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Melina Marchetta at Muse

Lisa Portolan

There’s a magic to Melina Marchetta’s books.

It’s almost as though her characters make a hole in your heart – you can’t help but connect with them, their authenticity and their rawness. Whether it’s Bish (Bashir) from her new book, Tell the truth: shame the devil, or Josie from Looking for Alibrandi, her characters come straight off the page and into life, not only do they tell their story but yours too.

In advance of her book talk at Muse this Sunday 27 November, I spoke to Melina about her novels, the characters that inspired them, the source of her creativity and how she feels about breaking the writing mould. Marchetta has written everything from young adult fiction, to fantasy, and now contemporary crime. In a time where personal brand is paramount, and writing a novel outside of your perceived genre is a marketing sin, how does Marchetta deal with her writing polarities?

“I don’t think about particular categories, or where a book will fit,” she explains. “I hate the idea that you have to write to a particular genre’s script. When I wrote Looking for Alibrandi, I didn’t even know what it was or that it would be classed as Young Adult. My books are about families, communities … they’re about people. I’ve always gravitated towards telling stories about characters that are part of a minority group. Perhaps it’s because of the way I grew up. I understand fractured communities. So I’m telling the character’s story – the genre is not particularly relevant.”

Marchetta’s latest novel, Tell the truth: shame the devil, is an explosive contemporary crime novel which deals with a variety of different social, political and cultural themes – from racism, to the pervasiveness of social media and, to a degree, terrorism. The central character, Bish, is a chief inspector living in London. He’s a bit washed up and dealing with a marriage break-up and the death of a beloved son. When a deadly bomb attack occurs across the channel on a summer tour bus, Bish needs to deal with the possibility that his daughter might be on board. Worse still, 17-year-old Violette LeBrac, bombing suspect, is inconceivably linked to him. He was part of the crew who put her mother, Noor, behind bars for playing a part in a similar attack perpetrated by her grandfather. Bish is drawn into the investigation and finds himself unwillingly working with Noor and her younger brother Jimmy, on the search for truth. It’s a crime novel which belongs on any aficionado’s bedside table.


How does Marchetta create a character like Bish?

“Bish was not a stretch for me. He never got away from me. I knew what he might be thinking and feeling – which might seem a little strange because he’s a middle-aged man. He was always a character that was ‘known’ to me. Even in the opening scene where he wakes up in the middle of the night, that’s me, I do that. I understand Bish,” says Marchetta.

The subject of creativity, and how to cultivate your own has been a popular one in 2016. With authors like Elizabeth Gilbert releasing books like Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear. Bloggers and authors alike have been intrigued by the question – where does creativity come from? Marchetta has tapped into so many different creative writing genres – fantasy, crime, young adult and executed them so perfectly – I was fascinated to learn where her creativity originates from.

“I think you collect things over time. You collect ideas and other bits and pieces – characters and worlds start to form in your mind. For example, when I came up with the idea of Finnikin from the Lumatere Chronicles I was on a New York subway, and I was surrounded by people who spoke different languages, and I started thinking about people that had been displaced from their home lands, people that didn’t belong. That was 2007, but I think Finnikin had been with me for a while. I remember this comment someone made to me while I was teaching at an all boy’s school in 2002 after the Tampa crisis, about refugees not being allowed into Australia because they had rabies. That really stuck with me. This craziness – being forbidden to enter a place, or a country or a situation, stuck with me. So somehow since then I had been building up this fantasy world in my mind which had the same sorts of barriers that existed in reality and it crystallised on that New York subway.”

This notion of idea curation really resonated with me. The idea that creativity is multi-layered, a series of thoughts and ideas that become superimposed in our minds to create real or fantasy landscapes. The notion was similar to one expressed by Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. I couldn’t help comparing the two writers in my mind. Both had initiated their career with runaway success books (in Marchetta’s case, Looking for Alibrandi) which were later made into feature films. Many people fear the lack of success, unrealised dreams, but how do you come away from such an accomplishment, such a triumph, such a hit?

“I didn’t write another novel for eleven years!” exclaims Marchetta. “People kept asking me when I would be releasing my next book – and I had no idea how to do that. Looking for Alibrandi was such an organic process for me, I wasn’t quite sure how I had done it, so I didn’t know how to replicate it. It took me eleven years to get there.”

Looking for Alibrandi did connect with so many people, somehow we’re all a little fragmented and looking to be individuals but fit in at the same time. The book was loaded with powerful female characters, from Josie to her mother, to her nonna (the three Alibrandi women), but similarly Marchetta’s others novels have featured strong female characters. While Bish is the protagonist in Tell the truth: shame the devil, the novel is again charged with women, from his mother, to his ex-wife, his daughter Bee, Noor and Violette LeBrac.

“I’ve always been surrounded by such robust women,” Marchetta says. “People often assume that Italian’s come from a very patriarchal household, but in fact it’s very matriarchal. Women are so strong in an Italian household – and this was very true in mine, from my mother, to my sisters, to my grandmother, and this comes through in my writing.”

With the 25th anniversary of Looking for Alibrandi coming up next year I couldn’t resist asking Marchetta how autobiographical the book was.

“Josie was a lot more like my sister than she was me. Of course, there is a lot of me in Alibrandi, and in Saving Francesca, but I think there’s a bit of me in all the books.”

Marchetta is currently working on the screenplay for Saving Francesca, but says that the idea for her next book is fermenting in her mind. “I find it easier to work on one project at a time, but there is a nugget of an idea coming together too.”

Marchetta will be in conversation at Muse in the East Hotel from 3-4pm on Sunday 27 November. Book now here and check out her new book in stores across Australia.