HAVING written his first book some 10 years ago, you’d think that Aussie author Craig Silvey would have this writing thing down. However, as the 30-year-old explains, even after all these years penning good prose doesn’t come any easier.
“It demands everything of you if you want to write a book that lasts” says Silvey when we met in Edinburgh where Silvey was presenting at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
“It starts to just take over your life in ways that you can only describe as unhealthy. The best way I can describe it is that you feel as though you’ve left the stove on. I’m kinda here but I’m always dragged back to this nagging thing that is never over until you’ve written that last sentence.”
Any pressure that may be felt by the Fremantle based writer is entirely justified in light of his past successes. Most recently, The Amber Amulet has enjoyed a stint on stage, touring Australia in 2012, while the screen adaptation won the Crystal Bear for best short film at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival.
This of course comes after the success of his most notable work, Jasper Jones, lauded as an Australian classic since being published in 2009 and having gone on to win a number of national literary awards. His first book, Rhubarb, has also received its fair share of praise but perhaps most impressive is the fact it was published when Silvey was just 19 years old.
“I cut my teeth on that book,” says Silvey.
“I was a teenager when I started. I’ve never been to university, I didn’t attend any arts collages or anything like that. That book was my apprenticeship in a lot of ways. And I learnt a lot about the craft while I was working on that book.
“I thought I’d be done in a few months’ time and it took me years, thankfully, because it would have been f*cking awful otherwise.”
While Rhubarb set a solid foundation on which Silvey has built his career, it also worked to establish his use of elements and themes that make his writing so attuned to Australian culture. It is this quality which has defined him as one of the country’s key literary talents.
So, I ask him, what exactly makes for Australian literature?
“The immediate answer is that it needs to involve Australian people or an Australian setting,” says Silvey.
“Though I think people tend to appreciate books that are universal. You can garner as much about culture and national identity from a book that is set elsewhere. Learning the differences of another culture is a great way to recognise the differences of your own culture.
“A book like, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is not set in Australia but it is written by an Australian — is that any less of an Australian book as, say, Cloudstreet or The Shark Net?”
One particular theme that commonly appears in Silvey’s writing is the plight of youth. Each of his previous works centre around young protagonists, which begs the question; what is it about adolescence that Silvey finds so interesting?
“I think I am interested by crossroads. I’m interested by moments of deep change and I think about that age where every decision feels as though it hinges on something much, much larger.
“Jasper Jones for example is a kind of coming of age book. He’s thrust into an adult situation and an adult world and recognising the difference between the two.
Rhubarb again has quite young characters but again they were coming to a big moment of change and The Amber Amulet I think was everything to do with naivety and innocence — this very, very honest kid unravelling the lies of an adult. There are kids in my next book but there are also adults. It’s hard to say.”
While there are plenty of parallels that can be drawn between each of his previous works, Silvey promises that his next book will be something different entirely. He admits that’s why it is taking longer than it should.
“It’s set in a carnival in Fremantle that used to run in the 20’s and 30’s but there is also waterfront disputes, there is an elephant (called Max), there is cabaret, there is boxing, there are orphans and there is Irish history. There is wheat farming, and that’s probably about enough.”
Despite his excitability when talking about what is to come, Silvey is quick to reiterate that whatever it amounts to, it won’t come easy.
“Im writing myself into a huge corner at the moment” he says.
“It’s a bit epic. It’s a bit of a problem. There are a lot of different voices, a lot of different characters.
“I’m in a lot of trouble.”
The Amber Amulet is out now in the UK and is published by Allen & Unwin.