#LoveOzYA Q&A with Maree Kimberley
Maree Kimberley is a writer from Brisbane. Her work has been published in several anthologies, including The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2015 and Defying Doomsday.
Her debut novel DIRT CIRCUS LEAGUE (Text Publishing) is out on 30 March!
You can read Maree’s chat with #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios below, our check out clips via our YouTube channel.
What is the DIRT CIRCUS LEAGUE about?
Asa is 17 years old, and she’s running from her past. She winds up meeting a notorious outcast teens who are called the Dirt Circus League, and she follows them to their home, which is in an abandoned resort in Cape York.
When she’s there, she discovers the truth about their beliefs and that leads her to face her own demons before she can save them from themselves.
So it blends fantasy, paranormal, a bit of horror, a bit sci-fi. It’s very fast-paced, a lot of action — it has fight scenes. So there’s a lot of physicality and a lot of energy in the novel. If you like those sorts of things, then hopefully you’ll like DIRT CIRCUS LEAGUE.
When I read this blurb while researching for our big rundown of 2021 releases, this one stood out. I thought, that sounds crazy in a really good way. Where did you get the idea?
I wanted to write a story about a girl who basically reinvented herself, with the idea of what would happen if someone just completely cuts off all ties from their life and tries to reinvent themselves. The story basically came out of my writing process, which is really haphazard — I’ll have an initial idea like that, I have no idea how I want it to go, and I’ll just start writing.
With DIRT CIRCUS LEAGUE, I’d got to about 70,000 to 80,000 words when the character Quarter appeared, who has bird’s eyes implanted into the side of his head.
Once I hit upon that character I knew I had something. I (also) knew I wanted something set in an isolated place. I really love Cape York and I had an experience when I was 20 years old that really embedded that place in my bones. I moved to Cairns in the early 80s, so (it) was still very much a hippie place. There was a music festival going on and the only way to get there was a really really rough four-wheel drive. Anyway we start going up this massive hill and (the driver) he loses control, the gears slip, and we start rolling back down this hill. It was that kind of moment of terror where you have no control — you’re just in this vehicle, and it’s doing what it’s going to do. Luckily, whether by luck or not, he managed to flip it on the good side, but I’ve still got scars.
That memory embedded the landscape in my brain. I’ve been back there several times since, but that’s where the place came from, and that’s why the place is really really strong in the novel as well.
I’m sorry for your experience back then. You’ve somewhat answered it already, in that, but did want to ask about setting the story in outback Queensland. From a professional point of view, did you ever consider setting it somewhere generic, or less overtly Australian?
And implied in that question is the disclaimer that I’m really glad you did set it in Australia, and that you captured that real Queensland vibe — especially in the first chapter when she rocks up, and there’s that real northern Queensland heat.
Yeah, the heat is real. And no I never considered setting it anywhere else. It was always going to be an Australian type of landscape.
I also wanted to somehow capture the disconnection that actually exists within Australia between real connection to the land that’s experienced by First Nations people, and most other people who just live on the land and think they might have a connection in some way, but don’t truly have that deep connection that First Nations people do.
Embedded in that is the recognition that as a country we haven’t come to terms with colonialism and the impacts of colonialism, and the truth about our past. So that’s why the Aboriginal characters are really important, in particular Karen, and that’s why
the places are important. There’s no way I could have written a book set in Cape York without having Aboriginal characters.
That leads really well to my next question, because it seems like this book is about violence on many levels — to ourselves, to other people, to the land. How did you seek to explore violence in this book, and why was that so interesting to you?
Yeah, look, I think there’s violence in all of us. We like to pretend there isn’t. But you know, I think there is, and it’s about coming to terms with what that really means. But it also is that reflection of the violence that’s been done to this land, that is yet to be recognised, there’s that sort of violence.
In terms of the violence, I was really careful. I wanted to have the male and female characters on an even keel with violence, so they were actually able to match each other physically and using strategy, so there was no, ‘the males were always going to be more powerful than the females’. I didn’t want to have that.
I think it’s about that recognition of violence so that if we do have violence within ourselves, how do we come to terms with that, and channel that violence into something positive? Some people will do that through participating in a sport that is really physical, like, whether it’s martial arts, boxing, or fighting in a competitive way, or whether it’s recognising that violence then channeling that in the type of work that they do, or working with people who have suffering the consequences of violence, either as victims or as perpetrators.
So I think I just really wanted to explore violence in all its forms, but not shy away from it, and look at both the negative aspects of it, and how it could be positively channeled.
Asa also experiences a gendered form of violence — she’s groped by her father’s friend, and even the character of Quarter, even in the first interactions they have, repeatedly touches her when she says not to. What about the gendered aspect of violence did you want to talk about?
I mean, that’s something we’ve all experienced. There’s statistics about how many women and girls have experienced that sort of violence and I would be shocked if anyone had never experienced it.
Obviously I’m older (but) when I was young and I experienced those sorts of violence, I didn’t even perceive them as violence. So I really wanted to sort of bring out that Asa was very much in control of her own body and what she did with it, and who she allowed near it. That was a really important thing for me in terms of that gendered violence.
Her reactions might sometimes be seen as extreme, to something that happens when you know, she’s basically assaulted. But she fights back. Clearly, she’s a trained fighter, (so) that’s what she does.
I think I wanted bring home that we do have that power, and to fight against that thing that we’ve always been told, which is be nice, be polite. If someone does that sort of thing, you don’t have to put up with it. We can fight back in those circumstances — I’m not saying put yourself in danger — but when someone does those things to you that in the past have been accepted, like catcalling, pinching your bum, patting you on the arm: you just say no, just back off, don’t touch me. I think it’s really important to get those messages across.
And talking about Quarter, it’s really interesting to learn that you didn’t really ‘find’ the book until you found him. What did he bring to the story dynamic that hadn’t been there before?
So it’s interesting, because I originally wrote the novel as my PhD creative piece. It’s changed a lot since then but the core of the story is still there. I had a really strong interest in neuroscience, and I was exploring post-humanism and neuroscience.
A lot of post-humanism is really about technological changes, but I wanted to explore something that was organic (and) more of the earth or of nature.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I started talking to Danielle Binks, who became my agent, about the manuscript that she said I think you need to leave that whole PhD post humanism neuroscience behind and just develop the story because at that point, it was told from (three points of view).
So it was suggestion to rewrite it all from those key points in Asa’s single, first person point of view. Quarter’s part in the story really changed to some degree because we were no longer seeing things through his eyes. When it became more about Asa’s story, he became more of a foil in terms of he’s someone who embodies violence, embodies strength, and embodies power. (He is) reaching for something beyond himself. Asa is searching for her own power, so he was sort of that foil, with the comparison between the two.
Definitely. And Asa seems drawn to him on a very physical level and there’s a kind of sexual dynamic to it. But he’s definitely what we might call an example of ‘toxic masculinity’ because he’s aggressive, and they actually spar quite a lot. I take your point earlier that you know you purposely calibrated her strength as being on his level but it’s certainly a fraught dynamic that they have, tied up in that attraction, it’s fair to say?
There is a sexual dynamic, but one thing I was really clear about — I don’t think it’s a spoiler — but that we’re never going to end up together romantically. If someone else had written a book like this and at the end they’d ended up happily ever after, I would have thrown the book against the wall.
On the actual Dirt Circus League, and the nature of their extremism did you do any sort of research into cults and social experiments around how people end up in radicalised environments?
I’ve always been a little bit fascinated by cults, and what would draw people into a cult. I remember reading this quote, I think I use it in the book because I thought it was such a great quote: ‘If you’re capable of falling in love you’re capable of joining a cult.’
A few years ago I was at a writer’s retreat — as you do, I was very lucky — and there was an English woman there who she was in her late 60s who had written a book about her involvement in a cult.. I also did read the book about The Family, which was a very active cult in Melbourne in the 1990s.
Hearing that it came from a creative writing PhD, I’m just kind of curious: how many years you probably spent on the whole story, from PhD version to now, on shelves?
That would be 11 years. It was quite a journey. And as I said, there was a really distinct shift (after) Danielle made that suggestion that I actually it’s time to move away from the PhD and look at it from Asa’s perspective.
So really, everything’s up to Danielle. It’s actually really interesting. In 2011, I went to Varuna and I was working on a very early version of DIRT CIRCUS LEAGUE and at that time, everyone who was staying there was invited to do a three-minute reading for a work in progress. So and then I published those just as an audio file on their website. So I did a three minute reading and at that time, Danielle was an avid blogger.
Fast forward to 2016, I think it was, and I get a direct message on Twitter from Danielle saying, ‘I’m now an agent, whatever happened to DIRT CIRCUS LEAGUE?’
When you do approach that rewrite though, having taken on Danielle’s suggestion, but noting that it’s been a project you’ve worked on for multiple years, how did you stay energised and motivated?
I did a Masters as well in creative practice, and I wrote a novel for that, which will never see the light of day. The Masters cohort was only six of us, and it was really great, because with all these industry experts to come and talk to us, including (an editor) who said to each of us in the group, ‘I want to read all your manuscripts when you’re done.’
And I thought, ‘Right, that’s it. I’ve finished the Masters, I’ll finish my manuscript, send it off and in my mind, you know, Publication Guaranteed.’
And I got a rejection.
I remember, like, just going through this process of ‘I’m never gonna write again, I’m terrible’ — it’s very dramatic.
But from that experience, I got really important things: the first thing was just because you’ve done some research and done a university degree doesn’t mean that your novel is going to work. Number two, that just because you finish the degree doesn’t mean your novel is ready to send to a publisher. And number three, that I will write whether or not I’m ever going to be published, because writing is an integral part of who I am, and what and what I want to do. And it wouldn’t matter to me. If no one ever published my work, I wouldn’t stop writing.
So I think that’s where the energy comes from. With DIRT CIRCUS LEAGUE, and in particular, with Danielle making that suggestion, once I reflected on it, I really saw the value in what she said, and saw how it would inject new life into the story.
I think that’s a lovely sentiment.