Both main characters in your first two novels have Italian roots that influenced them to a greater or lesser extent. What part of your own Italian origin has been reflected in these characters?
When it comes to LOOKING FOR ALIBRANDI, I always say that it’s not about me, but it was about my world back when I was a teenager. I grew up with an Italian born father and a mother of Italian born parents so European culture had much to do with our lives. I certainly felt as if I was balancing two cultures and I didn’t feel as if I belonged to one or the other. So LOOKING FOR ALIBRANDI was about that balance and many of the stories about Josie’s grandmother first coming to Australian were similar to those of my grandparents. We also made tomato sauce every year, a scene that made both the film and the novel. With SAVING FRANCESCA, I decided not to explore the Italian culture as such, but to use it as a backdrop to family life in Australia. Australian film and TV and books are saturated with Anglo or Celtic family life and it’s important for me to explore the cultural upbringing of many Australians. The rest of the world is so unaware of Australian’s cultural mix because it’s not the way Australia promotes itself. When I go to Europe or the US people are surprised that I’m Australian because I obviously look European. When I taught high school in Sydney there would have been at least twenty different cultures in my homeroom.
Your first book, LOOKING FOR ALIBRANDI, was a great success in the 90s, and is still well-known and loved by the Australian public. Why did you decide to take a 10-year break before writing again?
I suppose I didn’t take a planned 10-year break (it was actually 11 years). I think the success of ALIBRANDI was a bit too much for me and I didn’t cope with the expectations of producing a second novel. I also started teaching a few years after the novel came out and fell in love with my job. I stayed at the same school for ten years and it was during that time that I got the inspiration to write again. The boys at my school are very much like the boys of St Sebastian’s in SAVINGFRANCESCA. On appearance they were awful, but when you got to know them, they were the most decent of kids. I also wrote the screenplay of ALIBRANDI during the 90’s, so although I wasn’t writing another novel, I was kept quite busy.
In 2000 you wrote the screenplay based on your own novel. That caught our attention since there are mayor differences between book and screenplay, for example, the ending. What made you take the decision to make these changes?
The one thing that people don’t realize about film is that scriptwriters don’t have the last say in a film. Unlike a novel, when I write a film script so many people have to read it, approve it, agree to finance it and so on and so forth. Everyone has a different view of what the script should be, most times based on what the audience is going to want. According to many, the audience was not going to want the realistic ending of the novel. As the scriptwriter you win some and you lose some so I learnt to choose my battles. I love the film, but one of my disappointments with it was the voice over. But so many people have a role to play in a film and I had to learn to let it go and hope that it was still going to be a film I was proud of.
Besides your input with the script, were you involved in the production in other ways (for example, casting)? If not, how did you feel about the final result?
I was allowed to be part of the casting experience so I was there when they first auditioned Pia to play Josie. It was after spending weeks and weeks auditioning thousands of kids. So by the time I saw her perform, she may not have looked like the Josie in my head, but she was great. Kick Gurry who played Jacob was just as fantastic. They were both unknown at the time. Now we’re talking about the casting of ON THE JELLICOE ROAD and I always say, “We didn’t cast known actors for ALIBRANDI and it worked.” I still think there’s a big place for casting the right people for the role, rather than a big name. Unfortunately these days, the financiers and distributors want to know who the name is.
You were a teacher in an all-boys school for several years, how did this job affect your writing? Did this experience allow your male characters to take shape?
I actually didn’t care about writing boys until I started teaching them, except as the love interest of Josie in ALIBRANDI and a few short stories I wrote. I come from a girls’ world and up until I started teaching, I was writing instinctively. But once I got to see boys up close and personal, I discovered their decency. They weren’t as frightening. In a way, Francesca’s journey was much like mine. At first the boys were kind of disgusting and one dimensional but once you got to know them, they were so real and wonderful (but still a bit disgusting). So Thomas Mackee’s decency came from the boys I taught. And Jimmy Hailler’s quirkiness. Boys are funny and regardless of whether I wanted to or not, they made me laugh every day I taught them. The boys from European families constantly asked me what soccer team I went for, especially during World Cup Time. The Portuguese and Polish boys were the most passionate about their soccer. In SAVING FRANCESCA there’s an exchange between Francesca and the boys in the playground about soccer and being Italian and that was almost word for word dialogue for me on any given day. “What’s your team, Miss?” “You Italian, Miss?” “Italians are coming fourth in the world, Miss.”
SAVING FRANCESCA is not the typical coming-of-age novel; it deals with depression and its effects on the family. Is it important to show in YA books grown-up conflicts too?
I never think of genre or audience when I write. I’m not really interested in what belongs traditionally in YA and I’m not interested in what belongs traditionally in fantasy. I’ve very selfish in that way. I write the novel I want to write. What I wanted to do more than anything in FRANCESCA was to make those adults real. When I wrote ALIBRANDI I was a couple of years older than Josie but when I wrote FRANCESCA I was almost her mother’s age. Women in their forties and over disappear quite substantially in film and novels, I will challenge that as much as I can.
Francesca is an amazing, adorable and witty young woman. Not only had she caught the attention of the reader, but also her friends are unforgettable. Thomas, Tara, Jimmy, Will, Justine and Siobhan are as great as Francesca, and you revisited them all with Thomas as the main character in THE PIPER’S SON in 2010. Why did you choose to tell Thomas' story?
Thank you. I’m glad you loved them. I think they are amongst my favourites because they seem the most real to me. The school they go to was the physical layout and location of the school I taught at. It’s one of the few schools in the actual city of Sydney. I’m writing the film treatment of FRANCESCA at the moment and it’s been great to get re-acquainted with them.
But Tom coming back into my head was a surprise. I never planned to write another novel about these kids and if I had, it would not have been Tom. But there’s a line or two in FRANCESCA that I couldn’t get out of my head. At one stage I was going to write an adult novel about a woman named Georgie Finch who had to go to Europe to bring home the body of her brother who died in a terrorist attack there. The Madrid bombing, of course, was a shock and devastation and its affect felt everywhere. Georgie’s idea didn’t develop and I started writing FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK. But somehow it came back when I was watching an Australian documentary about Vietnam War Veterans returning to Vietnam forty years later to bring home the bodies of five men left behind. That’s when Tom came to me. It was like he told me, “That’s what happened to my family and Georgie Finch is my aunt.” So it gave me the idea of exploring what happens to a family when they don’t get to bury their dead, not just once, but twice. I used the London bombings, because many Australian young teachers go to work there every year and Tom’s Uncle Joe gets caught up in that. Joe’s girlfriend is Spanish and although she doesn’t appear in the novel, she’s mentioned more than once. The family’s link to her is so important.
Next year I want to write an adult novel with Jimmy Hailler as one of the characters. In my heart the Francesca gang grow up to be such flawed beautiful people with turmoil still in their lives, and I think they were a gift to me from whoever hands out great characters.
You started writing realistic fiction. What made you take a turn into the epic fantasy of Skuldenore? Do you wish to try other genres in the future?
I think the characters chose the genre for me. I didn’t set out to write a fantasy in early 2007 when Finnikin and Evanjalin came to me, but I knew they were some kind of political refugees and I didn’t want to set it in the here and now. So the characters came first and then came the decision of genre. I loved the research involved in writing fantasy, so somewhere down the track I’d love to write historical fiction but at this point there’s no intention to do that just for the sake of it.
The land of Skuldenore has several countries and kingdoms, each one with its own language, culture and geography. What served as an inspiration for it? How did the creation of this setting develop?
It begins with research on the Internet searching for Lumatere. I wanted it to look like the French and English countryside. That doesn’t mean it’s France or England. I’ve said often enough that because my family is Italian, there was a great Italian influence, especially with language. Which of course could be considered a great latin influence. So words like Sagrami and Lagrami and places like Speranza and the names of some of the characters from specific areas of Lumatere were Italian. The word “Lumatere”, of course, has Italian origins as does Seranonna, the matriarch of the Forest Dwellers. Deep down, I don’t think those languages spoken across the Land are so different from each other. I think they all come from the same origin. Once again, the Italian dialects are fascinating to me and I had them in mind when building the land. My father is Sicilian and I know that if he spoke in the dialect, an Italian from Florence would not understand him.
To truly understand the physical terrain, I travelled to France, around the Dordogne area, and the world of Skuldenore began to reveal itself. I had never seen rock village ruins before nor such lushness. In other areas of France, Mont St Michel is definitely the inspiration for the cloisters in Sendecane where Finnikin first meets Evanjalin. When I researched FROI OF THE EXILES, I knew I wanted the enemy kingdom of Charyn to look the exact opposite to Lumatere, so once again I researched and found Matera in Italy and Capadoccia inTurkey.
The ending in FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK is relatively rounded off. Was the book always meant to be part of a saga? After publishing QUINTANA, can we hope to visit Skuldenore again in the future?
FINNIKIN was certain going to be a one off but Froi as a character certainly stayed with me. They all did. But I didn’t want to write a sequel of life in that kingdom after the curse. I wanted something bigger than that. If I was going to write another novel, the story and emotional journey of the character had to be just as powerful as FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK, with all its twists and turns. So while I was writing THE PIPER’S SON, Froi came to me with his tale. I was cautious because of Froi’s actions in FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK. But he was a character in need of redemption and I loved loved loved writing him. Halfway through FROI OF THE EXILES, I realized I would not be able to tell the story I wanted to tell in one novel. So that’s why FROI ends with a cliff-hanger. The entire story deserved to be told with a steady hand rather than a rushed one and that’s how QUINTANA OF CHARYN came to be.
I’ve written a short story called FERRAGOST published by an online magazine called the REVIEW OF AUSTRALIAN FICTION. It’s about one of the characters named Lady Celie of the Flatlands who spends time in the royal court of the powerful neighboring kingdom, Belegonia. FERRAGOST may be about a murder that takes place in the secluded castle she finds herself in, but the events also link to events that took appear in both FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK and QUINTANA OF CHARYN. I don’t think I’m finished with Lady Celie yet. She’s a good sleuth and she has a wonderful adversary and love interest in Banyon.
There are plans for the movie adaptation of ON THE JELLICOE ROAD with you as the scriptwriter. How is the project going? How different is this experience from your previous one with LOOKING FOR ALIBRANDI?
Well the ALIBRANDI film happened more than 10 years ago when I was asked to write the script after a few scriptwriters had tried and failed. I was new to everything and it was wonderful working with those people, because I got to stand back and see what they were all doing. I think this time I feel a bit closer to the action with regards to the big decisions being made. The JELLICOE script began with me writing it. A director approached me around the same time, and for a couple of years it was just the two of us and then I had success in getting it into a major workshop funded by my state film office. After that we found the producer we wanted to work with. Unfortunately, the director had to leave the project for personal reasons and that was difficult, but the good thing is that we’re still working with each other on another project. Thankfully, Kate Woods who is a dear friend and the director of ALIBRANDI, has taken it on. The producer and Kate had been dying to work with each other for so long and Kate just loved the script, so things turn out for a reason.
We have read on the Internet that you are taking a sabbatical after the publication of QUINTANA OF CHARYN. What are your plans for this time you're taking off? What part of being a writer is the most exhausting for you?
What happens when writing a trilogy like THE LUMATERE CHRONICLES is that you have all those characters in your head all the time. You wake up thinking of them. You go to sleep solving their problems. Although I loved them dearly, it was exhausting. The greatest casualty is that I don’t get to read other novels by other writers and I think that’s so important. For the time being I’ve been writing two film treatments. One is for SAVING FRANCESCA and the other for a romantic comedy. They both have producers attached, which is a relief after being on our own with JELLICOE for all those years. It means that the producers drive everything. I’d like to also write another Lady Celie mystery. Next year I’ll begin another novel, which will be the adult one. One of the points of view will belong to an adult Jimmy Hailler (who was 17 when I last wrote about him in SAVING FRANCESCA). At the moment I’m getting to know who he is. That’s where it all begins for me.
Australian authors are appreciated, but not well-known by the mainstream European readership. Australian authors of the young adult genre go even more unnoticed in the pile of new titles that comes from the States every year. Which fellow Australian YA writers and YA titles would you recommend us to get to know better?
Well I’m a massive fan of Kirsty Eagar who wrote RAW BLUE and NIGHT BEACH and SALTWATER VAMPIRES. Margo Lanagan’s SEA HEARTS is a great one as is GRAFFITI MOON by Cath Crowley, and the work done by Simmone Howell and Randa Abdal Fattah (DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS?) and Vikki Wakefield and Fiona Wood. Too many to list.
You have won several prizes in Australia and the USA and you have stated several times the differences between interacting with the Australian and the American public, but have you ever been in contact with your European readers? If yes, how was the experience?
The Internet has changed everything. It’s just so great that readers can still get hold of a novel regardless of whether it’s published in their country or not. I get letters from readers in Russia and Norway and the UK and Pakistan (which isn’t Europe, but still) and I’m not published in any of those countries. When I was in England and Italy last year to research QUINTANA I met up with one or two of my readers. I had never done that before, but in a way you get to know people through their blogs and they don’t seem so frightening. And now I still exchange emails and coffee and books with them both. JELLICOE has a lovely passionate readership in Sweden at the moment and they’re about to pick up SAVING FRANCESCA. I don’t understand much of what’s been said in translation, but I think it’s all good. And I have very high hopes for JELLICOE and THE LUMATERE CHRONICLES in Spain as well as the hope that a publisher will pick up SAVING FRANCESCA to sell in bookstores there, although it’s going be out and about as a book club title. I’d love to talk about my novels in Europe one day, but my name isn’t big enough there for a tour, and it’s hard to get events off the ground if a bookstore or library isn’t organizing it from their end. But maybe if I visit Europe this year, something can happen.
To finish this interview, a couple of tricky questions: which is your favourite character from your novels and why? And which of your novels would you recommend to anybody interested in your work?
Too hard to answer. My response always to that question is: “Go ask your mother who her favourite child is.” Francesca is probably the most real in my heart. But I’m proud of the construction of Tom Mackee and Froi. Once again, it’s hard to recommend a particular novel, but if you’re really into YA and want to begin with a contemporary novel, then it’s SAVING FRANCESCA. If you read ON THE JELLICOE ROAD, be patient. I promise it may take you somewhere special regardless of how lost you feel to begin with. And if you’ve read my contemporary work but don’t like fantasy as a genre, I promise that the characters in FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK and the rest of THE LUMATERE CHRONICLES share so much in common with their contemporary cousins.