A creative writer’s not-so-secret life

Tiana Vitlic

Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta

Writer Melina Marchetta likes to draw on real life experiences in shaping her acclaimed young adult novels – personal experiences are “complications that work well in storytelling”, she says.

Sharing her writing secrets with around 150 students at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event, ‘Secondary School Days’, in Sutherland on Thursday, Ms Marchetta reinforced the idea of “writing what you know”.

“But when we say that, we’re not saying write about your life. If I had to write about my life, I think it would be a boring story,” she told the audience. “When you’re asked to write what you know, there are aspects of your life that you remember that you will want to write about because it bugs you.”

Ms Marchetta provided insight into the research and creative processes behind her highly successful titles like Looking for Alibrandi and On the Jellicoe Road, but also how her own life experiences came to into play in Saving Francesca.

“When I was about 10-years-old, and my mum always says it’s okay to tell this story; she has a classic personality. She pretty much ran our household. I have two sisters and it was my mum you’d go to to ask if we’re allowed to do this and that,” she said. “And I remember one day she got sick. One minute we were living at home, and the next my younger sister and I were living with our aunt. My mum, my dad and my older sister were living with my grandmother.”

As a child, she failed to understand the situation, but later realised her mother was suffering depression. Ms Marchetta expressed her later shock, as a growing teenager, to discover her mother was ill. “Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought it was only weak people that got depressed, or couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “It really changed my mind about depression and who it affects.”

After the huge success of her first novel, Alibrandi, published in 1992 and released as a movie in 2000, Ms Marchetta said she struggled to get started on a new story. “I thought, ‘I actually don’t know what I did the first time’.”

It was 11 years before Francesca was published, in 2003, a story about a student who finds herself adrift from old friends at a newly unisex school where many boys and masters were unhappy with the change.

Ms Marchetta drew on her experience as a secondary school teacher at the single-sex St Mary’s Cathedral College in Sydney, and finally the story began to come together. She says she struggled at an all boys’ school; being brought up in a “real girls’ world”, she knew little about guys.

“My first year there was probably one of my worst years working because I was just in a completely different world,” she said. “I wasn’t the crying type of person but I did spend moments in the one girls’ toilet crying. I didn’t understand the way boys operated.”

The next year she decided to go back, viewing the situation as a challenge. “One thing I discovered in those very early years was how decent boys were, and one day I thought, ‘I’d like to write about them some day’.”

Then, with the seeds of the story sown, two of her students provided the spark. They were identical twin boys who were dealing with their mother’s terminal illness in the very year she was their year coordinator. Often, they would leave class and walk into her office. “I didn’t have the heart to send them back.”

One day, Ms Marchetta and the boys were discussing a novel when one told her: “I hate the fact that this writer thinks she knows our voice.” Worrying about the ‘voice’ in her new work, she asked the boy if she could give him her manuscript to read, and offer his opinion about it.

“I said, ‘You have to promise me that this manuscript will not leave your house.’ A couple of days later, his brother came up to me and said, ‘I really loved your manuscript.’ And I thought, you weren’t supposed to read it. He said: ‘I read it at my place’.

“A couple of days later, their friends came to see me, and they said they loved it and that they had read it at the boys’ place.”

Then the boys brought three pages of notes of their thoughts on the story and what they thought was wrong with it. The excitement she had felt receiving notes from the very age group she was writing about was expressed in her tone of voice and the nostalgia she conveyed to the audience.

“That’s how Saving Francesca began.”

Ms Marchetta did a reading from the first chapter to highlight how two standout experiences, one from her childhood and one from her work as a teacher, gave the book an authentic texture.

“When I was 17, I wasn’t going through what this character was going through,” she said. “But I did remember what it was like to have a mother that couldn’t get out of bed in a particular period of my life. What I also remember is what it was like being one of, in my case, 10 women in an environment where there were 750 males.

“These are the sorts of things we do as writers.”