more sort of naïve and simple language that Charlie uses.

I knew that it was going to be a broader and sort of accessible work that previously. I thought that it might be accepted a little bit more broadly. I didn’t quite think that Jasper would sort of span the globe as he appears like he is set to do. But I thought that I might invite a few more people into the conversation, sure.

Valerie
Why did you want to tell this story? Why personally did you have to get this out?

Craig
It’s an interesting story because I almost didn’t want to. As I mentioned I was working on another very, very different second book for a couple of years after Rhubarb and it was going surely but very slowly. During one of many nights spent panicking about the whole thing I realized that it would be another couple of years before it sort of broke the tape. And worst of all I was starting to doubt whether or not it was worth it.

So around this time late one night came the name Jasper Jones. It sort appeared. It just sort of whispered itself into my head and I couldn’t let it go and I had to work out who this person was. As these things happen he took hold and he took shape and soon I had Charlie there ready to tell this story. So I had this horrible choice whether to shelve this other novel which was gradually burgeoning out of my grasp and I was losing scope and purpose and lots of things. Or follow Jasper Jones down to his glade.

So I didn’t want to do this because I was working on something else and I’m a very stubborn little man. So once I start something I have to sort of finish it. So it was a very difficult decision but one that I’m glad that I had the courage to make. But yeah, at the time like most affairs I felt so guilty about it, embarking on this new, exciting project that I just threw myself into it and it began.

I’m not sure quite why it just took hold so much. When you know that, I’m dribbling on here but you know, you know that a book is working when and this sounds ridiculous and bit New Age but if you will indulge me. It sort of sounds like you’re a conduit for something more. You feel as thought its sort of working. The story is always a gift to them and you are just a vehicle for its manifestation in some sort of way. So Jasper Jones almost immediately felt like that. It felt like this universal sort of tale that almost, with a lot of hard work, was going to unfurl itself. A lot of things sort of felt too convenient and it just ended up happening. It was just a very exhausting process but it was just this very, very organic and genuine thing. So that was always the lure, I think.

Valerie
Were you concerned at any point that you would go, “Oh, my God, it’s a year later and I feel like how I felt with the other novel that I didn’t finish.” Were you concerned that that might have happened?

Craig
Yeah, I think that every novelist has those nagging doubts and fears. It’s the risk that you take. You dabbled so much time and effort into this very, very risky enterprise and it’s up to you for this entire period until it’s ready to go. Yeah, that’s the risk and you just got to have faith in your instincts.

Valerie
How long did Jasper Jones take to write and in that period when you are in the zone and you are writing describe to us your typical writing day?

Craig
Jasper Jones ended up taking around about 18 months to sort of really crystallize and get done. That first draft was done in about 18 months. Rhubarb  took me three years but I think that I spent more hours on Jasper Jones simply because I had the time.

I guess a typical writing day when things are really in the swing I get up around 9:00 and drink a bucket of coffee, read and that sort of thing. Then I go to the gym and once I get back I’ll work for five or six hours in the afternoon. And then I will stop and rest and cook dinner because when you are in the midst of something that doesn’t seem as though it ever has an end it’s nice to sort of start and finish a task in a day. So cooking a meal is a really nice ritual. Then after that I will work for another five or six hours into the  morning so I will get to bed maybe about 3:00.

Valerie
So you are a night owl?

Craig
Yeah. It’s strange. I tend to be more critical during the day which is great for editing and that sort of thing. But late into the night I’m more prepared to try things and be more inventive and all that sort of thing. It’s a nice, little change. I wake up the next morning and look at it in the afternoon and go, “That’s rather sh**.” And edit it.

Valerie
So obviously you have a publisher now but when Rhubarb was written you didn’t have a publisher initially and I understand that you were 21 when it got published but that was two years after you finished it. How did you finally get published?

Craig
It’s a very short story with a very long prelude. I finished editing the manuscript and I sent if off with about five minutes left before the post office shut to scrape it into the Vogel Awards. Obviously I didn’t win but it was one of the few books that was considered for publication. There was an editor at Allen & Unwin who was really pushing for it but it could never quite break the tape. The further it got the harder it got shunted back. So she ended up soliciting it to other editors at other publishers which was just for me who knew nobody and knew nothing. I didn’t even know what an agent was at that stage. It was just a stunningly kind act because she believed in the book so much and wanted to see it out there.

So I waited and waited but eventually the same sorts of letters were trickling in. the editors at the bigger houses really loved the book but the sad truth was that I had no profile and I had no numbers behind me and the risk was simply too great. This was 12 to 18 months of just waiting for these nice rejection slips. But what ended up happening I met an editor from Fremantle Press after it all sort of died down and he gave me his card and I sent him the manuscript and two days later I ended up with a contract. I sort of wished that I had just gone there first and got a year of my life back.

Valerie
Just around the corner probably as well.

Craig
Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Valerie
Tell us about your band. What do you do with them and what kind of music is it? Do you write songs for it as well?

Craig
Yeah, it started as this kind of distraction to be honest with you. My band is called the The Nancy Sikes! and it started very, very discreetly with just me. I play the electric ukulele so we can never really take ourselves too seriously.

But I think song writing for me initially had always been this really mystical magical thing that I could never really get my head around exactly how people wrote songs. It was just this enduring mystery and I really wanted to know how to do it in the same sort of way that car enthusiasts just want to lift the bar on things and work out how it all works. The same for me with the arts, I just wanted to work out the machinations of song writing . It was just really, really interesting to me.

Once I had some sort of acumen with an instrument it just happened to be the ukulele. These songs just started happening because I’m nothing if not an obsessive little man I ended up writing a bunch of songs in a short amount of time. I wrote like 60 songs or something. I thought if I am going to do it I am going to do it properly so ended up recording them up as little demos on my own playing very, very terrible drums and base guitar behind the scenes. I showed my friends and they didn’t laugh so we started a band.

Valerie
And so where do you play and what are your plans for it?

Craig
Look our plans are very, very loose. It’s hard getting six people into a room together to practice let alone organize shows but we’ve played a few shows and for some reason we chose very large venues. For some reason a lot of people turned out to watch us play and it’s been really, really rewarding. It’s just been amazing.

Yeah, and other than that for some reason we end up playing big shows and celebrity parties. We’ve played at the first birthday party of the daughter of one of the Australian Boomers. We ended up playing at Shaun Tan’s wedding a few months ago. Celebrity parties and big shows that’s what we do best.

Valerie
That’s a nice literary event. Who knew that the electric ukulele would be so appealing to people?

What’s your advice for other first time novelists, not that you are a first time novelist now but you are relatively young. What would your advice be to people out there who are trying to get into the industry?

Craig
Oh, wow. I never feel as though I’m qualified to offer any advice. As I have mentioned I never really feel as though I’ve got any idea what I am doing. It never feels like mastery at all. It always seems like I’ve sort of fluked things just simply by kicking around. I’ve not furthered my education. I haven’t attended any course. All I’ve done is read and practice the craft and I think maybe that is the best advice that I could offer anybody.

I’m under no illusions about my intelligence or talent or anything of the sort. I think it’s just the fact that I’m willing to sequester myself in a hovel of my own making for a year or so to write something which may or may not be read by anyone rather than well-meaning friends and relatives.

I think that it is rare for a young person to have that kind of impulse. But I think as an author you have got to be prepared to have that kind of sustained focus. It’s not something that you can do part-time. It’s more than obsessive.

But other than that I think that you have got to write honestly and maybe you have got to try and remove your ego from the story and be brutal with yourself. You have got to be your best barometer and try and write the book that you yourself would like to read and that means that you have got to have faith in your instincts and your intuition because when you are staring at a blank page it is really all you have. You are following a line of inquiry and you’ve got no idea why so you’ve just got to trust in the story and it will end up rewarding you. I think if you work hard enough and stay with it you can only ever end up with something that you are proud of.

Valerie
Finally, then Jasper Jones is out now so what are you obsessing over now?

Craig
Mostly I’m just banging on about myself  a lot to anyone who will listen.

Valerie
What do you want to be obsessing over next in terms of a creative pursuit?

Craig
I’ve started my third book. I started it last year and I’m actually a fair way through it but it seems  like it is harder this time around to find the time to get back into it. I need a real block of time otherwise it’s simply not worth it. There is no point for trying to get into it for two weeks and then get out to tour.

Earlier this year we spent touring Jasper and then next year Jasper Jones is out in the UK and then a year after that it is out in the States. Hopefully in the midst of that I can find some time to keep working or else I’ll just go mental.

Valerie
Have you decided that this is it that you are going to be a full-time writer forever? Is this your calling?

Craig
I’m not sure that it is my calling but it’s certainly my compulsion. I feel absolutely blessed that I have been able to do it for this long. I feel so grateful that I’m in a place that affords me the opportunity to indulgently spend all this time working on something that I want to work on. It’s so rare in the world I think. If I can do this for the rest of  my life I will be the luckiest little man that ever picked up a pen.

Valerie
Wonderful and on that note thank you very much for your time today, Craig.

Craig
Thanks so much.

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