I was beyond honored to interview the brilliant Melina Marchetta, whose Printz-winning young adult novel, Jellicoe Road, I've recommended (and purchased) more than any other.
It's difficult to give a summary of Jellicoe Road that makes sense, without unveiling any spoilers. The first few chapters are widely heralded as difficult to follow – though intriguing, they contain numerous plot threads that seem unrelated, at first. You'll have to take my word that everything comes together. Not abruptly, but in a series of gradually deepening revelations, each more gasp-inducing than the last. The result: not only one of the best young adult books I've read so far, but one of the best books, period.
As a follow-up to Jellicoe Road, Melina has switched genres with the high fantasy epic, Finnikin of the Rock (Candlewick, Feb. 2010), already the recipient of massive accolades in Australia. Stay tuned for a review of Finnikin here on the Highway!
1) Finnikin of the Rock is fantasy. What challenges did you find in making the transition from contemporary to fantasy? Which do you prefer?
I think the biggest challenge in writing fantasy is creating a world that doesn’t exist. I had a taste of that with Jellicoe because most of that setting was fictitious except for the Sydney scenes. When I write fantasy I have to study a landscape that fascinates me and go with it. I wrote some of Finnikin in the Dordogne area of France and in Umbria Italy.
The other big challenge may sound crazy and simple, but I find it very difficult writing descriptive language and bringing scenes to life which don’t incorporate dialogue and character as much. Describing the natural world without clichés and writing a fight scene in a medieval type prison or a sword fights and battles is very difficult for me, so there’s a whole lot of constructing and playing with sound devices.
I don’t prefer one to the other (contemporary v fantasy) but I did love having a break between writing Finnikin and the sequel I’m writing at the moment. In between is Tom Mackee in The Piper’s Son. He’s a long way from Lumatere and Finnikin.
2) You've won numerous awards, including the Printz, which is essentially the Pultizer of the young adult genre. What was your reaction when you heard you'd won?
Well, I didn’t know I was in the running for it. I found out that some of the other writers had suspicions they could be on the list, but my editor didn’t want to stress me out so she didn’t tell me the committee had rung her for a few extra copies of the novel. That’s an indication that they’re serious. It was 100% surprise. It was one of the few times that I thought I imagined something so I had to wait until 1.45 in the morning to watch it live on the net. I love that it happened for Jellicoe. It’s a hard novel to sell to the world and I remember being so proud when I finished writing it.
3) One of the most striking parts of Jellicoe Road is its layered narrative; the book follows multiple storylines, and at first, the reader is uncertain how they relate. Did you intertwine separate stories, or did they grow together organically?
No, the original story I wrote years ago was set only in the present. There were no cadets and no townies and no territory war. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a Griggs or Santangelo or Webb. Most of the original story was set in the boarding school where Taylor and Webb were best friends and they were the ones involved in the car accident on the first page. There was a different type of war where all the houses were enemies and Taylor was the negotiator for her house and Santangelo was the negotiator for his. Griggs was the wild outsider aligned to no one and Webb was the one who kept things together between them all. And then he disappears.
But the problem with that story line was that something seemed to be missing and I figured it was Taylor’s great need to trust. I had to work out what her problem was and I realized it all came down to her mother deserting her and then Griggs betraying her. It wasn’t until years later when I read Holes by Louis Sachar that I realized I could juggle around a dual storyline and it just took off from there.
(Hearing that just amazed me, because I've always though of Jellicoe Road as a richer, more mature version of Holes. –KH)
4) What elements in your books reflect your own life? Do you have a Jellicoe Road?
I think the search for identity comes through in all my novels, whether it’s Finnikin and Evanjalin, exiled from their homeland, trying to work out who they are, or Frankie Spinelli trying to work out who she is without her past friends and mother defining her. I’m a daughter and granddaughter of migrants. When a parent isn’t born in your country, identity is going to play a big part in your life regardless of how much you love it.
Setting tends to reflect my own life. In writing my contemporary urban novels (Alibrandi, Francesca and The Piper’s Son) I always set them in the same area. It’s a part of Sydney I know well. I love when a city becomes another character in a novel. I use real street names and real parks and real landmarks. I remember reading Nick and Norah when I was in New York and I was so excited because I was staying a block up from Veselka’s. There’s a strange type of ownership to a story when the place is real.
5) The romances in both Jellicoe Road and your earlier novel, Saving Francesca, absolutely killed me—talk about slow-smoldering. What are some of your favorite literary pairings?
Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables)
Eugenides and Irene (Attolia series)
Ann and Captain Wentworth (Persuasion)
6) Why YA?
When I write, I don’t think of audience except for myself. I’m my audience. But in saying that I love that young people read my books. I didn’t realize how important it was to me until adults went around saying that Jellicoe was too complex for young people. It’s not complex at all. You just can’t skim read it.
I’ve said before that there is such a lack of pretension in novels written about young people and I love the community of writers and publishers. I’m not sure where The Piper’s Son will fit in, because it’s a sequel to Francesca, but they’re older and it’s about the next generation as well. But I think my YA readership is aged between 13 and 80 something so I have the generations well covered.
7) Do you believe your publishing journey has been more challenging as an Australian author?
I think all publishing journeys are challenging. Of course it takes long to have recognition overseas. I received a bit of notice with Francesca in the US and have a bit more with Jellicoe, and there is a small fan base in Germany, Italy and Indonesia, but my readership is very different here in Australia. My first novel, published seventeen years ago (Looking for Aibrandi) was studied by senior school students as part of the school curriculum and became an award winning film so I’ve always had a profile in Australia.
8) What are some of your favorite books, YA and otherwise? What about when you were a teen?
I do love the Attolia series (If I don’t get an ARC of Conspiracy of Kings I will have to kill someone) and I am a fan of Jane Austen. I think she’s underrated by the critics, despite the popularity of her books and she’s criticised for only concentrating on the middle class, but who says a writer has to cover all the classes. Austen wrote the world she knew and I think few others really explored the primogeniture laws as well as she did. When I was a teen I loved Paul Zindell books. I’m currently reading an Australian novel called Raw Blue which is blowing me away with great authentic dialogue and strong characterisation.
9) What's the best advice you can offer fledgling authors?
Someone told me they went on a two day writing course and the instructor said that on the next day she’d give them the secret to being a writer and they all waited with great anticipation and the advice was write! I totally agree. I think so many people talk about writing but are too scared to do any writing. There’s nothing more frightening than putting the first line on the page. You think it will never sound as good as when it lived in your brain, but I still believe you have to write every day.
The other part is obvious. You can’t give up after one rejection or even two or three or four. But at the same time, you do have to listen to what people are saying to you. You also can’t be shattered after negative feedback. Writers deal with it every day. I’ve read pretty awful things about my work, especially Jellicoe. The whole world doesn’t have to love what you do.
10) Can you tell us anything about your fifth book, The Piper's Son, which will be released in the U.S. in early 2011 (Australia in 2010)?
Well, The Piper’s Son is what I call the kind of sequel to Francesca. It’s five years on when they are almost 22 years old and it’s Tom Mackee’s story rather than Francesca’s. Frankie, though, is very important and Tara Finke is Tom’s love interest. I had fun writing the Tom/Tara love story but it was difficult because they’ve been estranged for two years and she’s in Timor so the whole relationship has to be conducted through email, phone calls and texts messages. Their letters to each other were really hard to write because they had to be funny, smart, angry, sexy and fragile at the same time and I wanted the reader to be in a constant state of yearning for both of them.
It’s also the story of Tom’s family coming back together after a tragedy two years prior. It was really important for me to give the next generation a story, even more than I did with Mia and Robert in Saving Francesca and Hannah and the Brigadier in Jellicoe. I think the relationship between Georgie, Tom’s single pregnant Aunt, and her ex partner Sam is very powerful and flawed and beautiful at the same time. Strangely, I think it’s my most romantic work.
It broke me a bit inside writing about the Mackee family, but the wonderful part is that each time someone’s read the manuscript they’ve told me how sad they are that Tom and his world aren’t in their lives anymore. That they want it to go beyond the last page and read about them forever. I think it’s a wonderful compliment for a writer to receive.
Thank you so much, Melina!