A writer’s craft: a conversation with Melina Marchetta

Author Melina Marchetta is a guest at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. AAP Image/Penguin Group
Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Penguin Books

We fell in love with Josephine Alibrandi’s humour, we came to respect Taylor Markham’s tenacity in the face of adversity, and we quietly rooted for Tom Mackee. We found ourselves immersed in the world of Skuldenore, wondering about those trapped inside Lumatere and following the lives of those outside as they struggled to untangle a complex web of dreams, memories, and destinies.

Australian author Melina Marchetta’s beautifully descriptive prose, careful attention to characterisation, and use of engaging dialogue has captured her readers’ hearts and minds. Among many awards, Marchetta has received the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award for Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca as well as the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature for On the Jellicoe Road .

Her Lumatere Chronicles trilogy has received international praise, and she’s written a number of other novels, short stories, and screenplays.

On the Jellicoe Road (2010). Penguin Books

A former secondary English teacher, Marchetta is passionate about the craft of writing. As part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Marchetta has taken part in several workshops this week to teach creative writing to local high school students. In a session called Keeping it Real: Realistic Issues in Teen Fiction this Sunday, she will join authors Laurie Halse Anderson, Erin Gough, Barry Jonsberg, and Davina Bell to discuss their approaches to writing books that resonate with today’s young adults.

As a literacy researcher and teacher educator at the University of Sydney, I was fortunate to talk to Marchetta about her experiences as a writer and teacher:

On her writing process:

It begins with the character. When I write, I know how the story starts and how it ends, but I need to figure out how to get there. My first draft is generally awful. Before I share it with anyone else, I’ll rewrite it several times. I am obsessed with getting the words right. I’ve had books that were structurally difficult to write, such as On the Jellicoe Road. I’ve had others that were emotionally challenging to write, like The Piper’s Son.

On scriptwriting:

It is so hard. Close to the beginning of the process, you’re getting a lot of feedback about what works and what could work. With a novel, it’s more in your head. I’ve never had feedback on a novel where I was told, “It’s a complete rewrite.” With a script, there are often structural issues that need to be addressed. A script is a thousand times worse than a novel.

On adapting novels:

I’m working on the film treatment for Saving Francesca now, and I believe that I’m the best writer for it. I think that the Lumatere Chronicles would make an amazing film trilogy or television series. But I don’t think I would be the one to write it; I would do the story a disservice. I wouldn’t know what to take out, and I wouldn’t know how to tell the story on a smaller scale.

On fan fiction:

I love it. It’s a kind of appropriation, and we’ve done that with everything from Shakespearean plays to Bible stories. I’m interested in the writing – there’s a lot of bad writing out there, but there’s a lot of good writing out there too. Fan fiction gives writers a chance to explore characters’ backstories, their relationships, and their sexualities in new ways.

On teaching writing:

When I was teaching, I didn’t know how to teach writing. But now I do. I’ve learned a lot from scriptwriting that feeds into novel writing. For instance, you cannot have one word in a script that doesn’t belong there. Dialogue is a definite strength of mine.

In workshops with teachers and students, I’ll go often focus on the reasons for using particular dialogue. Writers need to use dialogue to move the plot forward, to reinforce a relationship, or to tell more about the character. I’ll often use examples from my own work, such as the Lumatere Chronicles.

On the English curriculum:

When someone makes a distinction between young adult literature and canonical literature, when they make a statement about “what belongs here” and “what belongs there,” then they have not read across the spectrum.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the English syllabus was made up of books that students love? I think it ties into the ego of the person writing the syllabus and the ego of the teacher. While it may be difficult, due to the emphasis on the New South Wales Higher School Certificate exam, there are still so many ways that teachers can have agency and can challenge their students. If I was still teaching high school English, I would definitely be teaching the right books for that class. Young adults want their teachers to push them beyond their current level.

Moving forward:

My next novel will be out next year. Shaming the Devil is a crime thriller, set in London. While I don’t want to write another big book as part of the Lumatere Chronicles, there is still so much to explore. I’d love to write novellas about other events and characters, such the Sarnak massacre.

Melina Marchetta is a guest at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival. She will participate in Keeping it Real: Realistic Issues in Teen Fiction on Sunday May 24. Details here.