Melina Marchetta lives in Sydney. She is the author of Saving Francesca and Looking For Alibrandi, both of which received numerous awards, and the upcoming Finnikin of the Rock. Looking For Alibrandi was released as a major Australian film in 2000.
Tell us about your newest book, Jellicoe Road. It’s about 17 year-old Taylor Markham who’s lived in a boarding school for six years after her mother deserted her on the Jellicoe Road. And it’s about the secret territory war that has taken place for two decades between her school, the Townie kids and a group of Cadets from the city who share their river every September for six weeks. And it’s about kinship and making friends with the enemy and working out where the past belongs in your life. What are the highlights of your journey to publication? (How long did you write before getting a contract, how did you hear, what went through your head, etc.)I left school when I was fifteen because I didn’t really have the confidence to finish my senior years. I started writing while I was learning to type and it was a relief to finally be able to read back what I wrote (I have very poor handwriting). When I was 21, I finished the first draft of Alibrandi, looked up the telephone book and rang around publishers asking them what the procedure was for submitting a novel. I sent Alibrandi out unsolicited and was rejected by at least six publishers over as many years. When Penguin Books received it, we worked three years on getting the story right. It was one of the few novels, at the time, that reflected multi-cultural Australia and despite having absolutely no idea what I was doing, its publication has been one of the definitive moments of my life. Why do you write for young people?I didn’t set out to write for young people and I would like to think that I write about young people rather than for them. I don’t allow an audience to dictate what I write because it would mean that I’d censor myself. But I do love the fact that young people read my novels, and believe me, in this very visual world with so much on offer to them, I feel very honored that they relate to what I write. I think the age of seventeen is a powerful time in a person’s life because it could be the first time they make the really big decisions rather than having to rely on their parents or teachers to make them. It’s an in-between age when you’re neither an adult nor a child. What prepared you to write for teenagers? When I wrote Looking for Alibrandi I was a couple of years older than the protagonist, Josie so I knew her voice well. When I wrote Francesca and Jellicoe, I was working in an all-boys’ school and had their voices in my head all day long. I’m a very strong observer of my world and I believe it’s a good talent to have when you’re writing. What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?I loved stories about feisty girls and no one was more passionate than Anne Shirley. My life changed from the moment Anne hit Gilbert Blythe over the head with a slate and I think I’ve been writing that scene metaphorically ever since (think Francesca Spinelli and Will Trombal’s exchange about Trotsky/Tolstoy in Saving Francesca). In my early twenties I read Catch 22 and the sequencing of that very much inspired the first chapter of Jellicoe Road where Taylor makes mention of events that eventually the reader will hear about later in the story. That doesn’t mean I think I’m as good as L M Montgomery or Joseph Heller, but other people’s work certainly impact on my own writing. What are a few of your all-time favorite books?L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; Jane Austen’s Persuasion; Megan Whallen-Turner’s The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia; Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (which inspired the “wonder” sentiment in Jellicoe Road). What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing for teenagers?Don’t write down to them.Don’t presume you know their voice.Don’t write what you think they want to read. Write the story you want to read.
Your first novel, Looking for Alibrandi, was made into a major Australian film, for which you wrote the screenplay. What did that process involve? The executive producer approached me three months after the novel was released. He loved Josie’s voice. For three years someone else wrote the film script. It was awful and culturally insensitive, but I had no say in it. The executive producer finally asked me to come on board because he believed that dialogue was my strength and he thought I could pull off the script. I worked for three years with the producer and director, two women I love and respect. They nurtured me in return. I learnt a lot about writing during that time, eg there had to be two reasons why you included a scene – to push the plot forward, to reinforce characterisation. They involved me in the casting and we auditioned 2000 kids during my two week holiday break from teaching. It was a joy because it seemed to be everyone’s first film and there was such excitement on set. The film came out on the same day as Gladiator, but we were still sold out and we won the major awards at the AFI’s (the Australian version of the Academy Awards) which was fantastic for a film that only had a budget of 5 million dollars. What aspect of writing is the most difficult for you to conquer? How do you overcome it?It was eleven years between Alibrandi and Francesca and that was because a character hadn’t come to me and I didn’t want to force it. Once I get the character and I know exactly what their story is, I’m faced with the problem of finding their voice. There is a big difference between characterisation and voice. To overcome it, I hang out with the characters for a long while before physically writing their story. That could mean that I listen to their music or to their dialogue in my head. I create scenes and scenarios that might not end up in the story, but it does eventuate in me knowing them better. What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?My favourite part is writing the second draft because I’m relieved that the storyline and characters have been established and it’s like diving into your favourite group of friends without the angst. My very least favourite part is reading poorly written reviews of my work where the reviewer reveals a major plotline using a snide tone. I think I can cope with criticism. I don’t cope with a mean spirit. Your novels develop some pretty significant themes. Do you find yourself dwelling on questions or ideas you’re trying to figure out for yourself at the time of writing?Definitely. Identity and displacement are very prominent themes in my writing because when you live in a country that has a 40,000 year history but only has 230 years of western occupancy and you’re the daughter of a migrant whose family has only been in the country for sixty of those years, you are constantly trying to work out your place and where you belong. Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?It’s changed considerable these days because I now write full time. When I was teaching (I wrote the film Alibrandi film script, Francesca and Jellicoe while working full time as a teacher) I used to write the first draft in the summer holidays and do re-writes at night during the school term. With my latest novel, Finnikin of the Rock (released in Australia this month) I wrote at least 6 hours a day in different cafes around my area. Now I go to my office which is a 10 minute walk away from my home and I write for a couple of hours there as well as a couple of hours every night. If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?I read The Road early this year and I am in awe of how McCarthy can say so much with few words. My strength is characterisation and dialogue. I think my weakness is descriptive language and bringing a physical environment to life. McCarthy does all four brilliantly. When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?I would never allow my work to be published if I wasn’t 100% happy with it, but that point comes very close to print day. The fine-tuning edit at the end is irritating but so important. The day before Finnikin of the Rock went to print I had re-written the prologue for the fiftieth time. Sometimes the problem can be one tiny word or the over use of another. I trust my editor as well. That doesn’t mean I agree with her every time, but there is a respect there and we work out together when it’s time to let go. Your current work in progress is …Finnikin of the Rock is the novel between Jellicoe and my current work in progress. A young man named Finnikin is forced to travel with the novice, Evanjalin, who alters the course of their journey. She convinces him to collect their exiled people scattered over the Land and return them home to their kingdom which has been impenetrable for ten years. It’s about loss of homeland and displacement and it’s a love story. At the moment I’m writing The Piper’s Son which is Tom Mackee’s story from Saving Francesca. (a death, a dysfunctional parent and a character who spends too much time not showing his resilience) Do you have a dream, something you’d love to achieve with your writing?I still can’t get over the fact that I’ve had four novels published and that I’m working on another. My dream, when I’m writing a novel, is to finish that particular story and for people to read it and for them to love it. It’s pretty much that simple. So at the moment I’m not thinking beyond Tom’s story. Parting words?Write what you know which doesn’t necessarily mean to write about your life.and If you’re interested in writing, read read read and then read some more.