John Marsden's latest book born out of in-air boredom

MOST plane journeys are spent reading, sleeping or staring blankly at the in-flight entertainment. 

But not if you're John Marsden. 

His latest novel, South of Darkness, marks the giant of teen fiction's first foray into the adult market and was conceived mid-flight when John was "kind of bored". 

Set in the late 1700s, the story follows Barnarby Fletch, a young homeless orphan living on the streets of London.

On hearing about the paradise of Australia from a former convict, Barnaby sets out to get himself transported.

In a time when almost every part of the world is connected through the internet, John said the only modern comparison he could make to European settlement was a trip to Mars. 

"The mindset's so different now," he said. 

"The whole planet is pretty much mapped and explored and we know everything that's everywhere.

"That takes a lot of mystique … and a lot of the tension out of life.

"But there's something very different about those days where they had no idea what lay over the horizon."

He described it as "extraordinary" to think people could go into "such an unknown future with not too many reservations", likely with the knowledge they'd never see their homeland again. 

Add to that months spent at sea on a rodent-infected ship with fellow prisoners and John said the chances of surviving to see Australia were even slimmer. 

"A lot of the convicts were terrified, but some were looking forward to it," he said.

"They were sort of thinking anything would be better than the life they knew so they were prepared to take the risk. 

"Of course, most of them had no choice."

A large part of the novel is also set in the slums of London and explores the British legal system which saw convicts transported to the other side of the world. 

Researching the novel, John found the judicial system of the time "fascinating" and spent hours reading trial transcripts. 

But he was surprised to find there were far more acquittals than now and those found guilty were rarely sentenced to long prison terms. 

"You either got transported or you got fined or you got flogged or you got hung and they were about the four main choices," John said. 

"The idea of going to jail for 20 years, that just didn't happen."

And while on reflection it's a system that seems incredibly harsh, John said there were unofficial "checks and balances … which were probably quite efficient at keeping the system from being too inhumane".

And example given in the novel was that juries would often avoid finding the value of stolen goods to be more than five shillings to avoid sending offenders to the gallows. 

"(The system) was pretty ugly and pretty cruel, but there were those kind of loopholes which people were able to find and use," John said. 

John said the internet had "dramatically" changed his research process, cutting the process down to several weeks instead of months.

He said even five years ago researching this novel would have seen him parked in a library, surrounded by books "like Hermione Granger in the library at Hogwarts".

Talking about the potential for many more stories based on Australia's history, John said there were were interesting tales to be found everywhere, including Rockhampton. 

John said he was familiar with the city, having worked in Lakes Creek during the 1970s in "the the days that Rex Pilbeam was mayor and presided over the city with an iron fist".

"I had a lot of good times in Rocky and Yeppoon," he said.

Much has been made of John's move to adult fiction, but he said it wasn't a conscious decision.

Although it did allow him to embrace the language of the time.

John said the adult tag let him broach new territory in talking about the sexual activity among prisoners.

In South of Darkness, John said he also wanted to explore the possibility that transported convicts were utter scoundrels, not just innocents who stole bread to feed their family.

While John hoped readers may take more appreciation of life in the early days of European settlement, he also wanted them to enjoy Barnaby's story.

A copy of the book was provided by Pan Macmillan Australia. 

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