‘To be honest is a revolutionary act.’ – John Marsden
One of my all-time favourite formidable female protagonists is Ellie Linton from Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. She’s loyal, proactive, proud, brave and, importantly, fallible. The more I think about the Tomorrow series, the more I’m tempted to reach over to my bookshelf and start re-reading the first book, but that would make for a slightly non-existent blog post, so the book will stay on the shelf … for now.
Last night I went to The Wheeler Centre to see John and Lefa Singleton-Norton, the Creative Producer of Express Media, launch the 2014 John Marsden/Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers (writers under the age of 25 are eligible to enter. You can read more about the prize here while I lament about my age). Lefa introduced John as an author who has sold over 3 million books and has been short-listed for every children’s and young adult prize in Australia. The Patron of Express Media, John has shown his passion for young writers through his involvement with the organisation, as well as personally funding the prize. This year Hachette Australia are also sponsoring the prize, along with support from Arts Victoria, Australia Council and The Wheeler Centre. Here are a few highlights from the session.
When you wrote the Tomorrow series did you have a sense of the enduring readership?
John originally planned to only write one book, but when he came close to finishing the manuscript he realised there was still a lot more to tell. He started writing the second book the day after he finished the first. He felt a sense of momentum when writing the books, saying ‘it all took a life of its own’. The readership grew beyond young adult – a 78-year old woman came to North Rockhampton Library after he had written the fourth book and told him she wanted to him to finish the series so she could read the whole story before she died.
Are parallels between the political climate when you wrote the series, and now?
While writing the Tomorrow series, John felt Australians gave no thought to national security. Since then, he says there has been an ‘artificial frenzy’ of people depersonalised, de-classed and marketed as a threat to Australia. John ‘lost any feeling of pride’ after the Tampa incident. Now, when he sees an Australian flag flying, he wonders what crime is being committed.
John rejects nationalism, pointing out that Australia is rarely mentioned in the series. He did not want Tomorrow, When the War Began to be a book about Australians resisting foreigners, he wanted it to be a book about young people being tested.
The appeal of the Tomorrow series lies in how teenagers deal with being put in exceptional circumstances—
John says war is a really powerful vehicle in literature. It gives ‘licence to add extra intensity to every interchange’. The Tomorrow series was the first time he had put characters through a test of physical courage. He enjoyed writing the action scenes – he wrote them quickly, but felt exhausted afterwards.
John is most proud of Checkers and So Much to Tell You, as while ‘not much happens’, the characters reflect on past events.
How did your collaboration with Shaun Tan, The Rabbits, come about?
John came up with the concept of The Rabbits while he was driving home from the airport and looking out at the landscape. He thought about vast spaces of land getting overrun by humans. ‘It’s kind of like a skin disease, in a way,’ he says. John says ‘rabbits are a good metaphor for how humans have invaded and contaminated Australia’.
The Australian bush is a constant presence/character in your work—
John says there are ‘tiny, delightful discourses to be made in the bush’. He is currently writing an adult book, which is due for release later this year. It tells the story of a 12-year old street kid from London who decides to commit a crime so he can become a convict and be sent to Australia. Writing from the perspective of a foreigner allows John to look at the Australian landscape from a different perspective.
Your first book, So Much to Tell You, was released to a very narrow young adult market—
John believes Judy Blume opened up the young adult market in the United States. He enjoys writing from the perspective of a teenager because teenagers allow for a more radical and colloquial voice. John initially found it hard trying to write for adults, as he found it ‘hard to break free from the sense of being judged for every word’. He eventually came to the realisation that ‘we all have poetic licence, if we care to use it’.
There is an ongoing battle about writing the way teenagers talk—
Some of the language John used in So Much to Tell You was censored by his publisher. He was told he wasn’t allowed to have a character say ‘fucking homework’, and despite arguments back and forth with his publisher about it, he eventually conceded. He didn’t realise until after the book was published, that the publisher, rather than just deleting the expletive, replaced it, so the dialogue read ‘damned homework’, which made the dialogue sound more artificial.
The young adult market is huge now—
John has stopped reading young adult for himself. He does, however, read novels to his children. He says the Percy Jackson series is the first series since Harry Potter that his children have been engaged in. John found Harry Potter to be ‘one of the most sublime reading experiences of my life’ and his kids lived and breathed every moment of the series. The best children’s books are the ones that adults can love as much as kids.
Why are adults drawn to young adult fiction?
John believes adults are drawn to young adult fiction for ‘the worst possible reasons’. He says there is too much immaturity in our society, and too many adults haven’t grown up. Towards the end of the session, John clarified his point by saying he doesn’t believe adults shouldn’t enjoy reading young adult fiction, but they need to make sure they don’t try to appropriate the young adult experience.
The majority of your novels are written from first perspective. What do you find so compelling about writing this way?
Writing from first person allows John to get to the essence of the character. He says ‘voice is everything to me … If I’ve got the voice, then I’ve got the book’. Writing in first person also allows John to step away from his own life and write from their experience.
Selectively mute characters are motifs that appear throughout many of your books. Was this a conscious decision?
John didn’t pick up on this until a few books in. He says he grew up in a conservative family and society that had no room for differing opinions. He ended up in a psychiatric ward when he was 19, due to emotional repression. John describes it as ‘a transformative experience’, as he was given a licence to express his feelings. He was asked how he felt. ‘It was like this language I had to learn’. He also met a 14-year old patient who didn’t speak when they entered the ward, but by the time they left they were speaking again.
Why do you write from the female perspective?
John feels he has ‘licence to express emotion quite openly’ from the perspective of a female protagonist.
Do your ideas come from students?
Conversations are people swapping stories. If someone tells you something, it prompts a memory of your own experience. John says ‘we all have our own personal library of stories’. We all have significant and powerful stories that stay with us forever. Dementia and alzheimer’s patients lose themselves because they lose their stories.
You have a strong affinity with young people—
John quips ‘there are some kids I don’t like at all’, before saying ‘I respect young people, I think (I hope)’. He feels in today’s society it’s perceived as heresy to suggest that not all young people are beautiful and perfect, but the reality is some young people can be damaged from an early age. ‘How would it sound if you said, “I love 40-year olds?”
What is it that you find exciting about young writers?
Young writers are using language in a richer and more sophisticated way than ever before. Their writing is energised, distinctive and idealistic.
What advice to you have for young writers who are struggling with motivation?
John pours it all out on the page, then goes back and edits. He says ‘the more I write, the less fixing I have to do’. He believes a writer who is confident with language will use it almost effortlessly. He urges writers to ‘walk the language tightrope with their eyes shut’.
What advice to you have for writers looking for stories?
‘Everyone has at least one book in them’. Your own story will be interesting, as long as you are honest about it. Honesty is so compelling in writing because it is so rare in our culture. ‘To be honest is a revolutionary act’.
Audience question: have you ever felt like not writing?
John used to panic when he couldn’t write. Candlebark School has been all-consuming for the past 9 years. He wrote The Year My Life Broke after a lengthy break. His adult fiction manuscript is 117,000 words. John says ‘sometimes we have to recharge’.
Audience question: Dear Miffy was a controversial inclusion in school libraries at the time of its release. If you had written the book today, would you have written it differently?
John believes there were two main issues with the book – swearing and the bleak outlook. He believes the expletives wouldn’t be an issue today, but the protagonist with the bleak outlook would still be problematic. John was motivated to write the book after hearing about a boy who was disfigured after a failed suicide attempt. ‘We shouldn’t shy away from (writing about) people who have no hope’, because that would be ignoring the experiences of these individuals.
Audience question: what is the mission and philosophy behind Candlebark School?
He believes schools weren’t doing enough to engage boys who are restless, physical and don’t want to sit at a desk for more than 2 minutes a day. ‘The idea that children can be resourceful and look after themselves seems to be an idea that’s lost all credibility’.
Audience question: do you have advice for writers dealing with editorial feedback?
John finds editors less intrusive than they used to be. His editor only made around 3,000 suggestions for his 117,000 word manuscript, and he agreed with 95% of the suggestions. He believes writers need to have confidence in their editor.
Audience question: who are your literary heroes? Do your heroic writers influence your own work?
John can see traces of writers he admires in his own work. He has come to recognise that originality is meaningless and it’s a dangerous concept. As a young adult, he was inspired by J.D Salinger’s ‘contemporary voice that breaks all the rules’. He says Charles Dickens has a rich gallery of minor characters. J.K Rowling has created characters that will be memorable for generations to come (Snape is his favourite). Melina Marchetta is another favourite. John credits Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman and Andy Griffiths with reviving the novel for young Australian readers.