A taste of something new at The Perth Writer’s Festival 2012
Award winning Western Australian author Craig Silvey (Novels: Rhubarb, Jasper Jones) steps out of his garret to give us an exclusive sample of his new work in progress and talks about writing his best seller, Jasper Jones.
In the Chair – artistic Director of the Perth Festival. Jonathan Holloway.
Craig reads from his new work
Craig: “A work in progress is very private and you need to be prepared for so much to shift. This is first draft quite raw, very rough, and you’ll probably notice there’s still a lot of work to do. I need to be a little bit cagey about it because it is a private endeavour and it needs to sort itself out on its own terms.
Jonathan: “Do you start with the voice, the character?”
Craig: “In my first book I started with this vignette of a girl walking in Fremantle. I was only 16 and I had no idea what I was doing. With Jasper it was this idea … these two boys in a clearing and I just felt like chasing the idea and it swirled on from that.”
“This new book evolved from a setting, a carnival , a fascinating time in WA history, a huge part of our popular culture and it was the catalyst for this story, that setting.”
Jonathan: “Carnival suggests a joy to it?
Craig: “You would hope so wouldn’t you otherwise it’s going to be very dour!” But it needs to justify itself. It is part of the broader human experience.”
“I have a stronger sense of the arcs than I have had before. And I’ve had so much time to think it but not to write it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate because I’ve been touring with Jasper, and that’s given me time to think about the next project but not where it’s all actually heading to.”
“Hopefully my year ahead will resemble something of a hermitage. That’s what I’m really looking forward to. It’s just you and the project. It’s very intimate to write a novel … to a point where it starts to take your life over, so that you feel you’re more a part of the fictional world you’re embedded in and not the real world … it gets a little creepy. Then it goes from a private endeavour to a very public one and the worlds are so different. A skill I’ve had to acquire. I’m keen to get that part of the job back where it’s just me and big ideas come from small rooms and I’m trying to get back to that small room where I’m just focused on one thing, and then I can do my best work.”
“There will be characters in my next work. I will introduce people. That reading I just gave was a little mean. It’s strange to talk about something I’m working on, very counterintuitive. There will be a couple of boys who move away from the institution and find themselves, I can’t say very much more about it really I’m keeping my cards close to my chest … it’s not really crystalised yet.”
Where does it all start?
“I’m never that organized. Things tend to select me. As an unqualified and untrained human being and as an author all I have are my instincts and a strong sense of intuition … you have to trust in that other worldly barometer and I think this is interesting … I could spend a couple of years of my life on this. You’re a problem solver, you select a way to tell a story. You select arcs that your characters should follow and for me early on in a piece you might introduce aspects that have no worldly purpose … a character, a line of inquiry, a plot point, and you might not understand it for months and it will snap into place and you’ll look back through the narrative and you’ll feel that it was always heading to that conclusion and you feel a little impressive – maybe I am a charlatan! I don’t go into a story with preconceived ideas, I write to explore to find things and I just do things that I feel are right, that the story needs, I am just the conduit.”
Jonathan: “Anyone can write but only real writers can explore themselves … Was it a surprise the level of success you had with Jasper.
Craig: “Not at all!!!! Seriously though, yes of course. It’s the most amazing thing that has happened. although while I was writing it, it felt universal as if it was given to me and now I can talk about it from a distance and let go. When you hold it in your hand the first time you have to stop having a very private relationship with that book. You have to let it go and let other people have their own interpretations with the book. I remember coming out at 2am when I was living with my brother, dirt poor, and he swiped his credit card to the nub to get this book over the line, and I sat down one night and had a spooky feeling and said this book is either going to go nowhere or give us everything. Of course I am utterly surprised and amazed and I’ve had a lucky run but there’s always something in it that I’ve believed in.”
Jonathan: “It has its own life now and it’s being made into a film. Do you now let that go?”
Craig: “I have to otherwise it would drive me mental. It’s a strange thing to trust other people with your work and I’m a control freak, very possessive over the story. I will attest to being a little worried but I’m excited. “
“What I will say though is that I have made sure that I will be there on the day they film the cricket scene because I don’t’ know if you’ve seen the way cricket is captured on film but it’s nowhere as near as terrifying as it is in real life – for a young boy!”
Is Corrigan a real place?
“The town of Corrigan in Jasper Jones … the truth is that it’s a conflation of a lot of things to do with country towns, I used to live in one, my parents grew up in a country town in the 1960’s and it did give me a great sense of freedom to cobble together my own town.”
“I do kind of have an authority complex. I’m not very good at having a boss. I worked doing menial labour to give myself time to write, and I’m not very good at it … having someone else tell me what to do.”
What drew Craig to the setting for Jasper Jones?
“What drew me to the setting? It comes back to that notion of instinct. I’m interested by subcultures that move against the norm with collections of people who don’t fit in elsewhere and want to explore other ways of living. I’m interested in different lives, I’m interested by people who live on the fringe and look in, and why the status quo is as it is, and that’s a way to assess the mainstream to see how people live on the outside and why?
Jonathan: “You have a strong WA voice. Has travelling changed the way you perceive Western Australia?”
Craig: “It’s bestowed on me the sense that so many traits can be tied to universal themes and that we have a unique and fascinating history here.”
“I’m interested in people that are at boiling point where they haven’t quite decided where they are at and are at the cusp of big decisions, but I guess as an author you have this desire to chase the worries and you look for conflict and drama and those are the things you want to investigate.”
Jonathan: “Can you afford not to do menial work anymore?”
Craig: “For the short term future I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate with this last novel, very very lucky. I never expected that Jasper Jones would be translated. All I ever wanted was that the publishers would sell out of their print run and give me a solid chance to write another one. The good thing about getting translated is that you get paid over and over for doing the same thing. I’ve had to live very frugally, and that’s kind of ingrained. The year I wrote Jasper Jones I earnt less than $5,000, didn’t leave the house and relied on the generosity of my family.”
Jonathan: “Who are your influences?”
Craig: “I barely read. I have no influences! But seriously, now more than ever I read as broadly as I can, writers like Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Tim Winton … I grew up reading his books. But I never had that sense of cultural cringe … that passed me by, because I never had any doubt that real and meaningful stories could be set here in Western Australia. I’m exploring Tom Hungerford’s world at the moment and that’s really wonderful. There’s a long list really.”
Jonathan: “Has there been anything emotionally difficult to write?”
Craig: “ Absolutely, for those of you who haven’t read it in Jasper Jones there is a cricket scene and it was never meant to be so vindicating and joyous but there was a version of that story that made me cry and I couldn’t do it and I had to change it very quickly. Following that scene, what happened in the garden was difficult … and violent scenes, those are difficult for me to write. The material I’m investing in at the moment takes a lot of fortitude … I have to steep myself to do it. It’s important to have emotional dynamic and most of the time it’s a real joy doing what I do.”
Jonathan: “Is the banter between Jasper and Charlie drawn from your teenage years?”
Craig: “I’m ashamed to say that they didn’t come from my teenage years but very recent extrapolations! I still ask ridiculous questions, that’s how we learn about each other. In truth I am a child !!!!”
Jonathan: “How would you advise young writers to shape their craft?”
Craig: “Even as a child I loved stories. I ate them up. It was a way to escape and do things independently without having to be at all brave, then I realized writing was a gift and it was an amazing realization. The best thing to do is practice your craft and do it very very stubbornly. Over 10 years ago when I was 17 and working on my first novel, it didn’t seem that remarkable that I sacrificed everything to work on my novel … I gave up a lot to develop. Write, read and practice your craft and do it constantly. It requires dedication, stubborness and stickability. It’s tough, lonesome, difficult and on lots of days it’s hard to believe in. I know lots of authors who still think they can’t do it. You have to promise yourself that you will show up, keep at it. If you don’t cast a line you won’t catch anything, so every day you just have to crystallize something more, until it becomes something substantial.”
Jonathan: “Craig, thank you for reading 17 minutes of something so new and raw, and thank you for sharing it with us and for making us laugh.”
NB: This post is the fourth in a series of “Snapshots” compiled from Author talks and discussions at The Perth Writer’s Festival 2012. I have tried to stay as close to the spoken word as possible but apologise if I have misguidedly taken anything out of context, or misquoted anyone. I was typing very fast, often in crowded theatre venues where lots was being said and much was going on. Please accept that my intention is to make the speakers’ and authors’ books, words, thoughts and ideas available to others in the most positive way possible.