RUNT by Craig Silvey

Runt by Craig Silvey, illustrated by Sara Acton (published by Allen & Unwin)

Author interview with Craig Silvey

“’I just wanted to tell you that I don’t think Runt is afraid. In fact, he looks like a very brave dog indeed. For a long time he didn’t have anyone. And then you found each other, and you showed him kindness when nobody else ever did. That’s why he follows you everywhere. He chose you. And you chose him. That’s why you’re such a brilliant team… You are his whole world. And he runs and leaps and plays with you because he’s happy. That’s how he shows you his joy and his gratitude.” (Runt by Craig Silvey)

Craig Silvey has produced a singular body of work, from Rhubarb and The World According to Warren to Jasper Jones, and now Runt, his novel for children illustrated by Sara Acton. Runt is a first-rate work that I savoured as I read, in fact it’s one of the best children’s novels I’ve read recently. It’s a future award winner and classic.

Thank you for speaking with Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, Craig.

Your title Runt is evocative and will make people wonder and perhaps remind them of related memories or experiences before they even open and read the book. How important is this title to you? Why?

I think you’ve captured perfectly what a good title should do, and why I intuitively felt that the simplicity and possibility of Runt would serve this story best. A title is vital! It should be arresting and suggestive and carry with it a tone that matches the pages to come.

I favoured Runt not only because the character is so central to the narrative and the word itself carries so much meaning, but because it also spoke to the underlying themes of the book, especially if you consider the fact that Runt first got his name as a pejorative expression, which then evolved into a term of endearment.

Runt has the tone of an Australian Charlotte’s Web (thankfully without the final tragedy). How has Charlotte’s Web or other classic children’s literature influenced your writing of Runt?

How lovely that you should cite E.B. White, as I adore his books – Charlotte’s Web in particular. The Elements Of Style, too, has been a wonderful companion over the years, and it’s required reading for anyone with literary aspirations. But it’s actually his precursor to Charlotte’s Web that I go back to the most – an essay he wrote for The Atlantic called Death Of A Pig. It never fails to elicit a tear.

In terms of shaping Runt, I suppose I couldn’t help being influenced by the books that were dear to me when I was younger. I read voraciously and obsessively as a child, and it was a passion that inspired me to dedicate my life to writing. I had a real fondness for James Herriott’s All Creatures Great And Small series. I loved Roald Dahl, with Matilda being a well-thumbed favourite. And I loved the whimsy and imagination of Paul Jennings. There’s a story in his Unbelievable! collection called The Busker which was the first piece of writing to make me cry. You won’t be surprised to learn that one of its characters is a very loyal and talented dog called Tiny. So you can see that, subconsciously, Runt had some brilliant formative antecedents.

Runt is a universal tale in its exploration of family and community bonds and love; how individuals who are different from the pack find their place in the world; and appreciation of values such helping others and seeking happiness. What makes it distinctly Australian?

The thematic terrain of my books tends toward the universal, but I always strive to illustrate a uniquely Australian perspective.

I grew up in the country, so I’m intimately aware that isolated places, for better or for worse, develop their own distinct cultures. This is true for Upson Downs in Runt, just as it was for Corrigan in Jasper Jones. And both places, in their own ways, can be interpreted as microcosms for a broader Australian experience.

We see some quintessential idiosyncrasies of rural Australia in Upson Downs. We see the community spirit, the humour, the oddities, the history, the hardship, the degree to which people live by the whims of elemental forces. It’s certainly true, too, that many of our regional towns are in a state of decline, and in need of a reviving spark.

But more than setting, I’d suggest that it’s through character that I’ve tried to distil some of our traits. We see it in the twangs of language, the dry wit, the understatements, the very particular rhythm of speech. And we see it in the souls of each character. Dolly Shearer, in particular, has a very Australian spirit: she’s civic-minded, fearless, loyal, no-nonsense, and adventurous. She’s roll-your-sleeves-up, tough as they come, with a heart as big as a bell.

You have a wonderful cast of characters from Runt, 11-year-old Annie and her family to the community, dog agility trial experts and two major villains. Your villains are deliberately melodramatic, and you have written them with dastardly diabolical hyperbole. Have you written these two characters as a binary foil to each other or something else? Please explain.

Runt is full of whimsical, eccentric, larger-than-life characters, from the late naturist-philosopher-inventor Wally Shearer, to the entrepreurial confectioner Kingsley Krumpet. But our antagonists are indeed even further heightened, for different reasons really.

There’s something existential about Earl, and what he represents. He’s immovable, inevitable and his avarice is boundless, so his character and mannerisms had to reflect that. There’s a conceptual underpinning to Earl’s evil, particularly when you consider his ambitions and what he’s done to the natural environment.

Fergus is vain, bombastic, arrogant and self-important – all of which mask a deep and desperate insecurity, which makes him entirely different to Earl. We understand why Fergus behaves the way he does, and Runt explores the pressures of legacy from a few angles, really. While I was writing Runt, I played around with depicting Fergus as slightly less ridiculous and hyperbolic – and it somehow made him weirder. But I love his character, and as a nemesis, he’s a great counterpoint to Annie’s deadpan calm.

How have you incorporated humour into the story?

Hopefully by being funny! I loved reading stories that made me laugh as a younger reader, and it seemed the tone and spirit of Runt should be as humorous as it was heartfelt. In Runt, we find humour in absurdity, in the unexpected, in the exchanges between characters, and in the narrative voice itself.

How important is hope to your story?

It’s everything. Hope is the beating heart that brings this story to life, and we see it embodied foremost in Annie. Hope fuels her determination, her belief in Runt, and her desire to fix things.

And Annie’s hope, while dented and deflated at times, proves infectious. Just by being herself, Annie inspires change in the people around her. We see hope bloom within her own family, then the town of Upson Downs, and then… well, we see how far it travels later in the book. She’s such an admirable character. I adore her.

Bernadette Box illustrated by Sara Acton in Runt by Craig Silvey

Runt is illustrated by the magnificent Sara Acton, who is known as a superb illustrator of dogs. Could you please choose one of her illustrations that captures a character or the essence of your story and briefly explain why?

Sara is extraordinarily talented, and her illustrations feel so spiritually entwined with the book that it’s hard to winnow down to just one! But there’s an illustration that captures the moment where Annie seeks the counsel of a reclusive former dog-handler called Bernadette Box. It’s so cosy and beautiful and content and complete. For me, it’s a little bittersweet too, since Bernadette lives alone – so imagining that little cottage scene without Annie and Runt invites an understanding of Bernadette’s loss and loneliness.

Everyone deserves to walk their own path.” (Runt by Craig Silvey)

Thank you so much for your generous and wise responses, Craig. You have made this a very special interview. Thank you also for your wonderful books.

Craig Silvey (photo from Craig’s website)

Craig Silvey’s website

Sara Acton’s website

Runt at Allen & Unwin

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