Melina Marchetta, author of the new book The Piper's Son, won the Printz Award, which is like the Newbery Award for Young Adult literature, in 2009 for her third book, Jellicoe Road. Her first book, Looking for Alibrandi, published in 1993, has been made into a movie in her native Australia and was part of the high school curriculum for many years in her home state of New South Wales. Marchetta's second book, Saving Francesca, is the prequel, of sorts, to The Piper's Son, which finds most of the same characters five years after the events of Saving Francesca. The spotlight is now on a minor character from the first book, Thomas Mackee. I first read and reviewed Marchetta's fourth novel, Finnikin of the Rock, a work of fantasy, and was completely floored by it and raved about it to anyone who would listen. I was both surprised and thrilled to learn that Marchetta is a heavy hitter in any genre and her reality-based fiction is just as gripping, heart-wrenching and ultimately amazing as her fantasy writing - which is high praise coming from a devoted fantasy reader. I hope you - adults and teens - will read any of her books if you already haven't. Your life will be changed...
Ms Marchetta, first off I have to ask: Do you have any plans to write a book that will not have me (and I presume all of your readers) sobbing throughout most of it?
It’s never the plan, I promise. Strangely, I cry as well. The characters just take me by surprise. There’s this part in Jellicoe where Fitz loses it in the river and I literally cannot go back there. I’m writing the film script at the moment and whenever I have to read over that scene, I jump those five pages.
I remember that scene - it was amazing and intense and perfect, but I think I would skip over it too...
The characters you create are so intensely real that I feel like I know them or have just watched a movie about them. If this experience is so vivid for the reader, what is it like for you, the author, to have Thomas Mackee, Francesca, Finnikin, Evanjalin and Taylor come to life in your head? Do you grieve when you finish a book?
It hasn’t been as bad with the last couple of books because when I was writing Finnikin, The Piper’s Son had already come to me and when I was writing The Piper’s Son, Froi had come back to me so there hasn’t been a big moment’s rest and not enough time to grieve. But definitely yes. It is a massive downer. You spend so much time lying in bed or going for walks and trying to solve their problems that when those problems are solved and off in a publisher’s hands you feel a bit useless.
When you were writing The Piper's Son, knowing all of the characters so well and knowing that readers might already know them also, did you ever struggle with how much or how little to include about the lives of Francesca, Justine, Tara, Siobhan and Jimmy?
If I have to treat the process of TPS like a strange conversation, it went something like this.
Tom comes back to me and gives me a hint of a story. I tell Tom he’s not big enough to carry his own novel so perhaps he should go away. Tom doesn’t go away. I tell Tom he can hang out in my head and if I’m satisfied with what he brings me, I’ll start writing. I get worried. I’m frightened Tom won’t bring back Frankie and Tara and I really want him to but I can’t force characters. Tom comes back with Frankie and Justine. I love Justine, but she’s not as big as Frankie and my publisher tells me that the audience won’t want them having equal billing in his life. They’ll want more of Frankie. Siobhan and Jimmy kind of come back but I’m unsure where they are in their life at the moment so I decide that their absence is going to be powerful in the same way as the absence of Tom’s uncle and his grandfather is.
That’s as sane as I can tell it.
Having read it, that makes perfect sense. You make a handful of references to 80's music (Waterboys and Blondie are two I remember) in your books. You also mention songs and artists I don't recognize. While I was usually too engrossed in the story to go to the internet and Google the songs, artists or lyrics, I did watch Paul Kelly sing "How to Make Gravy" on YouTube. Music is so important to teenagers, how do you decide what music to put into your books and when to mention it specifically and when to mention it peripherally, like the song about the flame trees that was so important to Webb in Jellicoe Road? (And, yes, this is my round about way of asking if you will reveal the name of the song...)
It’s actually called Flame Trees by Cold Chisel, but there are a few versions now. I love the one by Sarah Blasko. I knew that whatever song Webb was listening to had to be iconic, much the same way that anything by Paul Kelly is iconic to Australians. I was on a Jellicoe road trip with two of my friends and I asked them what they thought the song would be. One, who was a country boy my age, suggested Flame Trees. He told me about a line in it that always used to make him and his mates teary, ‘Do you remember nothing stopped us in the field in our day’.
We also listened to the Waterboys on that trip. The other friend with us was much younger and discovered that on the day he was born Kenny Roger’s The Gambler was the number one song. He had never heard of Kenny! So he became obsessed which is how Kenny Rogers ends up in the novel. I’ve promised him that one day I’ll sing Islands in the Stream with him karaoke style.
The music is important when I don’t know the characters. A friend in his twenties had to burn me a playlist and I chose what songs Tom listened to and what Frankie and Tara would be interested in. The songs didn’t make it into the novel, but I had to know their music tastes to understand them as people.
That's so interesting! I wondered how Kenny Rogers made it into the book. I have read that you do not necessarily consider yourself as writing for young people. As an adult reader of your books, I find all your characters compelling, regardless of their age. What do you think it is about teenage characters that works so well for telling your stories?
It’s not that I don’t consider myself a writer for young people, I do. But I think I write about young people, and not necessarily for young people. It never surprises me that someone my age would enjoy my novels. I am my audience. I would never write a novel that I wouldn’t read myself. It’s why adults always make an appearance and they’re pretty flawed. Georgie’s concerns and points of view belonged to my generation. I love her dearly and she got to say many things I wanted to say or some of the stuff that comes up in conversation with friends.
I also think it is interesting that you are writing about teenagers and families at a time in their lives when most teenagers are preparing to separate from their families and leave home and yet your characters seem so completely entangled in their families. Can you talk about this?
Most times my characters have been about 17. I’ve found it’s the age many teenagers begin making their first decisions on their own. It’s a transitional age where they may still want to be looked after, but they also want to be set free. I think around your early twenties is another transitional age, especially if you’ve gone through uni and college and it’s over and you’re wondering, ‘Is this it? Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? So it’s no surprise that Tom and the gang are 21 in this novel. I also think around 40 is a transitional age. It’s the age when you are aware of so many physical changes as well as shifts in relationships especially with parents. Georgie and her world are in their early forties. So were Francesca’s parents in Saving Francesca. So I tried very hard to make sure that Tom’s 21 year old journey was happening alongside Georgie’s 42 year old journey. Not that much difference when it came to relationships, but I do think adults have more collatoral damage.
I never thought of that, but it's so true - 17, 21 and 40s do seem to be transitional points in most peoples' lives. The tandem stories of Tom and Georgie definitely have parallels that work well together.
Grief and grieving also seem to be consistent themes in your books. I am fascinated by the way you have characters who are on the verge of starting their lives simultaneously confronting death. It makes for some intense emotional situations. I come from a family where death is frightening and we turn away from it, so it is a complete learning experience when I read your books. How did death and grieving come to be so central to your books? How did your family deal with death and grief, if that's not too personal?
Too hard a question and I can’t go there at this time in my life, so I suppose I write about it to distance myself. What I try not to do is write about an exact situation, but rather I write about the emotions involved. I remember a friend of mine was going through grief at one stage and it was difficult for those around her because we didn’t know what to say or do to comfort her. That’s why Lucia has her big speech at the end with Georgie about people who grieve being selfish.
Lucia's speech was perfect - one of those amazing moments when you see someone hearing the truth no matter how far she has sunk into herself.
Finally, I am so happy to hear that you are writing the screenplay for Jellicoe Road. It sounds incredible and I hope we get to see it in the US. How is that project going? And, how is the quasi-sequel to Finnikin that features Froi? Although he was so painfully unlikable, you made him so human as well and I look forward to reading about how he meets the challenge of being an assassin. Is there ANY chance that this book will be published in Australia and the US at the same time? I know that The Piper's Son was released last March in Australia.
And, The Gorgon in the Gully - can you tell us anything about it? I know that it is for eight-year-olds and features Danny Griggs, who I'm assuming is Jonah's little brother?
Jellicoe has been a script I’ve been working on for a couple of years. A director approached me two years ago and we got serious about it. If you’ve read the novel, you can imagine the difficulty of getting that story right especially when the first thing that goes out the window in adaptation is the narrative voice. But it’s working and we’ve just been accepted in a selective workshop with film makers and we have producers interested but I’m not handing it over to anyone until the script is right.
Froi will be out in Australia in October, hopefully. I’ve just finished first draft and am happy with the direction it’s going. It’s more of a sequel rather than a quasi sequel and although it’s set mostly in Charyn, the Lumaterens are really important to the story. Froi has been an amazing character to work with for all the reasons you’ve alluded to. He’s so flawed and broken and the one thing I’ve tried to do is not to let him, me or the reader forget what he tried to do in Finnikin. The nature versus nurture discussion comes up a lot in this novel. My one surety is that you’ll probably cry and that Froi’s people make the Finch-Mackees look like the Brady Bunch. But they are incredibly human and unlike the Lumaterens, they actually have a sense of humour.
And yes, Danny Griggs is Jonah’s little brother. Jonah makes an important cameo or two but he’s away out bush on cadet camp. I had hinted to my publisher that I had this story happening and she kind of gently bullied me to write it for Puffin’s 70th birthday (my first novel was a Puffin). I’m glad I did. My nephews and my friends’ kids get to read something I’ve written and they take it to show and tell. It’s based on the real gully in my primary playground and it’s a story about facing your fears. Danny’s a beautifully innocent character (named after my nephew Daniel just like Francesca Spinelli’s little brother is named after my nephew Luca). He’s very unlike Jonah, but he has a wonderful strength of character.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work with me. If you ever make it to California, I'd love to say "thank you" in person for bringing these amazing people and incredible books into my life and my daughter's and everyone else who is lucky enough to discover your writing!