WHAT IS BEHIND THE DESK?
Behind the Desk is a monthly series in which I interview amazing published authors, librarians, teachers, book designers, etc. so that we can learn more about the intricacies, struggles, and excitement that goes on in the world of books and literature. Feel free to contact me with suggestions for future interviewees!
BEHIND THE DESK: Melina Marchetta
If you don't want to get addicted to an author, look away now. Melina Marchetta's books are some of the most captivating I have ever read; from page one you will be absorbed by characters and worlds that will feel both incredibly familiar as well as wonderfully mysterious. But don't just take my word for it—Melina won the Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association for On the Jellicoe Road in 2009, Looking for Alibrandi was turned into a movie in 2000 in her native Australia, and her books have been translated into eighteen languages.
Why are you a writer? What are you trying to figure out when you write?
I think it’s always about identity. Where I fit in the scheme of things, whether it was me as a teenager, or me now as a woman of a particular age. Ultimately, I write because it brings me peace and a sense of solace. I’m taking a break for the holidays and I miss writing so much. I realize at times like this that I rely on writing to calm me down and I sleep so much better when I write.
Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil will be your first adult book having gone from traditional YA to epic fantasy and now to adult thriller. Did your mindset feel different while you were writing this one compared to the others, or were you simply focused on telling the story, irrespective of audience? Have you ever felt limited by the boundaries publishers and booksellers put around adult vs YA categorizations?
I rarely think of audience and with this novel it was no different. The same goes for genre. If audience and genre expectations are in my head, I honestly feel that I can’t write with the authenticity I’m after. I’ve been very fortunate in my writing career because I’ve never felt restricted by my publishers, both here and in the US. Perhaps I would be more widely read if I wrote within those limitations, but I have many rules to myself. One of the most important is not to compromise the work. I didn’t find the writing of this novel any more difficult than my YA novels except for the fact that it was set on the other side of the world. I couldn’t take the tube alongside Bish in London, the way I took the train to Tom Mackee’s Sydney suburb during the writing of The Piper’s Son. That was the challenge.
Having read piles of manuscripts, I know how tricky it can be for writers to capture a protagonist's unique voice or, even more challengingly, capture so many characters' voices while making each one stand out as a fully fleshed out individual. What are some of your techniques for achieving this in your books?
I live with these characters in my head for a very long time before I commit them to paper. So I know them well. I know their backstory. For some of the characters I write that backstory, which doesn’t necessarily find itself in the novel. But I need to know everything about my characters before I throw them into the ring. The hardest thing is to differentiate, so sometimes I do that by working out what sort of music they’d listen to, or add one small piece of information that says a substantial amount about them. I don’t necessarily treat all of them equally, but I do believe that secondary characters can’t just serve the purpose of propping up the main protagonist, especially with a novel like this [Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil]. So I find something from that backstory to define them.
Editing is a daunting task for any writer, let alone for one whose books can be as long or as intricate as yours. How do you and your editor(s) tackle this process, and what advice would you give to first-time authors getting to this stage?
If I had to give a writer any sort of advice, it would be: re-write, re-write, re-write. And don’t be in a rush. Not because the work will come out sloppy, but because a year into the edit, or even eighteen months downs the track, you discover something really profound about the story or characters. Think of it like a real relationship. You don’t really get to know the person until the honeymoon period is over. There are facts and traits that I could not have worked out in six months or during my first draft. I always tell my editors during the early drafts, that the magic is still to come in my writing. Sometimes it’s in the last draft. Most times I receive an editing letter from my editors that gives a bigger picture path, and then there may be specifics on an electronic edit. I love an editor who asks questions rather than merely making suggestions. The magic lies in answering those great questions.
Your books have been published around the world and translated into many languages. How do you find the business of publishing and bookselling differs from country to country?
It all begins with my wonderful agents. They read the book first and then we talk. The two main territories are Australia and the US, and I find the experience similar except for the fact that my novel in Australia can be released a couple of months after a final edit. With the US, it could be a year before it’s released because of scheduling. Once in a while I’m asked how I feel about the cover or the translator asks a question or two. Some countries will release the novel at least two years after I’ve signed the contract, and that’s because a translator, who they believe is the best for the work, isn’t available straight away.
Studies have shown that if kids were allowed to choose the books they had to read, they'd be much more interested in reading. Having been an English teacher, what are some books you'd love to see on school curriculums and why?
To be honest, I think kids are studying the novels they enjoy reading in wider reading programs. I know that in schools run by dynamic English teachers who think outside the square there is a balance which include Shakespeare, the classics, YA, and genre fiction.
You write so powerfully and humorously about multi-generational relationships. What was your family life like growing up and what are some of your favorite books containing multi-generational families?
Growing up, there were twenty-one of us in my paternal family and every Sunday the whole twenty-one of us had lunch at my grandparents’ home. During the summer holidays we travelled up north where my mum’s family lived next door to each other and across the road. Five homes. Another twenty or so hanging out almost every day. By the time I was in my late teens and early twenties, which was when I started writing my first novel, my maternal grandparents were living with us. My grandmother was actually sharing my room, which I sort of wrote about in Alibrandi.
At the moment, my immediate family live within a ten minute radius of each other, and as much as we complain, one of our greatest pleasures is watching the relationship between our children and my parents. One of the most quoted lines in my novels is how Telecom would go broke if it wasn’t for the Italians. That was definitely based on my experience. I can’t begin to tell you how Facebook and the Italians could take up an entire volume of work. But as much as I complain about it, I find myself taking my daughter to see her great-aunts more often than I have in the past because I think it’s so important that the generations mix. That my daughter understands the beauty and strength of aging.
To be honest, growing up I didn’t come across many books reflecting my circumstances. Of course they were out there, but I wasn’t directed towards them. It’s sort of why I started writing my first novel. I wanted to see my experience represented in literature and film. Proof that my life counted beyond my extended family.
In the US at least, people often think of New York City as the writing mecca of the world. But Australia is home to some of the finest authors and, having lived there, I know how marvelous Sydney is. What is it like to live in Sydney as an author? What's your writing routine there like?
The beauty of Sydney is that it’s diverse, much like other great cities, and I hope I’ve captured that diversity in Alibrandi, Francesca, and The Piper’s Son. I hope it’s reflected in the fantasy novels and in Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil. Because all those books, regardless of where they are set and where the protagonists were born, all have a Sydney sensibility. When you live on the other side of the world there’s a sense of yearning and wonder about what lies beyond. It’s why Australians are such great travelers and storytellers. Of course, there is racism and ignorance here and I’m embarrassed by the way our government has dealt with the refugee crisis. But, ultimately, I think we’re generous. Sydney is a city of strong communities and every one of my novels has explored that strength.
Most of the writers I know here write YA novels. They are supportive and so switched on and dare I say the word again, diverse. And no one believes they are better than anyone else.
With regards to a writing routine, I wish I could convey something more exciting and intellectual than dropping my daughter off at pre-school and going home to write. Picking up a coffee along the way is the most exiting part. So is going out to get the mail. During the writing of Tell the Truth Shame the Devil I deviated and googled a lot of The Voice auditions and researched the buying of cavoodle puppies. Thankfully none of it ended up in the novel except for the fact that I named our cavoodle after Gigi Shahbazi.
Your grandfather was interned in Australia during WWII because he was Italian, an idea that is sadly sparking fear in many of us today. How might literature play a part in helping us as global citizens gain empathy and understanding for the lives of others?
It shouldn’t be a requisite of writing, but I love reading a review of my work where someone has been challenged to look at his or her own behaviour or point of view. And I love it even more when someone reading about Violette LeBrac or one of the Sarrafs feels represented. Both literature and film are at their most powerful when they challenge a dominant ideology. My five-year-old loves the films Paddington and Zootopia and it’s clear what the filmmakers are trying to say about xenophobia and prejudice. The same can be said about novels. I think the greatest strength of stories in helping us gain empathy and understanding is the ability to convey what we have in common, rather than what sets us apart, whether it’s about race or sexuality or class.
If you could be a writer in any particular time and place in the world, when/where would it be and why?
I have a sort of romantic image of Australian during the 1950s when my parents met. My father was seventeen when he arrived by boat from Sicily and my mother was an Italian girl, born and bred in rural Queensland. Of course there was no dating, but their social lives revolved around weddings and engagements. The photographs are so rich. Everyone looks beautiful and happy. It seemed as if it was the beginning of something exciting for them all. But of course those photos also hid the loss of homeland and identity for those migrating post World War II. I would love to have captured that loss and hope because, in the sixties, my sisters and I were born out of it and I think it’s defined us.