Portrait

Talking to the author of Looking for Alibrandi at the St Albans Writers’ Festival.

By Sarah Price.

Author Melina Marchetta

Travelling to St Albans Writers’ Festival, there is a point at which you realise your routine life can be left behind. It’s about the time you’re crossing the Hawkesbury, by the slow pull of the barge through a river lit with sun. Or on arrival at the village, at the stone buildings and blossom trees. There are chickens and kelpies, people and books, children playing hide and seek. Bales of lucerne surround a fire pit, so that writers and readers can merge as one.

Melina Marchetta meets me at a picnic table in the sun. Beside us is a towering gum tree, and, opposite, the yellow face of a sandstone gorge. The Welcome to Country has just finished and smoke hangs in the air, forming a stubborn cloud over the shallow riverbed below.

This year is the 25th anniversary of Looking for Alibrandi, and Melina is not sick of talking about it, “not quite”. The novel changed her life, she says. After leaving school at 15, she wrote the book in her early 20s, which gave her an “in” to teaching. “I remember thinking that if I’m smart enough to write a novel, then I’m smart enough to go to university.” She went on to teach English in a secondary school and says the job defined her. “Regardless of whether I’m teaching anymore, they were the best 10 working years, ever – that world that I got to be part of, but that is still part of my life.”

Young people need to be able to connect with a book’s authenticity, she says. “At the end of the day, kids just want a good story. The dialogue is important. I don’t sit on a bus and listen to what teenagers say, but there is a rhythm to the way kids speak to each other. And like any fiction, there must be a premise, a reason for the upheaval in the story.”

The success of Alibrandi still stuns her at times, “in a great way”. She can understand, she says, how someone in their 30s or 40s continues to love it, because they grew up with it. “But a new kid? A kid exposed to all these other things? Alibrandi is 25 years old and has no social networking or mobile phones, yet it can still give someone a sense of place or a sense of identity. Kids can still read it and say, ‘This book just belongs to me.’ How can I can ever be sick of hearing that?”

Melina says she is a bit of a wallflower, “but writing Alibrandi forced me off that wall. When you’re a kind of wallflower – on the outside looking in – I think you’re a good observer. There are aspects of my personality that are shy, but I still crave to be around people. I’m a good observer of people and I’m a good observer of situations. I’ve got very good gut instinct.” Her instinct, she says, is something that she only learnt to trust through experience and with age. “I never trusted it before. When I was younger people could talk me out of my gut instinct.”

Melina’s writing now happens around her five-year-old daughter. “I’m a morning writer. My favourite time to write is after school dropoff, then later at night,” she says. “I write every day. If I force myself to write every day, then 80 per cent could be rubbish – but 20 per cent will be perfect – so I will do it for that 20 per cent. And writing is not just that physical tapping away. While I am running around during the day, I’m writing something in my head. Then it’s so easy to sit down that night and write what you’ve been thinking of. I couldn’t do that if I was just always sitting in front of a computer. During all that running around, I’m still writing, just not in a traditional way.” Walking, driving and lying in bed at night are all great places to solve problems in fiction, she says. “I never try to solve a problem in front of the computer.”

Since Alibrandi, Melina has written film scripts and short stories, and novels across fantasy, crime and young adult. “I don’t get the credibility in certain circles,” she says. “But I just don’t care. Maybe I would have cared when I was younger, but I think story is story. I don’t think about audience or genre, because if I do I start putting barriers around myself. You are still writing what you know, regardless of where you place your characters.”

Recounting a moment years ago with a friend, Melina says: “I said to her, ‘I wish I was referred to as a novelist.’ She replied, ‘But you’re a storyteller. Why would you want to be something other than that?’ To me, that is the important thing: that I’m a storyteller regardless of genre. At the end of the day I’m still writing about people, community and relationships; about what happens when they break, and how people recover. Those stories are still about what we know, they just shift in a way.”

Writing what you know, she explains, does not mean you are writing about your life. “It’s about, who do you belong to? Where do you belong? There are so many stories to be told at any age. I hope I get to do that, and I hope I still get to write about young people.”

It’s important to her now that she writes about people her own age. “I don’t want my-age people and women to disappear off the pages of books. There are so many wonderful things about getting older. I was in the kitchen the other day and there was this moment, a realisation that I wouldn’t want any other life. That’s a great feeling to have: that this is the life I want to have. There’s something about not having to make any apologies about the state of your life, or what you have or what you don’t have. And that’s the freedom of being my age now. I want to write about that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "The quirks of being a wallflower". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.