Literary event with acclaimed Australian author Melina Marchetta
Content warning: suicide, terrorism
I have just gotten home from this event at Muse, and I’ve just put dinner on the stove, so I thought I’d type out my thoughts while they’re still fresh in my mind and while I’m waiting for the soup to boil. I was absolutely thrilled to see Melina Marchetta speak at Muse for the second time. In conversation with our friend author Sean Costello, she was here to talk about her new novel “The Place on Dalhousie”. Costello managed to get in lots of great questions, and I was furiously taking notes in the front row.
Costello kicked off the event by asking Marchetta about genre, noting that her books can now be found in just about every section of a bookstore. Marchetta said that she “wanted to prove I could write more than about Italian girls in the suburbs”. However, in this novel she completes what she describes as her “Inner West trilogy”, revisiting characters from her books “Saving Francesca” and “The Piper’s Son”.
Costello then asked Marchetta about writing about multiculturalism, and her thoughts about multicultural Australia today. Marchetta said that her character Josie from her first novel “Looking for Alibrandi” (Costello tried without success to penalise mentions of this book with the audience shouting out tomato, but Marchetta couldn’t help bringing it up several times in the discussion) would be disappointed with where we are now. She felt that there has been little progress made and said that she feels devastated when she hears racism coming from the Italian community. She said that while it wasn’t all bad, it wasn’t always a positive experience and her own grandfather was interned during World War II. She said that while there has been some progress, it hasn’t been enough and Australia exports this idea of a monoculture which doesn’t reflect the Inner West.
The next question Costello asked was about writing about home as someone with Italian heritage. Marchetta said that she spent a lot of time trying to run away from being “that Italian girl” when she was young, but says that she feels differently now she has a child. She said that she has never had such a strong sense of where she belongs as she does now. She said that home is belonging to a community, and as her daughter originally came to her as a foster child, it is really important to provide that sense of community.
Marchetta and Costello compared their experiences visiting Italian relatives after growing up in Australia, and shared stories about how familiar their relatives seemed but how traumatising it was to leave in a time with no Skype or Facebook, and likely no opportunity to see your family back home again. She said people assume that Italian families are all very close, but in reality, relationships are not always easy. She said that families take work and in her new book, one of her characters has to learn what it means to have a family.
In her current book, Marchetta said that she writes about two Italian girls with different backgrounds – one whose family migrated to Australia pre- and post-WWII, and another who moved here in the 1990s because of Italy’s economic situation. She said that the different migration periods really determine experience and how much family support there is around. She said that people expect that Italy is a wealthy country, but there is a lot of poverty, especially in Sicily.
Costello asked her about the connection between the three books. Marchetta said that in “The Piper’s Son”, there was a notable absence of Jimmy. She said that people wanted her to write about him, but she had to know where he was before she could fit him into a story. She said that she wanted to put three characters together in a situation and see how they reacted, but admitted that “sooner or later they’re going to end up in Sydney”.
Costello then asked her about her “Lumatere Chronicles” series (which I adore) and the links between those books and her “Inner West Trilogy”. Marchetta said that there are common themes such as romanticising the motherland, the loss of language, being an exile or a child of a migrant, and the experiencing of leaving a place forever. She stressed again that for her, it is people, not a place, that is home.
Costello said that he had heard Marchetta describe her writing style as like that of a gardener rather than an architect. Marchetta said that she also thinks of it as a pioneer, rather than a settler. She said that the relief she feels at getting a first draft of a book out is almost the same sense of relief as seeing it in bookstores. However she said that she often finds the magic in the rewrites, and took the opportunity to mention how valuable her editors are at this point.
Costello asked her what audience she has in mind when she is writing her books, and Marchetta said that she never thinks about audience or genre. She said that when “Looking for Alibrandi” was published (tomato!), it was marketed as both a young adult and adult’s book. She said that someone once said to her that they almost didn’t find her novel because they didn’t go to the children’s area. She said that was great, because they charged $3 more for the adult version. She said her current book has less sex in it that some of her young adult novels, but is still marketed as an adult novel.
Costello noted that there is a lot of music in “The House on Dalhousie” and asked her about the soundtracks that she listens to while writing. Marchetta said that the book is set in 2011, so she was trying to be true to that year. She said that there is music by David Gray, and that she was hoping to include a song by The Lumineers that felt perfect, but that it didn’t actually come out until after 2011. She said that she did sneak in a Game of Thrones reference that was probably a few months too early hoping that people who don’t have a life don’t notice.
Costello then confronted Marchetta with the rumour that her book “Looking for Alibrandi” (tomato!) is the most stolen library book and asked her how she felt about that. Marchetta said that she thought it was a rumour made up to promote the film adaptation, but then one day had a hairdresser admit to her that she had in fact stolen the book from a library herself. Marchetta said that it was her favourite kind of theft.
OK, so Costello said that for many kids growing up, her books changed their lives, and asked what book changed Marchetta’s life. Marchetta said that her favourite book growing up was “Anne of Green Gables”, but that she was a troubled reader as a child. She said that her mother didn’t give up on her, and look where she ended up! She said that she is still surprised at how much solace a book can bring you, and that she returned to the “Queen’s Thief” series recently when she was having some sleepless nights.
Then it was time for audience questions, and I was first of the mark with a question about Marchetta finding redemption in her male characters, looking particularly at Froi in the “Lumatere Chronicles” and Bish in “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil”. I said that I had always enjoyed Marchetta’s fluid morality and asked whether she looks at redemption again in her new book. Marchetta said she does try to be optimistic and believe that people can change, but she did note that people are more willing to forgive men than women. She said that women often receive far more criticism for wrongdoing than men. She said that in her new book, it is a female character who she explores the theme of redemption with this time.
There were plenty of other great questions from the audience as well, and unfortunately I can’t completely remember what everyone said. However, I do remember that Marchetta said that her earlier books particularly were about girls in a boys’ world. Marchetta talked about the differences between writing a book and writing a screenplay, and some of the things she advocated to keep in the film and how she negotiated moving a key event from the end of “Looking for Alibrandi” (tomato!) to the middle, rather than having it removed altogether.
She was asked about whether she would change anything in her earlier books, and she said that she wouldn’t write about suicide now because since her first book was published, she has known people who have taken their own lives. She said that when she wrote the first draft of “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil”, the Paris Attacks hadn’t happened yet. She said that her editor had a family member who was in Paris while she was reviewing the manuscript, and that she wouldn’t write about it now. Marchetta said that writing about things that are close to you is incredibly hard.
There were plenty more questions, but unfortunately our hour was up. Marchetta very kindly stayed back and signed copies of her new book for everyone (including a copy for my sister that she gave me tips on how to read first without anyone knowing). A fantastic event with great questions and I can’t wait to read this new book.