Melina Marchetta is the author of the much loved books Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca, and On the Jellicoe Road. Her latest novel The Piper’s Son, takes up the story five years later of the group of best friends from Saving Francesca. Only this time it’s Tom Mackee who needs saving from the grief that threatens to tear both him and his family apart.
Whether it’s through reading her novels, or interviewing the author for a feature article, former high school teacher Melina Marchetta (pictured), still has a lot to teach those of us who are willing to learn. As I’ve become more short for time and more practiced in the art of ‘winging it’ during interviews, I have completely dispensed with the need to prepare a set of questions. I always knew this cardinal sin of journalism would catch up with me someday. How appropriate then that I should be caught out by a former high school English teacher.
After failing to engage the author in a friendly chat, a strategy that usually encourages most people to start talking about themselves, I fumbled with a string of nonsensical statements about her latest book. Although Melina Marchetta never said a word, at that moment I felt like I was back in high school and had turned up to class totally unprepared for the lesson. I was eventually able to recover my composure enough to conduct an adequate interview with the author. But more importantly, I learned my lesson and as those who I interviewed after Melina Marchetta can testify, I’m always prepared with a set of well thought out questions.
She has won just about every major award for children’s literature in this country, but Melina Marchetta insists she isn’t a children’s author.
“I don’t write for young people. I don’t write for anyone in particular. I don’t have an audience in mind when I write. I just write for myself,” she said.
“But I suppose [my books] always seem to end up about young people and in the first three novels the main characters were all 17. I’ve always felt that it’s such a transitional age. It’s the age when you start making your own decisions. Tom is older in [The Piper’s Son] but he’s still at a transitional age. I like choosing transitional ages, or ages where you start asking yourself a lot of questions.”
As the mother of a young man who is the same age as the main character in The Piper’s Son, I had to wonder how an author aged in her forties, was able to construct such an authentic voice for Tom Mackee. There was never a moment during my reading of the book when I thought to myself ‘wait a minute, a twenty-one year old would never do that’.
Melina Marchetta said, “I try not to do too much research about what boys that age are like now, or even girls that age. I think when you do too much probing and research, you end up constructing a stereotype. I just really allowed myself to wonder what the Tom of ‘Saving Francesca’ would have grown up to be like. Also the characters are constructs and Tom is a construct of what I would like young men to be and despite all the awful things he does at times, I think that’s still part of being human.”
“I have a few ex-students who I still see who are now in their mid-twenties and even with them, they’re all very different to each other. I’m not saying that I don’t think people change over the years. But regardless of all the technology and everything that goes on in the world, I think that twenty-one year olds are twenty-one year olds and it wasn’t that hard thinking back to that age. You’re too old to be a child, but you’re not ready to let go of being looked after and that’s what I did with Tom. He want’s his independence but he so needs people and I think that’s an age where that happens.”
The author told me that the experience of writing The Piper’s Son was emotionally draining.
“It’s such an emotional story because it’s dealing with other people’s grief. To live with those grief stricken characters and their grief was unrelentless. It doesn’t really go away, even on the last page it’s there and I didn’t want it to go away because I know people who have experienced grief and time does not make it any better. So to have those characters sitting in your head for two years, it was pretty hard going.”
“I also had a lot of sad things happening in my life while I was writing this book. You’re so engrossed in that and what you use to do to escape is now engrossed in this other grief. I did so much crying when I was writing this novel and sometimes I didn’t know for who I was crying for because it was such an emotional time.”
“But in saying that, Georgie and Tom were such great characters to have in my head. For me they’re such funny characters, as grief stricken as they are and they’re awful at times, but they made me laugh quite a lot. So it was really good having them their as well.”
“I’ve always liked reading about an aunt and nephew relationship or an aunt and niece, but it’s always a much older aunt whose experienced life and they’ve got their young nephew or niece living with them and I wanted this to be about – these two people, although they’re twenty years apart, they’re going through almost exactly the same thing – the break-up of a relationship, trying to restore relationships, trying to deal with the loss of people in their lives and they’re pretty much screwing up half the time – so I wanted to show that regardless of what age you are, that’s still happening in your life, you don’t reach the age of 40 and everything’s perfect.”
“Georgie is one of my favourite characters because she’s got all these flaws but she’s got all these wonderful qualities and she’s just got this heartbeat that I just really love. She opens to herself to anyone who comes into her life and her house becomes that place where people come to heal and it’s because of her presence.”
“I think Sam has a better relationship with his son and a better relationship with his mother, as a result of Georgie being in his life.”
Of course any interview with Melina Marchetta isn’t complete without some discussion about the book that launched her writing career in Australia and internationally, Looking for Alibrandi.
Not only was the book adapted into a successful film, Looking for Alibrandi was also chosen for inclusion in the NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) syllabus for about six years during the 1990s.
“A lot of my books are on high school reading lists. They’re not on the syllabus like Alibrandi was, but I’m use to all four books being studied in schools. If I’m going to meet someone in their twenties they’re going to have heard of me because they studied Looking for Alibrandi at school,” she said.
“You welcome the opportunity because you’re going to be really pragmatic and it’s great for sales. But you don’t want your work pulled apart in that way. I do remember when it was on the HSC list that I’d go into a classroom and see it all over the blackboard – it was like seeing an autopsy of someone you knew. That was strange but still very flattering and I’ve always had such great feedback from kids saying it was one of the most important books they read at school, or it was the only novel they read.”
“These days there are so many Australian YA books that are studied in schools and that’s happened in the last ten years or so. I don’t think the kids really complained they weren’t reading enough Australian content, but it’s really good to be able to offer them Australian content that they actually liked.”
Since leaving the teaching profession several years ago to write full-time, Melina Marchetta has travelled extensively overseas.
“The first year that I was writing full-time I wrote a fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock and with Finnikin it was really difficult to get a concept of that medieval type world from here. I was pretty fortunate because I was able to go to an area of France that had all the castles and rivers. It was just beautiful and I spent about 10 days there and wrote the first part of Finnikin of the Rock.”
“Emotionally [The Piper’s Son] really wiped me out, but it was easy technically because I knew the setting so well.”
The author is currently working on adapting her third novel ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ for the big screen.
“But with film scripts in this country it doesn’t really that much until you’re about to go into filming. I’m working with a director called Cathy Randall and we’re wanting to get it right before we do anything with it.”
“You see it in your head sometimes as a movie as you’re writing and I’m sure The Piper’s Son is the type of film I’ll have interest in because it’s an easy film to shoot – it has two locations, it’s in Sydney and it’s not a big story. It’s a small story about big themes and a lot of people have spoken about this possibility of a film and as much as I would like to see it as a film one day, I just want it to be a novel first. I want people to enjoy it as a novel because when it becomes a film, it changes everything, it has to change, it’s a completely different medium.”
The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta is published by Penguin and is available from March 2010 at all good book retailers across Australia (RRP $24.95).
For more information about Melina Marchetta check out her website www.melinamarchetta.com.au