It’s been a while since I invited a guest onto my blog, so it’s time to start again!
Today, I’m pleased to introduce you to Aussie children’s author Bren MacDibble, who also writes young adult books under the name of Cally Black. Over the past few years I’ve exchanged the occasional tweet with Bren, but I only met her for the first time recently at the Continuum convention in Melbourne. So let’s find out a bit more about her, shall we?
Bren has a special interest in science fiction and loves to write to explore the future. Bren attended Clarion South in 2004 and the Manuscript Development program with Queensland Writers Centre and Allen and Unwin in 2011. Bren also won the Ampersand Prize in 2015 for her first ever YA, In The Dark Spaces, writing as Cally Black, to separate her children’s books from an older readership. In The Dark Spaces is a dark and wild YA SF thriller. Bren’s second trade book was accepted for publication hot on its heels and is a children’s novel with Allen & Unwin called ‘How to Bee‘ and is set in a post bee, post famine Australia, where children hand-pollinate fruit trees. Both books are out in the middle of 2017.
And now to grill her!
How did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in?
I wrote a lot in high school, but I didn’t feel I had any ability and I never got any decent marks at high school in English so gave up when I left school. I only took up writing again about 16 years ago. I took a few courses and writing kind of got into my veins. It felt good. It was something I wanted to work on.
What were your favourite books/films growing up? What kick-started your creativity?
We had War of the Worlds come on over the radio at school, and the teacher explained that people in America had thought it was real, and we listened to it, trying to imagine it was real and it kind of was. We had The Tomorrow People on TV, and we all longed to be special Tomorrow People, but the show I was infatuated with as a child was Survivor. The old UK version. I was going to be a survivor, and I was going to drive around the countryside in a land-rover and go to a supermarket and load up on anything I wanted, and never have to go to school again. By 9 I could already drive so I was ready. But every day I woke up and the rest of the world was still alive and well and annoying me like mad. It was like my letter to Hogwarts never arrived. And looking back, it is kind of dark that my Hogwarts was the real world minus people.
Where did the idea for your novel ‘How To Bee’ come from?
How to Bee was a perfect storm of ideas all coming together. I have to thank Continuum for getting scientists on panels to talk about food security and other environmental issues because that stuff is terrifying and got me thinking. I’d read articles about pesticide companies pushing their products to the point of bankrupting farmers in India, when manpower could keep on top of pests in a more environmentally friendly way. And when I saw the Huffington Post article showing pear farmers in Sichuan Province climbing through the trees with little wands to hand-pollinate the pear flowers, because over-spraying had killed off bees, those stark images of people in trees was so compelling, I knew had discovered a world that would make great fiction if set in a future Australia. It’s always the poor people who get hurt the most when climate change hits and I wanted to show that as well.
What were the challenges you faced writing ‘How to Bee’?
I think the biggest challenge with writing an environmental disaster for children, is not terrifying the reader. It’s too easy to show a dark and horrible future. Too easy to show how vulnerable we are. In this book I wanted to show how tough we are. I wanted to show that something terrible had happened, but life was going on and a child was standing strong to keep her values and her family together. It’s hard to write hope in a bleak world, but so absolutely necessary. Children see what’s going on. They’e smart. They’re not little rocks. They are aware of the world around them, and it’s stressful. Environmental concerns need discussion, and I hope this book will be an entry into that discussion, without causing fear, that might shut that conversation down. My publisher quoted that Madeleine L’Engle quote at the book launch, the one that goes: ‘…If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.’
You are also soon releasing a novel for Young Adults under the name of Cally Black. Tell us a little bit about that?
That one’s very exciting. In The Dark Spaces won the Ampersand Prize at the end of 2015 and I actually signed it before How To Bee. It’s just longer in production. It’s set in future space in a time when poor people are basically enslaved to freight companies and forced to live meagre little lives in debt to the big consumerist machine. A girl who wasn’t meant to be on the freighter is taken hostage by an alien and works as her translator. She’s then caught between worlds, in awe of the alien, her power, and her world, but still trying to escape to find her little cousin, and wondering where she now belongs.
How does writing a children’s novel compare to writing a YA novel? Which is harder?
In this case, In The Dark Spaces, was harder. It has some very dark scenes, because there were some very dangerous situations, and those have to be told honestly, but nobody wants to read that constantly, so it has to be balanced out with lightness, love and hope. It went through a lot of heavy edits after winning the prize mostly to do with the balance.
‘How to Bee’ seems to have a strong environmental message. Was this intentional? Are you an environmentalist?
Only for as long as I live on this planet. I think we all have a logical need to stop people ruining where we live. If you’re not at least a supporter of environmental protection and repair in 2017 then you’ve probably got a death wish or you’re too ignorant to know better.
There isn’t so much a message in How To Bee, as just exploring life without bees, and showing bravery in the face of it. I’m hoping the take away message is that there is still hope and life, and why do we have to wait for a major disaster before we can be kinder to our planet? The message, however, really isn’t up to me. It’s whatever the reader takes away. Some people talk about the book as if bee loss is just a backdrop to the smaller story of brave Peony and her family, others see it as a cautionary tale as bee loss takes hold.
You’ve written other children’s books. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?
I have about a dozen children’s books with educational publishers. Those short, fun chapter books are for independent readers from 6-14, and sold directly into schools. Those are the books that kept me writing over the last 16 years. I am a writer because someone liked my work enough to publish it fairly regularly. I love educational publishing. The books go out into the world, to an existing marketplace, and a little money trickles back to me with no promotional effort on my part, and while it didn’t allow me to go on residencies or fellowships offered to emerging trade writers, it didn’t stop me from applying to manuscript development programs and first novel competitions offered to new writers. I think it gave me breathing room, and a chance to learn, to understand the market, how it all worked, time to get confident in my voice. So I guess I owe educational publishing everything.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then?
I think you can get too caught up in being a writer, in traipsing here and there, learning what everyone else is learning, doing what every other new writer is doing, but at some point you have to turn inwards to your own writing and question what you personally need to learn, what you really want to learn, what kind of writing you want to do, and I don’t think that higher level advice is there. At that point, it’s all down to you. You need to teach yourself. Fortunately there are so many amazing writers you can learn from, so many amazing novels in the world. Good analytical skills will serve you well, and I slowly gained those skills by listening to writers talk about their work, what they were trying to achieve, and techniques they used. When you read, notice the word choice, the sentence structure, the repetitions, the scene structures, rhythms, look for techniques. If a writer is open for questions, ask them about techniques that you admire in their work. That’s the kind of thing I’m always interested in. Not how they got their first publication, but what makes their writing so much more amazing than anyone else’s.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion that we don’t know about?
I figure I’m due for a job that doesn’t demand so much of me. I’m currently juggling three part time jobs as well as writing. So I think the ideal job for me would be renting glass-bottom kayaks from a beach shack somewhere tropical. I would love to just sit in the sunshine all day and stare at the sea.
Thanks for being my guest Bren!
If you’d like to find out more about Bren (and Cally) and their books, check out the options below: