HONOURED EARTH: An interview with Bren MacDibble and Zana Fraillon

Rachael King has been enamoured with The Raven’s Song ever since its release last year. Here, she interviews the book’s authors, Bren MacDibble and Zana Frallion, on their creative process, the co-authoring experience, and more.

Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble [Image supplied]

The Raven’s Song burst onto the scene at the end of 2022, and immediately made an impact. Written by two Australasian stalwarts, Bren MacDibble (How to Bee, The Dog Runner) and Zana Fraillon (The Bone Sparrow, The Way of the Dog), it was one of the best middle-grade novels I read last year. I reviewed it in depth on Newsroom, but there was still so much to explore; I had so many questions.

The novel is set in the near future in a world affected by pandemics and climate change, with two children living a hundred years apart: plucky Shelby, who stumbles on an abandoned city and a secret within; and Phoenix, a visionary child with a connection to The Ravened Girl, a victim of ancient child sacrifice whose spirit dwells in the local bog. It offers hope, complex ideas and adventure, and I can’t recommend it enough for both adults and children. 

First up, what’s the best thing about writing with someone else as opposed to going it alone?

Bren MacDibble: The absolute best thing was probably during the initial creative phase. The exhilaration of throwing a precious idea out there and having an instantly joyous response and having it fully appreciated but come back refined, reshaped in some way. If you could bottle that feeling, oh my, the street value!

Zana Fraillon: Sharing the brain. I love collaboration but this was more than just collaborating. We both knew the story so intimately. We knew what it had grown out of, where we wanted it to go, what wasn’t working, what we hoped it could become. It meant that when there was a problem, I didn’t have to find a way to express it, Bren just knew. There was such an energy to those problem-solving sessions—we bounced ideas off each other so quickly my fingers couldn’t keep up. It really was like playing a game of authors writing a book. Every element was hugely fun and full of creative buzz and energy.

This book is about, among other things, deep time and the effects of climate change, both huge topics that you have individual interests in. What research did you individually do for the book? 

BM: I’m always reading and learning and trying to understand the topics of climate and the future. With climate change, our understanding of it is constantly being modified. But of course this is fiction. We’re dealing more with the possibilities than the most likely. It’s those possibilities that have always interested me.

I only went halfway with my isolated future community in terms of self-sufficiency. I wanted to include my emotions of being a child on the land and include animals, and I wanted to take the reader with me…obviously you can feed more people on plant-based foods. It seems illogical to work so hard to create plant proteins to feed animals and then eat the animals. Especially now climate change is threatening our food supplies, and given the sheer burden of all our livestock on the planet in terms of resources, the pollution they create, and the displacement of native animals. Cutting out the middle animal would do wonders for our climate. I did a fairly naïve vaguely vegetarian angle thinking that would be acceptable to most parents. People seem unnaturally protective over their desire to consume animal proteins right now!

ZF: I first read about the concept of deep time when I was applying for a PhD in Creative Writing and my research for that fed into The Raven’s Song. David Farrier’s wonderful Footprints: in search of future fossils is the book that really woke me up in terms of seeing ourselves as future ancestors who will ‘ghost the future,’ and the wonderful possibilities—as well as responsibilities—that brings. Mark Edmonds’ and Alan Garner’s book The Beauty Things is another one that perfectly captures the awe of discovering something from the past that speaks to you, and how we humans pass stories down with us through these objects— regardless of how ordinary the object is. It was this sense of genuine wonder and generational custodianship that I tried to capture [in The Raven’s Song]. The concept of deep time destroys the concept of linear time and opens up possibility. It is to see ourselves as wonderfully, delightfully, uncannily, time-tangled and ensnared. 

The more I began to understand [about deep time], the more vital it became that I learnt, and wrote about, climate change and animal extinction.

I also read a lot about bog sacrifice. The Red-Haired Girl From The Bog by Patricia Monaghan and Bog Bodies Uncovered by Miranda Aldhouse-Green were both fantastic at recreating the atmosphere and details of bog sacrifice. This was how I wrote the Ravened Girl parts in the book;  to me, she is the essence of deep time. Flitting in and out of shadows, talking and calling to us through time. Guiding us. Watching us. Whispering and spinning and full of hope for the future. Deep time shows with great clarity that what each of us does individually really does matter. 

The more I began to understand [about deep time], the more vital it became that I learnt, and wrote about, climate change and animal extinction.

The book is set in an unnamed country—I presume, because of The Ravened Girl—not Australia. Do you have a place in mind? Or is it made up? What were the challenges in choosing a setting? 

BM: I initially set my chapters in Australia. I like to set my books somewhere; I think it adds a lot to a novel having a recognisable setting, getting your teeth into the essence of it. But when I saw Zana’s chapters and the bog girl, I realised it was never going to work. This was a European story. Australian references had to go. I did quite like that any child could then pick it up and imagine the bog near their place, the city near them, etc. I did terrify myself with the concept of drones returning the lands to their native species only…extrapolating that concept is terrifying…but I suppose in Europe there are a lot of animals who spread across that landmass centuries ago and not so many newcomers like there are in Australasia.

ZF: I really wanted to write a bog body. The Ravened Girl had already arrived as a presence, and it became impossible to write anything else. The song at the beginning was the first thing I wrote, followed immediately by her scenes. So she pretty much ruled out Australia. I guess I was thinking of a cross between our local river near where I live in Naarm, and the Irish landscape. I have a strong connection to Ireland and have walked bogs there, so it was easy to imagine. I kind of chopped and changed to suit! … I really love the way that folktales and fairytales exist in this kind of everywhere land—I wanted to get that feeling across as much as we could in a realistic setting. The challenge of not having a specific setting is that you have to then imagine everything that might exist there. This is where having another brain to throw ideas around with worked well. 

Which other writers walk through The Raven’s Song and which books is it in conversation with?

BM: I read a lot of children’s and YA novels and adult science fiction, and then I read books just for the voice. I’m trying to get that flow of informal language, the slang and the twists on ways of saying things. I find colourful language fascinating. The fun and the humour of it. To that end I think Chuck Palahniuk has been hugely helpful describing what he does and why. Margo Lanagan, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sarah Crossan, Sophie Laguna, Glenda Millard, Rainbow Rowell, A. S. King, Liz Hyder, have all written novels with voices that really make me want to find the perfect voice to connect with the reader in each book.

With which books is The Raven’s Song in conversation? Probably with all books that think about futures and where we’re going and how we treat the environment. From the high tech, strained societies of Barry Jonsberg’s Catch Me if I Fall and Eileen Merriman’s Black Spiral trilogy to worlds where everything has completely fallen apart and reformed as in Divergent or the walled-in world of Nicola Penfold’s Where the World Turns Wild; to those novels that take on climate issues and examine the effect through a younger child’s eye as in Hannah Gold’s The Last Bear.

ZF: I love the way you asked this question, because that is exactly how I feel when I write. So many other authors populate my books, and I couldn’t write anything without their words bumping around my head and nattering away in there. I feast on books when I’m writing, and especially books that have a strong young voice: authors like Alan Garner, Finbar Hawkins, Penni Russon, NoViolet Bulawayo, Cath Moore, Katherine Rundell, Glenda Millard, Simmone Howell, and Melvin Burgess. Guus Kuijer’s The Book Of Everything is one that particularly stands out – it so perfectly shows the results of an adult world on a young person, without overwhelming the reader. 

The books I mentioned earlier in the research question are in there, and I have also been walking around with the voices of Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child in my head for years, and Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall – although I didn’t go back and look at those when writing as I didn’t want those images to take over from the ones in my head. David Almond’s The Dam was another book that perfectly captured that sense of environmental loss told through a human lens.

What do you love about ravens and what they symbolise in folklore and mythology?

BM: They are so intelligent, and smug. They know they’re smart, trotting about in their little black suits like little witches and wizards, giving people hairy eye-ballings like they’re failing at something. It’s no wonder humans have always given them roles as keepers of time, history and secrets. They just look like they have been here since time began and that they know everything. I love how nearly all the myths and folklore are along similar lines, passing through time, from the dead to the living.

ZF: I think I am drawn to ravens because I find them a little intimidating. They are fiercely smart birds, and can be quite confident around humans. The more I learn about them, the more I love them. The fact that they remember faces and symbols and have a vote before the flock takes flight, have ‘hand’ gestures, hold funerals and can imitate human speech – all of it is so appealing! And I am definitely influenced by my love of folktales – from Odin’s ravens bringing him stories and gossip from around the world, to witches’ companions and mythology around ravens as psychopomps and messengers for the dead. And their call is so haunting. I am in Norway now, and there is a single crow (albeit, not a raven) that calls out each morning at 7am, and it is so beautiful and spooky, and I feel I recognise the song on some great ancestral, instinctual level. Like a language I’ve forgotten how to speak.

One of the things I loved about the novel is how it deals with quite dark subject matter – pandemics, child sacrifices, climate apocalypse and death… how do you write heavy stuff for children without them falling into a pit of despair?

BM: I keep the point of view completely restrained. So you only know what Shelby knows, and she knows her farm, she knows her dad loves her, she knows her little township and her best friend. She has a very fine life there, despite the hard work and having no mother. She has joy and fun and love and care. She feels safe and secure. I ask younger readers to walk in her shoes and I find they do. They take on Shelby’s emotions. She’s a resourceful, resilient kid and I think that encourages young readers to feel resourceful and resilient right along with her. Adults may look at the whole world and feel much more terror about how it got that way than younger readers do. They want to see a kid surviving and even thriving. Generating hope for their own uncertain futures, or just to see Shelby come through.

ZF: I write it honestly. Kids are so much more aware than many adults give them credit for. They are smart and resilient, and more than anything, their imaginations are huge. The futures that young people imagine are so much bigger and full of possibility than the futures adults imagine. And if they know the world, and can imagine the kind of world they want to live in, the kind of adult they want to become, then each step is a step towards that future. You have to respect the reader, respect their empathy and intelligence and understanding, no matter what their age. And books are a very safe space – if ever something happens that makes the reader feel uncomfortable, the book can be closed and put away. But the world is a dark and heavy place. If we don’t write that dark, how can young people possibly hope to navigate it? How can they imagine a future where the dark is less? Through books, readers learn that bad things will sometimes happen, but there is a way through. And when I write about the dark, I always give my characters hope, and someone to be there for them. 

Both of the point of view characters have immediately distinctive, engaging voices. Did their voices arrive instantly, or did you have to work at them? 

BM: I like to write with a bold voice; I find a character who has a sense of authority over their world makes young readers trust in them more quickly, but as I write I’m looking for how their world and their values shape their language. The natural world is honoured, for instance. Kindness and community is valued. Are they educated, or do they incorporate more slang? How corrupted is the language? Then, on reading, does it trip the reader up, or do I need to reverse some of my slang back to more normal words for readability? The character develops as the story goes on, from acceptance of her small world, until she’s excited about the idea of changes.

ZF: For me, the voice of The Ravened Girl was what arrived instantly. Phoenix took a little longer – I think because he is so quiet anyway. A lot was going on behind his eyes, but that was hard to get across on the page – especially writing third person. In the end, I just had to trust that he would reveal himself to me as I wrote, and through the process I would learn more about the kind of person he was, and work out how to show that to the reader. His sisters’ loud effervescent energy helped him lean into the action. As soon as the giant raven in sneakers arrived, and Phoenix became the kind of kid that sees things other people don’t, I knew I would discover his voice if I gave him enough time. 

Do you read a lot of contemporary children’s authors? Do you feel a need to keep up with what is being published, or forging your own path? 

BM: I do feel a great need to keep up with what is being published, especially if it is work compared to mine. I read author friends and what is going on in New Zealand as well as Australia, and all my favourite authors. I don’t understand the concept of writing in a vacuum. I learn so many techniques reading other authors and I admire a lot of authors for a lot of different reasons but writers whose books I consistently grab are A. S. King, Vikki Wakefield and Sarah Crossan: such intelligent writers who really know how to tug at heartstrings and involve the reader. I feel like this is one of the most important things a children’s author can do.

ZF: I don’t feel a need to keep up, I just feel an insatiable need to read a story that fills something inside me. I read adult, young adult, middle grade, picture books – anything. The most important thing for me as a reader is the voice. It needs to get me in, otherwise the story can be as exciting as you like but I’ll still find it really hard to engage. I try not to think about the publishing industry and my space in it, otherwise I start doubting my own writing. There are so many authors for children and young adults that I admire and aspire to write like. They all hold their young readers in the highest regard, and this comes through in the writing. 

Do you write for your adult-self or your child reader-self or neither or both? What would they have made of this book?

BM: I write for child-me. I would have loved this. As an anxious cold war child there were no books that took on the subject matter of surviving nuclear holocaust, so we were left to brood with no chance to explore our fears. Robinson Crusoe and Baby Island were not the survivor stories I was looking for. The desolate worlds in Dune, that old brick of a book, was what I wanted – a book that took on the future I might face and showed that kids could survive.

ZF: I think I write for both. Young me primarily – in the style of books that I write, in the characters that populate my books – but then adult me is discovering everything about the world that I don’t know that I want to discover and share with young me. I think young me would have loved this book. Bog bodies! Ravens! Magic! Language! Adventure and darkness and light and kernels of ideas to carry forward. I think young me would have started collecting seeds for a seed journal and changing the way I talk about the natural world. I hope so, anyway.

The Raven’s Song

By Zana Fraillon & Bren MacDibble

Published by Allen & Unwin

RRP: $18.99

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Rachael King

Rachael King is a former literary festival director and a writer for adults and children. She’s the author of two middle grade novels: Red Rocks (2012) and The Grimmelings, which is a finalist in the 2024 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.