Sunday 16 November 2014

Event Recap: High Tea With Melina Marchetta

Every so often Better Read Than Dead in Sydney hosts high tea events with Australian authors, and yesterday they had their biggest ever with Melina Marchetta. There was so much interest they had to  move the event out of their bookshop and in to a hall around the corner. They do a great job with creating a lovely high tea atmosphere, the food is awesome, and you get to hear an amazing author discuss their work - it's basically my idea of heaven. Also tickets are only $10, which is crazy good value. Seriously, I am obsessed with how brilliant these events are. And of course yesterday's event with one of my absolute favourite authors was extra brilliant.

If you're wondering what those non-Melina Marchetta books are - I won the lucky door prize, woo!

Melina discussed everything from writing Looking for Alibrandi to the On the Jellicoe Road film script and the novel she's just finished. Some of the highlights:

  • Melina left school in Year 10 and at her mother's urging did a course to learn to type. Instead of typing random things she began writing what would go on to become Looking for Alibrandi. She would write little snippets of story and pass it to the girl next to her, who kept asking for more, which encouraged her. So her very first reader was a 16-year-old girl. But she said Alibrandi went through many, many rewrites, and even after she got an agent and later a publisher it needed work. She didn't keep a record of the process, but she believes she got rejected between five and eight times before Alibrandi was rescued from the slush pile. From the time she first started writing it through to when it was published, it took about five years. Her other novels have taken about 18 months from writing the first draft through to being published.
  • Her love of reading was what got her in to writing. She had never seen a character like herself or her world portrayed, and that's what really drove her to create Alibrandi. But although she created a story within her world and tied to her experiences growing up in Australia with Italian heritage, she said it's not her life story and Josie Alibrandi is not her: "Josie is much smarter than me and I am much nicer than her." 
  • She said "write what you know" is great advice, but that doesn't mean it has to be exactly your story - you can use your experiences or emotions to create a fictional journey: "My own life is very boring - the highlight of my day can be getting an email or going up the road to get a coffee." Melina used Saving Francesca as an example of this - working at an all boys school, she knew what it was to be a minority in that environment, and she used that in Francesca
  • She was very proud of On the Jellicoe Road but when it was first published, nobody was really interested in it. She even had a bookseller tell her to her face that she didn't like it. People wanted her to keep writing Alibrandi and Francesca again and again, and didn't know what to make of this completely different story. But then it was published in America, and it was really what cracked the American market for her, and suddenly people in Australia were interested in it too. Now it is one of her most beloved books.
  • Despite the themes of her first two books, she was never interested in writing about multi-culturalism forever - what interests her most, and what ties all her books together, is identity.
  • Melina sees Finnikin of the Rock as a companion novel to Alibrandi. It has the same theme of identity, and searching for who you are, and of people displaced from their homeland. She was inspired to write Finnikin when she was living in New York for a couple of months, and she was sitting on the subway and saw an advertisement about refugees. And as she was sitting there she realised everyone around her was talking in different accents and languages, and everyone, included herself, was disconnected from their homeland. Those two observations led to Finnikin. She wanted to write a story about refugees but she didn't want to set it in the here and now because it would be too political, so she created the fantasy world. 
  • Finnikin is almost as much Evanjalin's story, but Evanjalin didn't get a POV because she's got too much to hide.
  • The descriptive language was something she worked hard to get right when writing fantasy. While most of her novels undergo at least five rewrites, she rewrote scenes in the Lumatere Chronicles up to 20 times. She would write a scene, and then sit there with a thesauraus to find just the right word for each thing she wanted to convey, to create a rhythm within the prose. She said the important thing with fantasy is that there is a song that is sung through the writing.
  • Finnikin and Francesca were both written as standalones, but they each had characters that wouldn't leave her alone (that'd be Froi and Tom!).
  • Tom Mackee was originally supposed to be the villain in Francesca. But one comment he made in the novel - about being the first Mackee male to get to a certain age with his liver intact - stuck with her over the years. One night Melina was watching an Australian Story about Vietnam vets who were going back to Vietnam because the bodies of five soldiers had never been recovered, and she had a "mystical moment" where she felt Tom Mackee sitting next to her saying "that's my grandfather." He also said "and Georgie Finch is my aunt" - she had been thinking of Georgie as a character for another story at the time. She said she doesn't really buy into what a lot of writers say about things just coming to them, or that writing is some mystical process - "it's mostly really hard work" - but that was one of the few moments she's had like that. And that led to The Piper's Son.
  • Jimmy Hailer's story is very much in Melina's head right now. He and Siobhan did not appear in The Piper's Son because she could only include who Tom brought with him, and he didn't bring those two characters, but she was aware their absence was a presence that was felt, and they were still there even if they weren't an active part of the story. She has been thinking of Jimmy in the past two days in particular, and she knows what will happen in his story, but she needs to get the chance to write it. She said she firmly believes stories are written at the right time - and she feels that now is Jimmy's time. She wanted to stress that it won't be YA - Jimmy is about 25 or 26. He is still drifting, as Jimmy does. He will get stuck in a house for three days due to a flood, with another character who was in a short story Melina wrote last year (I have yet to read that one - I need to).  There will be two other main characters, in their 40s - another woman who was in that short story, and her love interest. It will be about these four characters, but the old gang will definitely show up in some way. 
  • The novel Melina just finished is unlike anything she's written before. Her agent describes it as a "literary thriller" and it is an adult novel set in London. It's about an explosion on a bus that is tied to an explosion on the London underground 14 years earlier. She said while in the past her novels have been about young people where older people play an important part, this one is about older people, where younger people play an important part. It was partly inspired by Melina's feelings over anti-terror laws. 
  • Melina is currently tinkering with the Jellicoe film script. She said it has to be absolutely perfect because they're hoping to get the right backing in the new year to finally get it made. They've auditioned actors and she said if it was made tomorrow, she knows they definitely have a Jonah Griggs, Ben Cassidy and Jude Scanlon - and they are all "amazing, and hot too". But she can't say who they are because by the time the film gets made they might not be able to do it for whatever reason (Hollywood might snatch them up - "and Hollywood will definitely snatch them up" - or they might get too old, for instance).
  • Melina said film scripts are incredibly difficult and complicated because there is a lot more to consider than when writing a novel. And the people who are funding it are not necessarily interested in what's in the novel. It sounds like the Jellicoe script might be quite different from the book, but she said the "six most important things" that are in the novel are also in the script. She also said that everyone who has read the script has loved it.
  • Her advise for writers: just write! Melina said she meets a lot of people who say they want to be writers but aren't actually writing anything, and she understands the difficulty of putting things on the page and the fear that it will never live up to what's in your head. She said her latest novel was in her head for a year before she put anything to paper - and it ended up being even better than what was in her head. She said you need to write something every day - it doesn't have to be much, and you might end up throwing out three quarters, but that one quarter might be the hook you need to hang the next thing on. Even if one sentence out of hundreds is gold, it's worth it and that's what you need to do. 
  • You should also rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Melina said people ask her how she, for example, plants something early in a book that doesn't have meaning until much later on, and she said that's the sort of thing that comes through rewriting. It's only when you rewrite that you really know the characters and can really flesh them out and add those little, meaningful details. But you need to get that first draft done as the foundation to then go back and rewrite and make it better.
  • Melina is the queen of YA and it seems she will soon be the queen of adult fiction too - of course she didn't say this, but I am. If you haven't read her books you should go buy them all right now.