John Marsden was born in Melbourne, Australia, the third of four children, in 1950. His first dim memories, however, are of the small Victorian country town of Kyneton to which his parents moved when John was two. In those days the iceman still delivered to families without refrigerators, cooking was done on a fuel stove, and no-one had television. John began school there and perhaps it was there that he acquired his liking for country living, a liking which has never left him.
In 1956 the family moved to Devonport on the green north coast of Tasmania. For four years John attended Devonport Primary School, where his interest in reading and writing first became marked. He developed into a prodigious reader, exhausting both the school library and the town library. An inspiring teacher in Grade 4 motivated John and a friend to produce a class newspaper, which gave him an early taste for publication. His first stories were imitations of his favourite authors, W. E. Johns, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, but another early role-model was the outstanding Tasmanian writer, Nan Chauncy, three-time winner of the Children’s Book Of the Year Award.
The family moved again in 1960, this time to Sydney where John was enrolled at The King’s School, Parramatta, for the remainder of his primary schooling and for all of his secondary years. The strictest – and the oldest – school in Australia, King’s was run on military lines: conservative values were rigidly enforced in a spartan all-boys boarding atmosphere. The rest of the Western world was embarking on a decade of drugs, free love and The Beatles, but at King’s, boys continued to salute their teachers, drill with rifles for hours every week, and stand to attention when speaking to prefects. John was among a very small group of boys who managed to graduate from school without a single military award or promotion, but he won a number of academic prizes, including one for a 40,000 word essay written for a competition in Year 11.
In 1969 John began an Arts/Law degree at the University of Sydney, but he soon abandoned this for a series of exotic jobs which included collecting blood, looking after a mortuary at nights, working on a sideshow, and guarding Australia’s oldest house from vandals. During these years he continued to read extensively, and to experiment with writing, but it was not until he was twenty-eight that he found a career which suited him – that of teaching. After successfully completing a course at Mitchell College Bathurst, he began work as an English teacher at All Saint’s College Bathurst.
From there John went to Geelong Grammar School where he became Head of English at the Timbertop campus. In nine years at Geelong Grammar he spent four years at Timbertop and five in Geelong. During a three-week vacation from school John wrote a short novel that he thought might be publishable. Giving it the imaginative title of ‘Diary‘ he sent it to six different publishers, all of whom rejected it, but a chance conversation with Melbourne bookseller, Albert Ullin, changed the book’s fate. Albert read it and gave it to a new Sydney publisher, Walter McVitty Books, who eventually made an offer for it. After some editorial work on the manuscript, it was published in 1987 with the new title So Much To Tell You.
So Much To Tell You was based on two true stories. Marina was an amalgam of two people, a mute girl of fourteen whom John had met in Sydney in 1970, and the Victorian woman Kay Nesbitt, whose face had been badly damaged by a shotgun blast. The book quickly attracted favourable attention, but no-one could have predicted the success in store for it, least of all the six publishers who had originally rejected it. So Much To Tell You won the 1988 Children’s Book Of the Year Award, the Allan Marshall Award, the KOALA Award and, in America, the Christopher Medal. It was also named as a ‘notable book’ by the US Library Association. It is one of Australia’s biggest selling novels ever and has now been published in sixteen different countries in eleven languages.
The early recognition of So Much To Tell You encouraged John to begin a new book, a comedy in the Australian larrikin tradition of Ginger Meggs and Lennie Lower, but written for contemporary teenagers. The Great Gatenby was published by Pan Macmillan and it was not long before teenagers began to respond to it, writing comments like ‘I loved your book… my only complaint is that people gave me weird looks when I laughed on the bus’. Many teenagers admitted that it was the first book they had read – ‘I don’t normally like reading, but…’ The Great Gatenby is now in its fourteenth printing.
John’s third book was very different again. It had its origins in many sources: a belief that Western society had lost its way, for instance, and a concern that a lack of ritual and ceremony had impoverished many lives; a respect for Koori and North American Indian cultures; a belief in the importance of storytelling, its mythic power and its ability to work on a number of levels simultaneously; a fear that young people were not being allowed to grow up and were being kept as children for too long. The powerful response of young people to The Journey – it is in its eleventh printing – has confirmed their ability to grapple with the most complex issues.
After The Journey came another change of pace with John’s first book for primary school readers. Staying Alive In Year 5 is as subversive as The Great Gatenby and The Journey but quite different in content. It began, according to John, in the shower – a useful place for inspiration. He wrote the first few pages while still dripping. Staying Alive in Year 5 is a book which has been one of his most successful and popular. It is now in its fourteenth printing.
By 1990, John was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle his teaching and writing careers, and it became obvious that one would have to give way. He took leave from teaching for a term and wrote his fifth book, Out Of Time, which was published the same year. It was a book which used discontinuous narrative to give a sense of lost and alienated people moving through a timeless landscape. In a long and thoughtful discussion of the book in the magazine Literature Base, the reviewer concluded, ‘Spending some time thinking about a well-written book like Out Of Time can extend our experience as humans’.
John returned to teaching for the remainder of the year, but then resigned to take up the offer of a residency at the Keesing Studio for Australian Writers, in Paris. After an exhilarating and inspiring six months there he came back to Australia for the launch of his new book, Letters From the Inside. A harrowing but realistic novel, Letters From the Inside was also based on a number of true stories: a newspaper account of a girl who found out when she was sixteen that her father had murdered her mother; a television interview with a girlfriend of a murderer; a conversation with a girl who had a violent brother; and John’s own experiences in a Tasmanian prison when arrested during a conservation demonstration.
The book was too strong for some – one Sydney reviewer called it ‘the most pernicious book I have ever read’ and commented that it made American Psycho look like a spotless lamb. Others differed – noted American author Robert Cormier wrote that it was ‘unforgettable… absolutely shattering’ and added that ‘John Marsden… is a major writer who deserves world-wide acclaim’. Many adults were unnerved by the book but young people loved it – one was moved to describe John as the ‘poet laureate of Australian teenagers’.
Letters From the Inside ran through five print runs in its first twelve months and became a set text for Year 12 English students in Victoria. In 1995 it was named as one of America’s outstanding teenage novels of the year, and was runner-up as Dutch Children’s Book of the Year. It later won the Grand Jury Prize as Austria’s favourite young person’s novel.
In 1992 John’s seventh novel, Take My Word For It, was published. In this, John returned to the dormitory world of his first book, So Much To Tell You. By taking another character from that book, Lisa, and telling her story, John was able to explore further the lives and worlds of all the girls in So Much To Tell You. Take My Word For It was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council for its Book Of the Year Award.
In 1993 came two more books, Looking For Trouble, an affectionate, lively book for upper primary readers that John still names as one of his favourites of his own books, and Everything I Know About Writing, a text for teachers and students. Everything I Know About Writing was described by the English Teachers’ Journal as ‘the most useful book on writing that we’ve seen for years’. It has enjoyed a steady success, has been reprinted three times, and has become particularly well known for its list of 500 writing topics, ranging from ‘describe your relationship with your mirror’ to ‘World War VIII’.
John’s next book was a landmark in Australian young people’s fiction. Tomorrow, When The War Began published by Pan Macmillan in 1993, was the first in a series which has smashed sales records and, more importantly, gripped the hearts and imaginations of its young readers. It has redefined the Australian teenage culture. In 1995 Tomorrow, When The War Began won the older readers’ sections of every state award judged by children and teenagers themselves. The prestigious British magazine Junior Bookshelf described Tomorrow, When The War Began and its sequel, The Dead Of The Night, thus: ‘In the first few chapters… my heart leapt up. Here was a story of a kind I much enjoyed but seldom find… the second volume ends in triumph and disaster, with a third book still to come. I can hardly wait… John Marsden is a fine storyteller; he is also a more than competent psychologist; and both of these skills are drawn upon to the limit in these moving and exciting books’.
The Dead Of The Night brought the same responses in Australia, winning the Talking Book Of the Year Award, and competing fiercely with Tomorrow, When The War Began for awards judged by the young. For many readers it broke the rule that the sequel is always inferior to the original – a Tasmanian student wrote, ‘I have read Tomorrow, When The War Began but that was nothing to the intensity of The Dead Of the Night.’
Such was the expectation for the third in the trilogy that 20,000 hardbacks were printed – an unprecedented print run, but still insufficient. Two more reprints were needed in the first three months of the book’s release. And again, reactions from readers were overwhelming. ‘I read The Third Day, The Frost over the holidays, it was so marvellous. I thought I needn’t read another book as long as I live. My other favourite books look pale, very pale, against your trilogy.’
The 1996 publication of Darkness, Be My Friend continued the story of the Tomorrow series. Led by Ellie and Homer, the teenagers returned to provide more sleepless nights and nail-biting suspense.
Two other releases by John around this time were in a ‘choose your own adventure’ format. The first title, Cool School, has been immensely popular, selling 30,000 copies in its first six months. The second, Creep Street, was published in 1996 to equal enthusiasm. Both Cool School and Creep Street are enjoyed by children everywhere, but in particular by reluctant readers, who love the humour, the choices, and the short chapters.
As well as Creep Street, John had three other books published in 1996. Checkers is a rarity in Australian publishing, a political novel for teenagers. It deals with the effect on a family of a father’s corrupt dealings with a state premier. ‘The Bookshow’ said it was ‘a terribly moving book… for anyone from ages fourteen to eighty-five.
As if this were not enough, John edited two books which were also released in 1996. This I Believe is a collection of a hundred essays by eminent Australians, in which they discuss the beliefs they hold and the values they’ve formed. And For Weddings and a Funeral is a collection of poems for special occasions – especially of course, weddings and funerals!
1997 was another big publishing year for John. March saw the release of Dear Miffy, a tough novel of a new underclass of Australian youth; the purposeless, the angry, the inarticulate. The book contained a certain amount of explicitly violent material and was attacked by many reviewers but John’s bravery was applauded by others. Certainly the teenagers weren’t complaining.
In October came the mind-blowing new addition to ‘the books that became the series, that became the legend’ – book five of the Tomorrow series, Burning For Revenge, the most action-packed and explosive book in the series so far. In July 1998 the Australian Booksellers Association named their annual Book Of the Year. In a field of nominees that included Peter Carey, Steve Biddulph, Tim Winton and Richard Flannagan, John won the award for Burning For Revenge. This is believed to be the first time that an author for young people has won a national open award anywhere in the world.
In the same month the hardcover edition of Tomorrow, When The War Began – the book that started it all – was re-released. For the first time the entire series was available in hardcover – fantastic news for collectors and the new fans drawn to the series every day.
In October 1998 the Tomorrow series grew to six books, with the release of The Night Is For Hunting. This book cemented John’s reputation as ‘the most popular author today in any literary field’ as described by The Australian.
Tomorrow, When The War Began has been called the most powerful novel for teenagers ever published in Australia. But in 1998 John Marsden wrote the most powerful non-fiction work ever made available for young men. Secret Men’s Business is subtitled Manhood: The Big Gig and sets out, in direct, honest language, the things every young man needs to know and the things young men aren’t being told. Secret Men’s Business is a groundbreaking work written specifically not for parents or teachers, but for young men themselves. The book was released to rave reviews nationwide.
In October of the following year Pan Macmillan published the final thrilling volume in the Tomorrow series, The Other Side Of Dawn. All details of the book, including the title, were kept secret until its release on October 1, and teenagers everywhere waited with bated breath for this critically acclaimed, action-packed series to conclude. The final hardcover volume broke all sales records for the series and was a fixture in bestseller lists all over the country for weeks. John was inundated with letters and emails from fans mourning the end of what is the most popular series for young adults ever written in Australia. Tomorrow, When The War Began has been reprinted 26 times in Australia and the series has helped push John’s worldwide sales towards the two-and-a-half million mark.
The year 2000 was another prolific year for John Marsden. July saw the simultaneous release of the paperback edition of The Other Side Of Dawn – the seventh and final volume in the Tomorrow series – and a new title, Marsden on Marsden. Subtitled `The Stories Behind John Marsden’s Bestselling Books‘, this is essential reading for any fan. It is a frank, behind-the-scenes account of what inspired John to write his books and provides a rare glimpse into the areas of his personal life which have influenced his writing and shaped his themes.
In November 2000, the novel Winter was released. This was John’s first novel since the bestselling and critically acclaimed Tomorrow series. An intense, moving and emotionally rich book, the character of Winter de Salis is perhaps the strongest and most unforgettable that John has ever written.
Meanwhile John has continued to achieve international success with his groundbreaking books for young people. In 2000 The Third Day, The Frost won the Buxtehude Bulle, a German award, which is among the world’s most coveted prizes for young people’s books. John flew to Germany to receive the award, from Germany’s Minister for Defence.
Tomorrow, When The War Began was chosen in Sweden as the book most likely to inspire teenagers to read and over 100,000 copies have been printed for free distribution to young Swedes.
Every year John wins a swag of local awards. In 1998 Burning For Revenge was named the Australian Booksellers’ Book of the Year, Tomorrow, When The War Began won the Bilby Award for Older Readers, The Dead Of The Night won the Secondary Division of the ACT COOL awards and The Night Is For Hunting was shortlisted for two Aurealis Awards. In 1999 The Dead Of the Night, The Third Day, The Frost and The Night Is For Hunting were shortlisted for the Victorian YABBA awards, Tomorrow, When The War Began won the CYBER award, and The Night Is For Hunting was shortlisted for the Australian Booksellers’ Book of the Year. In 2000 three of John’s books, including The Other Side Of Dawn, were shortlisted for the YABBA awards, The Dead Of The Night won the CYBER award, and The Night Is For Hunting was shortlisted for the ACT COOL awards and won the WAYBRA award for Older Readers; the third year in a row that John has won this award.
John Marsden is also an award-winning writer of children’s picture books including: the thought-provoking A Prayer for the 21st Century; a quirky collaboration with Rob Alexander Goodnight and Thanks for the Teeth; the CBC Picture Book of the Year, The Rabbits, illustrated by Shaun Tan; Millie, a warmly humorous picture book for the pre-schooler and the child learning to read with delightful pictures by the award-winning artist Sally Rippin and A Roomful of Magic.
In 2006 he started an alternative school, called Candlebark, in the Macedon Ranges, in which he is the school principal. Marsden has since reduced his writing to focus on teaching and running the school, but in 2014 he made an exception and saw published his first novel for adults: South Of Darkness.
So Much To Tell You (1987)
The Great Gatenby (1989)
Staying Alive In Year 5
Out Of Time (1990)
Letters From The Inside (1991)
Take My Word For It (1992)
Looking For Trouble (1993)
Everything I Know About Writing (1993)
Cool School (1996)
Creep Street (1996)
This I Believe (1996) (editor)
For Weddings and a Funeral (1996) (editor)
Dear Miffy (1997)
Secret Men’s Business (1998)
South Of Darkness (2014)
The Tomorrow Series
Tomorrow, When The War Began (1993)
The Dead Of The Night (1994)
The Third Day, The Frost (1995)
Darkness, Be My Friend (1996)
Burning For Revenge (1997)
The Night Is For Hunting (1998)
The Other Side Of Dawn (1999)
The Ellie Chronicles
Source: Pan Macmillan