John Marsden: On ‘The Art of Growing Up’

John Marsden has influenced generations of children and teenagers. He has published more than 40 books, including the beloved Tomorrow When the War Began seriesIn 2019 he released his manifesto on teaching and parenting, The Art of Growing Up.

He has sold over five million books and has won every major award in Australia for young people's fiction.

John founded two schools in Victoria, Candlebark and Alice Miller. The two schools enrolled 380 students in 2019.

John Marsden_The Garret


ASTRID: John Marsden, welcome to The Garret.

JOHN: Thanks Astrid.

ASTRID: It is a great pleasure to interview you, John. Now, it's no secret that you have influenced generations of young Australians, and I count myself among those students and young people influenced by your writing.

Okay, that's kind of unnerving but it's good in a lot of ways. I mean, some of the books I've written have been light entertainment, really, so I don't think they've had much impact on people's lives, but hopefully I gave them a laugh. But yeah, some of the others are more... getting into deeper topics.

ASTRID: I read Tomorrow, When the War Began when it came out in 1993. I still have my hard copy, I will never give that book away. And the comma in Tomorrow, When the War Began... I think sometimes that's where I started loving language. I spent hours trying to figure out how you could have a comma after tomorrow when it was implied that it happened in the past in the next bit, and it was just... it really blew my 13 year old mind. So great respect, John.

JOHN: Great, because I've had letters from people complaining that I've mixed the tense in the title and therefore it's ungrammatical, and the publishers should've picked it up, and the editors should have noticed that you can't have the future and the past in the one phrase.

ASTRID: I thought you had the answers to life and I read that book repeatedly.

Now that said, we are here to talk about The Art of Growing Up. It's just come out. There was a review in The Australian over the weekend calling it a 'manifesto'.

JOHN: Yeah, I was a bit disconcerted when I saw that word for the first time, but I suppose it is really. I mean, it's really an attempt to take 40 years of teaching and running workshops for students and to distill what I've learnt or what I've observed... And about parenting and about education over 40 years and put it all into one book, which is why it's fairly big book.

ASTRID: It is a big book. It's beautiful. In your preface to The Art of Growing Up you state, and I quote, 'This book is really about future adults, the next generation - the one for which the current adults are now responsible'. So why this book now?

JOHN: I think because I've become quite alarmed in the last decade or two about the state of the adolescent experience and the state of the childhood experience. It seems like there are more significant problems, more frequent problems, a greater prevalence of problems, and I do have grave fears about how some of these young people will successfully negotiate the adult world, which is a complex world of course, but it needn't be overwhelming. But many of them now seem to see it as a prospect from which they shrink in some horror.

ASTRID: That is very... that is a sad outlook. And I think it's one that all adults see in children and teenagers in their lives and around about.

I devoured the work over the weekend. But John, you took me to places I didn't expect and I'm glad you did. In the first paragraph, in the first paragraph of the first chapter, you actually bring up toxic parenting, psychopaths and sociopaths. And I don't know. You're a lovely gentleman John, I thought you'd wait to the middle of the book to get there.

JOHN: Well, we just use these words and phrases so glibly and so superficially. And what I want to do and what I've tried to do in my life really is unpack everything that I can. So when people talk about bullying in schools or psychopaths or serial killers, I want to know what's going on there and what caused that and what the context is for that. And what strategies or solutions can be found to help reduce the issues and problems that do at times seem overwhelming, and they seem overwhelming because we don't think about them enough and we don't talk about them enough, everything's just kind of people shouting slogans at each other. There's a lot of slogans going on and that doesn't help us at all.

ASTRID: When people write non-fiction and they take on big topics as you have they don't always give answers. They don't always give practical steps on how you can even start to address the problem. And The Art of Growing Up does that. You have specific suggestions from people's individual lives to how schools and parents can operate to... you know, policy lessons could be drawn from this as well, policy and funding lessons.

I guess my question is you are very well loved in Australia and you are a public figure, but are you expecting any kind of backlash?

JOHN: Oh yeah. People will be angry. And I know that from being a school principal that there are parents who will respond thoughtfully when you raise issues that have caused difficulties with their children, and there are parents who will respond very angrily and aggressively and just denounce any criticism of their child or any suggestion that their child has acted poorly. And dealing with the first group is infinitely more productive and worthwhile, because you know that there'll be quick progress with their child's problems and that the problems may be resolved almost within days. But the other group, the problems take years and often there's no resolution. So I'll say to the teachers, 'look you just have to be so patient. And this is going to be a long term project'. And we have to remember the effect of water dripping on stone that eventually it does cause a change and has an impact, but it won't cause a miraculous change. And so where we've had students at the schools with whom I would say we've failed - for want of a better word, but that's again a word that needs to be unpacked - but where we've had situations that haven't worked out particularly well, it's always because the parents are working to a different agenda and we can't find common ground to sort of find strategies to move forwards.

ASTRID: I like the phrase that you just mentioned, you know, we need to unpack our language better. I have lots of questions for you about the way you address language and tackle language in this book.

Before I go there, you know, there's an old saying the first person to mention Hitler loses the argument. You shocked me once again John by asking me to consider the childhoods of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. And then you call out the parenting styles of their parents. I love almost everything that you've written John but that almost felt like a really long bow to draw. And I guess I wanted to ask about your research for this book. You have plenty of research - there's lots of work cited there are lots of footnotes. What did it feel like blaming Hitler on his parents?

JOHN: Well, there's to be a cause for someone to behave in the way Hitler did. It doesn't just come out of nowhere. You're not born as a genocidal maniac. There's got to be an origin to that. And yes, I have talked about the parents and I've read the biographies of these people, in some cases a number of biographies, but I also say in the book that you've got to go back through many generations, because this stuff doesn't just happen with one - suddenly, spontaneously with one - generation, there'll be a pattern, which you can trace back as far as a family tree will let you go.

And I know that's true in my family. I can go right back to my great great great great uncle, who was a notorious... notoriously severe and judgmental and harsh, was known as the 'flogging parson' or the 'hanging person', whichever you prefer, because he was a magistrate as well as a church minister. And he was notorious for sentencing... Well, they used to joke about it, sentencing people to death on a Friday, giving them communion on this on the Sunday and hanging them on the Monday. And so there is that long history of aggressive and authoritarian parenting, which happens in a number of families not just mine. So yeah, it's something that can only be changed if people develop a greater awareness, a greater consciousness, a greater knowledge and understanding, and a greater thoughtfulness. And that doesn't happen easily. That's something that needs to be worked on over time, and with the right teachers and the right mentors the right elders it can happen, but more often than not it doesn't.

ASTRID: It is something that needs time, and it also needs everybody of all ages and positions in society to talk about, and you mentioned that in The Art of Growing Up. You say, you know, we are not allowed to criticise someone's parenting in this day and age, we are just simply not allowed. And yet you make the case for us to be able to do that.

JOHN: Yeah, it's a very touchy subject and I totally understand that. I mean, parenting is such a visceral thing and such an emotive thing and something that goes way back to primal times. But nonetheless, the more we can be thoughtful about it and try to keep things in perspective, the more chances we have of being effective.

I think one of the things that was important for me or powerful for me was going to prisons and doing workshops, which I did quite a lot. And gradually becoming aware that the prison population consisted of people who were desperately unhappy, and could be called broken people, I think, without being too melodramatic. And I started to read about that and think about it, and Alice Miller's comments about the extent of child abuse having been suffered by the people who later committed crimes was pretty revealing to me. And I started to become aware that convicts or criminals who are really people who should be seen as ill rather than evil. So the use of all these melodramatic adjectives like evil and satanic is very distracting. If we thought of them as they are, as people who are badly damaged, who are so ill that they're not able to control their actions or are not able to form healthy attitudes or good strong values, then we would treat criminals very differently, and we would have a completely different structure and system for that. But instead, we just continue to use those sort of slogans like lock them up, throw away the key, hang them, castrate them, whip them... All those kind of slogans that have echoed down through the generations, and although they get modified a little, and they've been muted a little in some situations they're still very popular.

ASTRID: They are indeed. I actually enjoyed the discussion you had about the language surrounding how we refer to children, including the use of the word innocent and pure, because while on the other end of the scale from evil and satanic, it equally causes problems.

JOHN: Yeah, and it's completely misconstruing what childhood is like and what children are like. They have times when they behave in ways that we call innocent and pure. But so do adults. And they also have times when they behave in ways that we call bad, or naughty or nasty. So, they can be greedy, dishonest, selfish, cruel. All those things, just as they can be loving and generous and kind and helpful, and imaginative and so on. But that's true for every age group in a general sense. And so the construction of childhood as a time of innocence and purity is not helpful to children, because when they start acting in ways that are not innocent or pure we get furious because they're violating our concept as to what they should be like. They're not violating the reality of what they're like, they're just treading on our fond delusions.

And it also means that when you get to the end of childhood i.e. puberty that will be a fall from grace, because you can't get better than pure and sweet and innocent and cute and lovely and all those words. So whatever comes after that has got to be downhill. And so yeah, we go right ahead and we construe adolescence as a time of stress and disturbed behaviour and delinquent behaviour and criminal behaviour and vandalism and graffiti and drugs and unemployable young people and illiterate young people and lazy young people and so on. We're as fond of those phrases and slogans as we are of the innocent and pure children, and it's completely unhelpful to both groups.

ASTRID: Oh, it is. We're in some ways setting up children to fail. Now John, one of the reasons that I wanted to interview you is because you are a master of language. And you made me laugh. Despite The Art of Growing Up being an incredibly serious work about serious concepts and issues in the way we structure our society today, bits of The Art of Growing Up were humorous. And I'm going to read you another quote, which made me laugh out loud. You are describing children who are overindulged by their parents and not disciplined by their parents, and you write that these children are, quote, 'rather like a young guru in a cult manipulating the credulous members of their community'.

JOHN: Yep, that happens.

ASTRID: Only you could get away with that.

JOHN: I haven't got away with it yet, the book has only just come out.

ASTRID: As a writer, are you conscious of inserting humour or, you know, small moments of levity into your work? Is that something you think of?

JOHN: Not all that deliberately or consciously, it is just the way I am. I just can't stay serious for too long. But I am aware that you need humour as a kind of almost a device in almost every novel ever written. So, even if you're writing about something incredibly grim and full of despair, it will actually be a better read if it has moments of lightness or humour. So that sounds unlikely, but when you read books about things like the Holocaust or the genocide in Kampuchea then there are still moments where people laugh, and it's kind of refreshing to know that that still does happen. And somehow it's important for me as a human to know that that stuff does still happen.

But yeah, running a school you've got to have a sense of humour, or as a teacher you've got to have a sense of humour. I remember when I was teaching at a very conservative school and teaching primaries. And on my first day this little girl ran up to me and pointed to another girl and said, 'She just called me the F word'. And I took a gulp and thought good grief, how the hell am I meant to handle this? And I said, 'Well, what exactly did she say?' And she said, 'She told me I was an idiot'. And I said, 'Kid, go away and learn how to spell'... No I didn't say that. I wanted to say that because it's like if idiot is the F word then things aren't too bad. So, it's hard to keep a straight face sometimes when kids are rushing at you with these dire problems and you can't take them as seriously as the child would like you too sometimes.

ASTRID: Now talking about teachers and students in the classroom, you actually recount what you used to do in the classroom. And you write that being able to read while keeping an eye on the teacher was one of the best survival skills that you learned. I have to admit John, I was the kid in class who was reading, hiding behind a stack of books on my desk hoping desperately the teacher didn't see me. I was probably reading some of your books while I was doing this, along with Stephen King and Wilbur Smith, which probably I shouldn't have been reading. And I made bargains with my teachers, and I used to say as long as my marks don't drop and I'm educating myself by reading just let me sit here in silence.

JOHN: So it was an explicit agreement between you?

ASTRID: For my better teachers. This worked, I should say, in every subject apart from maths, where it was a terrible strategy and I have paid the price. But I wanted to tell you that personal story so you can talk to me about the chapter that you have written in The Art of Growing Up, which is basically a defence of literature, literary fiction for young adults.

JOHN: Yeah, when I was a child I did read my way through school, because the teachers were generally so boring and the content of the lessons was so boring that I needed an escape, otherwise I would have gone mad. So, I read heaps of books. But I mostly liked fiction, and adolescence was mainly thrillers like Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley and Alistair MacLean, and crime stories like Agatha Christie. But gradually I learned to appreciate other books, probably starting with Catcher In The Rye, which really opened up a new world to me.

And I suppose one of the things that's happened in recent decades is an attempt to reconstruct the way we understand literature and the way we define it and how we culturally view it. And I'm not terribly sympathetic with some of those ideas, but I do think there are statements we could make which are about literature, which are valid enough.And one of them is the literary texts or novels tend to be operating on a number of levels, which is fairly obvious, but unlike say a Hammond Innes book where the story is everything and there's no other layer of meaning, in literature you do get layers of meaning. You also get a kind of unawareness by the author that they don't know the truth, they are not the possessors of the infallible truth, and that they're not infallible as people. And so the books tend to be just an author searching for some kernel of truth, trying to get a little closer to some sort of truth, trying to find some understanding. And they often end in a kind of ambivalent or ambiguous or inconclusive way. And I'm fine with that, I don't have any problem with it at all. I have a big problem with a book that ends with a definitive statement about what we have to now believe for the rest of our lives. But I like these writers who just take you with them on that journey, because it's a kind of generous act on their behalf. And I find that very satisfying as a reader.

And I'd say of whatever wisdom of acquired in my life, probably I don't know, 80 percent of it has come from reading reading fiction.

ASTRID: Tell me about your reading speed.

JOHN: Well, I do read fast. Yeah there's a couple of very wanky pages in The Art of Growing Up where I'm trying to make a point about so-called gifted and talented children. And yeah, I was in Grade 6 tested by the assessors who came round from the department to every school. And they had these standardised tests, and we all had to sit there and we had to read this passage - a lot of passages, actually - and every few lines there'd be a group of words in brackets and we had to underline the correct word. We had three or four options, and underlining the correct ones showed that you were really reading the book and you were comprehending the context.

And so I finished the test pretty quickly, and sat back kind of looking around thinking well what do I do now. And one of the assessors came over and said, 'You do have to try to keep going until you've finished the whole thing'. And I said, 'Well, I have finished it'. And he said, 'But you've got to underline the word'. I said, 'Well, I have done that'. And he said, 'But you've got to pick the right word'. And I said, 'Yeah, well I've done that'. And he picked it up and started looking through it and his face kind of changed, and he went off to the other side of the room and talked urgently to the other assessor. And then they waited till the end of the test and then they interviewed me. And then I heard later they had to redesign the test, because I wasn't meant to have finished because I actually registered a speed of infinity, which is nice but a bit untrue. I don't have an infinite reading speed, but I do read quickly. It's a great asset in life I will say that.

ASTRID: It is indeed. How many books do you think you've read this year so far?

JOHN: I don't know. Probably not so many because I've been writing The Art of Growing Up. But what are we up to... July. Look, I don't know, probably 50 or so. But when I was a teenager I did have one week when school was very boring, as always, and I decided to count the number of books I could read in a week. And I think it was 27 from memory. And they were substantial books, I didn't let myself cheat by reading little novellas. They were all 200 pages or thereabouts, or more.

ASTRID: Excellent effort.

JOHN: Yeah, I just... I've just always managed that. But I better hastily add that I'm completely visually illiterate, and so show me show me a picture and I can barely tell you what it's meant to be a picture of. And I draw stick figures when I have to draw something myself. So yeah, I'm strong in one area but that's all. I've never been a good high jumper or badminton player or musician.

ASTRID: I think reading is a skill and should be celebrated as we celebrate all of our sporting and cultural achievements. Now, tell me, in The Art of Growing Up you mentioned that you have a resource library at your own home of about 500 books on writing that you've read or browsed. What have you learned? What's the best thing you've learnt from those books. I know of course you've written your own.

JOHN: I think probably Keith Johnson's books about status. They probably had the most direct impact on me. But a lot of those books about writing, I don't feel I'm learning much about my own writing, but what I am getting from them is activities I can do in English classes and workshops which are often terrific, and so that's been very helpful.

But what Keith Johnson taught me was... And he is one of those geniuses who can take what you already know in your unconscious and make it conscious. And you suddenly go, 'Of course! Yes, I've always sort of suspected that' or 'I've been vaguely aware of that'. But the more I explored it with him - and I've met him and did some workshops with him and so on, as well as read his books - the more I came to realise that status has such a powerful role in our lives. And yet we ignore it, in Australia especially, because we like to pretend that we're an egalitarian democratic society. As if.

And so understanding status helps you understand relationships and helps you navigate life much more effectively than if you don't understand it. I teach it quite didactically in schools now, where I'll start by asking them what determines status in Australia? And they'll throw up names, words and I'll put them on the whiteboard. And they'll say things like what you wear and where you live and what kind of car you drive and what your job is. But there's a couple of things they almost never mention, and one of them is your genetic origins, your racial background. Another is your gender, and another is your sexual orientation. And often... most of the time I'll have to nominate those myself and say, well you've left out a couple of important things here.

But the one that transcends everything really - and I make this point to them too - is personality. So if you're born on the wrong side of the tracks, and you're driving some old wreck that should have been condemned years ago, and if your job is one that's not highly regarded, all of that can still be overcome if you have a personality so attractive and so likeable and so generous and good humoured and good natured that people are drawn to you. And so I kind of make that point to them that that's in the end that's what matters most.

ASTRID: Tell me about the research that you did for The Art of Growing Up.

JOHN: Well, it's not like I sat down and thought I'm going to write this book and I'll start researching it. I've just read, like I said, so voluminously over my life, and I just drew from those books. But I also drew from my own experiences. And in taking writing workshops and giving talks in schools, I calculated eventually to my amazement that I visited nearly 3,000 schools.

ASTRID: My goodness.

JOHN: Yeah, it was pretty intense. I was doing up to three schools a day. But then other schools I'd stay there for six weeks and be the author in residence or whatever. And so that was very powerful for me in learning how schools function and what works and what doesn't work. And I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I could gauge a school's real tone within, I don't know, 30 seconds to three minutes I suppose. And one thing I remember at a school in a part of Melbourne that I better not name, but near Essendon Airport, was that the teachers and students would pass each other at lunchtime and recess and in between classes as they moved to the next classroom and their eyes would never meet. They would never look at each other, they would always look away. And I thought, 'Boy, this is unhealthy'. And it was it was a really unpleasant, difficult environment. So intangible things, almost invisible things like that can be very powerful in giving me indications about whether a school's succeeding or not in its mission.

ASTRID: And you give some great tips for parents looking for schools.

JOHN: Check the toilets, because if the toilets are smelly, covered with graffiti, full of garbage and not enough time to go around, then get out of there. Don't enrol your kids in the school like that.

ASTRID: Yeah, excellent to know. Now, who is your first reader? You publish so many books, but you know, once you have your draft, once you have your manuscript...

JOHN: The publisher. I don't let anyone else read it. I don't let anyone else read it while it's in progress, and I don't let anyone read it when it's finished except the publisher. I don't know why, it is just... I think I'm scared that if someone reacts negatively it might have too great an impact. So, if my brother in law, or the neighbour, or the person who sells me cinnamon doughnuts in the bakery reads it and says, 'Look, I hate chapter 3', or 'This book is junk' or 'Why did you write that? Why did you have that character?' I might be tempted to rewrite the thing, and that might not be a good idea. Or it might be.

ASTRID: So, when you're working with your editor, is the process different between your fiction and non-fiction books?

JOHN: No, not really. It's just constant interactions with not just one now but two or three editors. So, there'll be a publisher who's like a supervising editor, really, and then a line editor who checks the commas and the spelling and the repetitions and so on, and a general editor who takes the overview and says, 'Look, do you really need that character? Or can the character be made more three dimensional, because they seem a bit... They don't really come to life, they're not jumping out of the book'.

The New Zealand writer Janet Frame talked about how she wrote a book and sent it to one publisher, who wrote back and said, 'Look, to be honest it's not working but Chapter 8 is fantastic. If you would like to start again and use that as the basis for a novel I'd love to see it'. And she sent it to another publisher who wrote back and said, 'Look, I love the book but Chapter 8, get rid of that because it's rubbish, and if you do that then we'll publish it'. So, that's an idea of how widely variant the reactions can be and how unhelpful they can sometimes be.

I did find with one editor for a non-fiction book that the editor wanted me to incorporate her views and opinions in the book, which I had to resist. And that was hard to do because editors are powerful and they don't like to start a fight with them unnecessarily. But I did feel that it was my book, and I was the one who would be out there having to live or die on whether it... on what people thought of it. So I was the one who would have to cop the blame.

ASTRID: Now, you're on the promotion circuit, I guess we could call it, for The Art of Growing Up. You've done this before for over 40 books. A lot of writers find that hard.

JOHN: Yeah, I wouldn't say it's easy.

ASTRID: So how do you get through it? What lessons have you learned?

JOHN: What have I learned? That's a tough question. I mean, it's kind of weird because you're living in an unreal world for a week or more if you're doing a publicity tour. And if you're lucky you get upgraded to a nice suite at the hotel with quite luxurious accommodation, and you get picked up and driven everywhere to the point where you don't open a car door for yourself anymore, and then you get home and you find the dogs vomited on the carpet and...

ASTRID: Life intervenes.

JOHN: ...and no one's put the wheelie bins out and you're back to reality. But that's not really answering your question.

I suppose I've learned to be as honest as I can be, but to be careful as well. So especially with this book, The Art of Growing Up, I've been choosing my words very carefully when I talk about it, because I think if I choose the wrong words people listening on radio for example can easily say, 'What a load of crap, we don't have to listen to this garbage', which enables them to do something that people are very quick to do and that is evade the issues that you're asking them to confront or think about. So, the stress of doing the interviews for this book has been much more than for doing novels.

ASTRID: I can imagine. I read your preface twice, once obviously when I opened the book to read and then again at the end. And I did that because your preface is quite personal, and it sets the tone for the whole work, and I would like to quote you again in your preface for the third time.

You write, 'I am grateful to those who showed me kindness when I was a child. I have not found it easy to navigate childhood, adolescence and adulthood. But I've worked at it'. That's a really honest statement, and I think that anybody reading it will read it as such. But for all the thousands of people like me in Australia who pick up this book after reading, you know, 20 or 30 of your fiction books will really appreciate it. John, you helped me get through a lot of my adolescence through your fiction, and I really love being an adult who gets to talk about your work to my students.

JOHN: Wow, thank you. That's an amazing thing to hear.

ASTRID: You're most welcome. So, thank you very much for writing it. I am a teacher and I'm going to go make everybody read it now.

JOHN: Thanks Astrid.