Every year, Australian Writers’ Week brings authors from Down Under to China for a series of talks, readings, and workshops. Among this year’s guests is John Marsden, author of over 40 novels for children and young people. beijingkids talked to him about his life and work; watch out for our forthcoming interview with writer and illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft.
John Marsden was a teacher who took up writing because he saw that his teenage students weren’t interested in the fiction being offered to them. His first book, So Much to Tell You (1987), was an immediate bestseller, and he was already feted in Australia before his international breakthrough came with Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993). In this fast-paced thriller a group of teenagers go on a camping trip, but return to find their town has been invaded and their families captured. The novel spawned nine sequels and was adapted into a movie, released in 2010. When we spoke to him, this celebrated series was a natural place to start.
The landscapes and lifestyle in Tomorrow… are very powerfully evoked. Are they based on your own childhood?
Yes, to some extent. I grew up in rural areas until I was 10 years old, but all through my life I’ve kept in close touch with farming and the bush. I went to a city boarding school where most of the boys were from farms, so I heard many stories about their lives.
The teenagers in the story enjoy an enviable degree of freedom compared to most contemporary urban kids. How have your readers responded to that?
They seem to find it a pretty exciting idea. Lots of farm kids do live like this. At the age of 10 or 12 they might learn to drive tractors and other farm vehicles, muster sheep and round up cattle. It’s a shame that many adults treat young people as helpless. Such adults seem to have a completely false idea of what children and teenagers can achieve.
Ellie [the protagonist of the Tomorrow… series]is such a strong character. Was she inspired by anybody real?
Yes, a girl who I taught three times: when she was 11, when she was 15, and when she was 17. She lived on a farm, was a terrific writer, was highly intelligent, and had great strength of character. We are still friends today – she is now about 48 years old, with three children, and still a wonderful person.
I understand you also run a school. Tell us about it.
In my school we try to walk the line between high standards of work and behaviour, and a relaxed, good-natured, good-humoured atmosphere. We encourage the kids to take risks– they climb trees, ride bikes and ripstiks, have water fights, have stick wars. In class, we might make jokes and tell stories, but we also expect students to work hard. We believe that a classroom should not be a boring little building where children sit at desks all day. Our classroom is the world. We take students all over the place, to festivals, to museums, to galleries, to concerts, to the theatre, on hikes, on canoe trips, on ski trips, on bike camps… And we have as many interesting visitors as possible, to come and talk with the students. We want our students to have a trusting, positive, adventurous attitude to people, to the world, to life.
John Marsden will be speaking at three events in Beijing:
What We Talk About When We Talk About Young Adult Literature: John Marsden in Conversation with Yi Ping (翌平) (English & Chinese)
Thursday May 11, 7-9pm. Dongcheng No. 1 Library, 85 Jiaodaokou East St, Dongcheng District
John Marsden: A Life in Books (English)
Saturday May 13, 11am-12:30pm. The Bookworm, Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Rd, Chaoyang District
老书虫 ，朝阳区三里屯南街4号楼. RMB 50 (includes a drink), age 12+
John Marsden: Take care, take risks (English)
Saturday May 13, 2-3pm. The Hutong, 1 Jiudaowan Zhongxiang, Beixinqiao, Dongcheng District
北京融汇通文化传播有限公司，东城区北新桥九道湾中巷1号. RMB 50 (includes a drink)