Growing up with Jasper Jones: An Interview with Craig Silvey

We sit down with the author a decade after his bestselling novel was published.


Craig Silvey, author of Jasper Jones

In the modern day stories can often feel like a transaction. We wait for them to represent us, to be problematic, to affirm our worldview. We watch, we read, we experience with a need for almost instant gratification. Then we leave them. We forget.

Jasper Jones is different. It’s a modern Australian novel that, for over a decade, has enthralled readers of all ages. The story is dense, but thrilling. It’s steeped in ambiguity but is powerfully entertaining. It feels as though it’s from a different time. As you experience it, you get the sense that this story is truly great in the historic sense of the word. This is a great Australian story that has captured something about us in a truly fundamental way. As a result, it has stayed in our collective imagination.

We talk to author Craig Silvey about the lasting impact of his novel and how we came to write one of Australia’s favourite stories.

What inspired Jasper Jones? Where did it start?

Novelists tends to act on an instinct. Very early on in the inception of the story I had this vague vignette that entered my mind. It was two boys in a glade with a dilemma. You know, it seemed to be… it felt a bit otherworldly and it felt like I was trying to do something set in a distant time. I just couldn’t quite shake that image. And so, you know, you tend to roll these things around in your head and expand upon it and new characters emerge. One was Jasper Jones, a particularly interesting, unorthodox character that I wanted to learn more about - and my vehicle to learn more about Jasper was Charlie. It really became about chasing him down and getting to know that character.

It wasn’t until I had this body in the woods and Jasper knew he was going to get blamed for it that I knew that I had a novel. That’s when I started to build Corrigan and began to unpack some of the historical ideas expressed in the novel. It all kind of spiralled all from that initial impulse.

Jasper Jones feels like a coming-of-age story of both a boy (Charlie Bucktin) and a nation. It feels like you’re uncovering some really difficult parts about our history and identity and asking readers and audiences to question them. What were you wanting to interrogate with this story?

Corrigan works as a kind of microcosm of a broader society. And obviously how Jasper fits into that becomes a sort of broader statement, and that also can be said of Jeffrey and the women in the book as well. You know, Ruth Bucktin… her subplot is unheralded and I think Kate Mulvany has done an incredible job of really bringing that to the fore in her adaptation. She is so interesting and is a fascinating way into understanding the world of Jasper Jones.

For me, a story isn’t a didactic enterprise. It’s about asking the right questions and guiding the reader toward a certain line of interrogation. Private interrogation. It’s not really about what I want to say; it’s really about the depths that a reader can explore within a story. You present a blueprint or a map for a reader. It never works quite as well when you deliver something that’s too prescriptive. It’s less artful that way. There are obviously themes that are there for us to explore, there are taboos and secrets… It’s growing up and coming of age. It’s bursting the bubble of childhood and appreciating what the world really is like for other people. It’s what the nature of empathy really requires of us and how that applies to nationhood. Are we an empathetic nation? What does that mean?

All these things are in the mix with Jasper Jones and it’s really there for individual readers to find something that they click with and explore. That’s the fascinating thing about story. It’s not the same for everyone.

Director Nescha Jelk has said she’s particularly inspired by quote you gave in an interview you gave with publisher Allen & Unwin:

“I wanted to explore a lot of things with this book, but one of my primary areas of consideration was the sloughing of innocence that is growing up, that moment where the bubble is burst and you’re suddenly exposed to the real truth of things and the blind trust of childhood dissolves.”

Can you elaborate on this in relation to Jasper Jones?

In trying to bring something different to the genre, or the idea, of the coming-of-age story, I wanted to examine what it really meant to grow up and how that might apply more broadly. For me, coming of age isn’t learning to be an adult and being more responsible and ticking the boxes of maturity. For me, coming of age is bursting the bubble of childhood and learning and really questioning your place in the world. That solipsistic selfishness of childhood drifts away and you gain perspective and understanding and, most importantly, you learn how to empathise. You learn to appreciate what the world is like for other people and that starts to frame your worldview.

The sad truth is that this gaining of empathy isn’t a process that everybody goes through. You can be a functional adult in society and still be very selfish and live under a cloud of ignorance and not challenge your perceptions. That can leave you with a very narrow perspective on what the world is. Sometimes when that happens, in a broader sense, it can influence things like national policy. It can influence things like who we are as a broader society.

Director Nescha Jelk on what to expect from her upcoming production

Finally, and this is a hard question to answer, why do you think people have connected to Jasper Jones in such a big way?

If I knew the answer outright, I think my job would be pretty easy. I’m not really sure what makes a story work and endure. It’s mercurial. [But] one of the things that is always expressed to me is a real genuine love for the characters. The stories that endure, we always tend to remember the people that inhabit them. It’s the characters that we tend to bind ourselves to. When I think of the stories that I remember, it’s because the characters in the story feel real enough and sincere enough for me to create a genuine relationship with them.

So if I can tie one thing to the endurance of Jasper Jones, I guess it’s probably the characters. That’s what connected me to the story when I was writing it — particularly Charlie, being our guide throughout the novel and the play. It’s his sincerity and his openness, his doubts and his difficulties that get under our skin.

It’s an honour to have people feel close to this story and the characters within it.

Jasper Jones plays in the Dunstan Playhouse from Friday 16 August — Saturday 7 September. Tickets are available here.