Best-selling author John Marsden catches up with Rosie Greenaway at South Bank as his first adult novel hits the bookshelves.
“I should say at the outset that I have little of interest to relate,” begins the protagonist in the opening paragraph of John Marsden’s new novel, South of Darkness. To the contrary, what follows is an enthralling tale of poverty, suffering, skulduggery, loyalty, hope and a courageous leap into the unknown.
Already a veteran of youth fiction — with The Tomorrow Series amongst his most famous work — South of Darkness is Marsden’s maiden venture into adult fiction.
It’s the story of thirteen-year-old orphan Barnaby Fletch, dodging danger and disease on the festering streets of 18th century London and flirting with unlawful behaviour in the pursuit of survival — tactics which work reasonably well until he learns that crime could indeed be his ticket out of Hell, as the north bank of the Thames is colloquially known.
When news spreads of the alleged paradise of Botany Bay, daily life becomes consumed by Barnaby’s desire to reach this promised land, treading a criminal path towards conviction and eventual deportation; a journey filled with its own terrors.
Just as Fletch moves through the narrative awe-struck by those more intelligent or worldly-wise than he, so too might Marsden’s eloquent articulation of events be revered by readers; scenes of dreadful suffering and indignity are depicted with grace and the occasional touch of dark humour.
Exclamations of shock can be forgiven at the plot’s unforeseen twist, which Marsden himself confesses only came to mind upon writing that particular chapter. “I think the unconscious mind is ahead of you all the time, writing the story in advance,” he muses.
It’s easy to be intimidated by Marsden’s literary achievements, but in person the author is a modest and humble man, dignified in his delivery of thought and opinion.
On the creative toils of beginning a new work of fiction, he explains that conjuring characters and plots from his imagination is comparable to “composing music” and claims he can’t begin until he finds the protagonist’s voice.
Often, he discloses, discovering what works is a process of trial and error, until eventually “striking a note” that feels right. “If I’ve got the voice, I’m confident I can finish the book. Voice is so revealing,” he says.
When quizzed about a sequel, Marsden maintains that whilst it’s no longer true that the sequel cannot outdo the original, an idea must be “substantial” and “exciting” for him to consider continuing the story.
Until then readers are left with the turbulent world of Barnaby Fletch and his unimaginable quest to survive it – a tale that captivates from first page to last.
South of Darkness is available now.