Alice Pung on John Marsden
In a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, the State Library Victoria and independent publisher Black Inc called Writers on Writers - modern authors reflect on the influence of those who came before them. In this book extract Alice Pung writes to her literary champion, John Marsden.
Award winning writer Alice Pung names John Marsden as one of her biggest influences. Picture: Black Inc Books
The first time it occurred to me that you were a real person was the morning my friend Angela came to school and said, ‘You’ll never believe what happened. We bumped into John Marsden.’
To us, you weren’t real, and if you were, you weren’t someone who’d be loitering in the western suburbs of Melbourne. But Angela meant it literally: her mum had bashed her car into yours somewhere down the Tullamarine Freeway, and you were so kind about it you even gave them some of your books.
We all knew of you, but not about you. We studied So Much to Tell You during the first term of Year 9 at Christ the King College. Our parents had sent us to the Catholic school in Braybrook to save us from temptation. Fortressed by a wall of carpet factories and sequestered next to a nunnery, we studied in an oasis of industry and restraint in one of the roughest neighbourhoods in Victoria. In primary school, when one boy fractured another boy’s wrist, my best friend spent all lunchtime trying to convince the victim not to dob on her brother.
Another of my ten-year-old friends saw the counsellor every week because her stepfather kept ‘mucking around’ with her. One recess, the boys from the technical college just over the fence from our school found a bird with a broken wing, brought it to the Preps and then snapped its neck in front of them. We called kids ‘bin scabs’ if at lunchtime they yanked food out of bins to eat, because we thought that was a normal quirk of childhood, a habit no different to picking actual scabs – disgusting, but not a sign of any larger tragedy, like not having enough food at home.
This is all a bit bleak, isn’t it? Maybe I should have started by hailing the heroic females in your novels, and how they gave me girl power. But that would be a lie because the characters in your novels I most identify with are not ‘heroic’, nor are they always female. I could mention your children’s picture book Millie, to soften things up a bit for the reader.
But, John, even your children’s books piss people off! ‘Millie is an odious, conniving, lying child, who gets away with all her hideous behaviour,’ writes one reviewer. ‘Even when she’s caught in the act everyone just says “we all love Millie”? Oh please.’ Millie’s transgressions include brushing her dog’s teeth with her own toothbrush and resourcefully hiding everything under the bed when asked to tidy up. I guess the problem with your stories is that you don’t include the punishment at the end.
In high school a friend was reading The Dead of the Night, and our science teacher wryly remarked, as he looked at the back cover, ‘I presume this will be filled with violence and sex and the usual teenage preoccupations.’ Yes, it was, and yes, we were very preoccupied with them. We thought they were far more fascinating than the usual ‘adult themes’ that people around us were constantly discussing: overtime, tax and rent.
Your books appealed to us because they made our experiences central. Children and young adults often don’t have the words to describe what is going on inside them. Even when they do, their stories are translated and interpreted by adults in a way that bears scant resemblance to lived experience. But you kept it real, so real that even your first publisher, Walter McVitty, who took such a risk with So Much to Tell You, felt ambivalent about your later books:
To have turned so many children on to reading is a wonderful thing to have achieved, I think. And yet, if I was asked, would I like my little grandchildren to be exposed to those books, maybe I would say no. I just feel that the mind of a young person is such a malleable thing, I would want them to grow up in as uncorrupted a world as possible. I don’t feel as though I want to be rubbing my children’s noses in it.
Banner Image: James Marsden. Picture: Black Inc Books