One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Melina Marchetta
Authors are often asked where they get their ideas from, and most have a ready answer to that ubiquitous question. I’ve always wondered, though, not where their ideas come from, but how they became the people who had them. It seems like the teen years are almost universally formative, whether they’re dismal, euphoric, or something in between, which is what brings me to this interview, the first in a series where we get to find out a little bit about the teenage experiences of YA writers. Each interview will follow the same basic pattern: a set list of teen-centric questions, a handful of questions specific to the author, and finally an author-to-author question where the current author asks a question of the next author in the series. Because I am a true child of the 80’s, because my teen years were definitely formative, and because I don’t think you ever really get over the music of your youth, I’ve given each section of these interviews an awesome 80’s song title to differentiate between the types of questions.
To paraphrase Love & Rockets, I think you have to believe in where you’re going, but not lose your yesterdays, and I’m supremely grateful that so many extraordinary authors have agreed to share their experiences with us.
The first Melina Marchetta book I read was Saving Francesca, just after it was published in the U.S. I remember liking it very, very much and mentally adding her to the list of authors to watch. Years later I picked up Jellicoe Road, a book I might have missed due solely to my own fickle reading habits, but which I grabbed after it received the 2009 Printz Award. (As a member of the 2008 Printz committee I was super curious about their choices, and boy did they make some brilliant ones!) I tore through Jellicoe Road, mad to learn its secrets and put all the pieces together, then immediately started over so I could really appreciate how masterfully it was crafted. And then came Finnikin of the Rock and I was basically head over heels in love, not to mention in awe of her ability to move so seamlessly from contemporary fiction to epic fantasy. A lifelong, dedicated fantasy reader, I inhaled the Lumatere Chronicles, including the companion story, “Ferragost,” and have been talking about them incessantly ever since. So you can imagine my excitement and gratitude when Melina graciously agreed to open this interview series for the Hub. Thank you so much, Melina!
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
A good observer of the world, but definitely a wallflower.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I wanted to be a librarian and it had nothing to do with books and reading. It had all to do with going to the library as a child and watching the librarian’s fingers flick through the index box to find our library cards, which had a pocket attached containing more cards that belonged to the borrowed books. I loved the ceremony involved in borrowing books.
What were your high school years like?
I always say that school was not my time to shine. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it because my dearest friend is someone I met when I was 12. But I was awkward and of course I felt ugly and I wasn’t skinny enough and so on and so forth. I look at photos now and think how beautiful I looked and wished I had seen it back then. My mother was the greatest influence in my young life. She’d tell my teachers that I was a “Slow and steady wins the race” type of kid. I still am.
What were some of your passions during that time?
My greatest passions were books and film. I’d pretty much read anything. I loved Paul Zindel and an Australian writer called Ivan Southall and K.M. Peyton, who wrote the Flambards series, and of course L.M. Montgomery.
But there were novels other than the classics. I remember reading so many books that are out of print today. They may not have stood the test of time, but they certainly worked at keeping my interest in reading. I had a very uninspiring librarian at my school, which I’m kind of grateful for because she was such a literary snob and I don’t think I would have read half the novels I did if she had noticed me. It was my local library that was a treasure trove, and Sydney libraries continued to be there for me all through my early working years.
I was also a history fanatic. I read The File on the Czar when I was fifteen, which is an account of what happened to the Romanovs. I was obsessed with the Russian Imperial Family, and I think that’s clear to anyone who has read Finnikin. But more than anything, I loved film. I distinctly remember sitting in a movie theatre and watching Raiders of the Lost Ark and it literally changed my life. From the moment I saw that boulder chasing Indiana Jones I knew I wanted to be a storyteller. I also remember watching To Kill a Mockingbird in my bedroom with the borrowed portable TV and being mesmerized. I’ll never forget Boo Radley standing behind that door at the end and the impact it had on me. I want to create moments like that.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
To a certain degree I wrote about my mother’s breakdown in Saving Francesca. Different women. Different lives, and I was a different age than Francesca, but the one thing my mum and Mia have in common is that they are both so resilient. It’s taught me that breakdowns and depression and anxiety can happen to anyone and it has absolutely nothing to do with weakness. The strongest people I know have struggled with mental illness or whatever the politically correct term is these days. It also taught me that regardless of the darkness of that period, there is hope beyond it.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
This sounds like a strange positive experience and accomplishment, but I left school when I was fifteen. I think that if I hadn’t, I would have failed the big exams in senior school and as a result, I would not have had the confidence to start a novel in my late teens. If my novel hadn’t been accepted for publication in my early twenties, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go to university when I was 25 and I would not have become a teacher for ten years. It’s a good version of dominoes.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
Trust your instincts. Most times my instincts are right and I still doubt them, but not as much as my teen self did. And learn to accept praise. I was hopeless as a teenager, and later I coped very poorly with all the attention I received for my first novel. A friend’s mum took me aside and explained that by not accepting the compliment, I was taking away pleasure from the person giving it. Now, I find it as easy as saying a thank you.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I regret getting my hair permed.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
I’m very independent, but sometimes I miss people making decisions for me.
Every Day I Write the Book
After writing realistic contemporary fiction for years you transitioned to fantasy in a big way with the Lumatere Chronicles. What story elements brought you to the fantasy genre (i.e., was it plot? A particular character? Setting?)? Does your writing process differ depending on the genre? What other genres might you explore? Are there any you don’t see yourself investigating?
With the Lumatere Chronicles the characters of Finnikin and Evanjalin came to me first. I’m almost sure they planted themselves in my head together, but perhaps Finnikin beat her by a couple of minutes. Regardless of how powerful she is, the first novel is Finnikin’s story because he goes on the emotional journey. Evanjalin’s journey happens in Part 3 of Finnikin of the Rock, as well as in the later novels.
With regards to plot, it’s all about context really. As an Australian, it’s not rare to wake up to the news that a boat has capsized on its way to this country, killing those on board who are fleeing from their own country. Of course the government and media put an emphasis on people smugglers, rather than what our responsibility is as humans. So I used the characters of Evanjalin and Lucian to explore that responsibility. In Finnikin, Evanjalin’s response to the plight of those less fortunate is, “It’s against the rules of humanity to say there is nothing we can do.” But once she’s back in her kingdom, she and Lucian especially struggle with how to treat those they’ve always considered the enemy camped on their doorstep. So the layers to the world of my fantasy novels came from our world.
For me, the massive difference between writing contemporary and fantasy is that I have to travel to research the world of the fantasy novels. The Lumatere Chronicles resemble places in France, Italy and Turkey. It was important to differentiate between lush Lumatere and stony Charyn, so one kingdom looks very much like the Dordogne region of France and the other looks very much like parts of Turkey and central Italy. My contemporary novels, except for the first three quarters of Jellicoe, are set in my neighbourhood.
With regards to exploring other genres, I’m pretending that I’m not writing a sort of thriller at the moment. It’s not YA. It’s not fantasy. It’s not even set in Australia (or the US). Which means I don’t have a publisher in mind. But I’m enjoying the characters and the writing so much, that I don’t care.
Both your contemporary and fantasy novels feature intricate plotlines — sometimes sweeping and epic, sometimes personal and intimate — always fascinating. For me, though, your characters are the absolute heart of every story, and I wonder if you could talk about how you create so many complex, fully-realized individuals? How do you sort out which characters will be point of view and how does that shape the story?
The key is that I let the characters live in my head for a really long time and I listen to their voices before I commit them to paper. With Tom Mackee in The Piper’s Son, I was very reluctant to write him. It was as if Tom and I actually had conversations in my head and I encouraged him to bring his friends along before I could trust him. In the early days I listen to what they have to say to each other. I listen to their music and how their tastes differ. Most of that stuff doesn’t go into the novel, but it’s part of the backstory I need to write. The important thing for me is that I love the characters deeply, regardless of their flaws. Some voices I find easier to write than others. Georgie Finch’s voice is a personal favourite. Once or twice I was encouraged to let her point of view go and allow Tom to have the entire point of view. But I think the most powerful scenes about Tom were seen through Georgie’s eyes and vice versa.
With regards to Quintana of Charyn, I knew Quintana wouldn’t get the entire point of view. In actual fact she only gets a small portion of it, although she is the subject of the novel. Once again, I felt it was more powerful seeing her through other people’s eyes. It’s always quite a decision regarding who are the main POV. Sometimes I write a chapter through one character’s eyes and then re-write it to see which has the greatest impact. Point of view is all about experimenting for me.
If I have more than one point of view, I try to find a way to differentiate the beat of the story telling. I watched this amazing play called Terminus that was touring from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and that’s how I found Quintana’s internal voice. I gave it a gallop. “There’s a babe in my belly that whispers the valley…”
I sometimes feel very mental describing my process, but it’s like a groove that I need to find. With the current novel I’m pretending I’m not writing I was so sure it would be plot driven, but of course I introduced one character and then another and next minute I have eight characters I care for.
One of my favorite recurring elements in your work is the presence of multigenerational characters and relationships, something that is fairly rare in YA fiction. The Lumatere Chronicles feature characters of all ages (Vestie, Isaboe, Trevanian, Tesadora, and Arjuro, for example) and the relationships between them, like Taylor’s with Hannah in Jellicoe Road or Tom’s with his Aunt Georgie in The Piper’s Son, are absolutely central. Do you consciously incorporate characters of all ages into your work? Why do you think multigenerational characters are so rare in YA fiction?
Well I lived in a multi generational household in my early twenties. I actually shared a bedroom with my grandmother. Apart from that, every Sunday of my life growing up until I was in my late teens, my extended family had lunch together at my grandmother’s home. There were 21 of us and sometimes when my great aunt and her family joined us, there’d be about 30 people.
So I’m very much aware of how these generations work with each other. I have a very strong relationship with my two nephews. I’d like to think I’ll have a place in their teenage or adult life and not just because I’m a blood relative.
I don’t think multi-generational is as rare in YA as it is in general fiction. What I don’t like in some novels or TV shows for younger people is how foolish the adults are at times. Or how one dimensionally awful they can be. I know my adults are very flawed, but I’m okay with that. My favourite saying about them is that they do the wrong things for all the right reasons. You have no idea how many times I’ve had to justify the silence of Hannah and the Brigadier and Taylor’s mum while writing the film script of On the Jellicoe Road. I’ve been told they’re cruel. Well I must be cruel myself, because I would not have told Taylor the truth either. Not until she was old enough to cope with it.
Featuring the adults also has much to do with my age now. I’m in my 40’s. The world of novels and film is very cruel to people of that age, especially women. They’re either absent, or threatened by younger women. I refuse to disappear from the pages of popular culture, or be depicted by other people’s ignorance, so writing my adult characters is my chance at getting a tiny bit of it right.
Identity, forgiveness, and the importance of family (both the kind you’re born into and the kind you choose) are all recurring themes in your work, including the Lumatere Chronicles. As that trilogy draws to a close with the release of Quintana of Charyn I’d like to ask about the importance of theme, and how those ideas, along with concepts of reconstruction, renewal, and redemption, shape the plot of your stories. For example, while there are certainly battles and political confrontations in the Lumatere Chronicles, the emphasis is on the effect of the occupation and on what happens after it ends, how people on all sides deal with the consequences, how they move forward. You explore this idea from numerous angles, everything from replanting crops to rebuilding relationships (e.g., Trevanion and Beatriss) to reestablishing diplomatic relationships. Could you talk a little about how the characters embody or expand the notion of reconstruction and redemption and about what drew you to explore those themes?
I write what I know. I may not be Finnikin or Froi, but I am the granddaughter of displaced people and I belong to two different cultures. My grandparents and father may not have been called refugees, but they came out here on boats and they left their homeland because of poverty. My maternal family came to Australia pre-World War 2 with absolutely nothing and my paternal family came post-World War 2 with almost nothing. So I come from people who started from scratch. In Australia, they went straight to the land and cut sugar cane in North Queensland.
I’ve used replanting a few times and have stolen almost the same line from one novel to another. In Jellicoe, Webb shows Jude how to plant seeds so they’ll take. The same scene happens in Finnikin with Vestie and Trevanion. In the same novel Froi becomes a farmer. It’s his connection with the land that gives him a sense of place in this new kingdom. In The Piper’s Son, Tara Finke works with the land in Timor. Tom builds. So does Francesca’s father. Will Trombal builds bridges. Once again, I write what I know. I come from labourers and farmers.
With regards to what happens after occupation ends, it still goes back to my family. The impact of their migration has lasted for decades, good and bad. So that’s why I’m more interested in what happens later. More than once I’ve read that I should have ended Finnikin of the Rock when the Lumaterans enter their homeland but I was never interested in doing that. Happily Ever After doesn’t come the day after an end-of-war ticket tape parade, or after the Berlin Wall comes down or Apartheid is abolished in South Africa. What does happen is a whole lot of people need to renegotiate who they are. That’s what I’m interested in exploring.
Even on the last couple of pages of Quintana of Charyn there’s a tension to those three worlds presented. I’ve ended it on one particular morning of their lives. It might seem like a good day, but the reader can’t forget the words of the dead past king of Lumatere. “Be prepared for the worst, my love, for it lives next door to the best.”
Just Can’t Get Enough
[Note: In future interviews this question will come from the previous author in the series; because this is our first one, it comes from The Hub.]
Do you have a personal motto or a quote/thought that inspires or guides you?
Whenever negativity comes my way I remember a friend telling me long ago, “Let them drown in it.”
Melina has contributed a question for the next author in the series, David Macinnis Gill. Watch for an interview with him in two weeks!
Melina Marchetta is the author of Looking for Alibrandi (1993) and Saving Francesca (2003), both of which won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award for Older Readers, as well as Jellico Road (2008), which won the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Looking for Alibra and Saving Francesca were also selected as Best Book for Young Adults in 2000 and 2005, respectively. Finnikin of the Rock (2010), the first book in the Lumatere Chronicles, won the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel and was named a 2011 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults. Melina’s next two books, The Piper’s Son (2010), a companion novel to Saving Francesca, and Froi of the Exiles (2011), the second book in the Lumatere Chronicles, garnered critical acclaim and international praise, and the final volume in the Lumatere Chronicles, Quintana of Charyn (April 2013), has already received multiple starred reviews. In addition to teaching secondary-school English for ten years, Melina completed her second screenplay, On the Jellicoe Road, which was chosen to be part of Screen New South Wales Aurora Script Workshop, and has written episodes for ABC-TV’s Dance Academy. In addition to her website, you can follow Melina on Twitter or visit her on Facebook.