John Marsden is an Australian writer and teacher. He has been writing YA literature for three decades and has made an indelible mark on generations of readers and writers in Australia.
John's first book, So Much to Tell You, was published in 1987. Since then, he has written or edited over 40 books and has sold over 5 million books throughout the world. He is best known for the Tomorrow Series, which began with Tomorrow, When the War Began, in 1993. Tomorrow, When the War Began, was adapted into a film in 2010 and a TV series in 2016.
His awards include (and are no way limited to) Young Adult Book Award and Victorian Premier's Literary Award for So Much To Tell You in 1988; Grand Jury Prize for Australia's favourite young person's novel 1996 for Letters from the Inside and listed by the American Library Association as one of the Best Books for Young Adults 1995; and the Australian Multicultural Children's Book Award in 1994 and the Young Australian Best Book Award in 1995 for Tomorrow, When the War Began.
- John read Enid Blyton, Geoffrey Trease, Nan Chauncy as a child.
- He then read Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Peter O’Donnell and Ian Fleming as a young adult.
- Catcher in the Rye by D. Salinger was the book that most influenced him.
- John believes there is integrity in William Makepeace Thackeray or Charles Dickens or Jane Austen that is hard to find in contemporary fiction, and that Emma by Austen is an ‘extraordinary, brilliantly written novel’.
- John quoted S. Byatt… Who said ‘You can’t speak your own language properly if you don’t have a store house of singing things in your mind’.
- It was George Orwell who wrote in Politics and the English Language, ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’.
- John admires Dr Seuss and James Joyce for their ability to break the rules and make the English language do whatever they wanted, and Ursula Le Guin and K. Rowling for the worlds they create.
- John thought the writing in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore was brave.
- John is the patron of Express Media.
Nicolas Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. John Marsden has dominated the book world for years. His Tomorrow Series is a seminal work of young adult fiction, as widely read today as it was when first published in 1993. It is my great pleasure to welcome John Marsden to The Garret.
John Marsden: Thanks Nic.
Nic: Over the past few days I’ve spoken to a number of people who grew up reading your books, and one memory seemed to crop up over again, and that is, they kept referring to going to the school libraries and picking up copies of your books with heavily dog eared pages on the dirty bits. It must make you very proud.
John: (Laughs). Well the dirty bits – I assume you mean sex scenes – and there aren’t many of those actually, in the books, but, people do emphasise them. So, I don’t know how many thousands of pages I’ve written, but probably only 15 of those would have sexually explicit scenes in them. So, the total percentage of them is pretty slight.
Nic: They are probably the pages that get you the copyright agency royalties for photocopied pages.
John: (Laughs). Yeah, maybe that’s right. I’ve often said to parents of boys who complain that their boys won’t read, I’ve said to them, ‘Well, give them something explicit about sex and they’ll read that’.
John: But they want it both ways. They want them to read but they don’t want them to read the stuff that the boys want to read. So, there’s a real problem there.
Nic: (Laughs). Absolutely, that’s right. Okay, let’s go right back. What or who were you reading when you were ten, and then when you were twenty? Who influenced you as a reader?
John: Well, we could spend a whole time just listing names really, because I read so much. I was absolutely an avid reader, a compulsive reader, an obsessive reader, to the point where I look back and I realise it was quite unhealthy. Well, it was a survival technique. The real world I could have lived in was very ugly and pretty threatening and pretty dark. So, I lived in a world of books, and they got me through. So, I’m grateful to them but, I think for the sake of my mental health, that was necessary but it’s probably not an ideal childhood.
So, I read Enid Blyton, and loved them. I read Geoffrey Trease who wrote more highbrow books, but again, very English for children. I read a lot of Nan Chauncy, or everything Nan Chauncy wrote, because she lived in Tasmania and I lived in Tasmania. And, nothing famous ever happened in Tasmania except that there was an author living down the road. And she won a lot of awards and was a, well, a name. Deservedly so. So, I was big fan of hers.
Generally, I liked pretty simplistic stories that were adventurous. Anything ambitious or challenging I tended to avoid. So there were just a whole range of conventional boarding school stories, were kids beating robbers and thieves type stories. When I ran out of books for boys I read my sister’s books, and I think that gave me a bit of a grounding in the way girls think and what interests them, which was to prove handy later perhaps.
By twenty I’d changed, as we do. I’d managed to jump that gap between children’s fiction and adult fiction, which many people failed to jump and so, they gave up reading. I think that was a very common experience for people my age, but I bridged that gap by reading stuff that was ostensibly written for adults but which I think looking back was really quite adolescent. And they were authors like John Buchan, to back a few generations, but more recently Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Peter O’Donnell. They were sort of ripping yarns, Ian Fleming of course.
Nic: It is. It’s almost like grown up Enid Blyton, isn’t it really?
John: Yeah, and the sex scenes were terrible or non-existent because the writers, I’d say, probably have never had sex or if they had, they couldn’t write about it. But, the tension was great and the sense of one man battling injustice and defeating the world was always attractive. But I also came across a few books that were more, highbrow again, to use that word. They were really powerful for me, and the most powerful was Catcher in the Rye.
Nic: Of course.
John: Which, I guess, from the opening words, just absolutely connected with me. So, the voice of the character was so powerful and so contemporary, and so it felt like me – it could’ve been me talking – I just read it with my hair standing on end thinking, ‘I didn’t know you were allowed to write like this’. It was a revolutionary book for me.
Nic: It was a completely revolutionary book. What about today? What do you read today? What sort of…
John: Oh, everything. Yeah, mostly fiction still. It depends on the mood I’m in, but I read a lot of contemporary stuff, but there’s something about the classics that keeps pulling me back. I think, for one of a better word, there’s a kind of integrity that I’m not sure that a lot of contemporary fiction has, and that integrity seems to come from the fact that these were writers who were setting out to write the best book that they could possibly write, with no sense of commercial value. I don’t know if it’s naïve on my part to imagine that, but it’s the feeling I get when I read Thackeray or Dickens or Austen.
Nic: Yeah, I think Dickens was very commercially minded.
John: Probably, yeah, yeah, but of course he was writing a serial.
Nic: That’s right. He did very nicely too.
John: There was something, kind of, about those that I find very attractive, but I still tend to read mostly the Anglo canon, or European books. I’ve read some books from other continents, but not as many as I should of.
Nic: Do you think that might be because, in my experience we’ve become so familiar with the Western style of storytelling that storytelling in other cultures can be hard to get into, hard to understand? Certainly, not natural to our way of understanding stories.
John: Yeah I had a completely Anglo upbringing and then I grew up in a very Anglo culture, and my father was a bank manager, you can’t get much more middle class Anglo than that. And, we certainly, through school, never encountered any writer from Africa or South America or Asia. We read class novels as class sets in English, we read people like Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare of course, and dead white authors mostly.
I remember our English teacher as he introduced Emma by Jane Austen, saying it was the only perfect novel in the English language, which was a good line, because it wetted my appetite, but at the time I read it and didn’t appreciate it, but when I read it at a later age I thought, ‘Yeah, it is an extraordinarily, brilliantly written novel’.
Nic: One thing I’ve noticed about your books is that the physical act of writing plays a part in several of your stories. The way that Tomorrow, When the War Began begins, So Much to Tell You in diary form, Letters From the Inside … why include the physical act of writing as a part of the story rather than just relying on the story itself so many times. Was it deliberate?
John: Yeah. I think probably wrongly, I imagine that you have to have an excuse for the character writing this stuff down, there’s got to be some reason for them to do it. So, I don’t know where that comes from. There’s no reason really why you can’t just weigh in to start off the story by not having to justify it.
Nic: Yeah, most books do.
John: They do. I felt with Tomorrow, When the War Began when she says, ‘I wrote this down because we wanted to be remembered’. I felt that was a very powerful reason for telling a story, and a very good motivation for her to do that writing, because they wanted to know that they wouldn’t be just wiped out in some battle and forgotten forever. They wanted the posterity that writing offers, that the written word offers.
Nic: There’s a picture of, based in reality I guess, often of writers as lonely souls, and I know that you felt alone and isolated in your younger days and suffered from depression. Did that lead you to expressing your thoughts through writing? Was there a direct connection in that way?
John: Well, not in the therapeutic sense. I’ve never found writing to be therapeutic. But I think one of the attractions of writing for me is that it is a solitary occupation, and it’s something that has sustained me during periods of isolation. So, rather than watch TV or whatever, I kind of turned to writing, as I turned to reading. It’s again, I think, a part of being a different world, an imaginary world, where things are somehow much more attractive, and when I’m writing they are under my control which is attractive too in its own way. Even though I’m not sure what’s going to happen next in reality, I’m still consciously and unconsciously controlling the characters and the events in their own ways. And, of course, in the real world you can’t do that at all, people refuse to accept that level of benevolent dictatorship that I like to image I would practice if given the chance.
Nic: (Laughs). You’ve long been both an educator and a writer, so you know, you’ve studied teaching and you run your own school now. Do you see them as having a similar role? Have you treated your practice of them in similar ways, or, how do you see them as different, if you do?
John: No, they’re really pretty separate. I mean, in teaching English I do teach writing techniques and various skills, and so that’s quite didactic usually; but, in running the schools, that’s pretty much divorce from writing books. It’s just a different world that I inhabit and a different job that I do. Satisfying in its own way, and frustrating too, like writing. There is no obvious overlap to me.
Nic: How do think, and again I’m asking you as an educator as well as a writer, how do you go about, or how do you see the act of creating storytellers in young people, the practice of creating storytellers, of urging stories to come out of young people? How do you go about doing that?
John: Well it’s not difficult because they are, everyone’s a storyteller. And the thing is to learn the techniques for putting those stories on paper and making them accessible and attractive to potential readers, but, as I keep reminding students of all ages, everybody’s a storyteller, and we swap stories all day long except we call it conversation.
So, typically, someone will arrive home and they’ll say ‘Oh my god I’ve had the worse day!’ and they’ll tell you a story, and then that prompts a memory within you and you weigh in with a story of your own. So, if they’ve had a bad time with the neighbour’s dog barking all day, then you’ll weigh in with a story about the cockatoos and how they kept you, or how they woke you up at 4am or 5am, and then someone else will have a story about a rooster next door and it just drives them crazy. And so, we are walking juke boxes or data banks of stories, and we share them at every opportunity. But, sometimes those stories are lost in our memory somewhere, and it takes, like the press of the right button on a juke box to retrieve them. So, if someone tells you of a story about a goldfish, it might remind you of a story about a guinea pig. Or if someone tells you a story about a car accident, it might remind you of a story about a plane accident, and so it goes on. So, that daily exchange of stories which has been, no doubt part of humanity since time immemorial, is just instinctive and natural for us. But, to then take those stories, to weave them in with other stories and to put them down on paper, if that’s your chosen medium, and to do so in a way that, like I said, is attractive and accessible, that’s kind of where the technique comes in.
Nic: I want to ask you some points on, your ideas about writing and the craft of writing based on your book Everything I Know About Writing, which I reread, took off my shelf and reread for the first time in several years in the last couple of weeks. And the first thing you talk about is writers needing to be collectors of language. I found I loved reading about that. Can you relate what you mean? Expand on that a little bit.
John: Yeah, I think I quoted A.S Byatt…
Nic: You did yeah.
John: …Who said that to be a writer you have to have a collection or a storehouse of singing things in your mind. And, I take that to mean that you have to gradually absorb beautiful fragments of language from everywhere and anywhere. And, that by doing so you start to appreciate the potential of language and the richness that language can offer. So, there’s that. There’s just accumulating that collection.
There’s also becoming aware of what works and what doesn’t, so that you become sensitive to a clumsy sentence or an ugly sentence or a confusing sentence, and start to think about how it could be reworded so that it’s no longer clumsy or confusing or ugly.
And, it’s also picking up on just the huge variety of words available to us in the English language, which is true of the English language in many ways but in some ways it’s a very limited language. So, for example I don’t think there are many words for emotions in the English language, and I suspect that’s because the British race is not a particularly expressive one when it comes to emotions. And when you hear British people talking it’s like, it’s almost painful to listen to. Sometimes when they try to communicate feelings of intensity…
Nic: It’s like listening to the Queen or a member of the Royal Family backstage of a royal command performance when they’re talking to all the performers and they’re just so, it is, it’s just so excruciating.
John: Yes, yes it’s like, ‘That was delightful yes, yes. Thank you so much!’ But, there’s this, probably apocryphal story that Eskimos have 60 different words for snow, but in English you’d be struggling to list more than 10 or 20 words for feelings. You can do it, but you have to work damn hard to get to that number. Same with colours. There are very few words for colours in English. And, it’s interesting watching paint companies like Dulux and Taubmans coming up with poetic names for all the different shades of grey or green or white or blue or whatever colours they are. But, I suspect again because Britain is almost a mono-coloured country for a large part of the year, that’s why there’s not a lot of words for colours in English.
Nic: Yes. Whoever thought that charcoal was an enticing description for paint? ‘Oh, I’ve got a wall, it’s charcoal!’
John: Yeah. That doesn’t quite do it does it?
Nic: What do you mean when you also talk about the need to be a stingy writer?
John: Oh, to just cut back all the time. And, the best advice I ever read about writing came from, I think Graham Greene, or it might have been George Orwell, who said, ‘If you can cut a word out, cut it out’. And, most of my editing is that.
But, the thing about language that I really want to convey to people in workshops is a lesson which is the complete antithesis of everything they’re taught at school, and everything they are taught by their parents. And, the overriding theme of our acquisition of language, from our elders, is that there are rules in English which you must follow and if you don’t follow them you get red crosses all over your work, you’ll get an F in English, your parents will tell you, ‘You don’t speak like that’, or ‘You don’t say it that way’’ or ‘That’s not the right word’.
And, the truth about English is the complete opposite. It’s a language with no rules, just conventions, which it is convenient to follow most of the time, but you need to have the ability to ignore those conventions and to tear up the so-called rule book when it suits you, and to see yourself not as some kind of prisoner of language, but as a bully of language. A person who can make language do whatever you damn well want it to do.
So, you need to understand that you are completely in charge when it comes to English. You can use verbs as adjectives, you can string 16 adjectives together in one long list, you can ignore all punctuation if it suits you to do so. And, that’s what I guess we call, I guess loosely, poetic license; which, I remember our grade five teacher telling us about at Devonport Primary school and I got very excited when she told us about it because it seemed such a revolutionary and subversive idea. And, I actually thought at the time that you could get one these things from some government department, that if you found the right office they’d issue you with a laminated card.
Nic: (Laughs). Poetic License.
John: Yeah, with your photo and name and date of birth.
Nic: That’d be great.
John: Yeah, permission to use the language poetically. I realised over time that we all have a poetic license, but unfortunately we’re not told about it, and so most people use language in a constipated kind of way, because they’re scared to do it any other way. But, when you’ve got writers as diverse as Doctor Seuss and James Joyce, they have one thing in common, and that is that they just made the language do whatever they wanted. They made it perform tricks if that suited their agenda.
Nic: The thing that most excited me about Everything I Know About Writing is that you discuss the issue of status at stages. And, to me, as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I consider status to be just about the most important thing in the development of character and the development of conflict. But, you rarely see it written about or discussed. I’m wondering, how important do you think it is, an understanding of status for a writer in developing character and particularly in conflict between characters?
John: Yeah, it’s everything. Yeah, if you don’t know the status of your characters, then you don’t know your characters very well and you’ll find it very difficult to achieve tension and power in the writing, because all plot comes from change of status, and so, if you establish the status of the characters early then you’ve got more potential to play around with those statuses and change them as suits you. And, in doing so you can create comedy, you can create tragedy, you can create drama; because drama is, traditionally, the clash of people of high status. It’s very rare to find a book where we have a high status person defeating a low status person or vice versa, and that’s dramatic, that’s easily tragic. So, I remember watching some traditional Japanese theatre, I can’t remember what the name is for that…
Nic: The Noh theatre?
John: No, the other one. Starts with K I think.
Nic: Kabuki? Kabuki theatre?
John: Yeah, and I didn’t understand Japanese and it was a very long play, but it was an absolutely riveting play because I understood perfectly what was happening. There was a low-status ninja, a low-status samurai sorry, who was very noble and a person of great integrity, battling against a high status evil samurai. And, it was, I stayed glued to my seat because I wanted to know who would win. And, sadly it was the noble, poor samurai who was defeated but, I was satisfied when I left the theatre because I’d seen a great theatrical performance, and I understood the subtleties of the plot.
Nic: I’ve always thought that Charlie Chaplin understood status and the importance of it so well. When, a poor sympathetic character falls over in the street then it’s a tragedy and we cry, but when the rich restaurant owner that’s treating it’s waiters like, you know, like crap, trips over a banana peel on the kitchen floor and falls, we laugh because it’s comedy. It’s almost the difference between comedy and tragedy is having things happen to high status people rather than low-status people.
John: Yeah, we love seeing high-status people brought lower, but we don’t like seeing low-status people brought lower, that’s very uncomfortable for us. Well, there are writers who have written novels where that happens and I admire them for doing it, because I think it’s pretty tough. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore was a novel like and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a brave thing to do’.
Nic: It’s hard to pull off. Ideas in fiction are principally formed either from observation, experience or imagination, and obviously often a combination of those three. Have you relied on one more than the other in your writings?
John: No, I perhaps experience a little more than, experience and observation a little more than imagination, but that’s because I generally like writing realistic fiction. I don’t think I’d have the mental capacity to create a world like Ursula Le Guin can do, or J.K Rowling can do, and to people it in the way they’re so brilliant at doing. So, I try to make my books as life like as possible because I want readers to identify strongly with the characters and the situations, and to think, ‘Oh, this could be me or my neighbour or my cousin or the kid sitting next to me in class’. So, I do draw pretty heavily on stories I’m told, or stories I’ve read about or stories I see, and to some extent on my own life, but less so.
Nic: Just to discuss very briefly, say Tomorrow, When the War Began. The teenagers don’t discover bodies of parents, relatives, family, friends when they come back. Was that because of… I’m trying to imagine today a writer of young adult fiction, this sort of genre, and particularly if it’s going to be on television, probably one of the first things they would do is find, you know? Why did you do that? Was it because of sensibilities or was there another reason?
John: No, the opposite, really. I thought it was more horrifying that way, because if you see the bodies you know what’s happened and the evidence is right there in front of you, and so you’ve got the, you’ve got to deal with it, but you at least know. When someone goes missing, and this is true in real life as well, it’s so much more awful because you just don’t know. And, there’s this terrible limbo that you’re living in. But, I know there’s nothing more poignant for children that go missing for example, and 30 years later their parents are still grieving and anguished, and aren’t able to really move forward because there’s no closure, as they say. That’s the current, fashionable word for what happens. But there is a certain comfort in finding out the truth about what happens, even though that truth might be almost unbearable. It’s even more unbearable I think to not know.
Nic: Has your approach to the writing process changed in any way over the years?
John: I don’t think so. I think, not dramatically. I think it changed when I wrote my first novel which was published, and the story behind that is that I’d been attempting to write for many years and, from the age of I don’t know, 18, I wanted to be an author, but, I was 37 I think before I finished a book that was publishable. And, in those intervening years, the problem I had was that I would start a story and be excited about it. I’d write, maybe four pages, I’d go to bed, I’d wake up, I’d pick up the story, I’d start editing the story and an hour and a half later, having done this intensive editing of those four pages, I would then try to continue the story. But, by then my energy would be starting to ebb a little, and the adrenaline wouldn’t be pumping as much, so I’d only write a page and a half. Then, the next day I’d pick up the five and a half pages and start editing again, right from the first sentence. And, this process was so sapping that I never finished anything.
And, I finally got to this moment of crisis in my life when I thought, ‘What the hell is stopping me from writing a book? I want to write a book. I think I can write a book. I read books by other people that I feel are really pretty lousy sometimes, and I think ‘God, I could do better than that!’ So why can’t I?’ And, I thought, ‘The problem is I’m wasting so much time editing I’m not getting anything finished’. And, I thought, ‘Okay, being a person of extremes, I’ll go to the other extreme and I’ll write a complete book without reading back a single paragraph, without editing a word, and I’ll just finish the bloody thing, and then worry about whether it’s any good or not’.
So, I sat down and in three weeks I wrote So Much to Tell You. I broke my own rule to the extent that each morning I would read back the paragraph, the last paragraph from the night before to find out where I was up to and to get back into the mood of the story. But, apart from that I didn’t deviate from that rule once. So, when I came to actually read the book I could hardly remember what was in it. It was all written in a kind of white hot state. So, it was quite extraordinary to read it, turning the pages thinking ‘God, I hope she’s going to be okay here, what happens?’ (Laughs). Really almost literally not knowing. And, I read it back and I thought ‘Yeah, it works. There’s something here that works’. And I did have to do some editing but not nearly as much as I thought I would have to do.
So, that was a great lesson for me. And, to me, that approach to writing has worked ever since, but, it’s not necessarily everybody’s approach. But I know it works for some people. Other people prefer to plan or whatever, or to edit as they go. It’s really up to each person to find out what works for them I think.
Nic: That’s one of the beauties of writing, that everyone does things in such a different way. And, not always automatic, but they find the way that works best for them and different things work better for different people. Just wondering, again going back to Tomorrow When the War Began, would your students at Candlebark be able to react in the same pro-active adult way if they were in similar circumstances do you think? Kids today, do you think are they different to 30 years ago?
John: Yeah, some would. I mean, 30 years ago too there were people that just buckled when things went badly for them, and that’s true today. I don’t know whether the proportions have changed. I mean, what we don’t talk about from World War Two, for example, was the number of Australian soldiers who ran away when confronted with danger, and who can blame them? God, I could well have been one of the ones running the fastest. But, when Darwin was bombed they had to set up road blocks on the highway to try and make soldiers went back to Darwin and fight, because they were running so fast and so hard that that was the only way they could send them back. A couple of them got to Adelaide and one got Melbourne, which is a hell of a run from Darwin.
Nic: (Laughs). Absolutely, very much.
John: No doubt they hitchhiked or something, but it was a major problem, to get people to actually fight. And, like I say, I totally understand that, and I don’t condemn them at all, but it’s something we don’t read about in the ANZAC Day celebrations every year.
John: But, it’s very much a part of human nature that there will be always people who find it impossible to confront such awful threats.
Nic: Are you always… I mean, you’re a very busy professional life with the schools, are you always writing at the same time, are you always working on something?
John: No. Not since I started the schools. Its 11 years now. So, in that time I’ve published three books, whereas I used to publish three every two years on average, so it’s quite a reduction. Now I’m writing sort of documents for public servants that are meaningless.
Nic: (Laughs). And local councils.
John: Yeah, exactly. And, I can now churn them out fairly quickly. I do it almost in the spirit of irony or satire or something. Just amusing myself by making them as pompous and meaningless and wordy as possible. But, it is an incredible waste of energy.
Nic: Absolutely, absolutely. Were you involved at all for the screen plays for the movie and the telly of Tomorrow When the War Began?
John: No, not at all. I naively thought when various film companies approached that I could get involved like that, but I started to realise that screen writing, to me anyway, is different as, say writing a sonnet is, from writing a limerick. Or, as writing a novel is from writing a work about theoretical physics.
Nic: Or a document for public servants.
John: Yeah that’s right. I have mastered that one but, I’m not proud of it. No, I did, they sent me the script when I finally signed up with a film company and I went through and made little annotations, and then we sat down and had a meeting and I started going through my suggestions and comments. And, I could see them all looking at each other and there was this kind of vibe in the room of, ‘Oh my god is guy really going to try to pull apart everything we’ve done?’ And, I just closed the script at that point and said, ‘Actually, you guys just go right ahead and you know what you’re doing, so I’ll trust you’.
John: And it worked out fine. I was really happy with the result. But, it could’ve been a disaster.
Nic: It could have been.
John: That’s the risk you take.
Nic: Yeah but it’s the same, as a writer at some point you’ve got to hand it over to the editor and the publisher and you’ve got to do the same thing. You trust their expertise and professionalism, experience, and know that their aim is to create the best possible work. I’ve met lots of writers that are having books published for the first time and they are always complaining about the editors and the publishers; and I have to remind them that they actually want your book to succeed, they’re not deliberately trying to sabotage it for whatever conspiracy reason you might think.
John: (Laughs). Yeah. I think there’s a paranoia about publishers among writers, which is really, most often not justified. If you’re dealing with a reputable, long established publisher there’s every chance you’ll be treated with integrity and it’ll be a good working partnership and a good relationship. There’s definitely commercial considerations come into play, but of course that’s the case. I mean, it doesn’t help anyone if a publisher goes bankrupt. So, they’ve got to be aware of the commercial possibilities.
Nic: Just finally, I know you are also patron of Express Media, an organisation for young writers under the age of 25, can you tell us a little bit about your involvement and also what Express Media does?
John: Yeah, they are an awesome organisation, really. They have workshops, they encourage publication, they give opportunities to young people to get published, they run competitions. They are very energetic, they’re very idealistic, they’re very professional. And, so if you get published by Express Media or if you get recognised by them in any capacity, then you’re good, because they don’t… mediocrity isn’t really part of the game plan with them.
So, yeah I’ve been there, involved with them for many, many years now, and they’ve never flagged in their efforts to promote writing and literature among young writers, and they’ve been incredibly successful. So, I know they’ve had funding cuts from Federal Government sources in recent times, and, it’s to their credit that they’re finding ways to keep going, because they do an amazing job.
Nic: Given that most of the listeners to this podcast are emerging writers and writers, and people developing the craft, are there any final words of wisdom and advice that you could give them? Any words of encouragement or discouragement?
John: (Laughs). Well I mean every successful writer pretty much has got the rejection slips to paper their walls. So, it’s part of the experience, and I know it’s awful, it’s a horrible feeling to get that rejection letter, but it’s extraordinarily unusual not to get a large number of them. So, don’t be discouraged by that.
I think, for me, the most important single thing in writing is to get the right voice. And that means literally, the voice if I’m telling the story in the first person, but, if it’s in the third person, it’s just the right tone, to get the right note.
And, I do, with my students, encourage them to think of every sentence as being like an interval on a piano, or a musical instrument. Where, if there’s one note that’s wrong, the whole thing is wrecked. So, yeah, they need to scrutinise every preposition, every adjective, every noun, every verb, and try to make sure it’s the best possible word for that context; and to make sure that every sentence is balanced and comfortable for the reader to read.
If the reader has to go back and read the sentence twice to work out what you’re trying to say, then that’s a bad sentence. It’s got to be comfortable so that the reader’s eyes can continually move across the page without having to, without any interruption.
Nic: And your work certainly does that. Just finally I’m going to put you on the spot now.
John: Yeah, I’ve been doing that for about an hour now.
Nic: (Laughs). Do you have a favourite joke that you would like to share with us? It’s the ultimate in storytelling I think, jokes.
John: Well I just heard one the other day which was… What do you get if you cross the Atlantic Ocean with the Titanic?
Nic: I don’t know. What do you get when you cross the Atlantic Ocean with the Titanic?
John: About half way.
Nic: Ah! Very clever, thank you. (Laughs). And on that note, John, I’d love to thank you very much for giving us the time and words of great wisdom and experience; and thank you very much for talking to us on The Garret.
John: Thanks Nic.