He’s still king of the kids, so why has author John Marsden started writing for adults?
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
I’VE GOTTEN A LITTLE TIRED OF THE YOUNG ADULT MARKET, OR THE GENRE. IT SEEMS TO HAVE GOTTEN VERY CROWDED
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.
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