SARAH PRICE

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

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 fiveyear-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.”

SARAH PRICE is writer-in­res­i­dence at the Asy­lum Seek­ers Cen­tre in Syd­ney.

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