So you can imagine how happy and flattered we were when Melina agreed to answer some of our questions. We hope you will enjoy her answers and her insight as much as we did!
Believe it or not, I’m still listening to Taylor Markham and the Jellicoe gang after all these years, but that’s because talk of a film in the near future has cranked up and those characters need to feel fresh in my head. Mostly I’m thinking of a bunch of new characters (and old) for a TV series I’m co-writing with Cathy Randall, which include Jessa McKenzie and Tilly Santangelo, but also Akbar, Sebastian, Florence, Hughie and Claudine. [Melina is talking about this 10-part TV project.]
And speaking of TV projects, (from Flannery) many of my friends and I are severely addicted to Dance Academy so it was extremely exciting to me to recently find out you were writing an episode for the upcoming season and that you’ve written one or more episodes in the past. Can you talk a little bit about how much freedom you have in terms of plot and dialogue when writing for the show?
That’s so funny. I went to dinner with Jo Werner and Sam Strauss the producer and creators of the show the other night and told them about your DA love. They were thrilled. I’ve written for them in both Season 2 and 3. They’re great people to work with and Jo Werner will be producing my next two projects and after years and years of being asked by others, I’ve trusted her with the film rights to Francesca.
The hardest part about writing for someone else’s show is getting the characterisation right. I know my own characters inside out, but that’s not the case with Dance Academy, and no matter how much preparation I’ve done, I still get things wrong in first and second draft. Sometimes the mistakes are about sense of humour or colloquialisms. Also, DA is very controlled by the children’s television classification so there’s not a swear word or sex scene or sexual reference in sight which is very difficult when you’re writing the “will-they/won’t-they-go-all-the-way” episode. I’ve never had to write with restrictions so it’s been very good discipline.
When we heard that you were planning to concentrate on writing for TV after the publication of Quintana of Charyn, we were heartbroken. How can we go on without having another book of yours to look forward to? Do you expect this hiatus from writing fiction to be long?
I’m just so tired, you know. It’s a different sort of tired than when I was teaching and of course, I’m no less tired than anyone else, but I need a break from the solitary nature of this work. I’ve never fallen out of love of novel writing and I know I’m going to be yearning for it. I’ll definitely be writing shorter pieces. I recently had to write a short story for an online magazine about Lady Celie of the Lumateran Flatlands and I enjoyed it so much. But I also have to work out where I’m going with my writing career. I have the most amazing loyal readership, but it’s small and I have to find a way of making it bigger without selling my soul.
No, it certainly wasn’t about having more time. I wrote Francesca and Jellicoe at the busiest time of my teaching career. I think the second wave of my writing career was about confidence and timing. I wrote Alibrandi from the heart and had no idea about process or my craft. Which made it so hard when people would say to me, ‘Do it again.’ How can you do something again when you weren’t quite aware of what you did right in the first place? Of course I couldn’t admit that to anyone. It took eleven years and I think writing the film script of Alibrandi helped. Screenwriting is all about craft and structure and so many rules and I learnt quite a lot about process during that time working with the director Kate Woods who is now on board to direct Jellicoe. So it’s no coincidence that I started writing Saving Francesca a year after the release of my first film.
Are you involved in a writing group? Do you converse with other writers or seek advice and support from other people while writing?
I don’t belong to a writers’ group except for when I’m plotting for TV with my co writer and producers. I tend to disappear in groups of more than four, but I have a strong connection with writers, both here and in the US at a one-on-one level. We rarely speak about the actual content of our work, but we’re a great support to each other. There are very few people you can have a whinge to about the down side of writing such as the daily isolation, or the lack of publicity or bad reviews or wondering what the next royalty statement will look like or whether it’s worth pursuing the career. It’s the same sort of workplace chatter and support you’d get in a staff room or office.
I use those moments to convey that one character (usually the male) thinks he has all the power. And then the other character (usually the female) shows, rather than tells, that it may not be the case.
My favourite to write was when Francesca has the Trotsky/Tolstoy exchange with Will Trombal in Saving Francesca. It’s an important moment for the reader as well, because Francesca could easily be seen as a pushover when the story begins, and I had to hint that there’s more to this girl.
There are a few of those moments in Jellicoe (the scene in the prison cell when Taylor threatens to burn down the Club house as well as the cow manure scene) but the earliest one in Jellicoe is when Taylor and Jonah are younger and she approaches him on the railway platform, and he tells her to go to hell and she tells him she’s been there and hell’s overrated.
In Finnikin, of course, it’s after Evanjalin speaks for the first time and then Finnikin realizes she’s understood every word between him and Sir Topher because she speaks as many languages as he does.
Half crazy anyway. Whenever I’m asked whether Alibrandi will ever have a sequel (absolutely not) my response is that Mia Spinelli is a grown up version of Josie Alibrandi. Josie and Mia are fiery, passionate and driven. But I don’t think that Jacob Coote is Bobby Spinelli.
My most obvious twins are:
Will Trombal and Finnikin of Lumatere (pragmatic, a bit dry, and don’t cope well with women).
Tom Mackee/Lucian of the Monts – My editor and I call Lucian, ‘Medieval Tom’. Everything that comes out of their mouths is so so wrong, but they mean well and I love their relationship with women of any age. Tom has a great place in the lives of Frankie and the gang, as well as with Georgie’s world and his little sister and mum and both nans. Lucian is the same. I loved every one of his scenes in Quintana of Charyn. Apart from Froi, he goes on the biggest emotional journey and it’s the women who take him there. I also think both those lads come from the same gene pool as Santangelo in Jellicoe. All of them live under the shadow of charismatic fathers, and all of them have leadership of some sort thrust upon them.
We’ve noticed (and appreciated) that you write some of the most honest sex scenes in young adult literature. Is it important to you to represent sex and intimacy in an honest way to teens?
I’m not saying it isn’t important for me to represent it honestly, but it’s not the number one intention. It’s a personal thing. I appreciate many things about religion, and people’s faith amazes me, but I resent the guilt I felt growing up when it came to sex or sexual thoughts or whatnot. I grew up thinking I was going to go to hell. But in saying that, I will not throw in a sex scene for the sake of it. It must belong to the story being told. The sex scenes in Jellicoe, for example, were part of the story, but they have not found a place in the film script. To use an awful pun (but there’s no other way of saying this) sex between Taylor and Jonah in the film would climax their story too early. The tension between them has to be there until the very last frame.
It’ll be interesting to see where I go with Lady Celie if I continue writing novellas or short stories featuring her and Banyon, because she’s 22 and he’s about 30, so certainly not the YA age. That doesn’t mean it has to be 50 Shades of Lumatere. For me, nothing works better than sexual tension and less is more when it comes to writing it. It’s where romantic comedies today are dismal and excruciatingly boring and it’s why more adults are reading YA.
What do you think of this new genre - “new adult”? (Which is basically a genre that targets readers in their early twenties.) Did you think about writing for slightly older young adults when you wrote The Piper’s Son? Do you think you’ll ever write a purely adult novel?
I don’t’ think of audience when I write. In my mind how can The Piper’s Son not be a novel for teenagers and how can it not be a novel for adults? Genre labels are so tricky. My greatest commercial failure is going to be what I consider my best book, which is The Piper’s Son. And it will be a failure, not because of the writing or characters or sense of place, but because people don’t know where to place it. My greatest commercial and critical successes overall are Alibrandi and Francesca, because they fit into a genre (and because the girls don’t have sex).
Personally, I don’t think there should be a new adult genre. I think novels like The Piper’s Son belong in both the adult and YA section of a bookstore and library. Sadly, there seems to be a whole lot of politics involved into why they can’t be part of both.
I listen to all of my books as a point of closure because I’m always interested in someone else’s interpretation and because I like audio books. Once or twice I will re-listen, especially when I was writing Quintana and I had to check Finnikin and Froi for continuity. Listening to my work the first time is very confronting and I’m the worst judge because I’ve lived with those voices in my head for years and then to hear another’s reality is strange. I’ve had a bit of a say with The Piper’s Son and Froi here in Australia. They’ve sent me a couple of audio voices to choose from. I also got to speak to the actors about pronunciation.
I agree with you about the authenticity of the Australian voice. At the moment I’m being asked whether I’m okay about a big international name for either Taylor or Jonah in Jellicoe. The producers both here and in the US agree that it will ensure Jellicoe becomes an international film if one of the two leads is a big name. I’m pushing for Taylor. I think she’s more a citizen of the world. Jonah has such a distinct Australianess to him. I could be wrong, but I think he would change considerably as a character if an American or English actor played him.
(from Catie) The world of Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles is immaculately drawn and feels very fresh but at the same time, I can see a lot of parallels between it and some of my other favorite fantasy novels: The Queen’s Thief series, Tigana. Did you draw inspiration from either of these when you were starting The Chronicles of Lumatere? Was there anything that you did draw inspiration from?
When Finnikin came out and readers truly did not like the novel (there were many) Tigana seemed to come up time and time again, especially regarding what Guy Gavriel Kay did better. Some even flirted with hints of plagiarism. And that’s not a criticism about reviewers, just a fact. So to be honest, I’ve avoided Tigana like a Charyn plague and I’ve always considered it my treat read for when I finished the trilogy. But I’m going through
But Attolia, oh my goodness, a big yes. Unashamedly. When I was planning Finnikin in my head, I wanted Evanjalin to do something pretty awful for plot and characterization reasons, but didn’t want to go there because I thought no one would like her. I didn’t want to alienate the reader. And then I read The Queen of Attolia and everyone who’s read that book knows exactly what scene I’m talking about and it unleashed something brave in me. Also, MWT has this ability to create intricate passionate and tension -filled relationships between the younger characters and their elders, for example Gen and Relius and even the Magus. So the relationship between Finnikin and Sir Topher or Froi and the Priestking and Gargarin and Arjuro are very much inspired by The Queen’s Thief series.
No, I use none of those things. I want to because they look fantastic and they’d make my life easier, but logic is not a bedfellow of mine. I’m one of the untidiest people in the world. I usually start off with good intentions, lose everything and find my notes and scene cards the week after I go to print. So I have to trust my head and it doesn’t let me down. It’s about re-writes for me. I think that if I planned things more I wouldn’t have to re-write so often, but I find pieces of gold in all the mess of not planning. “That Scene” Flannery was referring to in Looking For Alibrandi was one of them. Totally unplanned. The scene in Jellicoe where Jonah reveals what he was doing on the platform is another one. Dom’s confession at the AA meeting in The Piper’s Son was another. And Quintana’s personalities were totally unplanned. So I stick to the mayhem in my head.
There are a few big reveals in Quintana, especially about who or what cursed Charyn (which was still a mystery to me when I finished writing Froi). Quintana is twisty emotionally. It’s very much a relationships based novel.
(from Tatiana) One of my most favorite couples in Froi of the Exiles (and there are many, believe me) is Lucian and Phaedra. I won’t lie, for a huge part of the novel I was infuriated by Lucian’s actions towards his wife, but because of that his redemption in the end was so much sweeter. What inspired you to put Lucian through this journey?
Lucian is one of my favourite characters too. If he were real, he’d be the type of young man I’d be proud of. It’s hard as a writer to re-introduce a beloved character in such a negative way. I did that with both Lucian and Tom Mackee. I knew that Lucian’s humanity would come through his interaction with the enemy and I was really hoping the reader would stay with me because Lucian (and Froi and Quintana and the rest) aren’t the easiest people to like at the beginning.
I can’t really discuss his relationship with Phaedra because it gives too much away for those who haven’t read Froi, but I’ll give you an idea of the genesis of that relationship. When I first started writing Froi, I thought Lady Celie was Froi’s love interest because he lives with her family. That didn’t work and it taught me you couldn’t force your characters to be somewhere they don’t want to be. So next I decided Celie would be Lucian’s love interest. Celie’s goodness would take him to the valley where the homeless Charynite’s were camping. Obviously that didn’t work. So it made total sense that Lucian’s love interest would be one of those refugees in the valley and not a particularly strong girl on first appearance (much like Celie). But I love those types of characters.
Of course now Celie has her own little novella and I don’t think I’ve heard the last of her. Phaedra and Celie are more than just love interests. I had a Patrick Swayze dirty dancing moment with both of them when I realized that no one puts Celie or Phaedra in a corner.
Thank you. If the average person on the street asks me what I’ve written here, it’s all about Alibrandi. People in their 20’s and 30’s either studied it at school or watched the film. But I have a bigger fantasy audience in the US than here in Australia. I think those who have read The Lumatere Chronicles in Australia are those who have followed my writing from the beginning, whereas in the US people discovered my work through the fantasy series or Jellicoe. Every time I’m introduced here in a literary capacity, Alibrandi is mentioned. It was a very important novel in my life but I’d love to be referred to as the writer of On the Jellicoe Road or the Lumatere Chronicles. Regardless of everything, they are better novels. Now when someone approaches me and tells me how much they love my book. I’m very polite in my response and ask them which one, although I know exactly what they’re referring to.
You transitioned so smoothly from contemporary realistic fiction to fantasy. Are there any other genres you would be interested in trying out? Science fiction maybe? Or mystery?
Unfortunately I don’t have science fiction cleverness. But the fun about writing the Lady Celie novella was being able to write a mystery crime story. Jellicoe was a mystery as well. I’d also love to write a historical novel because I loved the research involved in writing The Lumatere Chronicles. It makes me very sad to think that my next trip to Europe won’t revolve around castles and underground cities and cobblestone streets and medieval seaports. Which goes back to your earlier questions about the writing hiatus. Perhaps it won’t be so long after all.