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More than Rhubarb: Craig Silvey profile

Two years into writing his second novel, West Australian writer Craig Silvey thought he’d blown it. Instead of quickly following up his first book, Rhubarb, with a new offering, he found himself caught up in his own notes and losing sight of his characters. “I kept expanding it and it turned into this amorphous blob and I just got lost inside it. It just got a bit big on me,” Silvey says down the phoneline from Fremantle. “I was kind of beginning to lose faith in it. I had this cold sweat and woke up with an idea of Jasper Jones.”

The success of Rhubarb put the pressure on Silvey. It was named the One Book of the Perth Festival and scored him the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist award. There were even comparisons with another WA literary titan Tim Winton, which Silvey humbly dismisses as “very flattering for me and equally unflattering for him”. It all left Silvey cornered with an out of control manuscript and some big expectations. His solution was to “critically pan myself but then bring myself life with Jasper.”

The story came tapping at his window late at night just like the part-Aboriginal title character of his new book, Jasper Jones, comes to visit the geeky narrator, Charlie. “I just had this opening kernel of an idea and it wouldn’t let me go and I kept thinking about it and thinking about it. Once I started Jasper I felt so incredibly guilty about shelving the second book that I was working crazy hours. In 2007 I rarely left my room.”

The idea that seized him was of a small town murder that Jasper knows will be pinned on him because of his troublemaking reputation. Late at night Jasper sneaks up to Charlie’s window looking for help and we’re drawn into a story of small town outsiders. The tension between wanting to belong and being different is clearest in Charlie’s best mate Jeffrey Lu, a Vietnamese-born boy who is trying to break into the town cricket side despite the racist jibes of local yobbos and even the coach.

For Silvey characters not only dictate where the story goes but become part of his life. “You start to think of them as people you know, as old friends. The strangest sensation is when they start invading your dreams and start really appearing to you as real people. It could be the start of some sort of psychosis,” Silvey laughs.

But all Silvey’s characters share the need to escape his fictional town of Corrigan. When asked about whether Corrigan is based on his own home town of Dwellingup Silvey hesitates before calling it a "rural blend" of towns he’s visited. “Country towns are just so cloying and pressing that you really crave something else. Particularly for kids who don’t fit into the machinery of a country town. Those on the outside can have a horrible experience.”

While the book is set in the 1960s in the paranoid wake of Perth’s Nedlands murders, it feels very contemporary. Racism and outsider still strike a chord with Australians in country towns as much as big cities. “It could be a country town now,” Silvey agrees. In Jasper Jones the word ‘sorry’ is carved into eucalypts and rusty car doors as Charlie reflects it “means you feel the pulse of other people’s pain… and saying it means you take a share of it.”. It’s a reminder after lat year’s historic Parliamentary apology to Aboriginal people that there’s still a share to be taken.

Not that the book is heavy with issues and murder. Characters trade hypotheticals on how pirates could find half-fish mermaids attractive and whether it would be better to have a hat made of spiders or penises for fingers. Silvey delivers warm characters rather than sermons. This love of characters saw Silvey collaborate on The World According to Warren, a children’s book based on the guidedog from Rhubarb, because “I sort of felt like in Rhubarb he was treated unfairly so he got the opportunity to set the record straight.”

Whether it’s the Jeffrey Lu, Eleanor the blind heroine of Rhubarb or her guidedog, Silvey is comfortable in other people’s skins and occasionally their fur. “I try not to panic and deal with things as sensitively as possible and try to flesh these people out as characters first, which is what they are. They’re human beings – well they’re not real human beings, but you know.” With a five year wait between books, Silvey has already started hearing his real or imaginary voices guiding him to another book. “I’m working on the third one, but it’s just finding the time in between banging on about myself,” Silvey laughs.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 328.

Comments

  1. What a great article ...

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  2. I have just discovered Rhubarb. Picked it up in the local library and I only started reading it a couple of hours ago. It's the best novel I've read in years. I wanted to read it out aloud to anyone who would listen. So I had to Google Craig to find out more about him. I saw Jasper Jones in the library too. That's going to be my next read. I think he is putting himself down when he compares himself unfavourably with Tim Winton.

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  3. It's a great book, John. Craig has a new one out Amber Amulet though it's more YA than previous books. Jasper Jones is my favourite thus far.

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