Siobhan Harvey talks to Craig Silvey about the unforgettable phone call that inspired his latest novel
Whether by hard work or happenstance, bestselling Australian author Craig Silvey has had his fair share of memorable moments. Take, for instance, the inspiration for his new novel, Honeybee. Picture it: 2017, a quiet evening in Silvey's Fremantle home is suddenly disrupted by a phone call from his brother.
"He'd picked up his partner, Sam, from the airport." The author's voice is somber as he continues, "They were driving across a traffic bridge when my brother spotted someone standing on the other side of the railings. He pulled over and Sam got out. She spoke to this young person, essentially with the intention of distracting them. That's when the young person volunteered the reasons why they were about to jump: they were gender diverse; they came from a family, which didn't offer any support. Eventually the police and an ambulance turned up, then took the young person away. That was that."
Well, not quite. Fleeting though this chance encounter was, it quickly grew into something more profound for Silvey. "Being on the phone with my brother while this all unfolded made it feel like I was there. I tried to connect with the young person afterwards to make sure they were okay. But they have a very common name so were impossible to track down."
"Even so, I kept worrying about them. They were in a hopeless, anguished position. Soon I began to educate myself on the challenges faced by young trans people here in Western Australia. Also, I read widely about gender dysphoria, watched video blogs and connected with support networks and trans people of diverse backgrounds. I feel so benefited by having the opportunity to sit down with these people, to interview them and, to the best of my ability, represent the struggles they've been through and continue to contend with."
Sam is the result of the author's extensive labour: fictional Sam, that is. She's a character named in honour of the care and counselling the real-life Sam gave the anonymous teenager on the Fremantle overpass that memorable night. It is fictional Sam, a fraught teenager convinced her womanhood defines her more than the sex she was assigned at birth, who cornerstones Silvey's deftly layered, compelling third novel. At heart, Honeybee is the story of Sam's unexpected but fortuitous meeting with aged, widowed, recluse Vic and the unconditional, enduring friendship these "partners in crime", as Silvey lovingly calls them, strike up.
Not that Vic was the author's first choice. It took another of those memorable moments to persuade him that Vic was an indispensable part of the new book. "When I started out, I had an instinct that there was a story there, a novel. But it took a few aborted attempts to find the right structure and access point to tell it. Back then, Honeybee started with Sam meeting a very different character on the bridge - but it wasn't working."
"Then I had the idea of Sam meeting someone at a very different stage of their life who is up on the bridge for very different reasons. Suddenly, these two characters complemented each other in such an amazing way. They had a deep connection across that dark void, I knew I'd found the key relationship which would carry the book."
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Throw in Sam's troubled mother, Sarah, uber-macho stepdad, Steve, Vic's childless wife, Edie and a series of unforeseen but life-changing events, and what Honeybee becomes is not just a study in gender politics but a wider call for compassion. "We open a book recognising that, in its absence, hopelessness and anguish will often take its place. To me, so much of Honeybee is about the importance of understanding and solidarity. I wanted to imbue the book with hope and optimism. The journey which Sam follows displays the power of support and love."
"To me, it works both ways. My intention for the novel is to offer readers an emotional context through which they can better understand the challenges faced by younger trans people. If that translates to a broader community understanding and support for trans people that can only be a good thing."
For Silvey, Honeybee signals a welcome return to novel writing. His last full-length book was the international hit Jasper Jones, which was released more than a decade ago. It's a work that provided its own series of unforgettable experiences, including shortlisting for both the 2010 International Dublin Literary Award and 2010 Miles Franklin Literary Award. At just 28, Silvey also found himself named a Sydney Morning Herald "Best Young Novelist of the Year" for the second time. Not to mention an exciting, career-altering move into screenwriting.
"It's strange looking back on the 10 years since Jasper Jones was published. In the year or so afterwards, I tried to write the next book. In fact, I spent three years on a manuscript. But it got too big and I lost control of it. So when the opportunity came to work on the screenplay for Jasper Jones, I knew that I had to make the transition, even if it meant losing sight of that manuscript. I'm so pleased I made the switch. I had an amazing time working on the film adaptation of Jasper Jones. I was on set virtually every day, working closely with the director, Rachel Perkins. It was one of the best experiences of my life."
With Honeybee's release, more sensational opportunities abound. "It's my intention to try and adapt this book for the screen. In terms of its action and structure, it's so cinematic. At the moment, I have a little bit of time up my sleeve before we go to market with Honeybee's international and translation rights. So I'm drawing out and planning the adaptation, as well as looking around for the right team to make a screen version work."
Movies are notoriously difficult to make. But given Silvey's track record of turning life's unexpected events to his favour, you suspect it won't be too long before Honeybee – The Movie hits our screens.
Honeybee, by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, $37), is released on Tuesday.