He’s still king of the kids, so why has au­thor John Mars­den started writ­ing for adults?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - South of Dark­ness by John Mars­den, Macmil­lan, $39.99, is out next month.

JOHN Mars­den is 55 min­utes and three seconds into this in­ter­view when he is in­ter­rupted by a shuf­fling of feet and a mur­mur­ing of high, pip­ing voices just out­side his of­fice door. Mars­den, one of the coun­try’s top-sell­ing au­thors, is the prin­ci­pal and founder of Can­dle­bark, an al­ter­na­tive school out­side Mel­bourne, and to­day, a mat­ter has arisen that is so ur­gent it can­not wait. “Hi John,’’ says one of the younger stu­dents — this is a school in which ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the prin­ci­pal, is ad­dressed by their first names. With a re­strained but hope­ful air, five boys, aged from 10 to 15, ask whether they can take time off classes to en­ter a video com­pe­ti­tion. The prize? Pop star Katy Perry will visit the win­ning school.

“I want to em­pha­sise that we’re en­ter­ing this iron­i­cally,’’ quips Mars­den. “I don’t even know who Katy Perry is.’’ The stu­dents man­age to keep a straight face as he asks: “Is she a singer or some­thing?’’ He moves one of his crutches gin­gerly — he re­cently broke his leg and dis­lo­cated an an­kle — and qui­etly quizzes his pupils about how they will fit the film­ing of their video into their timeta­bles.

In the end, he tells them to ne­go­ti­ate time off lessons with their teach­ers: “I’ll leave you guys to work it out.’’ Mis­sion ac­com­plished and flushed with suc­cess, the boys file out of their prin­ci­pal’s of­fice, a cramped, cub­by­house-sized space that used to be the school’s store­room.

Ac­cord­ing to the stu­dents, the aim of the Perry contest is to demon­strate how your school is dif­fer­ent, so Can­dle­bark should be in with a shout. For Mars­den is no or­di­nary prin­ci­pal, and his school, with its 5m-high teepee, World War II Rus­sian army tent, hay bales and no-uni­form pol­icy, is not your av­er­age cam­pus. On its web­site, this in­de­pen­dent school de­scribes it­self as be­ing “some­where be­tween Steiner and The Simp­sons’’.

When asked why the play­ground has a teepee, the au­thor turned prin­ci­pal — who bought the school’s vast, thickly forested site him­self — re­sponds that “some­one thought it was a good idea”. Sim­i­larly, he bought a stack of hay bales “be­cause I thought, ‘Kids just love play­ing on hay bales’.”

Th­ese are the sorts of ran­dom an­swers that any spaced-out hip­pie or a peren­ni­ally clue­less Homer Simp­son might give. But Mars­den, 64, who has suf­fered on and off from de­pres­sion for decades, is nei­ther spaced out nor clue­less. On the con­trary, he has writ­ten more than 40 books, most of them aimed at teenagers, and has sold about five mil­lion copies here and over­seas. His young adult fic­tion has won pres­ti­gious awards, in­clud­ing the Chil­dren’s Book Coun­cil Book of the Year Award, a Vic­to­rian Premier’s Award and the Christo­pher Medal in the US, while the first vol­ume of his phe­nom­e­nally popular To­mor­row se­ries has been turned into a fea­ture film, To­mor­row, When the War Be­gan. This fu­tur­is­tic story about plucky Aus­tralian teenagers fight­ing a guerilla war against an in­vad­ing for­eign power was the high­est gross­ing, lo­cally made film in 2010.

The writer’s lat­est re­lease, South of Dark­ness, opens a new fron­tier in his ca­reer: it’s his first novel for adults. A con­vict saga with a twist, it is ini­tially set in the late 1700s in a seething London slum, where a young, home­less or­phan in­ten­tion­ally com­mits a crime so he can be trans­ported to Aus­tralia. Asked why he dreamed up this ar­rest­ing plot hook, Mars­den says in his di­rect way: “I re­ally doubted a lot of the myths about the early con­victs. I’m just by na­ture a scep­tic, I sup­pose. So all th­ese poignant sto­ries about peo­ple who’d stolen a hand­ker­chief and were sent out here for 14 years or life, I just found that a lit­tle hard to swal­low.

“I had the feel­ing that most of them were prob­a­bly out-and-out rogues who were tar­geted as peo­ple the mag­is­trates wanted to get rid of … I’m sure there were gen­uine in­jus­tices and lots of hard­ship, but I was just very sus­pi­cious of that whole mythol­ogy.’’

He has done in-depth re­search for the new book, draw­ing on sources such as Watkin Tench’s A Nar­ra­tive of the Ex­pe­di­tion to Botany Bay and Inga Clendin­nen’s Danc­ing With Strangers, writ­ten more than 200 years later. As well as re-cre­at­ing an 18th-cen­tury ur­ban slum, an­kle-deep in horse ma­nure and crime, he reimag­ines the long, de­hu­man­is­ing voy­age to Aus­tralia. His pro­tag­o­nist, Barn­aby Fletch, wit­nesses an un­just flog­ging and a botched hang­ing, and fends off pe­dophile con­victs by night.

How did Mars­den man­age to write the 375page South of Dark­ness on top of his busy fam­ily life and run­ning a school? In his late 50s, it looked as if he were des­tined to be per­ma­nently child­less, but three years ago he mar­ried a Can­dle­bark par­ent, Kris, who has six sons, aged 10 to 19. Five of the boys at­tend Can­dle­bark and he says dryly: “I am the big­gest contributor to school fees of any of the par­ents here, which is ironic.’’

A late­comer to parenting, he finds it “chaotic in a very friendly way; it’s not a hard­ship’’. He es­pe­cially en­joys the hu­mour, sar­casm and mimicry at which teenage boys ex­cel.

De­spite hav­ing an au­di­ence reach most au­thors would kill for, he de­scribes writ­ing as “re­ally a school hol­i­day thing’’, almost a hobby. “All my cre­ative en­ergy goes into home and school,’’ he says offhand­edly. “Writ­ing’s al­ways just been some­thing I do late at night when all the other jobs are out of the way. It’s also a kind of re­ward. I prom­ise my­self that if I get all the jobs done, then I can take a cou­ple of hours to write, which is like my time out; it’s in­dul­gence.’’

It’s in­trigu­ing that a man who pre­sum­ably has made mil­lions from his prose spends most of his work­ing hours in a con­verted store­room lit by a harsh flu­o­res­cent bulb, and stuffed to the gills with ev­ery­thing from of­fi­cial school doc­u­ments to Korean and Ger­man edi­tions of his books, a jar of bril­liant bird feath­ers and two large crates of cut­lery and crock­ery.

Mars­den bought the lat­ter on­line, think­ing they would be use­ful for school par­ent func­tions. But when the bulk or­der of knives ar­rived they turned out to be fish knives, while the plates were an odd, squar­ish shape. So the crates gather dust in the mid­dle of his of­fice floor, as if he can’t quite de­cide what to do with them.

As we speak, he is suf­fer­ing from a nasty bout of bron­chi­tis as well as haul­ing him­self around on crutches. He has strik­ing blue eyes, but mostly ad­dresses his an­swers to a spot in midair, half­way be­tween this re­porter and his of­fice door. I sus­pect his out­spo­ken­ness about ev­ery- thing from Nazi-like school mot­tos to “im­ma­ture’’ adults who write YA fic­tion may serve as cam­ou­flage for his shy­ness.

Given his huge fol­low­ing among teen read­ers, why write a novel for adults? “It wasn’t re­ally a con­scious decision,’’ he says, as a fly­ing soc­cer ball slams into his of­fice wall. “I’ve got­ten a lit­tle tired of the young adult mar­ket, or the genre. It seems to have got­ten very crowded with a lot of pretty unattrac­tive books; a lot of books where writ­ers are try­ing ter­ri­bly hard to cap­ture the voice of this funky, cool teenager; it just doesn’t ring true. Too many adults have in­vaded the ter­ri­tory with mo­tives that might have more to do with their own im­ma­tu­rity than any­thing else.’’

He points out he hasn’t be­gun a YA novel — a 2008 adap­ta­tion of Ham­let was his last work aimed at teenagers — since he opened Can­dle­bark almost nine years ago.

In­ter­est­ingly, as the ti­tle sug­gests, South of Dark­ness is shot through with more light and op­ti­mism about the fledg­ling pe­nal colony than many other fic­tion and non­fic­tion au­thors have al­lowed. “When they got here, in many ways they were treated rea­son­ably well,’’ Mars­den says of the trans­ported con­victs. “They weren’t locked up and chained up 24/7 as most of them had been in the hulks and at New­gate and the other (Bri­tish) prisons. Most of them could wan­der pretty freely.

“There was def­i­nitely bar­baric and sav­age and appalling be­hav­iour. But there were also more en­light­ened at­ti­tudes than per­haps peo­ple are aware of. Gov­er­nor Phillip was quite en­light­ened by even our stan­dards, and Watkin Tench, who wrote such a great ac­count of those first cou­ple of years, was a very mod­ern man in the way he viewed in­dige­nous peo­ple.’’

After he lands at Botany Bay, young Barn­aby finds the space and nat­u­ral beauty of his ope­nair prison ex­hil­a­rat­ing. But he finds it dif­fi­cult to stay out of trou­ble, and ends up seek­ing refuge with a tra­di­tional Abo­rig­i­nal clan. Mars­den de­scribes, in some de­tail, in­dige­nous men in­flict­ing vi­o­lence on their women, and Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren be­hav­ing in a sex­u­alised way. He is “a lit­tle ner­vous’’ about how crit­ics and read­ers will re­act to th­ese chap­ters but adds: “It’s all well doc­u­mented; it can be sub­stan­ti­ated.’’

Be­sides, he says he also de­scribes “how re­pulsed the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were by the way the whites pun­ished each other. And the flog­gings, which again, are well doc­u­mented. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple wanted to get away when they saw con­victs be­ing flogged. They thought it was the most dis­gust­ing thing they’d ever seen.’’

Whether he is writ­ing about a sui­ci­dal teenager for a YA novel or about Abo­rig­ines at the on­set of white set­tle­ment, he says, “I just try to be truth­ful, re­ally. I’ve al­ways thought that one of the para­doxes about fic­tion is that you’re ac­tu­ally try­ing to get at truth.’’

He says his pub­lisher, Macmil­lan, of­fered him a con­tract for a South of Dark­ness se­quel, but “I didn’t want to sign it and lock my­self in, to feel that pres­sure that I had to pro­duce it by a cer­tain date’’. Nev­er­the­less, he seems to be flirt­ing with the idea of writ­ing another his­tor­i­cal novel. He finds Fed­er­a­tion “a re­ally in­ter­est­ing time in Aus­tralian his­tory’’ and says, “I might



have a play around with that at some stage’’.

For all his suc­cess as an au­thor, he con­sid­ers his school his most im­por­tant achieve­ment. “Ev­ery day I think it’s like a mir­a­cle re­ally,’’ he says, and his sat­is­fac­tion seems pal­pa­ble. Can­dle­bark calls it­self an in­de­pen­dent school but lacks the man­i­cured play­ing fields and re­sort­like fa­cil­i­ties that term can im­ply. Rather, Mars­den has cre­ated an old-style bush school with a dis­tinc­tive, coun­ter­cul­ture vibe. He jokes that at Can­dle­bark, you can get a de­ten­tion for not climb­ing a tree. As we talk, I spy a group of small boys on top of a grassy slope hav­ing du­els with me­tre-long sticks and tree branches. No one bats an eye­lid; the prin­ci­pal ap­proves of “stick wars’’.

It’s a far cry from the up­scale King’s School at Syd­ney’s Parramatta that Mars­den at­tended as schol­ar­ship boy in the 1960s. He barely sur­vived the ex­pe­ri­ence. “The big­gest is­sue was the kind of fas­cist tone of the school back then. I think it’s changed, I hope it’s changed since then, but it was a pretty un­pleas­ant at­mos­phere a lot of the time.’’ Rugby and cricket were com­pul­sory and he was ef­fec­tively deemed the worst player in both sports, year after year. “I was the re­serve for the Hs (the H team) in both cricket and foot­ball for my whole school ca­reer,’’ he says rue­fully. Can­dle­bark’s at­ti­tude to sport is clearly a legacy of what he went through. Its web­site as­serts that while the school pro­motes sport and its ben­e­fits, “nearly all team sports, at school level, glo­rify a few in­di­vid­u­als, giv­ing lit­tle ‘hands-on’ prac­tice to most, and hu­mil­i­at­ing a few’’.

Mars­den may have felt hu­mil­i­ated on the play­ing fields but he did well enough at King’s to score a place study­ing arts/law at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. How­ever, within months he found him­self bat­tling his fam­ily and a sense of alien­ation and lone­li­ness. He dropped out of univer­sity and was di­ag­nosed with se­vere de­pres­sion. He spent two months in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, an ex­pe­ri­ence that even­tu­ally would feed into his fic­tion writ­ing.

Forty years on, he has come to the re­al­i­sa­tion de­pres­sion is an ill­ness you never shake off en­tirely. “Even­tu­ally, if you do enough work you can get to the point where you lead a pretty ful­fill­ing life. But the black dog is al­ways out­side the door, never far away,’’ he re­flects. He man­ages his ill­ness by see­ing a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal psy­chother­a­pist, adding: “I’m not re­ally sure what that term means.’’ He says he has had ther­apy on and off “for so many years I’d be em­bar­rassed to say’’. He reck­ons it has been valu­able mostly be­cause his ther­a­pist gave him an at times “pretty bru­tal un­der­stand­ing of my­self. The best ther­a­pists can con­front you with pretty painful truths. If they don’t do that, they’re prob­a­bly not much use.’’

He has said his ex­pe­ri­ence in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal was “har­row­ing’’ and “pos­i­tive’’; the treat­ment he re­ceived helped him forge a new life. Still, it would take him a decade to find the things he was good at: writ­ing and teach­ing. In the late 80s, he wrote his first novel, So Much to

Tell You, about a 14-year-old girl who is ren­dered mute when she is scarred in an acid at­tack meant for her mother. Based on a true story, this novel won a slew of awards and was widely trans­lated.

Mars­den con­tin­ued to strike a chord with teenage read­ers by writ­ing, as one jour­nal­ist put it, “for his au­di­ence as if he is the au­di­ence’’. How­ever, in the 90s his teen nov­els deal­ing with de­pres­sion, sui­cide, sex and vi­o­lence were at­tacked by some crit­ics and ed­u­ca­tors for be­ing ni­hilis­tic. His dark­est novel, Dear Miffy, is about an aban­doned, sui­ci­dal teen who writes from a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal to the girl­friend he once stalked. Mars­den main­tains the crit­i­cism was misplaced; that the pro­tag­o­nist of that novel can’t “look at him­self truth­fully’’ and is there­fore “doomed to stay in the morass’’.

Some of his real-life ad­vice also landed him in hot wa­ter. In his non­fic­tion book, Se­cret

Men’s Business, he told teenage boys it was more hon­est to visit a brothel than seek trophy sex from a trust­ing girl. Would he still give that ad­vice to­day? Un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, he weighs his words care­fully: “To an older male, yeah, prob­a­bly. What I said in the book was that it’s a more hon­est trans­ac­tion to go to a brothel than lie to a girl so you can have sex with her. It’s a lit­tle way short of ad­vis­ing peo­ple to go to broth­els … I’m aware the sex in­dus­try’s a pretty com­plex, murky world. There’s a lot of abuse and a lot of dam­aged peo­ple work­ing in it, so I’d be a lit­tle bit more cir­cum­spect about what I said.’’

But cir­cum­spec­tion does not come nat­u­rally to Mars­den. At one point, de­scrib­ing how the clergy of his Angli­can up­bring­ing in­flu­enced his new novel, he disses the motto of a Catholic school near Can­dle­bark: “The Third Re­ich would have been happy with that as a slo­gan.’’ And Can­dle­bark uses its list­ing on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s MySchool web­site, where schools’ NAPLAN re­sults are recorded, to blast those same tests: “It seems that the cur­rent gov­ern­ment’s vi­sion is for a bland and dreary ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, ren­dered life­less by an ob­ses­sion with test­ing, con­for­mity and stan­dard­i­s­a­tion.’’

In Au­gust, he in­jured his an­kle and broke his leg while try­ing to prise apart his two labradors; while “play fight­ing’’, one dog got its teeth stuck be­hind the other’s col­lar. Mars­den tried to help but ended up be­ing thrown to the ground by the dis­tressed an­i­mals. “I looked down and saw that my foot was point­ing at right an­gles to my leg. I thought hero­ically, ‘Well I’d bet­ter sort the dogs out first and then worry about my an­kle.’ ’’ The end re­sult, for him, was two op­er­a­tions, two months in a sur­gi­cal boot and a world of pain.

De­spite feel­ing poorly, he is happy to air his opin­ions about ev­ery­thing from fed­eral Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Christo­pher Pyne to ab­sent fa­thers. He is deeply unim­pressed by dads who shoot through once a re­la­tion­ship ends — a prob­lem he wor­ries may be get­ting worse. “There are kids here who wouldn’t know their fa­thers if they met them be­cause they haven’t seen them since they were six months old or 12 months old, and that’s some­thing that em­bar­rasses me as a man, that there are peo­ple who are so ne­glect­ful.’’

He also feels strongly that “one of the big­gest prob­lems with ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tralia is that the per­son in charge is in­vari­ably some­one who knows noth­ing about it. So you’ve got Christo­pher Pyne, who is a pro­fes­sional politi­cian. Be­fore him you had Ju­lia Gil­lard, who is an in­dus­trial re­la­tions lawyer, and along with her you had Peter Gar­rett, who was an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and rock star.’’

With lit­tle warn­ing, he ends this in­ter­view and photo ses­sion at 3.30pm. It seems he needs to catch the school bus home, as his in­juries pre­vent him from driv­ing. He pulls on a small back­pack and with slow de­lib­er­a­tion, makes his way on crutches to­wards the bus. Re­view of­fers him a lift, but he de­clines. The noisy ride to his home nearby “will give me a chance to talk to the stu­dents”, says the au­thor, who ap­par­ently has found his true vo­ca­tion, hang­ing with the kids.

To­mor­row When the War Be­gan

Nov­el­ist John Mars­den, left; the un­con­ven­tional school prin­ci­pal at his al­ter­na­tive school, Can­dle­bark, at Rom­sey in Vic­to­ria, right; a scene from the film adap­ta­tion of his novel ON­LINE VIDEO: John Mars­den takes us on a tour of his al­ter­na­tive school, Can­dle­bark. www.theaus­tralian. com.au/re­view

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