John Marsden: 'Whatever bad feelings you have will change'
TOMORROW When the War Began author John Marsden took some time out to catch up with the Daily Mercury before travelling from Melbourne to Mackay for the Whitsunday Voices Youth Literature Festival, to be held from July 13-15.
Have you been to Mackay before?
I've been to Mackay quite a few times, visiting libraries and schools and sometimes as a tourist.
I was taken out to a sugar farm when I was there when they were just starting the burning off and it was spectacular.
It's almost apocalyptic with the smoke, it was very dramatic.
What have you been up to?
I started a second arts high school for kids interested in music, acting and writing.
The response has been fantastic.
When I was young, if anyone wanted to be a potter or musician or writer, their parents would say 'you need to get a proper job that will keep you fed'.
Nowadays the arts are a billion dollar industry in Australia and there are heaps of careers.
It's a viable career to aspire to.
Is that different to when you were growing up?
It was always assumed all creative people starve and live on the crusts of bread.
My parents pushed me to get a respectable job, so I did a law degree.
I chose law because I hated maths and science, so it didn't leave many options.
I got about halfway through law school.
What made you decide to quit law school?
It was pretty sudden.
I was sitting in the cafeteria one night and all the final year students were coming in for their evening classes and it was like this tidal wave of men in pinstripe, dark suits and I just thought 'I can't do this, I can't join that army'.
I went back once, to clean out my locker, and haven't been back since.
You had a bit of a hard time after that?
I was getting more and more depressed and I ended up getting admitted to a psychiatric hospital for six weeks.
It was good. It really caused me to reflect on my life and encouraged me to get a better understanding of what had caused me to reach such a poor state of health.
It was incredibly powerful; painful but helpful.
What advice would you give to people in the place you were in?
What I learned was you can't predict your moods or your feelings.
You might be feeling awful right now and when you feel awful you feel like you will be like that forever, you just don't know.
So it's important to keep in mind, whatever feelings you have at the moment may change, they probably will, in fact.
People assume the worst when they're depressed and they have this strong belief that life will never improve.
There are improvements, things go up and down and the up part might be just around the corner.
Do you still have those ups and downs?
Yes, less so than I used to but I do have them, for sure.
Do you get a lot of inspiration from that chapter of your life?
There are several books that I couldn't have written if I hadn't been in the hospital.
So Much to Tell You and Checkers are both about it.
Most people talk about psychiatry being a sort of dark science and they tell stories about an evil psychiatrist.
I found it completely opposite; I thought it was the most helpful thing I had ever experienced, partly because they took such a thoughtful approach to everything.
They didn't make hysterical or ill informed judgements.
They encouraged me to think carefully and deeply, thoughtfully, about anything that had happened or was happening and to try to tease out the truth, which is a slow process but it's stood me in good stead.
Do you think mental health is a bit of a taboo subject?
Yes, less so than it was but people are still reticent about admitting to mental health problems.
It's still perceived by some people as a weakness.
What gave you the idea for your Tomorrow When the War Began series?
Partly it was the feeling that teenagers were being grossly undervalued and people were giving them a really bad name, which the more I taught the more ridiculous that seemed.
Because pretty much all the teenagers I was working with were alert and alive and idealistic and excited about the possibilities life had to offer.
They had strong values and integrity.
I was like, 'where are these juvenile delinquent, drug-taking, unemployable illiterate youth criminals?'
Everyone has the desire to control their surroundings and their world and adolescents threaten that because they question the power of adults and constantly confront them and challenge them.
Adults find that very uncomfortable.
I think one of the ways they respond to that is to demonise the people doing it.
How did you come up with your characters for the Tomorrow When the War Began series?
Ellie was based on a girl I taught and some of the others had similar resemblances to people I taught.
That's just a starting point that might give me a name and an image and a few character traits.
Mostly the character starts to take on their own life and become their own person.
It's quite an intriguing process, it's quite fun actually, it's one of the best things about writing.
How do you develop those characters?
It comes mostly from capturing their voices; giving someone a voice that's unique to them and the reader can believe in it; the way they talk to each other or their internal voice, their thought processes.
When you've got someone's voice you've got their personality.
The voice reveals everything - that's my most useful way of developing characters and making them as real as possible.
How did you come up with the story?
I guess just from my own daydreams or fantasies.
When I used to go on hikes with my friends we would sometimes be in isolated places for a few days and we'd joke about what might be happening in the outside world.
Do you think it could ever happen here?
I wouldn't rule it out; I mean I don't want to make anyone paranoid.
Australia's had an incredibly fortunate run.
The fact we're an island, we've had this charmed life... hopefully that will continue and I'm sure it will.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I think as a kid you have ambitions that you don't necessarily believe will be fulfilled.
I wanted to be Prime Minister, I wanted to play cricket for Australia and I wanted to be an author.
Who inspired you to start writing?
My Grade 4 teacher, Mrs Scott.
She was an incredibly kind and supportive and positive person.
One of the things that made a big difference to me was when a friend and I starting writing for the class newspaper.
We got to publish our stories; it was quite radical for the 50s.
I think that was part of the attraction of being an author, that I could make a mark in that field.
I knew at some level I wasn't going to play cricket for Australia because I couldn't even catch a ball and running the length of a pitch was a challenge for me.
Some years ago I went back to my old primary school in Tasmania to talk to the Grade 6 students.
The principal surprised me with Mrs Scott, who was 90 years of age.
I talked to her for a long time and I thought 'yeah I can see why you were such an influential teacher'.
Do you think teenagers are still reading?
Reading is still very popular and I think it's making a comeback if anything, but it does face extraordinary competition.
When movies came out people thought that would be the death of reading and then television came out and now computers and play stations and iPads, etc.
Reading is still doing fairly well; there is definitely a decline in the number of books though.
You have the word painter approach...
It's where you pour out thousands of words and fix them up later, I find it much less inhibiting (than editing as you go).
I was trying to work out why I could never finish a book, because I was spending so much time editing.
What advice has helped you throughout your career?
The advice from P. G. Wodehouse: Every sentence should have entertainment value, it's pitching things a little bit high but I reinterpreted that as every sentence must have energy.
Did you know?
Before becoming an author, John Marsden dabbled in a variety of different odd jobs including working at the meatworks in Rockhampton.