I’m thrilled to add another interview to my series of discussions with editors, writers, and other folks in books publishing. I had the opportunity to speak with the marvelous and ever brilliant Ree Kimberley who is the author of Rat City, a young adult science fiction novel, as well as a brilliant scholar. She offers insight into the future of literature and how the brain works when reading. (I, perhaps unfairly, asked her some big questions about the mind, and she rose to the challenge with grace and eloquence.)
Ree Kimberley is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. Her degrees in creative writing involved studying the roles of posthumanism and neuroscience in young adult literature, and those topics permeate her fiction. Ree particularly enjoys exploring speculative fiction, circuses, the grotesque, and the bizarre. In addition to writing short stories for anthologies, Ree has recently published her first novel for young adults, Rat City. She is currently in the midst of writing the second book in the Generation Rat series.
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1. You wrote the initial draft of your recent novel, Rat City, over a decade ago. How did you transform an old draft into a published book?
I’d had a lot of good feedback over the years about the manuscript, with a few publishers kindly taking the time to give me ideas for improving the story. However, although I used their feedback to improve the story, I knew there was always a core element missing from the narrative. When I became interested in neuroscience and the posthuman through my academic studies, the ideas about how to fix that missing element became clearer. I took what I learned from my studies to add plot elements as well as depth and nuance to the story.
2. And you certainly managed to do that successfully. Now that Rat City has been released you are in the midst of writing book two in the Rat Generation series. Did you always envision these books as a series? What differences have you discovered between writing a standalone novel or short story versus a series of books?
The ending of Rat City was always open so although I didn’t specifically plan a series I always knew the potential was there, and I wanted to know what happened! But there were aspects of the open ending that have taken me a long time to work out. I’ve read interviews with other writers who say they know exactly how a series is going to end but I am a “pantser” through and through. One of the greatest joys I have in writing is in making things up as I go along – for me, that’s where the magic is. Although it’s more than 12 years now since I first came up with the central idea for Rat City, everything I’ve learned in those years – about the craft of writing, about neuroscience and about what it is that humans have the potential to evolve into next – has given me the ability to explore my original idea in much more depth, and so turn it into a series.
I don’t approach a story differently because it’s standalone or may become a series. I am happy to go where the story and its characters take me, whether that’s on a short trip or an extended journey. However, I do think the hardest thing about writing a series is that the books need to stand alone as well as work as a series. There’s an Australian writer, Ambelin Kwaymullina, who does this brilliantly in her Tribe series. The way she wrote her series also gave me some ideas about how I could approach writing a series from the original Rat City manuscript.
3. The books that you’ve talked about here have all been young adult novels. What drew you to writing for young adults? In what ways does writing for that readership differ from writing other types of literature?
I became interested in writing for children and young adults when I studied the subject at university, and as a final assignment I wrote a chapter of a children’s book. I did go on to write the whole book but it’s never been published, which is a bit sad because I love the story (although it’s become a bit dated now).
I think the most important thing about writing for children and young adults is getting the voice right. And that most definitely does not mean dumbing it down! The best books for children and young adults deal with complex issues and big themes not in a simplistic way, but in a way that resonates with the audience. The voice must be authentic, never didactic or patronizing. The ability to tap into that time in your life and remember what it felt like is vital.
4. Alongside your fiction, you have published some wonderful research on the role of posthumanism and neuroscience in young adult fiction. What are some of your main takeaways on those subjects? What roles do the plasticity of the human mind and our ever-shifting relationship to the world play in contemporary literature?
Wow! A big question and not one easily answered in a couple of paragraphs. I’ll start with my number one take-away and then try to briefly explain why I believe it’s so important.
I believe that we are now living in the posthuman present/future, and just as storytellers have helped us make sense of our human past, they can help us cope with our human/posthuman present, and uncover ways to live in our posthuman future. And for writers and readers of young adult fiction, this means creating novels that examine posthuman life, particularly in contemporary and near future settings.
But the first question a lot of people ask me is What is posthumanism anyway? There are a lot ways to answer that but my definition is this: a posthuman is someone who has chosen to alter their human body to attain additional skills or abilities other than those they were born with. If you’re interested, you can read about how I came up with that definition on my old PhD blog, Dr Brain’s Plastic Circus.
(*Note from Kristen*: Ree’s old blog contains fascinating information, so if you are looking for a lengthier yet readable introduction to posthumanism, you should read through some of her posts there.)
However, it was my interest in neuroscience led me to posthumanism. I read some fascinating books during my Masters degree that got me interested in neuroscience, in particular Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself and Bruce Perry’s The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. Both books are fascinating in the way they describe how the brain develops and the brain’s ability to change (brain plasticity), especially during childhood and adolescence, and especially in relation to trauma. I explored this topic in my Masters but I knew I’d barely scratched the surface. When I started my PhD, my initial idea was to write a young adult novel that wove ideas about brain plasticity through the plot. But as I delved into my research I realized that neuroscience wasn’t enough: it was what the changing brain, trauma and memory meant for my teenaged characters in terms of the choices they made and the actions they took. And that in turn, led me to create characters who choose, either consciously or subconsciously, to be something other than human.
And as for what these things mean for literature? Literature and art have always helped us interpret our world. The rapid technological changes that are happening around us are not going to slow down any time soon. And the brains of children and young adults growing up with smart phones, are, I believe, going to form differently from those of their parents and grandparents. This can be both good and bad. However, I also believe that humans and posthumans, whatever form they take, will always want to express themselves creatively through literature and art that both reflects their world and helps create it.
5. That was a concise intro to posthumanism. And now for the question I always ask; are there any upcoming books (either yours or someone else’s) that you are excited to finally see in print?
I’m out-of-my-skin excited to have had a story selected for The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror Vol 6, which is available for pre-order now. There are some amazing writers in this collection, including multi-award winners Angela Slatter, Kaaron Warren and Deborah Biancotti (Biancotti is also a co-author of the New York Times best-sellers Zeroes and Swarm. It’s another-worldly feeling to have a story sitting alongside those of writers who I’ve long admired, and I’m really looking forward to reading the whole collection.
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Many thanks, Ree, for helping us enter into the strange and wild world of the brain, and congratulations on your new anthology addition! I can’t wait to read it.
I encourage everyone to check out Rat City. It is a great piece of sci fi/horror and has a fabulous cover. (In fact, I think the first thing I ever said to Ree was related to the design work done for Rat City. It is excellent.)