Sunday, August 13, 2017

Interviewing - Bren MacDibble

9781760294335.jpgPeony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony's mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony's grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

Where did the idea come from for How to Bee? Can you describe the writing process? What was the most important element for you?

Lots of ideas went into How to Bee. I’d been wanting to write a children’s book showing childhood poverty in a farming situation for a while, and when I saw images of people in the Sichuan hand-pollinating pear trees, I knew I’d stumbled on a perfect and worthy scenario. I could see that this is something we could also be doing in Australia in the future. We also truck bees to crops and if farmers can’t afford that, like the farmers in the Sichuan, then what option do farmers have in a country that doesn’t value its farmers or food security.

Also I didn’t want to show a disaster. I wanted to show life going on after a disaster. I don’t think it’s fair to terrify children with possible disasters when they can’t do anything about it at their age, but I wanted them to talk about bee loss, and for that reason it couldn't be overwhelming.

I think ultimately I really wanted to explore values. Peony has a good life and everything she needs even though she’s desperately poor. The rich people in the story are completely insulated from the disaster, but their daughter is miserable and terrified of the world. The reader gets to see the world through the eyes of a determined young character who clings to her simple values no matter what.

The voice dictated the mood of the character and it all flowed really nicely. It’s a very simple style. I edited it again and again to keep it on track basically, because it’s difficult to work a lot of hours elsewhere and try to fit writing in around the edges and keep the flow.

How did you get it accepted for publication? Describe the process for us.

I wanted to send How to Bee into the Ampersand Prize but it was too short at the time, so sent it off to Allen & Unwin's Friday Pitch. Their reader liked it, said they’d be reading for a while, and sometime around five months later they asked for me to write more in the middle, because it was too short. By then I’d had a great idea for the middle, wrote it over a couple of months, and they liked it so much they sent a contract at that point to lock it down. After that it went fairly smoothly. I added a couple of scenes, agreed with all the edits, fell in love with the cover art immediately, and now it’s a real thing. It was lucky it went so smoothly as I had signed a contract for In The Dark Spaces with Hardie Grant Egmont just before How to Bee, and In The Dark Spaces was full of rewrites, so to pull myself out of the Dark Spaces occasionally and see How to Bee actually coming together so quickly was rejuvenating for the soul.

In the Dark Spaces is also speculative fiction – tell us about how you wrote this one.

I was learning some new stuff about voice and pacing and textures of information and I had some ideas of my own I wanted to play with, and I was getting bogged down by 'the market wants this, the market wants that', you have to do it this way to be acceptable to this age group, so I wrote this just for myself. Just to play. Just to entertain me. If I didn’t have to show anyone, I could try anything. And I did. And it was wild and crazy and I rewrote it a few times to get it right for me and put it in the bottom drawer. But I loved it too much so got it out and sent it off to about eight agents and got rejected by them all. I only hauled it out again and sent it to the Ampersand Prize because How to Bee was too short.

I always think in the future the poor people are left behind. So I like to show what it’s like for the weakest of them. In this case, poor people are being exploited by space shipping companies, and are quickly caught in a poverty cycle that keeps them working on freighters going further and further from Earth with no hope of ever leaving.

It won the Ampersand Prize – what happened then?

So it won the Ampersand Prize after some discussion as to whether I already had a career or not (this was before How to Bee, when I only had short stories and educational fiction). I convinced Marisa Pintado that I didn’t want to limp along, I needed a break-out opportunity and she agreed. And so work began on overhauling it to give it hope and heart and to not terrorise Young Adults. I added a whole new character and new thread, and chopped a couple of other characters and threads out. Scene by scene Marisa Pintado and I picked through the wreckage, keeping the gems and remodelling the rest. Luna Soo came on board later and we went through it again, adjusting the ending, paring it back, making every scene and word worthy. It was a long process of more than 18 months work. During which time How to Bee passed In the Dark Spaces in production. (Ed note - In the Dark Spaces is published under Bren's pseudonymn, Cally Black).

You have been writing for quite a few years and have had a lot of chapter books and stories published, but these are your first novels. That takes a lot of perseverance! What has kept you going?

I like to write. I like creating stories. Something from nothing. I regularly stopped submitting and went off to learn something new. It’s never the writing that’s not fun, it’s being told that what you’ve created is mediocre. I turn inwards sometimes, and read. I read a whole lot of work I admire and think about why, what technique the author is using, and why it speaks to me. I try a few techniques. I try to combine all my favourite techniques. That takes time and space and that's why sometimes I just play at writing. You can’t call play persevering!
We hear a lot about authors having to promote their books now. How do you approach this? Any tips to share?

I have no idea. An author can only reach so many people via social media, and there’s no point banging on and on about how wonderful your own book is. I rely on book bloggers and reviewers to say nice things which I share on social media. As well as just being a decent person and championing other people’s successes. Have lots of writer friends. Be generous, get some karma back. Sometimes I repost items about bee loss, to keep the discussion going. It’s only through people knowing I have a book that has value in aiding understanding of the effects of bee loss in a simple and entertaining way, that they will see it as worth reading. I had little book cards and little silicone bracelets with bees on made to hand out to kids and they seem to like that. It’s something they can take away to remind them about the book, or show a friend. I look for cons to go to, and I visit book clubs. I’m not a great marketer, so I just hope it gains some momentum and readers tell other readers about it.
What are you reading at the moment? What are a few of your favourite books?

Still Life as a Tornado, by AS King. She’s such a great writer. Favourite Books? I read widely, really widely. I love science fiction ideas and worlds but sometimes the delivery of contemporary stories is easier and more immediate. I really like Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson, packed full of great ideas. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan is amazing, the atmosphere, the world building, so beautiful. I love the patchwork plotting and great storytelling of Chuck Palahnuik in Invisible Monsters. I love Kaufman's and Kristoff’s Illuminae and Gemina, also patchwork plotting but told through reportage. The varying textures of the delivery of the story in Illuminae and Gemina keep me actively engaged in the plot, and keep the me refocussing on new information. So brilliant. And I really love the ideas and viewpoints in Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. The idea that artificial intelligence cannot recognise sexual orientation, basically calling everyone female even though the reader guesses some aren’t, is just one more refreshing idea in that book. I love the language and mood of NoViolet Bulawayo’s book, We Need New Names. I love how the kids talk to each other in that book, and the matter of factness about the poverty of their lives, and how they cope. They remind me of kids I met in Malawi.

In the Dark Spaces -
a genre-smashing hostage drama about 14-year-old Tamara, who's faced with an impossible choice when she falls for her kidnappers.
Yet this is no ordinary kidnapping. Tamara has been living on a star freighter in deep space, and her kidnappers are terrifying Crowpeople – the only aliens humanity has ever encountered. No-one has ever survived a Crowpeople attack, until now – and Tamara must use everything she has just to stay alive. 
But survival always comes at a price, and there’s no handbook for this hostage crisis. As Tamara comes to know the Crowpeople's way of life, and the threats.

Thanks, Bren!