Looking for Alibrandi author Melina Marchetta was 17 years old, just like her beloved protagonist Josie, when she started scribbling what would eventually become a best-selling novel.
Marchetta would go on to adapt the book herself for the movie of the same name, starring Pia Miranda, Greta Scacchi and Anthony LaPaglia.
It was a long road to success. She was 27 when her story about an inner western Sydney, Italian-Australian teenager finding her place in the world after meeting her absentee father was published by Penguin, after being knocked back by several major players.
She’s published nine more novels in the 27 years since, with Alibrandi as popular as ever.
“It does stun me that 27 years later it still resonates so much, especially with young people,” Marchetta says.
“I can understand older people who have grown up with it, but when I come across a teenager, I just think, ‘But it’s got no social networking’.”
It’s also a head spin that the book is taught in schools, considering she dropped out at the age of 15. In fact, it was only once Penguin showed interest in her manuscript that Marchetta felt up to enrolling in university, aged 25.
Her latest novel, The Place on Dalhousie, completes the inner-west trilogy she started with her second novel, Saving Francesca, in 2003, followed by 2010’s The Piper’s Son, which straddled the bridge between young adult and adult fiction.
Two women are at the heart of Dalhousie: single mum Rosie Genarro, who is raising returning character Jimmy Hailer’s son, and her step-mother Martha, arguing over the house they begrudgingly share.
“I loved writing those two women so much,” Marchetta told The New Daily.
“I was never on any one side, and it was beautiful to write like that.”
Riven with the sort of painful family history Marchetta’s fans devour, she also adores bringing her inner-west Sydney stomping grounds to rich life.
“You get such a sense of New York anywhere you live in the world,” she said.
“But in Australia, especially in the past, our sense of place has been out in the country, that rural existence.”
She wanted to recreate the big country town feel she enjoys in the middle of Sydney.
“Everyone interstate thinks this city is a cold, heartless place where there’s no community, but I can’t go down the road without bumping into a thousand people.”
The 90s saw a rapid expansion of the Australian story, accommodating inner city, second-generation voices like Marchetta’s, and that of Melbourne-based author Christos Tsiolkas, whose queer Greek teen rebel cry, Loaded, was published in 1995.
For all that progress, Marchetta worries we haven’t come far enough today, despite the great work being done by groups like western suburbs writers’ collective SWEATSHOP.
“Sadly, stories by people who don’t come from an Anglo or Celtic background, aren’t happening at the volume I would like to see,” she said.
That includes on our screens, too.
“When you look at our films and our television shows, representation is very limited and often tends to be a consolation prize – ‘Oh look, there’s one person of colour’ – We’ve got to pull up our socks,” she said.
It’s important for writers to reclaim negative narratives about their homes that play out on the nighty news, she argues.
“We have to encourage young people to write their own stories, not their lives, but their world, because when other people write about your world, they’re usually writing crappy things about it.”
The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta is published by Penguin imprint Viking.