Novelists don’t always choose their subjects; sometimes an idea will arrive unbidden and decide to stay. And there’s nothing a writer can do about it.
That’s how Jasper Jones occurred to Craig Silvey. Late in 2006, he was a couple of years into his second novel and struggling to push towards completion a narrative that had long lost momentum. One night, awake and fretful about his progress, the name Jasper Jones came to him. ‘It sort of appeared,’ he told an interviewer. ‘It just sort of whispered into my head and I couldn’t let it go. And I had to work out who this person was.’
Silvey found himself thinking about Jasper Jones when he should have been thinking about solving his current book. It caused a dilemma and a terrible crisis: to abandon a recalcitrant novel into which he’d already put so much time and effort or ‘follow Jasper Jones to his glade in the dead of night.’ Speaking about himself in his introduction to the novel: ‘For a fastidious little man who stubbornly needs to shepherd things to their bitter end, the decision was a difficult one.’ But having made the decision, he never regretted it. The story felt like a gift. ‘Jasper Jones felt like this universal sort of tale that, with a lot of hard work, was going to unfurl itself. A lot of things in it felt too convenient and [the book] just ended up happening … It was just this very, very organic and genuine thing.’
Once he had embraced the project – or allowed it to embrace him – there was never a doubt about finishing it, though what began as a novella grew into a longer, more textured work. The first draft took eighteen months and evolved into a coming-of-age tale set in a Western Australian mining town. In the process, he realised that his burgeoning story of evil and prejudice lurking beneath the veneer of community respectability lent itself a Southern Gothic treatment, a favoured genre of Silvey’s. Indeed, exponents of Southern Gothic, such as Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Truman Capote, are mentioned by the young bookworm narrator Charlie Bucktin, and critics have noted that there are strong correlations between characters, tropes and themes in Jasper Jones and those in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
‘So I finished up with this very strange amalgam: a coming-of-age, regional mystery novel, stuffed inside a nervous little love story, garnished with family drama and adolescent escapism.’
Silvey set the tale in the mid-sixties, a time when small town life could be still be insular and hidebound while the rest of Australia was taking its place in the world. This tension runs through the book. As Silvey explained: ‘The mid-sixties was supposed to be that watershed moment where Australia truly grew up. But one of the reasons the period is so easily identifiable and recognisable in the book is because, well, maybe we really didn’t. Maybe we learnt to be adult, rather than to really come of age.’
The distinction here is important and a crucial theme in the book. ‘What I wanted to address in Jasper Jones is that some folks learn to live as adults, but never quite grow up. They live without that critical filter, still inside that bubble, protecting its thin skin by still subscribing to the same myths that they have always abided by. And it is an insular way to live: fearful and insecure.’
The function of the hero in the coming-of-age novel, in this case, Charlie Bucktin, is to slowly see through the mythologies and hypocrisies of adult life. ‘One of my primary areas of consideration was the sloughing off of innocence that is growing up, that moment when the bubble bursts and you are suddenly exposed to the real truth of things and the blind trust of childhood dissolves.’
In developing these themes, Silvey wound up writing a book that has been extraordinarily popular with young adults attracted by a story from the perspective of teenage characters looking in from the fringe of the adult world. But it has also found an appreciative audience among adults, too. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones relies on the honest, open enquiry of its narrator and guiding conscience to remind older readers what the troubles of the world once looked like, how their tangled nature could be simplified by applying a few simple moral truths.
This is an excerpt from the Jasper Jones programme.Jasper Jones plays at Southbank Theatre until 9 September.