The other week, I featured How to Bee by Bren MacDibble as my book of the week. It’s a near-future fictional look at the plight of children in a world in which bees have been wiped out from pesticide use, with a stand-out protagonist in the shape of Peony, a farm child who longs to be a bee (a worker who manually pollinates the trees). Bren MacDibble kindly gave me some time and answered my many questions – the book itself throws up many topics of debate and is a fascinating study, as well as a bold and gripping novel.
How To Bee is a phenomenal story set in the future after the loss of bees has caused an environmental disaster and famine. How did you come up with this idea?
For a long time, I’ve been looking for a farm story (being a farm kid, write what you know and all that stuff), but I love fiction set in the future, so it came about pretty naturally after looking into food security and all the possible threats to our food supplies. Bees and their current plight are definitely worthy of a story, having worked alongside English crops for centuries, and their current situation being so dire.
The future in the novel is fairly bleak, not only the environmental impact, but in terms of a massive divide between rich and poor, and a seeming lack of human rights/right to education/child protection. Did you set out to show this wealth divide for a reason?
I see it happening all around us right now, so a future without it didn’t seem honest. When you have money there are so many ways to use that money to make more money, but the poverty trap is just that, a trap. Once you’re poor, there are so many barriers to getting work, to getting by, to getting ahead. So many people, and societal structures that tell you daily you’re worthless and stupid, adding your own lack of self-worth to the trap. Working for just enough money to keep working is another form of poverty. Maybe you feel safer, because you can buy enough to eat, and the clothes you need to keep working, and pay for the travel to the job that pays just enough to keep you employed.
The poor and the working poor suffer first and suffer most in any catastrophe. Floods, fire, famine. Money, and the insurance it buys, is insulation that carries people through a catastrophe, but the poor don’t have that. They were struggling already to pay rent, to buy food, they didn’t have the funds to plan for the unexpected. That had to be shown if this was going to be an honest story. And I wanted this to be an honest story.
In the novel, Peony, the main character, has a truly distinctive voice, which reflects her lack of schooling and her rural upbringing. Did you find writing the voice easy?
Peony’s voice was so easy. She just got into my head. Her voice was full of the bravado of someone who has mastered her own small world, but also so simple and honest. There were a few elements I had to think about, like that fruit and flowers were precious in this new future so all good things like the children’s names, and the term ‘super-cherries’ had to celebrate fruit or flowers, also I wanted to set it in the future, but I needed them to still speak like farm kids. So it had to be futuristic with words like ‘diz’ for disrespect and ‘Urbs’ for city dwellers, but roughed up and full of farm terms like ‘go stomp yourself,’ which is how they get rid of pests in the future on farms with no pesticides.
The rich people in the novel still have phones and computers and televisions, yet the poor people don’t at all. Do you see our use of technology dying out in the future, rather than extending communication between different people?
In this future, young Esmeralda can play games on her fridge and in her room, and no doubt her parents use technology in their jobs much as we do, but there are so many poor in the post famine world, that I expected any technology they once owned would’ve been swapped/sold/pawned for food long ago. Electricity and internet fees would be further costs that could better go towards food and shelter. Maslow’s hierachy of needs does not have technology in the bottom layers.
In the book’s acknowledgements, you mention that you wished the foreman on the farms had been as nice as you had made Boz, the foreman in the book. How many farms have you lived on and what was your experience? How did you use that experience to form How to Bee?
There were about five farms between the ages of 7 and 17. On one, we lived in little more than a shed, surrounded by an electric fence and a chow chow paddock full of steers. I was alternately electrocuted and chased by young bulls, the bare wooden floor gave me splinters and the water chugged out of the taps brown. At the local school which had two classrooms and four kids in my year level, no one would talk to me because their parents owned land and we were the scruffy kids who lived in a shed in the chow chow paddock. The land owners certainly made it known that we were lesser beings. Whether they were swearing at us to round up sheep faster, or giving us a dressing down for stealing fruit from their orchards, we certainly got the impression that we were feral sub-beings who should just be quiet and behave. The last two farms were better, the land owners were nice, often had things to give away, and would invite us to use their pool on hot days.
You also write school reading books. Is there a big difference between writing these stories and your novels? Is it more restrictive?
I just write what I want, which doesn’t really fit with most publishers in the educational market, just those keen on humour, with fun series. Okay, mainly just one publisher, but their series are hugely popular and sell into the UK and US as well, so I’m very lucky to have found that one educational publisher that likes me. Mostly these are short concise stories and there’s not the room to be intensive with the characters, the way Peony is written.
I’ve read that you have quite a bit of wanderlust. How does travel inform your writing?
I think it’s built into me, this moving on thing. We moved around a lot when I was a child, I backpacked the world in my 20s, travelled across the US on motorbikes recently, and now I live in a bus. I think it does inform my writing because if you’re living how I’m living right now, which is with only the basics, you understand what you really need to get by. Travelling lets me meet a lot of people, see a lot of lives, hear a lot of accents, gather ideas, avoid the need for a full time job, and understand what it is a human really needs to be okay.
What do you think has been the biggest influence on your writing?
Reading. I read widely. I read all the time. I get upset that people think I have to read all the latest and greatest or all the classics because I need time to read all the obscure and wonderful too. It’s a terrible shame our lifetimes are too short to read everything. I read my favourite writers when they talk about what they do and I try to understand how they do it. So basically, finding authors I love, whatever the genre, and listening to their observations. Shoving it all into my head so I can understand how to do what I want to do, which is write with honesty and heart and really connect with readers.
Are you excited to bring your novel to the UK? Do you think readers here see differently from those in your native Australia/New Zealand?
Super excited. In Australia, the bees don’t have the varroa mite and deformed wing virus, yet. The bees are not suffering as much as they are in every other country. So there isn’t as much noise about saving bees as there is in the UK. I think people in the UK are more ready to see the importance of this book. Young readers in Australia and New Zealand have given me absolutely wonderful feedback about How to Bee, and I think young people in the UK will love it too. Peony’s way of talking is universal, being a future/country mash up rather than anything colloquial, and young UK ears will tune into it very quickly given their exposure to accents and slang. It’s been shortlisted/won six awards down under and it’d be super-cherries if it took off in the UK as well.
What are you working on next?
Dry Running is almost done, and comes out this year in Australia. I have created another famine, this time caused by the death of all grass and grains due to a fungus (this was recently reported in Queensland, but I promise I’m not writing these things into existence!). A brother and sister have to escape the city and drive their dog cart, pulled by three Malamutes and two Huskies, 600 km to safety to reunite their family. Two kids, five big dogs, and a wide bare land to cross. It’s going to be an adventure!
With huge thanks to Bren MacDibble for so patiently answering my questions. And I highly recommend How to Bee. You can buy it here.