Melina Marchetta is the author of Australian young adult titles Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca, On the Jellico Road and Finnikin of the Rock. March celebrates the release of Melina’s new book, The Piper’s Son. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Melina on the phone during her Australian tour, and Melina answered a few of our questions about The Piper’s Son and writing in general. Just a warning, there may be a few spoilery type moments throughout the interview. Enjoy!
Congratulations on the release of The Piper’s Son on Monday. It was an excellent book, and I enjoyed it immensely.
For readers that haven’t read Saving Francesca, I was impressed by the fact that you could read The Piper’s Son, without feeling lost in all the characters. Was this something important for you during the writing of the book?
MM: Defiantly. I didn’t want– in actual fact, I like the idea of people reading The Piper’s Son and then going ‘oh I’d like to go back and see what they were like when they were young’. The thing that probably was the hardest was making sure I wasn’t writing The Piper’s Son without the Francesca readers in my head and that meant sometimes what I was trying to do was maybe spend a bit more time on, say the Will/Francesca relationship. I had to really make sure that didn’t dominate, so that’s why I kind of sent Will overseas, because I had to remind myself not everyone will have an emotional investment in that relationship. So I think that if people have read it will be great to see what they were like five years later but I certainly didn’t want it [Saving Francesca] to be a pre-requisite.
Tom seems to go through some major changes and developments in this books, starting off from a bad place and moving into one that ultimately seems him thrive with new life. Was it difficult to get this development of the character down or did Tom’s progression come naturally?
MM: It came slowly, but naturally. Like I didn’t put– I suppose to have a really basic understanding of where it’s going to go, as the writer you kind of know he’s going to be okay so you just have to work out how to get him to that point and I let it come naturally. I knew that it was going to be once he was in these two locations, one being Georgie’s house and the other being the Union pub and I knew it was going to be through his correspondence with Tara Finke but I had to make sure that that was paced really nicely rather than rushing into it. What worries me sometimes, and I know I was worried about this in the re-writes, was at what point things were happenings sometimes I thought ‘oh god, Tara doesn’t really come into it properly until after page 100, I wonder if people are going to hang out that long’, things like that. But it was kind of the pace of it was really quite important that I let it come as naturally as I could.
To me, Georgie was almost as an important character in the novel as Tom was. Was Georgie always going to have an important role, or did that develop over the course of writing?
MM: I think so; I can’t remember it being any other way in my head that they were going to get a chapter kind of each. I didn’t want it to be a he said, she said, where you kind of get a different perspective of the same incident so I knew it was just going to be his story one chapter, hers the next but somewhere probably a quarter or three quarters into the novel a lot of the times they were together with all their worlds in the same chapters. She was very important to me as a character. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that when I was writing her she was my age and I felt that probably as someone over forty I had probably something to say about relationships and life in general. I love her as much as I love Tom and I love their relationship as prickly as it is. Sometimes what worries me, especially you could tell me this as a reader closer to Tom’s age, I was worried that when people were in Georgie’s chapter they would want to be in Tom’s chapter. Or else people were in Tom’s chapter they wanted to be in Georgie’s chapter. So did you feel that you had a yearning to be in Tom’s chapters when he wasn’t quite on the scene?
Occasionally, but I also really enjoyed reading inside Georgie’s mind and seeing where she was going. I thought she was quite a highlight of the book. I thought there was quite a good balance there.
MM: Because I think that sometimes people– a friend of mine was telling me that, she was actually my age which was surprising, she said I kept on jumping ahead and going to everyone of the letters between Tara and Tom. But then it made me worried. I thought ‘oh god I hope people don’t push Georgie’s story aside’ because to me, what’s taking place in Georgie’s life is very similar to what’s taking place in Tom’s life. They’re both stuffing up relationships, and they’re both grief stricken and they both don’t know how to get out of a particular rut. But they are 20-so years apart, and sometimes there’s no big difference between people, except when you’re older, there are probably bigger ramifications, than when you’re younger.
The London bombings shocked the world on a global scale. What I found interesting was how you decided to show how the aftermath of these attacks can change a family for better and worse. What influenced your decision to use the London attacks as the background to losing Uncle Jim?
MM: Because I think for me, I didn’t want this novel to be about terrorism at all. I didn’t want it to be, I can’t say I didn’t want it to be political, because I think it is a pretty political novel at times. I didn’t want it to be about terrorism but I needed something, sadly I needed something where there wouldn’t be a body, a possibility where there wouldn’t be a body and I suppose a bombing is a classic example of that. Unless someone goes missing, and if someone goes missing then the readership would have thought then ‘oh were going to find him, Joe at the end’. I kind of needed it to be certain, in the same way with Tom Finch. There was a certainty that these men were dead that they couldn’t bury them. I choose London because, I taught for ten years, most of my closest friends have taught in London so it’s such a normal thing for Australian’s to go over to London and teach. I could have based it on the Madrid bombing or September 11, but I just thought there was a bigger chance that Australian people would be affected by something happening in London. I actually remember when it happened, thankfully people didn’t die. But again my cousins, a girl that went to school with my cousin, was on the bus, her fiancé when it happened. This is someone from our suburb so there’s always this idea when something happens overseas, was there an Australian involved, most times Australian’s are somehow involved because we are such big travellers.
The relationship between Tara and Tom takes an interesting climb through the novel. What would your advice to teenagers in similar situations be?
MM: What kind of similar situations? The fact that they are estranged from each other?
I guess the distance and being apart, yet from what we gather from throughout the novel and learn that their parting wasn’t on the best of terms.
MM: I think that, to me it’s a story about forgiveness. Some people say to me that they would never forgive Tom for what he did. Other people say ‘well he was grief stricken’. But I still think that the way he acted was awful. There was a trust thing that happened there and especially coming from a character like Tara Finke, he’s not really a player and she’s not really a confidant person on so many different levels. But I think for me there was just, ultimately I know what he did was wrong but there was such a respect between them as people and I like the fact that he had to actually work instead of trying. Like I think in the past he had found it so easy to charm people but at this particular case because he didn’t have her there in front of him, he actually had to work at wooing her back. And I think he succeeds. And there are so many times when people around him don’t think he is going to succeed at that, there’s no way that she will forgive him and I like the fact that she does, and it’s not because she’s a pushover it’s because Tom has really worked at it that he has opened himself to her in the same that that she kind of opened herself to him. I suppose it’s about trust between people in the end. I would never know what kind of advice to give anyone, whether they were young or older or my age. I think relationships are so, so tricky and they’re so not black and white, there are blurry moments. The same could be said about Georgie and Sam. A lot of people have said to be there’s no way that Georgie should have ever forgiven Sam. I think well there are a lot of blurry moments in that relationship and I had to kind of give it the conclusion that I felt really worked for the story.
What authors influenced you growing up and in your writing?
MM: When I was growing up I really loved the Anne of Green Gables novels. The one thing that I, I’ve said it so many times, but I feel as if– have you read Anne of Green Gables?
No, I haven’t.
MM: There’s a moment in it where Anne Shirley, great character, where she hits, she’s in the same classroom as Gilbert Blythe and she hit’s him over the head with a slate, which is their kind of writing tool, and I always say, that moment for me, was just, I was just absolutely mesmerised. I thought it was so romantic thought she hated his guts. I would always say that in every one of my novels there is a moment where my character’s metaphorically hit their potential love interests over the head with a slate. It could be that winning an argument or getting the upper hand, an example in say The Piper’s Son could be here’s Tom thinking it will be easy, text messaging Tara saying ‘How’s it going, babe’ and her response, that for me is the hitting someone over the head with a slate. It happens in Saving Francesca when she kind of meets Will and Will’s such a bastard to her. So they’re moments I kind of adopted and I loved that particular one, so I would say she was a major influence.
Any quirky writing rituals or habits?
MM: They’re just not quirky, they’re just rituals. I always, what do I always do? I mean I do write in bed. I love laptops. The best thing about a laptop is writing in bed and I actually think I do my best writing late at night in bed. I always do like a coffee, but I have to have, if I have a coffee while I’m writing I always, always, always have to have a biscuit with it. There’s no such thing as having coffee on its own. Its comfort stuff. To me writing, I have to stop making it feel like work, and it is work at the end of the day. I quite like the cosy-ness of it. And I have to say that in summer that I love a glass of wine while I’m writing.
The Piper’s Son was released in Australia on March 1, 2010.