Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Anatomy of a Novel: The Piper's Son

Anatomy of a Novel: The Piper's Son
Guest post by Melina Marchetta

1. Tom’s Worldly Possessions. 
Tom only has three lots of possessions in the first chapter when his flatmates chuck him out - his Norton Anthology of poetry, his guitar, and a couple of photographs.

The Norton
I love all three of my Norton Anthologies. I had to buy the English Literature editions for university and years later a friend bought me the poetry anthology. A Norton has incredibly thin paper because it’s over 2000 pages long. It’s very delicate inside so you have to be careful turning the pages and this is coming from the queen of the dog-eared books.  I remember during a lecture in my first year of uni, watching a girl mark the pages with a thick yellow highlighter. I tapped her on the shoulder and told her I didn’t think she should be doing that and she subsequently kept away from me for the duration of our degree.  The Norton includes some of my favourite poems and in a way, they’re poems that I live by. I used Lake Isle of Innisfree in Jellicoe because I think it describes the most perfect place in the world for solace and I’m convinced that if I go there I’ll be able to write a masterpiece. In Tom’s book I used Prufrock because I never want to be a Prufrock.  There’s also my favourite poem, Japan, by the former US poet laureate, Billy Collins. I think the sexiest line of all times is in that poem.

The Guitar
I have this strong desire to be a guitarist and the closest I ever get is a few calluses on my fingers just before I give up. I know that if I took up the guitar for real I would never write again so I’m going to stick to what I’m good at. The best thing about being a writer is that you can give your characters all the talents you want to possess so naturally Tom is a guitarist and Frankie Spinelli learns to play as well.

Solsbury Hill (photograph in the novel)

I’m not a big Peter Gabriel fan, but strangely I’ve used two of his songs in the writing of two novels. Firstly in Finnikin I would listen to Don’t Give Up over and over again to get into the psyche of Finnikin’s father, Trevanion.  In this proud land we grew up strong/We were wanted all along/I was taught to fight, taught to win/I never thought I could fail. (I’ve just remembered that I also mentioned the song on the first page of Francesca).  Then in the Tom novel I used Solsbury Hill. It wasn’t until the end of the final edit that I realised I had mentioned photographs in chapter one and never referred to them again.  Tom doesn’t hold anything close to his heart in the beginning so I knew I couldn’t mention the photos without telling the reader what they were. So I decided that one of the photographs would be of his Uncle Joe having his photograph taken on Solsbury Hill because Joe knew it was Tom’s father’s favourite song (Tom’s father and Joe are brothers). Sometimes I use an image or gesture or piece of dialogue between secondary characters to define their place in the story I want to tell.

2. The London Tube
The Piper’s Son isn’t about war and terrorism, but it is about the impact it has on a family years later so I needed to get the emotions right. The thing with research is this - you have to do so much of it but it’s the writer’s job to make sure the reader doesn’t see the research. It has to come out naturally in dialogue or the narrative voice or in a single image. I don’t think I totally got that balance right but I tried hard to. The easiest research was studying the Tube map and working out where Joe Mackee got on and off the train every day and how many minutes it would have taken him to get to work.  The hardest part was reading the timeline of what happened in London in July 2005 and the obituaries for those who died in the bombing.

3.The Dixie Chicks
In my 2003 novel, Saving Francesca, the girls were given Spice Girls nicknames by the guys as a stir. Tom’s book is set in 2007 so I thought the girls would be more like the Dixie Chicks. One of my favourite documentaries is Shut up and Sing which is about freedom of speech.  But it’s also about friendship, creativity and process and it’s about people at a transitional stage in their life whether they want to be there or not and Piper’s Son was certainly a novel about people at a transitional stage.  I was listening to the music a lot that year, trying to imagine what song best summed up the girls and their relationships. Tara Finke’s song to Tom would definitely have been I’m not Ready to Make Nice and when I thought of Francesca’s feelings for Will I’d listen to Easy Silence. I couldn’t use any of the lyrics because the band had shut down communication on their website due to death threats they had received after one of them expressed shame that George Bush was from the same state of Texas as they were.


Anatomy of a novel is an occasional series where authors dissect their books for your delight. Pass it on! 


  1. This is fascinating, Melina. And thanks Simmone. It's great to have this kind of insight into writers' minds. I love it! I have to get around to doing mine now!

  2. I may be the last kid on the block to read (and love) The Piper's Son, but I think you did totally get the research balance right, Melina. (I love my Norton Anthology of Poetry very much, and get nervous if I don't have it close to hand.)