Craig Silvey on writing, relationships and the books that didn’t work out

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Silvey has sold more books than I have had hot breakfasts.

And, after he poses for our photographer, he sits down with me to eat a hot breakfast.

The Fremantle-based author is staying in the Sydney CBD while he does a leg of his east coast publicity tour for the new book.

The eggs florentine at The Grounds in the City.

The eggs florentine at The Grounds in the City.Credit:Janie Barrett

A new Silvey book is an event – hence the tour.

We meet at The Grounds of the City cafe.

Its decor is fin-de-siecle French parlour meets Orient Express. Its waiters are friendly, and it is one of them who convinces Silvey to try the eggs florentine over the free-range omelette.

“You know what you’re doing,” the 40-year-old says to the waiter. “You know what’s good.”

I keep it simple and order avocado on sourdough toast and a cappuccino.

Runt is a chapter-book written for children, but is a delightful read for adults too, with through-line themes of belonging, love, community and what Oprah Winfrey would call “finding your joy”.

Silvey never set out to write a kids’ book, per se.

Runt just came to him after the release of his bestselling third full-length novel Honeybee (Silvey also has a 2012 novella, The Amber Amulet, and a kids’ book, The World According to Warren, to his name).

Avocado and toast at The Grounds in the City.

Avocado and toast at The Grounds in the City.Credit:Jamie Barrett

Honeybee is the story of Sam, a trans teenager whose plan to jump off a railway bridge is interrupted when she meets a depressed old man, Vic, who is about to do the same thing.

It was heavy material and Silvey did enormous amounts of research for the book, (mostly) staving off criticisms about the literary appropriation of trans experience.

“When I finished Honeybee I found myself with a clean creative slate,” Silvey says.

Runt was Craig Silvey’s answer to the uncertainties of COVID.

Runt was Craig Silvey’s answer to the uncertainties of COVID.Credit:Jamie Barrett

“I was emotionally exhausted and I was looking for something that felt quite different.”

At the same time, the world was roiled by COVID-19, and while West Australians had it better than most, writing this book was a balm.

“We were isolated and anxious, and so it just felt intuitively right to reach for this story,” Silvey says.

“And it really did comfort me and reassure me. I found it a really joyful experience.”

Silvey’s books are all written from the perspective of an outsider – often a child or young person. But this is not part of a conscious plan.

“I just develop the story that I get given,” he says.

“A nucleus, something that feels laden with potential, and I wait and see what threads I can pull from it, see if it’s got some meat to it.

“It’s all about discovery and exploration.”

Craig Silvey’s latest boo, Runt.

Craig Silvey’s latest boo, Runt.

Runt began when he conceived of “a little girl who rescued a dog; they are tight-knit with a close bond”.

The spark that lit the story was that “Runt wouldn’t move while anyone was watching her” – a plot-driver that provides a Koan-like obstacle when Runt makes it to Krumpets, the agility-course world championships in London.

Runt may well be the nimblest sheepdog in the world, but does it matter if he won’t perform when anyone other than his young mistress is watching him?

“That was really interesting to me,” Silvey says of this plot device.

“I built the story around that, where that might become a predicament.”

The book’s two protagonists – Runt, the orphan mongrel, and Annie, the 11-year-old loner who adopts him – live in the town of Upson Downs.

It is a place ravaged by drought and starved of water by the selfish damming practices of a villainous local landowner, Earl Robert-Barren.

The story is whimsical and drily funny, full of Roald Dahl-esque baddies and authorial digressions, and replete with affection for the kinds of country-town characters Silvey knows from childhood – he was raised on an apple orchard in Dwellingup, Western Australia.

“I knew I wanted the style of narration to resemble those classics of literature I grew up with,” he explains.

“And to have the opportunity to have a narrative voice that occasionally gets a bit high-minded and opinionated, the way that Dahl does.”

Silvey’s latest book has a flavour of the works of British children’s author, short-story writer, and playwright Roald Dahl.

Silvey’s latest book has a flavour of the works of British children’s author, short-story writer, and playwright Roald Dahl.
Credit:Getty

This was an “interesting departure” from his usual style, says Silvey.

“My last couple of books had quite a narrow narrative lens, told through a character’s voice, almost like a diary entry.”

Silvey is best known for the hugely successful Jasper Jones – which was that rare book that enjoys both critical acclaim and enormous popularity.

In 2017, it was made into a film directed by Rachel Perkins, for which Silvey co-wrote the screenplay.

Jasper Jones was adapted for film.

Jasper Jones was adapted for film.Credit:Madman

This launched his “accidental film-writing career” which continues to this day – he still develops and writes scripts but says he is a “novelist at heart”.

“It’s a bit like a musician having a primary instrument they always go back to,” he says.

I have kept Silvey talking so consistently that the poor man has barely touched his eggs florentine.

Meanwhile, I’ve polished off my toast.

I have read that apart from his successful books, Silvey has also started and abandoned other novels, never published.

Sadistically, and perhaps in contravention of Silvey’s no-conflict literary policy, I ask him about the books that didn’t make it off the ground.

Is it still painful to think of them? Or does he view them in a stoical manner, as learning experiences?

“It’s a bit of both,” he tells me.

“It’s a really awful feeling to pour your heart and soul into something and have it not work out.”

He likens the process to a toxic relationship. “In retrospect it’s healthier for you not to be in it. You can’t force it to work,” he explains.

“But the moment you realise it’s not going to work … that the pilot light you’ve been nursing for years is going to snuff, that you lost it, of course you blame yourself, you go through a period of mourning for it.”

All of a sudden I feel sad – for lost books or lost relationships, I’m not sure which.

“But I don’t ever regret working on things,” Silvey continues. “You’re always expanding and developing and cultivating and learning.

“Every day you attend to the desk is an opportunity.

“You can’t catch every fish. Sometimes they fall off the hook.”

Craig Silvey: “You can’t catch every fish. Sometimes they fall off the hook.”

Craig Silvey: “You can’t catch every fish. Sometimes they fall off the hook.”Credit:Jamie Barrett

The fishes Silvey has caught have been very well received, so to speak. But his success is far from effortless.

The author is light-hearted and self-deprecating in person, but he is incredibly serious about his art – he wrote his debut as a teenager, and from then on, has devoted himself to the life of the writer, choosing not to go to university, but to leap straight to being a novelist.

He works long days at his desk, doing administrative tasks in the morning, working for five or six hours in the afternoon, before breaking to cook dinner (“So I can achieve a task,” he says) and then returning to the desk to do another five or six hours work, late into the night.

The bill from The Grounds.

The bill from The Grounds.

But, Silvey says, “I don’t sit down and incessantly type for 12 hours a day”.

“I just show up.”

Silvey is both forthcoming and eloquent in talking about his writing process. “Nothing is preordained,” he says. “It’s all predicted on an instinct, especially in the early stages of writing a novel.

“I don’t really embark on a novel knowing what it is. It’s an adventure. That’s the thrill of writing, it feels risky.”

Silvey says writers need to be “patient, determined and prepared”. When he’s at his desk, Silvey is hoping to ease into the world of the book, and “inhabit it in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive”, he says.

“It’s similar to the dreamscape we’re in when we read. We open a book and we breathe life into it. We find ourselves spellbound.

“We forget who we are, we forget what time it is and we inhabit the lives and the world and the characters that we’re bringing to life with the authority of our imagination.”

A writer needs to be in that dreamscape, but stay detached enough to take notes and report back from it. It’s a process that takes a lot of time and is all-consuming.

“That’s what makes writing inherently selfish,” Silvey says. “Because in order to inhabit this fictional universe that you’re delicately trying to cultivate, you need to abandon the real one.”

For a long time Silvey, determined to live the writing life, shunned the idea of having a long-term, committed relationship, but he relented when he met his partner, the writer, actor and puppeteer Clare Testoni.

Silvey and his partner Clare Testoni have recently had a baby together.

Silvey and his partner Clare Testoni have recently had a baby together.Credit:Courtesy of Craig Silvey

They have just had a baby, Matilda.

Babies are not famous for allowing their parents to write novels – how will he cope? “It remains to be seen whether I can get that balance right,” he says. “It’s a problem that has permeated my entire adult life. But I suppose, as I click into my 40th year, that my priorities have shifted a little bit.

Silvey says that with age, he has a better understanding of what nourishes him. “And it didn’t take me long after cradling my newborn daughter to know what that was.

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“I feel more connected to the real world than maybe I ever have, and it’s beautiful.”

He laughs. “So I’ll report back, and see if I can make it work.”

Runt by Craig Silvey; illustrated by Sara Acton, is published by Allen & Unwin, $19.99.

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