In Episode 282 of So You Want To Be A Writer: How to stay afloat during a freelance writing slump. Meet Melina Marchetta, author of The Place on Dalhousie and hear about her writing career. Why you should take time to live life (not just write all the time) and discover your chance to win Getting There by Instagram star Mari Andrew.
I am a Finnish writer residing in the US and I’m so happy that I found Val & Al! As I tend to write my historical fiction in Finnish, joining a local writers group is really not an option, as no one would be able to read my writing, let alone give me feedback. But each week I get tips from Val & Al and the authors they have on the show to make my writing better! I love the wide variety of authors that you interview, it has really opened my eyes to the fact that each of us has a different process, background and time line to publication, and that’s OK! You make me learn and laugh out loud at the same time. Thank you for all you do, it is so much appreciated! Anni
Writer in Residence
Melina Marchetta’s writing career took off in 1992 when she published her first novel: Looking For Alibrandi. She later turned the story into a film script. The movie Looking for Alibrandi screened in theatres around Australia and the world from 2000.
Melina managed to combine writing with teaching English and History in secondary school for ten years up to 2006, when she committed to writing full-time. During that period, she released two novels, Saving Francesca and On the Jellicoe Road.
Her first fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock, was published in 2008. The Piper’s Son (a companion novel to Saving Francesca) was released in 2010. She has written a children’s book, The Gorgon in the Gully, as part of the Puffin Pocket Money series.
Her novels have been published in 17 languages in at least 18 countries. Melina lives in Sydney where she writes full time.
The Place on Dalhousie was published by Penguin in April 2019.
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Melina Marchetta is the author of ten novels, including the multi-award winning Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca, and the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award winner On the Jellicoe Road. In 2011 her novel The Piper's Son was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Award. Her work has been made into feature films, translated into 18 languages, and published in 20 countries. Her latest novel, The Place on Dalhousie, is out now. Welcome to the program Melina Marchetta.
I probably should have added, one of Australia's most loved authors in there, because I am pretty sure that would be one of the things that you would often get.
Now we're going to talk a little minute about Looking for Alibrandi, which was your debut novel all those years ago. And is of course one that many Australians will have read, if not off their own bat then probably studied at school at some point.
Forced to read.
Forced to read! It was such a trauma. How did that book actually come to be published? How did you become a published author in the first place with that debut novel?
Oh gosh. It was such a long process of publishing. But I started writing it when I think I was about 19. And I was just rewriting it rewriting it, until I got it to where I think it could be. And it was double the size it is now. And it was written in first and third person.
So then I started… Back in the day when there were Yellow Pages and White Pages, I started ringing up publishing companies and I would ask what is the procedure of getting published. And they would say probably the same three things. It has to be typed. It has to be double spaced. And it has to have a synopsis. And they'd always add, by the way, maybe one or two in every 2000 get accepted for publication if it's unsolicited. Mine was unsolicited.
So I just went through that journey. Lots of rejections. And every time I got rejected, I did rework it and rework it, thinking I could do this, I can do that. And I still felt that once in a while with a rejection, I found out a bit of information, like the fact that more than one person had read it in that publishing company. So I thought that was promising.
And finally when Penguin received it and they said they were seriously considering it, it was three years from then that it eventually was published. And going back to what I said, it was double the size. It was pretty much, I would say not cut in half, but it was certainly reduced to one year in her life rather than a couple of years. And I chose one voice, and that was the first person narrative rather than first and third.
Interesting. Because I remember we had a conversation last year at the Shoalhaven Readers and Writers Festival, as part of one of the sessions there. And you said at the time that you weren't really a writer at school. It wasn't something that you necessarily did. Do I remember that correctly? Or did I make that up? It could be possible I made it up.
Yes. But I always had movies in my head. So I always told stories in my head. I'd have whole feature films happening. I just didn't know how to put them down on paper. And whenever I did write something at school, I didn't really get a good mark.
Because now when I think about it, most of it was still in my head. You know when you read back your work and there are these little kind of footprints of words on the page but you're reading it with what's on the page and what's in your head. Whereas someone else will read it and they will just see what's on the page, and there's a lot missing. And that's how I used to write.
So I didn't get encouragement at school, but for all the right reasons. I certainly hadn't developed as a writer. But I did love reading and I did love movies. So I loved that world of make believe. As I said, I just did not know how to put it on to paper or onto the screen.
So what made you decide at 19 that you were going to write this novel? That was twice as long as it is now and all of those various things. But what made you go, I'm actually going to be a writer. That's what I'm going to do.
Well, I think I had decided before that. Not that I was going to be a writer. I never decided I was going to be a writer. I decided I was going to write a novel. And there was a difference in my head.
There's a difference, yeah.
Because I probably thought, you know… Actually I didn't even think, oh my god, it's not going to get published one day. I just didn't even think of the publishing side of things.
But I remember writing a lot. When I was 16, I was in Business College, and I learned to type. So it was so liberating to type rather than to write. Because I could never read my own handwriting.
And I wrote a story, and this is interesting for someone who lives in your area, but I wrote a story about a girl called Genevieve Tyson and she lived in Kiama. And she hung out with her friends on the beach. She came from a single parent family. Her mum was raising her. And I think in that story she does meet her father for the first time. So you can see the resemblance, I suppose, to Alibrandi.
But I had never in my life gone to Kiama. But I almost knew every single street. I sometimes hear a street in Kiama and my heart beats fast as if I know it, but I don't know it at all. But it was back in the day when they had these tourist offices. I used to get sent these batches of brochures.
But obviously you're told, write what you know. And I didn't know about that world. I wasn't even a beach person. So I don't know why I had this teenager hanging out on the beach.
But I think also there's a part of you that wants to write something completely different to who you are. And it wasn't until I was about 19, and I had returned from Italy, so just listening to a lot of the stories from there, that I thought, well, write what you know. That girl is going to come from the inner west of Sydney. She won't be called Genevieve Tyson but she'll still be hanging out with her friends and she still meets her father for the first time and she still lives with her single mum.
Fantastic. So it comes out and almost became an instant classic overnight. Was that surprising to you? The fact that it's been that really important key book, that's been studied in schools for decades?
Well, both then and now, yes it was. Back then I was at university. I was in my second year. And I remember we used to scream hysterically every time we saw it written about or we found out something about it. I remember when it was shortlisted, it was still that screaming, you know, oh my goodness!
I don't do that of course any more.
You don't! I would be!
No! But you don't know how we used to scream. It was a bunch of friends, and we were just like, oh my god!! It was that sort of stuff. Whereas now we're just a bit more cooler than that.
But it was just more of… It was just a shock that people… I remember someone, one of my friends said, people we don't know are reading this! And that's how surprising it was, that it was people we didn't know were reading it.
And I remember, back in the day there were no phones, no mobile phones, but there was a show on the ABC, it was a book show. And someone ringing me saying, your book's there! They had a pile of books to read for Christmas.
So it was just that shock of oh my goodness. And I think the surprise now is that book is 27 years old and it's beloved by people who have grown up with it. But I'm always surprised by young people reading it. Because it doesn't have any social media in it. It is, to me, a story about the past. So I think, what are you relating to?
And I think at the end of the day, we all relate to identity and not fitting in and who are we. And I don't think you have to come from an Italian background or from a private school background. It's that sense that all of us go through this sense of feeling as if they don't belong.
And it's been one of the most beautiful surprises of my life, but it still does surprise me.
I think the other thing that they're probably relating to, and I think it's one of the things that I find really lovely about your books, is that the characters feel so real and convincing. They're very three dimensional people. They're people. They're not just sort of I'm moving people around a board here because I need things to happen.
So I get the sense from that that you spend a lot of time with them while you're writing. How do you go about building your characters?
I think I spend a lot of time with them in my head, rather than… The building happens over time in my head. And in a strange way, and it may seem strange to hear this, but sometimes I wonder is because I actually don't know what to do with the construction of character that I end up writing so much about the real people in my world. Because I don't… I'm not saying that I'm not aware of what I do. I'm probably more aware these days. I'm so aware of the less is more rule. I'm aware of the fact that dialogue has to reveal so much rather than being told so much in another scene or in a narrative scene.
But I think, I keep on saying this, because I've had to speak a lot about the latest novel, I just find that the most profound conversations I have are in the most unprofound places. I will be in Coles, and I haven't bumped into someone for a long time, and in those five minutes we just tell each other what's happened in the last year.
That's so true.
And it could have drama in it, and it could be emotional, and it could be, oh my god! I can't believe you're telling me this.
So I find that it's in those moments that I have the most profound situations. So when I write about the every day, that's what I'm writing about. It's not something that I've read in a letter that someone has sent to me. Or sometimes it could be an email. But it's basically, you go out the front and get your mail and you're having conversations with neighbours, if you're close to your neighbours like I am.
And once again, you're finding out that maybe someone across the road has been diagnosed with cancer. All these connections. And I think that that's what I end up doing because maybe I don't know how to do it any other way.
So if you were to describe your writing process, is it that bower bird coming together of a whole range of different things that happen and people you've met and people you know that kind of morphoses itself into a narrative? And you said you do quite a lot of it in your head. How much of it is in your head before you even start to write a manuscript?
Oh a lot. And I think that that's an interesting… And only a writer could ask me that. Because I don't think those people have been in my head for decades. But situations have. Fragments have. And so when I'm writing now, I am writing about those fragments. I remember growing up with stories of people, families fighting over a house. That's an aspect of what I've just written.
Or I remember stories. I remember my own, when your grandmother just knew everything you had done from the moment you left school to when you arrived home before you arrived home.
So all of that was placed in a part of my head that is called, of course, memory. But what writers do is they take those memories and they use that at any time. They don't just belong to when that happened.
And I think with my writing, there's a library there. And it's not a fully formed one. The characters are never one person. I can't say, wow, I wrote about her. But I write about situations without realising.
And sometimes, of course, you write something and then you find out something about someone, and you think, wow, that's so similar, but I didn't know about it. And I'll say, please don't read the book now because it might be too painful for you. And I know someone's neighbour who has just gone through a very similar situation as one of my characters. So I think they'll love it, but not now.
So do you feel like your process has changed over the years? Has it developed in different ways as you… As you said, you learn from that first manuscript that you wrote, you've now written ten. You've obviously learned different things along the way. As you said, different techniques and things like that. Has it changed the way that you put words on paper, do you think?
Not with the first draft. But certainly the way I edit myself. I would never, with Alibrandi, I would have had no clue how to edit myself. Whereas I feel now, especially from Francesca on, I sort of knew what I was doing. I was very aware of what I was doing.
And so I would know, and I remember this distinctly with Francesca, the second novel, I started writing it, I had such a strong connection. I had written three chapters, but I had a really strong connection to it. But there was something, I don't know, there was something that was missing. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know to continue on and maybe, I knew that there was interest in it, so I thought well maybe it will be something that my editor will work out. And what I did instead was I restarted it. I didn't change really anything at all. I think I changed her name. But I changed tense. And for me, that changed everything.
And so it's things like that that I do. When something's not working, I try to solve the problem myself. And what's not working is not a writer's block. It might be that I'm not feeling that connection to it. So I think that to change tense or to change something from first to third person or vice versa sometimes gives me a bit more of a feel. And I think, okay, that's the way I'm going.
And once again, my dialogue, I try very hard not to overwrite. And that's something that I did learn from scriptwriting. Because when I wrote the Alibrandi film script. It's just kind of editing yourself, knowing you're going to go through a big edit with an editor, but I do a lot more self-editing than I did with the first novel.
So by the time my editor has it, I don't think once I've been asked to do a structural edit. For some reason, I don't know why, except in film. But that's a different structure. But with a novel, I've never had to do a structural edit. And a structural edit scares me the most.
That's a fairly impressive record, not to have had to do a structural edit. I'm impressed.
I know. And even to a certain degree with On the Jellicoe Road, which was a very difficult structurally put together novel. But I still felt that I knew what it was in my head. There wasn't a lot.
What I do need to do is flesh things out. I haven't… I have to work on back story. Because that isn't clear. So it's about my editor asking me the right questions and once she does, or makes the right observations I think, oh, I know what to do now. And I will go in that direction.
So it actually took quite a few years to write your second novel. Saving Francesca came out ten years…
Eleven years later. But I wasn't working on it for eleven years.
Well, that was my question. Were you writing that the whole time?
No. Because I distinctly remember when I started writing it. It was in October 2001 and it came out in 2003. So I distinctly know that that's how long it took me.
I was teaching. I was writing the film script. I wrote a failed version of my third novel that I ended up putting away thinking I'd never pick it up again. And then I did after 13 years and it became something a bit different to what I imagined it in the first place.
So I was very busy. But I think I was scared to write that second novel. I didn't know what was… Actually I do know what was expected of me. It was to write the same sort of story, and I didn't know how to do that. Because I didn't know how I did it in the first place.
That's always a problem.
Whereas I've known from then on, from Francesca on, I've known what I've done. But with Alibrandi, of course I remember aspects of the edit, of course I do. But I do believe that that novel was written from the heart.
Definitely. Are you a writer who writes every day?
I do. And I write a lot of rubbish, in a way. I think it's very important – not to write rubbish, but I say to people that I write every day. That would be my advice. Because when you go back to it the next day, I tend to get rid of 80% of it. But there's 20% that's gold. It's what I need.
So for me, I try not to be a perfectionist. I'm not a perfectionist. I become a perfectionist because I go over my work a hundred times. But I just can't come out with something fantastic from the first draft. So what I do is I just write. And whatever survives that next day, I take it from there.
Okay. That makes sense.
Now let's talk about your new novel, The Place on Dalhousie. Because we're actually revisiting some characters in that. So do you want to tell us a little bit about that book?
Well it's about two women who refuse to move out of a home they both believe belongs to them. And it does belong to both of them. One lives upstairs and the other one lives downstairs. They don't speak to each other. And it's about the community they create within that home without realising. And the community they create outside that home.
And the character who comes back into it comes from Saving Francesca. And his name's Jimmy Hailer. And he becomes the third narrator of the story. He is as disconnected as these two women, but they end up in the same home. And he almost is the person who metaphorically stands on that stair and brings them together, to a certain degree.
Okay. And why did you want to revisit Jimmy? Why did Jimmy come back?
I don't think Jimmy ever went away. And I know he wasn't present in The Piper's Son, which is the second… I call them companion novels. It's not a trilogy. I either call it a companion novel, or in my head I call it The Inner West Trilogy, but that's just pretentious in my head.
But when the gang came back in The Piper's Son, when they were 21, Jimmy didn't. And I didn't force him. I just didn't know where he was. And I was not going to force characters back just for the sake of me, or even my readership.
So he just… He was lost. He had just nicked off, really. Because his grandfather, I think his only, the relative he had lived with had died. So he just nicks off.
But I really wanted that absence to mean something. It wasn't just, oh, he's not in the book. It was… People felt that absence. And as a result I got asked about him all the time. And once again I thought, well, you're not going to write about this character just because your readership wants you to. He has to come with a pretty good story.
And in a way the three of them came together. The three of them and that house came together. As soon as I met Rosie in my head, I knew she was connected to Jimmy. So I don't know who came first. But of course you can say Jimmy came first. But in this book, they all came together.
And the one rule I made for myself, especially with Rosie who lives upstairs, and Martha who lives downstairs, one's the stepdaughter and one's a stepmother of someone who has tragically died, I thought to myself: don't take sides. So in writing this I was not going to be on one person's side. So it was kind of… I was very bossy about that with them. It was like, don't ask me…
It's interesting. Because you've got a fairly fine line to tread there, if you're not taking sides at all.
Sometimes it might seem… Sometimes people mistake empathy for a character with taking sides. So there might be a chapter where you think, oh, she's on this person's side. And of course there's so many sides to a story.
I just wanted the readership to understand what both these women were going through. They were grief stricken. They had both at different ages in their life, one at my age and one as a 21 year old, had years before lost their mothers. And I think at any age, it is just such a profound loss.
So it was just… I loved, I have to say, I loved them both dearly and I was very protective over there. So I was not interested in a reader saying to me, oh, I loved this one. I thought, I don't care. I don't care. I love them both.
I am Switzerland. I am not taking sides.
All right, so it's actually not your first novel for adults. In 2016, I think it was, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil came out. And that was heralded as your first foray into adult crime and a change in direction. Was that a conscious decision to write a crime novel at that time? Or was it just how the story unfolded?
I feel as if I don't make conscious decisions and I probably should. I feel as if I should be a lot more… What's the word? In control of what I do.
The answer is yes and no. I remember thinking, I remember knowing what I wanted to write about. I knew that I had to set it in parts of England and France because I needed the Channel. I needed countries that were in a way connected but weren't.
And I remember with my other novels, I've always said this about my novels, most of them, especially my YA, are about young people where the adults play such an important role in their lives. Whereas this one, I was very much aware of the fact that it was about older people where young people played a very important role in their lives. So I knew that there would be that shift.
But with regards to, I didn't know, and I know this sounds strange, but I actually didn't know what the genre was. And I remember sending my agent the first draft and I asked her. What do you think the genre is? And she said, I think it's a literary crime novel.
So that's how it was in my head for a while. But even in the editing, I was told quite often, by the way, this is a crime novel, he has to solve the crime. Because I had this very reactive rather than proactive detective type who was discovering what was happening because he was just… He had such empathy for people that they'd tell him things. But I had to remember genre in the rewrites. And I had to make sure that he was more proactive in the solving of what happened on that bus.
So that's when I was constantly reminded of genre, genre, don't forget the genre. We know that you can write good family stories, and this is to me a family saga. But it is a crime novel so don't forget that.
And is that a character, is Bish Ortley a character that we will see again?
Oh look, you know I wish. And I hope. But he's not… He has kind of come back. But once again, I don't know what his story is. And because I love writing such personal stories, I felt that I wrote his. So it's all out there. So the one thing I am very much aware of, and I don't want to put him through any more pain, he's gone through enough pain. So it would seem like such a cliché to just dump some more on him.
But I feel as if it could be about other characters. Him still being such an important part. But is it about someone else's back story?
And there was a character in it, Nor, who is one of the main characters, who's in jail. And she's still in jail when this story ends. And I always find her so fascinating. There's more to her story. And even people he went to school with who were in whatever they're in, whether it's MI5 or… I think they never really divulged who they worked for. But I was interested in them as well.
I never say no. But I never know where the next book comes from. And I mean, it just, I'm hoping so much they'll come back. Because I almost know how I would end, if it was Nor's story, I almost know how I would end that novel. I almost know the last line.
It's starting to form up.
Yeah. And that's once again, it's a conversation I had with someone while I was touring around with this book in a bookstore. And we were talking about, this is a very morbid thing, but dying and having not finished a novel. And we were talking about that and someone told me a story that I thought, oh my god, that's so beautiful and I put it away in the library in my head. And I haven't forgotten it.
So what are some of the sorts of things that you do to promote your work? Are you active online? Or is most of your promotion work done just around when a book comes out and you go out and talk to people and go to festivals and do that kind of stuff?
Yes. I feel as if I come out into the land of the living every three years. And the rest of the time is spent on the P&F, you know, your daughter's school.
But what I do, I have a blog, and I don't blog. But when I've got something to say I will blog and that goes to Twitter and it goes to Facebook. And I quite like having that control.
I do have basic stuff set up. I just don't really engage without just pressing that button. But I've just recently, and it's a private account, but you can definitely follow me, but I've just recently discovered Instagram. And I love people's photos so much.
So you're stalking?
I just love… That's one thing I missed not being really engaged in Facebook. Because it's not that I'm against social media. It gives me anxiety. And there's enough things in the world to give me anxiety. I just get anxious. I get anxious if I find out something awful that's happened by this thing that just… So I just, I keep away from it.
And it's what I do like about Instagram that I miss about Facebook. My entire extended family, pretty much, are on Facebook. And they'll talk about people's photos. Even people who are close to me, my sisters know more about them than I do because I'm not on Facebook.
But I love Instagram because as I said, I feel as if I've got more of a control. And I just love looking at people's photos. Including Reese Witherspoon's photos.
Oh there you go!
I think, my god, they're just so beautiful. It's just so…
All right. Well we'll finish up today. And thank you very much for your time. But we always finish up with our three top tips for writers. So Melina Marchetta, what are your three top tips for aspiring writers?
I would say write every day, as I said before. Because you will find something to salvage the next day, even if it's a line.
The other is make sure that you have a couple of reasons for a piece of dialogue. And it could be it pushes the story forward, or it tells you something about the relationship between the two people speaking, or it tells you about the character himself or herself.
And the third is not to solve problems in front of a computer screen. Go for that walk. Drive. Take your dog for a walk. Lie in bed at night and solve the problems. Because I think that if you're trying to solve problems in front of a screen, you'll get disheartened and give up.
Great tips. A couple of new ones there that we don't get all the time. So that's brilliant. Thank you so much for that. Best of luck with your new novel. I'm sure it is also amazing. I have not as yet read it, but it is on my list of things to read. So that's always a good start, right? And we will keep an eye out for you for your random forays on to Facebook and Twitter so we can keep up with your news.