King of the kids: John Marsden

John Marsden likes to write about the gritty side of teenage life: sex, suicide and mental illness have all featured in his books.

John Marsden is struggling like a comedian at a grog-free gig. He tries to charge up his young audience, hitting them with one story after another like a doctor with cardiac paddles. He tells them about the boy who swallowed the goldfish and the child who called pins and needles “lemonade legs”. They sit still and silent.

He’s talking to the Islamic students of Ilim College in Broadmeadows about writing: voice, character, plot. He gives them Tom Clancy’s recipe: What if? What next?
Towards the end of the hour-long talk comes the part that makes them realise he’s on their side: the role of status in story-telling. “Low-status people apologise all the time. They get run over by a truck and apologise to the driver,” he says.

“I apologise for everything. I was buying a jacket at the January sales. I turned around and realised I hit someone behind me. Then I realised I’d hit a mirror and was apologising to my own image.” They giggle.

By the time he’s mimicking a pontificating principal – sending up the way high-status people speak slowly because they know they won’t be interrupted – they’re laughing out loud. John Marsden, king of the kids.

He’s an unpretentious monarch. He arrived this day in baggy pants and a windcheater, his face bearing a faint five o’clock shadow. He’d been digging up worms for an injured magpie just before he left home, he says later, glancing at his hands as if to check for lingering traces of excavation.

His fellow travellers on the train to Broadie would never have picked him for a millionaire. They would be unlikely even to know his name, unless they were teenagers or English teachers or plugged-in parents.

But Marsden, 52, is one of Australia’s most successful authors. His 31 books have sold three million copies worldwide and been translated into 15 languages, including French, German, Japanese and Korean. A poll by Angus and Robertson on Australia’s favourite books found Marsden’s best-loved novel for teenagers, Tomorrow, When the War Began, came in fourth, ahead of the Bible at number five.

Those who admire his work talk of his gift for taking on the adolescent voice and the way he believes in their ability to navigate a challenging world. His critics wish he would show the same faith in adults; they claim his teenage characters often inhabit bleak worlds bereft of adult strength or kindness, and that he exposes kids too early to adult themes such as sex and suicide.

“Why can’t we let kids be kids, and let them enjoy their innocence and freedom from these worries?” says Bill Muehlenberg, vice-president of the Australian Family Association and recipient of complaints from outraged parents. He concedes he’s had no reports of kids being upset.

That’s because they don’t see his work that way. Says Lauren Kenrick, 14, who attended one of Marsden’s writing workshops: “I love his books, especially the Tomorrow series, because they’re real and everything that they were feeling – I knew exactly how they felt. I would be, like, ‘Mum, get the next one, I need it!”‘

Marsden also knows what makes kids laugh. The Great Gatenby is a comic novel about the wisecracking Erle Gatenby. Erle’s mother erupts into anxious, inane reminders as she drops him off at boarding school (Krapp House) for the first time. He tells her in return, “Don’t go talking to strange men while I’m away. Keep off the hard liquor. Don’t answer the phone unless it’s ringing.”

But some of his work has been seriously controversial. In his guide to life for teenage boys, Secret Men’s Business, Marsden said boys looking for “trophy sex” should use a prostitute rather than exploit a trusting girl – and then told them how to find a brothel and what to expect upon arrival.

The book that caused the most outrage was Dear Miffy. Some booksellers refuse to stock it and schools often keep it off their shelves. The book is written as letters from a youth in prison to his old girlfriend, Miffy. The boy is violent, rage-filled and lacking in moral insight. A failed suicide attempt has left him savagely mutilated, as trapped in his body as he is in his mind. Utterly black, the book ends on a howl of hatred.

So what’s inside the head of this man who’s inside the heads of Australia’s kids?

MONEY might not buy happiness but Marsden’s home shows it can buy beauty. He lives in the country near Romsey, an hour north of Melbourne, on the 400-hectare Tye Estate: manicured gardens and Edwardian buildings surrounded by sweeping stands of eucalypts.

He bought it for just under a million five years ago and has since spent that much again buying the property next door. Together with the improvements, it’s an investment of $2.5 million.

He reels off the numbers politely when asked but it’s clear they don’t excite him. It’s different when he’s asked about the graceful figure in the fountain near his winding driveway: a 1930s statue of a woman with a cloche hat and a flirty swirling skirt. He found her in bits in a box and had her restored, he says, his face lighting up.

It lights again when he’s asked what one man does with 400 hectares: “Keep it as safe as I can for trees and birds and animals.” He is an ardent conservationist. At the last election he handed out how-to-vote cards for the Greens, and in the 1980s he served a week in jail for protesting against the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. (Ever the recalcitrant, he nicked the list of rules off the wall of his cell and later used them in a novel).

Animals are not the only creatures allowed the run of his place. Marsden, a former English teacher, runs writing camps for kids using log cabins set up as bunkhouses and a classroom. He seems to follow Dolly Levi’s dictum that money, like manure, should be spread around helping young things to grow.

He did try to be an idle sybarite. “I’d made good money from writing and I thought, ‘OK, this is the life.’ I bought the nice house (in Kew) and the nice car and I thought I’d have a coffee in Lygon Street every morning and Brunswick Street every afternoon.

“And after four months I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I should be doing this when I’m 75, not 45.”‘
He shares his home with the arthritic Trevor, a refugee from the lost dogs’ home, and Coco, a shih tzu with a temperament that leans towards the Latin. As we lie talking on the grass she plants herself nose to nose with the interviewer, as if warning that there’s to be no messin’ with her man.

Marsden grew up in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, the third of four children who moved around following the postings of their father, a banker. He is as cagey as the next person when asked about that crucible of tortured creativity, the family.

“I lived a very typical life for the 1950s, very protected, where you didn’t have any awareness of the wider world. Mum was at home ironing the sheets – at least I think she did, she certainly ironed everything else.

“When I was a child my father seemed to dominate every field he was in, which was powerful for me.

“The family was conservative; strong moral standards, we went to church every Sunday. Anglican. Sir Robert Menzies ruled and God was in his heaven and everything was Nice, with a capital N.”

Marsden is more forthcoming about the way his school helped make him the man he is today: an anti-authoritarian who carries a deep anger about the abuse of power and an equally deep empathy for outsiders and underdogs, especially teenagers. He spent his adolescence at The King’s School in Sydney. (“Don’t forget the ‘The’ or the world will stop spinning,” he warns.)

He had a rough time there. “I didn’t like the cruelty that was part of the school’s structure. I got punished in every way. I was ostracised, more by the teachers than the kids. But the prefects were the ones who really hurt.

“Prefects were allowed to beat you with a sandshoe on the bum. They’d do things like get in the biggest room possible, and they’d bend you over at one end and they’d stand on a window-sill at the other end and launch themselves at you. And these guys were big ¤ 14 stone, 120 kilos. They were powerful, and they’d do it for anything.”

Marsden felt duty bound to give them cause. “We challenged Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam war, and the compulsory militarism at King’s, by skipping corps parades, by dumb insolence.

“In year 8 my mother was told by the housemaster that the teachers were afraid of me because I was so ruthless with them. If a teacher made a mistake, I would ridicule him. But if I was bored and angry, it was probably a by-product of that.”

The most intense experience he had at the school was actually a positive one, at the hands of a new headmaster who arrived towards the end of Marsden’s time. Marsden had charge of a table of small boys whose dinner he had to supervise, “All very English 1890s.” One day none of them ate their meal because they didn’t like the white sauce on their corned beef.

Like Oliver Twist, Marsden braved the housekeeper, a notoriously fearsome woman, and asked if she could put the white sauce in jugs so the children could choose whether to have it. Enraged, she marched him up to the headmaster. “He listened, and he said to her, ‘It sounds like a very sensible suggestion.’”

Marsden was floored: “It was like I had just been struck by lightning.”

It might be one of the reasons he ended up becoming a teacher himself rather than fleeing schools forever. “The main motivation to teach was to prove that you could teach in a different way.”

For all its flaws, the school had provided a structure to Marsden’s life, and without it he crumbled. Half-way through his first year in arts-law at Sydney University he became suicidally depressed and spent two months in a psychiatric hospital. “It was comforting in many ways because I learned a lot. I really started to understand how the mind works, I suppose.

“To me it was a new world. When people are in psych hospitals feelings are laid bare because there’s no point pretending any more; you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re basically there because your life is not working. To admit that was quite a relief, and then you can go on somewhere.”

The experience has informed a lot of his writing. The main character in his award-winning first novel, So much to tell you, is based partly on memories of a silent girl he met in the psych unit. It is the tender, perceptive story of a girl with severe depression who has not spoken for months, her face and her feelings scarred by an acid attack her father had intended for her mother. Her counsellor tells her that she does not speak because she is afraid to face her emotions about her parents and about herself; they will be a mix of love and hate.

She has lost her identity – her face, her voice, her family, her friends – but by the end of the book has built tentative new connections. Only when she begins to talk do we learn her name, Marina. That was like a baptism of the new person, Marsden wrote later: “For many people adolescence is like that; a search for a new identity built on the realisation that one’s identity as a child has started to dissolve.”

Tony, the nihilistic boy in Miffy, also comes from real-life experiences. Miffy followed a time when Marsden had helped look after a state ward “who was leading a life that I thought was unremittingly bleak and horrifying, and I used to wonder why she was like that, and what was going on in her mind”.

He is irritated by complaints of the book’s grimness. He points out that most teen fiction is lighthearted. “Also, the bigger argument is that I don’t think reality is the problem. I think protecting people from reality is the problem. And to keep young people in ignorance is unforgivable. So you have to help them to come to terms with the world, and that includes the awful aspects of the world.”

What critics failed to understand about the book, he says, “is that Tony’s tragedy is that he lacks honesty and insight and because of that he’s trapped.”

Troubled boys led to Marsden writing his guide to manhood. He says about 20 boys he has taught in schools have died, either from suicide or risk-taking. After one funeral he decided to do something about it.

In Secret Men’s Business – Manhood: The Big Gig, he tells boys that to be a man who is mature, independent and wise takes more than birthdays. He lists 12 steps to a boy achieving manhood, including leaving home, earning his own money, recognising his feelings and experiencing success. Top of the list: defeating his father in a field in which the father used to be superior.

“The part they find the most powerful is the part about defeating your father,” Marsden says. “If I’m talking to a really wild audience ¤ about how, when the moment comes, you’ve got to have the courage and strength to defeat him, suddenly they’re absolutely intent.”
Most of Marsden’s advice on sex would pass muster with any grateful parent: your penis doesn’t rule the world, no one ever died from blue balls, betrayal and casual sex are always bad karma. So what’s with the brothel advice? How can a man who thinks male criminals are damaged children fail to recognise that female prostitutes often have similar histories of child abuse and drug addiction?

“I hadn’t thought that part of it through,” he concedes. “What I was trying to say was at least if you go to a brothel it’s an honest transaction. If you lie to someone to get sex, it’s a dishonest transaction ¤ I’m not saying it’s good to go to a prostitute.”

His book also gives kind, shrewd advice about depression and avoiding drugs and suggests that boys with no father figure find themselves one. But he sees dire problems with the western template for fatherhood.

“You’ve got to read the Bible to understand the fabric of our society,” he says. “There’s a lot of very dark and horrifying episodes in that book. Abraham and his son is just a foul story. And I think there is this pattern; Abraham takes his son off to sacrifice him on the altar, God sends his son to sacrifice him ¤
“Men in Western society have grown up with that as the dominant image of the culture, that fathers send their sons to be killed. That’s with us consciously and unconsciously every day of our lives. It’s a very straightforward message that your father’s gonna nail you to a cross and leave you there to die.

“Why fathers don’t just sacrifice themselves and be done with it is never explained. But I suppose it’s some sort of primeval understanding of the death wish that fathers have for their sons.”
It doesn’t seem quite the moment to ask why he has never had children of his own.

MARSDEN’S classroom on the Tye Estate is an airy log cabin bounded by gum trees and rosellas. On the shelf sits a Pooh poster with the verse, “Pooh’s whole world is the 100-acre wood/ He loves it as much as any bear could.”

Another frame holds a school permission form sent home to parents about one of Marsden’s talks. On it the father of Debbie from 8C scrawled, “I do not give my permission for my daughter to go to listen to an author of a novel. Novel writers are persons with a lawless mind.” An amused Marsden agrees: “All the best novels are subversive.”

The hostility between Marsden and parents is not all one way. When he talks about parents, it’s often with a spurt of irritation at their overprotective or controlling behaviour. He tells the kids about parents who phone about this camp and ask if the staff are trustworthy: “What’s the point of that conversation? Am I going to say ‘Oh no, they’re all paedophiles’ or ‘We specially recruit serial murderers?’ I feel like asking them, “What about your children – are they bullies or drug addicts or thieves?’”

He tells of asking one hairdresser about how parents respond when their kid gets a radical haircut: “The next day the parents are there waving their mobile phones and threatening to get the lawyers.”
For all his talk of revolution, his classes take a conventional form. He sits up the front behind a desk and does most of the talking.

But the content of his teaching is different. He offers the kids freedom. Says Lauren Kenrick, “When I’m at school, my English teacher says you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, it has to be 1500 words, or you lose marks. John said, ‘Forget all that.’ And that’s how I like to write, from the heart.”

But he also structures their work with practical exercises. He asks them for stories, each student having to say a sentence starting with “I remember”, and then one with “I used to believe”. He comments on each short tale gravely, like a parent admiring the whorls and colours of a child’s treasured seashells. Sometimes he critiques; the penguin story needs more detail to come alive, he tells one girl.

He tells them that people who are unaware of the truth about themselves are funny, like Basil Fawlty, or tragic, like King Lear. He teaches them about voice by making them write a scene in which students answer a teacher’s roll call in ways that illustrate their personalities, and then he responds to each of their characters as if they’re real. The character who blows a raspberry: “He’ll be expelled within a fortnight.” The character who mumbles: “He might be on drugs. I’d be watching his pupils.”

On his desk sits Dr Seuss and Joyce’s Ulysses, for lessons in how to play with words. He had them write a short passage about a storm without using the letter ‘A’, an exercise that frees up the unconscious. Twelve-year-old Michael Biczok wrote, “The storm willed revenge. Every time lightning struck it struck with solid power, with brute force. Clouds frowned down upon the beings below. Fury in solid form.”

At break time the younger ones clamour around him in front of the big photograph of Crosscut Saw, a long ridge of rock in the Australian Alps that he used for the setting of his Tomorrow series. The books are about teenagers who hide out in the bush and become guerilla fighters after Australia is invaded; Enid Blyton meets Alistair MacLean, on one level.

But they are also stories about kids wrestling with growing up – do they keep themselves safe, as their parents would have wished, or do they risk going into town to see if their families are alive? They decide they have to live their own lives now.

His friend and fellow children’s author, Paul Jennings, says of Marsden, “Something really lovely about him is that he doesn’t just write for teenagers but he genuinely has an affection for them and their problems.” He cites the way Marsden got him to run a joint writing workshop at a school in Port Arthur on the first anniversary of the massacre: “It was his idea; nobody paid.”

At day’s end Marsden is tired but cheerful, talking about how teaching kids always energises him: “Makes me feel like I’m doing something valuable.”

The kids have taken off to be fed by his female lieutenants, three young women who cook and care for the visitors. He lounges at his desk in the empty classroom, Coco luxuriating tummy-up on his lap as he runs his fingers through her coat, plucking out burrs.

He’s had a difficult year. There was a heart attack early on – he’s had to give up the chocolates he used to chomp as he wrote – and another health scare more recently; nothing with a nasty prognosis but enough to focus the mind on mortality.”I find it frightening,” he says.

Does he regret that he has no children? “Yeah, I really do. I haven’t given up completely but I think it’s unlikely to happen.” Families are special, he says a bit wistfully.

“This kid told me … he used to go and stay with his grandfather every holidays and he used to hate it, because his grandfather was grumpy and uncommunicative.” The grandfather attacked the boy for reading the first Tomorrow book, saying war was terrible. The boy dared him to read it.

“His grandfather became besotted with the stories and it’s transformed the whole relationship. My eyes were filling when he was telling me.”

What happened that Marsden didn’t settle down and have his own kids? He looks away and leans back. “Most recently I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me, so that’s pretty simple¤

“I’ve had two major relationships. One would have been six years, the other four years. They both sort of fizzled out.” Suddenly he’s impatient. “Oh, I don’t know. How do these things happen?”

But the little boy whose teacher wrote that he would do very well once he got over his daydreaming has achieved a lot. “He’s made a tremendous contribution,” says Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, manager of the Australian Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria.

She sees the Tomorrow series as modern classics: “All the responsibility and action is put back on to young people and he shows how intrepid and responsible and imaginative they can be. It’s a hallmark of his whole world view.”

She concedes, though, that “In some ways he doesn’t always give adults the opportunity to prove themselves; I think perhaps there are more good adults in the world than he makes it appear.”
Jennings takes a milder view. “People say his work’s subversive but I don’t think that’s the word. He has a dark sense of humour, but I don’t think he’s so much against adults as he is on the side of the kids. Someone’s gotta be.”

Maybe the benefits flow both ways. Marsden has a new book out, a fairy tale commissioned by Australia Post to provide pictures for a series of fantasy stamps. In his story, an old man needs healing water from deep in a forest, and it is kids who set out to find it for him.

Do they get it? “If anyone’s going to write a fairy story where they don’t find what they’re looking for and return empty-handed, it’s me,” he chuckles. “But no. They find it.”

Is he cured? “That’s left unresolved.”

First published in The Age.