Thursday, December 18, 2008

Melina Marchetta on Herself and Her Books

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Melina Marchetta is the author of Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca, (On the) Jellicoe Road (On the Jellicoe Road = Australian title, Jellicoe Road = US title), and the recently-released Finnikin of the Rock (US release date 2010). Looking for Alibrandi had a first print-run sellout within two months, was made into a movie, and won many awards, including the coveted Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Award (Older Readers), and had a film made of it. Melina taught English and History full time, for ten consecutive years, at a city high school for boys. She's now a full-time writer in Sydney, Australia. To find out more about her, visit

How did you get started writing?

I used to scribble in high school. Nothing at all profound. My problem, however, was that I had poor handwriting and I could never read back what I wrote. Strangely enough, life changed for me when I learnt to type. I’m a freak with a keyboard and it all begins with a blank screen for me.

Could you describe your road to publication for us?

I finished my first draft of Alibrandi six months after I began writing it. Then I rang all the publishers listed in the phone book. I was told the manuscript had to be double spaced, include a synopsis and that 1 in every 2000 manuscripts sent to them were accepted per year. It was rejected about six or seven times over the next seven years.

What is your biggest inspiration?

People’s faith and their sense of wonder. I lose mine constantly so I need to surround myself with those who have plenty of it.

Did you always know you wanted to write for teen readers?

No, but I always knew I was going to write about teenagers, especially those nearing the end of their schooling life. It’s an interesting age; one of the first times you make your own decisions, whether it’s leaving school or choosing university/college courses or choosing to hang out with people you want to, rather than have to.

How long does it take for a book of yours to go from genesis to publication?

Looking For Alibrandi – 7 years.

Saving Francesca – 18 months

On the Jellicoe Road (Jellicoe Road in the US) about eleven years but I wrote this version in 18 months.

Finnikin of the Rock – 16 months. (I wrote Finnikin as a full time writer and it made a difference because I was writing about 6-7 hours a day)

You were initially published in Australia before the US and elsewhere. From the experience you’ve had, what are some of the biggest differences you’ve found between the two markets?

Not a big difference in the two markets except, of course, that there are thousands more novels published in the US each year. The big difference has been between novels with regards to technology, regardless of which country. No one was really blogging when Francesca came out and there wasn’t even the internet when Alibrandi was published so I had no idea how people felt about my novels except when I went to festivals and schools. You had to wait until a newspaper reviewed it before you know what the outside world thought of your work.

I also remember the whole editing process with Alibrandi being done via fax. And to really show my age, I had never used a computer until I started writing Alibrandi.

Your debut, Looking For Alibrandi, won many prestigious awards. There was even a movie made. What was that experience like? How did you like the film?

I wrote the script for the film which is very rare for a novelist, but the producers thought I did good dialogue and could pull it off. They involved me in everything. I spent the whole of my school holidays watching 2000 teenagers audition. My students were in all the major school scenes. When the boys watched it at the cinema, they laughed through the whole funeral scene because it was so strange seeing themselves up on the big screen as pall bearers. The producers even used my grandmother’s house for Josie’s nonna’s house. I’m very proud of that film. It came out on the same day as Gladiator and we still managed to get full houses. Every time I went to see it with friends or family they would clap wildly when my name appeared in the credits. Very uncool, but no one cared.

What makes a good writer?

1. A great observer of the world. 2. Perseverance (I re-wrote the prologue of Finnikin more than fifty times and re-wrote the whole novel of Alibrandi about ten times) 3.Good writing comes from good reading. Read Read Read.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there?

Do not give up after that first rejection. It’s like any other rejection. It will hurt like crazy, but you need to remember that most writers have been rejected. You have to put ego aside when you’re writing and listen to criticism. When you’re so close to your writing, you think it’s a work of art. Most times, at first draft stage, it’s not.

Of the books you’ve written, which one is your favorite?

Too hard to answer really, but I’ll try. I think writers always love the novel they’ve just finished. I feel very close to Finnikin of the Rock and am crazy mad about Finnikin and the diabolical Evanjalin. But Jellicoe Road made me feel very brave and it gave me the confidence to write Finnikin, which is my first fantasy. Deep down though, it’s probably Francesca. It’s a very personal story to me.

What are your habits while writing? Do you listen to music or have any other interesting rituals?

I always burn two soundtracks when I’m preparing to write. One is for the music in the novel and the other is the music I need to listen to which gets me into their world. If you’ve read Jellicoe I would truly suggest you download Flame Trees. It’s the song the boy-in-the-tree-in-her-dreams listens to and it’s an Australian classic from the 80’s. Although I don’t mention the title, when Taylor is in the car with Raffy and Griggs and Santangelo, they’re listening to Crystal by New Order. The song Jude and Webb discuss is Whole of the Moon by The Waterboys. My friend found one of those websites that tell you what song was number 1 the year you were born and his was The Gambler, so that’s why Kenny Rogers gets a mention in the novel because Ben burnt us all a copy and we had to listen to it every time we went on a road trip.

Now tell us: Does writing YA rock or what?

Well you’re obviously speaking to the converted. I’m going to name drop here and say that I had lunch with Rachel Cohn today because she’s in Australia for a writer’s festival and when I think of novels like her You Know Where to Find Me and Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go and the work of the gorgeous Markus Zusack and Randa Abdel-Fattah and Maria Boyd and Megan-Whalen-Turner (I’m obsessed with her Attolia trilogy) and the hundreds of others I could go on about, there is a passion in the writing that blows me away. There is a lack of pretention in YA writing and as a result, heart and soul.

Is there anything about being published that took you by surprised? Speaking of being published, could you tell us what the best and worst parts about it are?

A lot of writers are pathologically shy, but when your novel comes out you have to get out there and talk talk talk. Sometimes that’s the best and the worst, depending on your audience.

I read that you’re a teacher. I also read that Looking for Alibrandi is taught in Australian schools. Have you ever had to teach your own novel to a class of yours? If so, could you describe what that was like, the experience of being both the author and the teacher?

I write full time now but I taught at a boys’ school for ten years (probably obvious if you read Francesca) and had to teach Alibrandi twice because it was on the NSW school syllabus for Year 12. I had taught most of these guys for at least 3-4 years so we knew each other well. They once laughed at the polka dot outfit one of the characters wore to a school dance. I had to remind them it was written in the eighties. I remember on the last day of class they stuck a note on my desk saying, “Look Miss, we found her” and it was a J Alibrandi in the telephone pages. Another time I set a writing task for my senior students and I did the task myself and we all read our own out loud (they thought theirs were better than mine). Mine ended up on page 190 of the US edition of Jellicoe. I loved teaching. I don’t miss the marking (grading) but I miss being in the classroom on a good day. I’m lucky because at least once or twice a year I get an invitation to do a week long writer-in-residence in a school.

What is something most people would be surprised to find out about you?

I left school when I was fifteen. There is certainly life after that. Some people, like me, work things out at a difference pace.

What’s your biggest career dream? What’s your biggest dream outside the realm of writing?

I write a book. People read that book. People love that book. That’s as big as the dream gets. Anything more is a bonus.

Outsider the realm of writing my biggest dream is to live in a cul-de-sac with every person I love in the world, where everyone has their own family or personal space but we get together around a massive table at night and talk.

What can we expect to see next from you?

Finnikin of the Rock will be released in Australia this September and in the US in 2010. I keep on saying it’s a fantasy for non fantasy readers. It’s about claiming a lost homeland, led by two incredibly passionate and hot-headed young people named Finnikin and Evanjalin who have two very different ways of achieving the same result. Soon I’ll be tackling Tom Mackee’s story. He was one of Frankie’s friends from Saving Francesca.

Fill in the blanks!

My favorite word in the English language is solace.

Anne of Green Gables was a book that changed my life because when Anne Shirley hit Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate, I was hooked on reading.

If I had my choice of the next place I want to visit in the world, I would choose New York because it’s where I find solace.

The most unforgettable day of my life was when I was in fourth grade and in love with the boy who played Captain Von Trapp in our Sound of Music production and he looked at me while he sang Edelweiss.

Now, it’s time to see your creative side! Make yourself a question and then answer it, please.

Q: What would Josie Alibrandi, Frankie Spinelli and Taylor Markham have to say to each other if they ever met in a counselor’s office?

A: They would discuss Marchetta’s neurotic need to place them in conflict with their mothers when she has always had a brilliant relationship with her own. Josie would have a massive issue about the fact that her story is the shortest, Frankie would have the middle child syndrome and Taylor would complain that everyone is always comparing her to Josie and Francesca.

(Steph: You guys have to admit that's the best author-made question ever.)
Thanks, Melina!

Girl Week is a week-long event here on the blog celebrating strong YA heroines and feminism. Find out more about it here.

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Anonymous said...

I love Anne of Green Gables and The Sound of Music! =)

Carolina said...

Whoa, great interview. I haven't read any of her books *gasps* yet but I will soon! :)

Anonymous said...

Eeeeeeeeee! Okay, I don't even have to post for you to know that I am tres, tres, tres excitited about this post! He he!

Love, love, love Melina Marchetta! :D

Anonymous said...

Saving Francesca was just incredible! I haven't read her other books but my sister owns On the Jellicoe Road. I'll have to steal, ahem, borrow it from her soon.

Oh, and I have an obsession with the Attolia trilogy, too. Best. Series. Ever.

Sarah Woodard said...

I love her books. Great interview.

Beth F said...

Great post and interview. And thanks so much for introducing me to a new author.

Amee said...

Anne of Green Gables and The Sound of Music reference at once? I think I love Melina even more now!

Liviania said...

Loved the shout-out to the Attolia books; those are some of my faves.

I utterly hate that I have to wait until 2010 for Finnikin. Except I have friends doing a Maymester in Australia next year . . . I can totally give them money and a list of books to buy me! It's perfect!

YA Book Realm said...

OMG MELINA MARCHETTA!! I LOVED LOVED Jellicoe Road. The first book EVER I actually felt like "An OMG wow that freakin crazy" (the scene where Jonah tells Taylor why he really was at the train station) while reading the book and not to mention how ever single main or minor character were freaking impressive in their own way.

Anyway, those were some excellent questions and answers. And I have to agree that is one of the best author-made question ever.

LOVED the interview. And guess what I'll be reading over Christmas break? Yep, the first two book published by Melina prior to Jellicoe Road. Except I don't know which one to read first Looking for Alibrandi or Saving Francesca. I sense a dilemma.

Okay sorry for the super weird long comment. This what happens when you find out about GIRLS WEEK at Reviewer X's. (yes, I was deprived of the computer this whole week-needed to prep for Chem test which was today)

btw Girl Week=LOVE

Anonymous said...

Ooh, must go and download those Jellicoe Road songs now.


Anonymous said...

Steph I think I love you. Being an Aussie seeing this interview was so exciting that I squealed (and I loathe squealing). Melina Marchetta is an awesome author who's books really speak to teens. Ask any girl in Australia around my age about 'Looking for Alibrandi' and the gushing is immediate.

Jellicoe and Francesca are amazing also and I have just bought Finnikin. I love this author so much that I send Alibrandi to Sarah Dessen as a thank you. (I wonder if she read it).

I love her author question and answer, shows her great insight and humour. Allibrandi was the first novel that really spoke to me as a teen and is forever in my heart. Josie is real.

Maggie said...

She's amazing. I totally worship her writing. It's brilliant.

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Hey! For some reason, this embedded comment form makes most people click twice before the comment is processed and published. It's not you - it's just that it's a new Blogger feature with kinks and all that. (But I adore it and don't wanna get rid of it!) I removed Captcha to make the process easier. You don't have to rewrite the comments twice; just click on SUBMIT twice and it should work. If not, email me. Thanks! -Steph