Interview: Melina Marchetta holds up a magnifying glass to beautiful & ordinary aspects of suburban life

Melina Marchetta’s novels are often about the boy or girl who lives next door. Her book, Looking for Alibrandi, was a perfect example of this and continues to find new audiences, some thirty years after it was released.

Marchetta’s latest novel, The Place on Dalhousie, takes a leaf out of her previous works by reprising some characters from Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son. The Place on Dalhousie is about two women who refuse to move from a house they both claim to own, and the groups of family and friends who rally around them.

The AU Review sat down with Marchetta to learn more about her latest venture, and her research and writing process. In doing so, we learned that her all-time favourite concert was by Leonard Cohen and how Italian pastries always taste better in Haberfield.

Can you begin by briefly introducing yourself? How long have you been working in the arts & publishing?

My first novel came out in 1992 and I’ve been writing novels ever since. I’ve also written the screen adaptation of Looking for Alibrandi as well as a couple of episodes of the Dance Academy TV series.

The Place on Dalhousie has been descried as a companion volume to Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son. How would you describe this book to someone who hasn’t read it?

Dalhousie centers on two women who refuse to move out of a house they both lay claim to. One lives upstairs and the other, downstairs. It’s about the community they build around and inside the house during this stand off.

You interviewed young people, including your own cousin, to understand the issues facing people in their twenties for this book. What was the most interesting thing you learned during these interviews?

To be honest, it’s not a story about the issues facing young people, but even when I have minor characters, I want to give them substance. With these twenty-something characters, I was mostly interested in how someone maintains a long-term relationship that begins when they are still at school. Mostly I was told that the secret to the success was in allowing the other to have their own friends. I was also keen to talk about how young couples were dealing with housing issues and saving for a mortgage. My young cousin lived in a converted double garage at the back of her in laws’ home for two years. Her biggest gripe was dealing with a limited water tank when it was time to wash her hair. That found a place in the novel.

What other research or preparation did you do for this book? How did this process differ to the preparations you did for your previous books?

Through family and friends, I researched the BRCA mutation gene that causes breast cancer, as well as reading a copious amount of sport pages to work out why so many NRL coaches were getting sacked. I also visited Dalhousie Street often to get a sense of the houses. It was the same sort of research that I did for The Piper’s Son, because both novels are set in areas close to me. And I ate a lot of Italian pastries because of the four pasticcerias in the Dalhousie area.

The Place on Dalhousie includes Jimmy’s school mates from Saving Francesca and The Pipers’ Son. How difficult was it reprising these characters for the new book? What was the biggest challenge?

Revisiting some of these characters means you have to add specific details each time. At seventeen I was completely different to the person I was at twenty-one and even more different to who I was at twenty-five. But my family was the same and my home life was the same. So, you can’t make massive leaps. The audience has to recognise that there is a link between Jimmy at seventeen and Jimmy at twenty-five, but they also need to see how he has changed for the better and the not so better. I think with some characters such as Frankie and Tom and Tara, there’s a sense of financial responsibility and the choices they make around that.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the film Looking for Alibrandi and in a few years the novel will celebrate its 30th anniversary. How do you feel about this story looking back on it now?

I’ve aged by merely reading this question! Hmm, I’m not sure. I was telling someone recently that I feel as if Alibrandi doesn’t just belong to me in a way that the rest of my novels do. I feel as if I had to share it with many people. But I’m proud of that novel, especially that people are still speaking about it being so important all these years later. There’s not a trace of social media in it, yet teenagers still relate to it. That tells me so much about what young people want: a sense of place and identity and community.

Your books are incredibly authentic and relatable. Where do you get your inspiration from?

As a reader in my childhood I didn’t get to read anything relatable. They were great books, but there was no trace of my world on those pages. So, I write about the people next door, or down the road, or the ones that I chat with in the aisles of the supermarket, because in the beautifully ordinary life of those close to me, I’ll have the most profound conversations about life and struggles. In Dalhousie there are stories about people dealing with the death of loved ones, or the deteriorating health of their parents, or the anxiety of their children, or relationships, or not being able to afford housing as a young person, or foster care or parenthood or being single or divorced or having to get fit or needing a drink with friends to wind down. So, I’m pretty much writing about the people in my world.

In writing this book you listened to The Lumineers, Toto, Lionel Richie, Lloyd Cole and Nena. Do you pick a new soundtrack to listen to when you write each book? What made you choose these particular artists?

I stumbled a bit with the music in this novel because it’s set between 2009 and 2011 and at times I’d choose a song that was really important to the scene, but I couldn’t use it. “Ophelia,” by The Lumineers was one of those songs. It has a great line Oh Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind girl, since the flood. In an earlier draft, Tom Mackee sings it to Jimmy because Jimmy met Rosie in a flood. But it was written years after 2011 so I couldn’t use [it]. For the older characters, who are my age now, I pretty much stuck to the music I remembered as a teenager. When I was at school, if you were asked to dance to a Lionel Richie song like “Endless Love” or “Three Times a Lady,” then you called him your boyfriend regardless of whether you ever saw him again! My favourite concert of all times is Leonard Cohen’s 2008 Sydney concert, so that was Martha and Ewan’s. I inflict a lot of my tastes on my characters.

Is there any advice you’d give aspiring writers? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’m a pantser of some sort. I know where my story begins and where it ends but have absolutely no idea how I’m going to get there. During first draft I write out of sequence and focus on what’s coming to me at that moment, rather than dealing with a plot freeze. Any plotting I do is when I’m driving or walking the dog or laying in bed. By the time I sit in front of a computer, I know how to solve the problem because I’ve given it a lot of thought. My advice is to write every day, even if half of what you write is crap. Because the other half won’t be, and you had to write the crap to find the gold.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers of The AU Review about The Place on Dalhousie or your other upcoming projects?

I’m planning to write a chapter book series for 7-year olds, as well as the TV bible for Tell the Truth Shame the Devil which has just been optioned.

Melina Marchetta’s The Place on Dalhousie is released through Penguin Australia on April 2.

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