Born and raised in Florida, Marianne Kirby has gone on to contribute to a variety of publications on topics dealing with feminism, body acceptance, and other progressive issues. She has recently journeyed into fiction and published her first novel, Dust Bath Revival (Curiosity Quills Press). Wanting to learn more about her career and latest novel, I was able to interview Kirby for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: When did you want to be a writer? Was there a book or article that you think pushed you the most to become an author?
Marianne Kirby: My parents surrounded me with books from the time I was very young – I learned to read by memorizing the books that they read to me. So, I was always a storyteller and I always knew that good stories, the ones you wanted to share with other people, got written down. Almost every memory I have of growing up involves a memory of the stories I was telling and scribbling in notebooks at the same time. In that sense, I’ve always been an author.
There were probably two books on craft that made me think I actually could be a writer if I just sat down and wrote. They were Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing – pretty classic stuff at this point. Before that (and still now), I was just an obsessive reader and the books that made me want to be part of that storytelling world were things like Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Frank Herbert’s Dune, of course J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and France Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
The thing that really pushed me to become a published author was actually the Fat Acceptance movement; it was really important to me to present the idea that there is an alternative to diet culture and writing seemed a powerful way to do that. So, I’d been an active blogger and done some media on the subject when Kate Harding and I started to work on a book proposal that eventually became Lessons From The Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting And Declare A Truce With Your Body. I continued to write and do media, and I wrote a lot of articles for women’s publications. But I was always working on fiction in the background, and when I had to take a break from writing about body politics, there was Hank, my main character, a fat and queer character. Once she existed as a character, there was no backing down from writing her.
Yanes: Non-Floridians don’t understand what our state has to offer. How did growing up here affect you?
Kirby: Florida has so many secrets and mysteries, right? It’s a widely diverse place in terms of everything from landscapes to cultures. I think growing up in Florida gave me a chance to meet all kinds of people in all kinds of different settings – but it also gave me a certain perspective on how temporary, how ephemeral, things can be. Whether its sink holes or hurricanes or a state-level government that’s more concerned with businesses than people, Florida isn’t always an easy place to live. The environment and the constant development aren’t really kind to old buildings or even some of the unique ecosystems but everything old is still accessible in pockets when you know where to look.
I’m not saying Florida made me believe in magic; it’s more like Florida taught me to see magic and weirdness and the best and worst of people existing right alongside everything that’s polished and manufactured and perfect. It’s all right on top of each other.
When I was a kid, I swore I wasn’t going to end up in Florida. Now that I’ve moved away, I can’t wait to get back there – Florida is a really hard place to leave behind and it’s an easy place to obsess over.
Also, I have zero ability to tolerate cold weather.
Yanes: You frequently write about feminism, fat acceptance, and other progressive topics. How do you think this has influenced your fiction writing?
Kirby: I have so many broken-hearted feelings about Orson Scott Card as an author these days, given his political stance. But when I was a teenager, his works meant a lot to me, and I read a book of essays he’d written about being a storyteller who is also LDS. One of them talked about how your writing always tells your truth, no matter what else is going on in it.
That’s really stuck with me through the years.
I mean, I absolutely identify as a fat and queer woman. So in some ways the influence on my fiction is pretty obvious – Hank is a fat and queer girl! But it’s also driven me to write something that I’d have wanted to read as a fat kid who was struggling with my identity – I tend to write stories where the main characters aren’t reviled for their identities because it’s the kind of relief I would have wanted, that I honestly still want instead of yet another coming out story where terrible things happen.
This means, I guess, that my truth is that being fat and/or queer really is just another part of a person, a part of their identity. It isn’t something that determines their story, the adventures they’ll go on.
Yanes: Given that Dust Bath Revival is your first novel. Could you take a moment to describe the process of getting professional representation for it? Specifically, how did your non-fiction help you in this process?
Kirby: Because I’d already developed a career in nonfiction, I actually already had an agent who was willing (and patiently waiting) to look at Dust Bath Revival when I was ready with it.
I’d built a platform in the mid-2000s with my fat politics blog, and when I and several other fat acceptance bloggers were interviewed in a New York Times article, agents and publishers (because there wasn’t much going on in publishing to speak to people who were sick of hating themselves and their bodies) began approaching us as writers. My coauthor and I had developed a book proposal, so we shopped it around and found an agency that really believed in our project.
Lessons From The Fat-O-Sphere was published in 2009. So when I say my agent was patient, I mean she was really really patient. We’d discussed fiction, possibly young adult fiction, and I’d started and put on hold a couple of projects.
I actually picked Dust Bath Revival back up during my application for the initial Amtrak Residency program. When I was chosen as an Amtrak Resident, I got the opportunity to finish my manuscript while spending 10 days on a train. Because I hadn’t had anything to show her for such a long time, when I printed everything out and sent it off to her, I had no guarantee that my agent was going to be interested in representing it, especially since it was so different from the few things we’d discussed.
Fortunately, she read it and loved it.
My nonfiction is what got me the contact with my agent and is, I think, what proved that I could produce a book. But then Dust Bath Revival really had to stand on its own.
Yanes: What was the initial inspiration for Dust Bath Revival? Are there any classic stories that you feel influenced you the most?
Kirby: The very first visual I had in my head for Dust Bath Revival was actually the view from my grandmother’s kitchen sink, in my grandparents’ old house, looking out over the porch and into the front yard where everyone parked their cars. Some of the settings are very real places as well, though they’ve been skewed and altered to serve the story instead of reality.
But even before that, I had Hank’s voice as a character – my stories always start with characters who have something to say, something that is making them interesting. With Hank, that was the tension of her regular quiet life being interrupted by events going on in the larger world. She was really thrust out into a situation she didn’t know nearly enough about or understand (which is actually a lot like the first time anyone leaves home!) and her survival depended on her ability to cope and adapt.
Plus, you know, zombies are great.
But I did actually find myself developing the not only the zombies but the setting of Dust Bath Revival in reaction to how frustrated I was getting with dystopian literature. The “lone survivor” narrative felt like it was missing out on just how many terrible things human beings can get used to. Our greatest strength is putting up with crappy situations, right? Dust Bath Revival was influenced by post-apocalyptic fiction and zombie stories in general because I needed something with a slightly more hopeful outcome even in the midst of an awful circumstance.
Yanes: As you were developing the story, did you find one theme or character coming to life in an unexpected way?
Kirby: Oh, my gosh. I’m not a dedicated outliner or a planner at all so I actually am surprised all the time when I sit down to write. I might have a vague idea of what I think is going to happen and then something else happens entirely! It’s what makes writing exciting.
That said, I wasn’t at all prepared for what a large part Jimmy played – and has yet to play – in the story. That’s been super fun to discover.
Thematically, I’d written the whole book and been quite done with it before I realized just what a commentary on being afraid of unrestrained appetite it is. It’s hard to talk about that without any spoilers though!
Yanes: You set Dust Bath Revival in Florida. Why did you select this location? Given that people mainly think of Florida as being nothing more than beaches, Miami, and Orlando, did you want to challenge the standard views of the state?
Kirby: Setting it in Florida just seemed so natural, maybe because Florida is such a huge part of my mental landscape. I’ve been to a lot of places but I don’t know them nearly as well as I know Florida in my head – and I could have done a lot of research but that would have ignored how rich a setting Florida is. From a practical perspective, I guess it’s “write what you know” and being a little lazy about research all at the same time!
But, a little more seriously, I don’t run across Florida as a setting all that often when I read and that’s such a shame. I won’t say Dust Bath Revival is my love letter to the state (I’m not so sure love letters should include ecological cataclysms that result in the dead rising from the grave), but I hope my love for Florida really can be felt in the story. I want other people to be as intrigued by it as I am, to want to go there and figure out just how much is really there.
I mean, beaches are awesome! And I love Miami and Orlando both – they’re very different cities and even within themselves they are home to a lot of different experiences. But there’s the Panhandle and north Florida and the Keys are a whole other world as well. So apparently I do want to challenge the standard views of the state.
Yanes: Reflecting on Dust Bath Revival now that it is finished, is there a scene or piece of dialogue that you are particularly proud of?
Kirby: When I do readings for groups, I general read a scene in Chapter Three, where Hank and her brother Ben attend a tent revival. That scene has a mix of tense and creepy and a little bit sexy that I worked hard for – it’s a scene that is really tied to Hank’s physical reactions even though it’s almost all seen through her internal reactions. Audience response indicate I hit the right balance, too. (That’s always the best feeling.)
Yanes: When people finish reading Dust Bath Revival, what do you hope people take away from the story?
Kirby: I’d like people to take away that big things can happen to anyone, including fat and queer girls from small towns. I’d like people to take away that we don’t actually need to be afraid of our hunger for things, our appetite. And, obviously, I’m really hopeful that people will be surprised and want to know what happens next!
Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that fans can look out for?
Kirby: Oh, whew, I am always in the middle of several on-going projects! Right now I’m deep into the sequel for Dust Bath Revival and a couple of short stories that are set in the same alternate history universe. But I’m also working on a trailer park vampire murder mystery that has been a lot of fun. It’s also set in Florida because I can’t seem to get out of my home state when it comes to my fiction – and I’m not trying very hard. And at some point there might be something about swamp witches that sees the light of day. I’m still figuring that one out myself but it’s going to be a good time.