February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Secrets and Lies | Under Cover

Australia’s Craig Silvey tackles racism and hypocrisy in ‘Jasper Jones’

Jasper Jones opens with a horrifying scene—the body of a young girl is found hanging from a tree. Can you set up the story for those who haven’t read it?

It’s set in the summer of 1965 in a rural town in Western Australia. It’s chiefly about two boys who set out to solve a crime on their own because they’re rightly distrustful of the community. One of these boys, Jasper Jones, is a mixed-race and rebellious kid who’s largely misunderstood. He anticipates that he’ll be blamed for the crime, and so he requests the help of another boy, Charlie Bucktin, knowing he might understand his plight.

How’d you come up with that idea?

The spark was the image of these two boys in a clearing at night, surveying this horrible event. But it wasn’t until I realized that Jasper would be blamed for the crime that I knew I had a novel. From that point, the themes slowly unearthed themselves: the real nature of courage, the sadness of seeking the truth, the comfort in believing lies, how racism persists, and the importance of compassion. All these things gradually unfurled from this single event.

Your novel has been called Australia’s To Kill a Mockingbird. What’s your response to that?

My intention was to write a work of Australian Gothic. Also, Charlie, the book’s narrator, is enamored with regional American writers and longs to be a writer himself. It’s hugely flattering to be mentioned alongside what I consider to be the finest book ever written, but I’m also aware that it’s probably more to do with technical composition—the patterns and the language—than anything else. Then again, if Jasper Jones is still around in 50 years’ time, and has another 50 million sales, I’ll get back to you with less humility!

The relationship between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey Lu, is hilarious, especially their arguments over hypothetical questions like, “Would you rather wear a hat made of spiders, or have penises for fingers?”

Boys tend to have a great sense of pointless and harmless banter, and I wanted to let these two clever boys off the leash with their dialogue. I will admit that some conversations, such as many of the hypothetical questions, were tested on or lifted from my own friends. But these are two boys that are marginalized because they’re smart. So as an act of rebellion, they’ve developed their own parlance, which is a very verbose and academic language, but with very puerile themes. I loved writing their passages.

Is there a lot of Jeffrey in you?

Publicly, I suspect I resemble Jeffrey. I like being cheekily antagonistic, I like to look out for my friends, I like to pre-sent a brave front. But there’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde to my line of work. The truth is, when I’m not touring a book, I lead a very quiet, almost monastic life. I very rarely leave the house when I’m working. The other side of me, the one that feels like Charlie, really lusts after thoughtful solitude, and that’s where I get my work done. I grew up in a country town, too, and I certainly resembled Charlie in his love for books, his sensitivity, his terror around girls, and his abject cowardice around insects.

Jasper Jones was shortlisted for a literary award, and you’ve been nominated for Australia’s bachelor of the year. Have you scored any hot dates?

Well, I’m still a bachelor, so therein lies your answer!

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.