Melina Marchetta was the second-half of the incredible Melbourne Writers Festival seminar, ‘The Art of Writing for Children and Young Adults’.
I have been a huge fan of Melina’s ever since I first read ‘Looking for Alibrandi’, at a pivotal moment in my life when I (like Josie) was also struggling to survive at a private all girls’ school. And if Morris Gleitzman narrated my childhood, then Melina Marchetta was my guide through adolescence – and just as I continue to love Gleitzman’s work, I will always have a place in my heart for Melina’s novels.
I also got to speak to Melina (and gush about how much I loved her short story ‘Ferragost’ and seeing her name with Kirsty Eagar’s!). I have actually met Melina before, at a bookshop signing for ‘The Piper’s Son’ in 2010. And, would you believe, when I approached Melina she recognized me and asked “have I met you before?”
It’s the nicest thing in the world, when an author you’ve idolized for so many years turns out to be as lovely as you’ve always imagined them to be. William Feather said; “Finishing a good book is like leaving a good friend.” And that’s how I've always felt about Melina Marchetta’s books, and bizarrely the author herself. So it was just really nice to have a chance to say ‘hi!’ and thank her for all those wonderful book friends I've made over the years, thanks to her.
• Melina started by talking about the debut novel that launched her career in 1992, ‘Looking for Alibrandi’. Important to note that in 1992, there really wasn’t a huge ‘young adult’ market, and it was still a fairly undefined readership (just as it is today, with people debating whether or not ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Huck Finn’ are YA, and classics like ‘Harry Potter’ are re-released with ‘adult’ covers – for less embarrassment when reading!?). When ‘Alibrandi’ came out, it was actually released as a paperback to be stocked in the adult section, and as a Puffin paperback (for younger readers) in the children’s section. Melina derived a small amount of enjoyment from hearing people tell her they couldn’t bring themselves to buy a ‘kids’ book, so they paid $3 extra for their arrogance.
• Marketing is very much out of the author’s control, and Melina concedes that it sometimes works against you. She doesn’t think of audience at all when she writes – yet she’ll probably always be recognized as a YA author based on her backlist success. Like with her ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ series; it looks like fantasy, it smells like fantasy, it sounds like fantasy, it undoubtedly is fantasy . . . but you’ll rarely find it in the ‘fantasy’ section of a bookshop. It is usually stocked in the young adult section – and that comes down to marketing. As a side-note, I attended ‘The Other Africa’ session earlier in the week, and those authors were talking about how African writing is very stereotyped when marketed, and novelist Sefi Atta said a great quote: ''Markets behave strangely when dealing with art.'' Very, very true.
• Really interesting when Melina spoke about her experiences with ‘On the Jellicoe Road’. Her first two books, ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ and ‘Saving Francesca’ were both about third generation Australian-Italian girls, going to school in Inner-West Sydney and dealing with family problems. They fit neatly into a contemporary genre, and were what her fans had come to expect as her ‘niche’. When Melina wrote ‘Jellicoe’, it didn’t fit neatly into a genre, and marked the first time she received criticism for her writing (and to her face! One co-worker even told her that he threw the book across the room). People seemed to hate the book, and Melina thought she’d tried something different and it had failed, and started believing that “when you do something different, it doesn’t work.” She found an odd liberation in that thought. But then positive reviews started trickling through, and she found that ‘Jellicoe’ was very much a polarizing book – either people hated it vehemently (and threw it across the room) or loved it, and read it 20 times a year. *Ahem*. . . at this point, it’s worth noting that ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ is now probably Melina’s most successful book to date, even winning the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award. A film script has also been written (by Melina).
• Melina spoke about how she developed the idea for first book in the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’, ‘Finnikin of the Rock’. In 2006 she was on long-service leave (from her job as an English teacher) and she did a house-swap with authors Scott Westerfeld and his wife, Justine Larbalestier. So Melina found herself in New York at the beginning of January 2006 with no new story ideas . . . and by the end of January, she had the idea for ‘Finnikin’. It happened when she was in a train carriage one day, listening to the many different languages being spoken around her, and looking at an advertisement for Darfur. She got to thinking about all the people who are currently not in their homeland (whether for fun, like her, or terrible reasons of displacement). She didn’t want to make ‘Finnikin’ political (about the refugee crisis) so decided against setting it in modern day, instead deciding on the Year 1000.
• Perhaps with the negative memories of reactions to ‘Jellicoe’, Melina actually considered writing ‘Finnikin of the Rock’ under a pseudonym . . . but Thank-God she didn’t!
• When it comes to writing fantasy, Melina relished the ‘heightened emotion’ aspect of the genre (gave the example of a man on his knees, begging – and how wonderfully dramatic that was, but would be odd in a modern context). She also enjoyed that there were less boundaries (physical, imaginative. . . ) but accepted the challenge that ‘less boundaries’ meant setting up her own for the world, a challenging task.
• The discussion shifted to the character of ‘Froi’ – who narrated ‘Froi of the Exiles’, and will again take lead narration in third and final book of the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’, ‘Quintana of Charyn’ (released 26th September). Melina admitted that in ‘Finnikin of the Rock’ (Froi’s first appearance) she didn’t care about him as a character – he was a plot device. Froi was never meant to be a lead character; she used him specifically for a scene in which he attempts to rape Evanjalin – and his purpose in that scene is to illustrate how clever she is. Melina cared so little about Froi that she even gave him a terrible name (which she now regrets, because she thinks names are important). But after ‘Finnikin’, which was meant to be a stand-alone novel, she came to think of a connection between Froi and a secondary character called Sam, who appeared in ‘On the Jellicoe Road’. Like Froi, Sam was a plot device, to drive Taylor’s story along and fill holes in her memory. Sam was a street-kid, living as a rent-boy and seemingly doomed to an awful life (with a hint of hope, when Taylor tells him “I live on the Jellicoe Road,” – an invitation, should he wish to accept) Froi too was a street urchin, with a history of abuse and when we meet him in ‘Finnikin’ he is a repulsive fourteen-year-old.
• Melina maintains that she would never have written for Froi if he didn’t have a story to tell – but after ‘Finnikin’, Froi haunted Melina, and she didn’t want to discard him (as she did with Sam). But in deciding to make him a lead character, Melina also didn’t want to belittle the terrible thing he did to Evanjalin (now his Queen Isaboe) in ‘Finnikin’. So in ‘Froi of the Exiles’ the rape is not forgotten and Froi places a demand on himself that he will never touch another woman – and that duality between who he was and what he wants to be informs so much of Froi’s character, this constant Good/Bad dichotomy.
• Melina thinks of ‘Froi of the Exiles’ as a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It’s a love story between fathers & sons, brothers & sisters . . . and there’s also a broken love story (which is not at all traditional) between Froi and Princess Quintana – two broken people. Melina thinks that broken people fix each other and two broken people together is a way to stop one partner having all the power and being the ‘fixer’ or saviour. With Princess Quintana and the abuse she has suffered, it’s a terrible dynamic because Froi sees the sort of man he could have been (the one who tried to abuse Evanjalin) and the consequences for the victim.
• In writing the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’, Melina missed having her usual pop-culture references and even listening to music while writing. She says that she’ll often have a soundtrack that doesn’t make it into a book, but is what she listens to when getting into a scene or a character’s head (particularly for ‘The Piper’s Son’, when Tom’s musical tastes were so important). Melina did confess that (through no particular love for his music) Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ has been on her writing soundtrack for many books, purely for the lyrics and sentiments expressed in that song.
• Onto the mechanics of how Melina writes . . . like I said, she’s the opposite of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘planner’. Melina is a pantser kind of writer. She gave a beautiful example though, of how scenes or influences will come to her from out of nowhere – like driving her parents down the coast and having to listen to their music selection, particularly Andrea Bocelli and replaying him over and over again because he resonated with her for ‘Froi’. She said there is “beauty in those unplanned things”. Melina also asked why you would try to change yourself if ‘pantsing’ works for you?
• However, Gleitzman’s theory of many more drafts for pantsers was also right, when Melina said she may rewrite a scene five times . . . but with each rewrite she’ll find new links (something Morris admitted to as well – finding new connections in the rewriting process that were missed the first time around). Furthermore, Melina said not to feel bad if you don’t have all the answers when you’re writing – sometimes you have to let it come. Perhaps the most frustrating (bust best) piece of writing advice she received was to put something away if it’s not working, and return to it later. It’s amazing how you can’t see what’s right in front of you because you’re trying too hard. . .
• About this time, Melina dropped a little hint about ‘Quintana of Charyn’ – mentioning the curse that she couldn’t quite figure out while writing ‘Froi of the Exiles’. She was 500 pages into writing ‘Froi’, and only five months into a pregnancy for one of the characters and she decided that another book was needed (making it into a much more marketable trilogy). But by having time to think after ‘Froi’ she came up with a brilliant curse for ‘Charyn’ – obviously she didn’t say what it was, but judging by her level of bubbly excitement it’s going to be good. . . Hurry up September 26!
• Melina then started talking about the initial stages of a story idea for her. She’ll spend a long time talking and thinking about a story, but not committing to paper because she’s afraid it will never be as good as it is in her head (we ALL do that!). It’s the difference between the excitement of a story in your head, VS. On the page (and how it can all go pear-shaped) and with the first idea of anything she’s torn between thinking herself a total failure, and an utter genius. She says to just let ideas come to you as they will, let them flirt with you and don’t be frightened of that dialogue. “Just go with it – don’t worry!” She also says to have a strong belief in what you’re doing, and not to battle your ego.
• The first draft of Melina’s manuscript is usually heavy on dialogue and relationships, and the second draft is about setting, tone and atmosphere (the things she’s less comfortable writing). She did say that the first draft of anything is just vomit – you just have to get it out. And you should write something every day – even if 80% is rubbish, write for that 20% of greatness.
• Every genre has ‘rules’, but fantasy lets you play around a bit more with them. Even though there are many fantasy ‘purists’ who would say that fantasy must be plot-heavy, Melina says to “write the novel you want to write.” For her, that meant a concentration on relationships, dialogue and characterisation, because that’s what she’s good at (and you should always write to your strengths). Fantasy may traditionally be more about world-building, but she doesn’t feel as comfortable with that aspect of writing so she has tricks and tips for filling in those gaps (like hard-soft consonant writing for setting the tone) and being willing to rewrite a scene ten times if it’s flat on the page. She has also found a neat trick she learned while on residency – to cut what you just wrote in half (so every word counts) and then cut it in half again (and see how much crisper, and vital it becomes).
• Script writing has really helped Melina with her novel writing too (she wrote the award-winning ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ movie script, and has written episodes for ABC show ‘Dance Academy'). Dialogue in scripts has three important purposes – Plot. Relationships. Characterisation. She gave this great excerpt example from ‘Finnikin’ which encapsulates all three:
“Lucian,” he whispered, “Are you down there?”
“Where else would I be?” Lucian hissed back.
But Melina did point out that in novel writing, constantly writing dialogue for trifecta purposes of plot, relationships and characterisation would be exhausting. It’s enough to take this idea behind script dialogue and remember that you shouldn’t let dialogue be there for the sake of it, it should have some purpose.
• For a long time Melina just wrote female protagonists – until Tom Mackee came along, and since then we’ve had Finnikin and Froi too. She does miss the females, but lately it has been men talking to her. She is less trusting of male voices (or maybe her ability to write them?) which is why she tends to write in first-person for female, and third-person for men. She also quipped: “I don’t ever want to get into an adolescent male’s head.” HA!
• The session capped-off with some technical questions from the audience, bizarrely around word-count, and what YA/fantasy writers should aim for? Melina said that sometimes you have to force yourself to write a certain number of pages, but a book dictates its own length and not to worry about word-count. It just comes down to whether or not a story needs to be that big. Interestingly, Melina recounted that her manuscript submission of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ followed Josie through year twelve and beyond. . . Melina says she rambled in that manuscript, and it wasn’t until her Penguin editors told her to only concentrate on Josie’s adolescent years that the book as we know it started to take form (but I'd still give just about anything to read those lost chapters of Josie’s life . . . !)
Release Date: September 26, 2012