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Career

My life is stranger than fiction says NZ Children's Book Awards winner Bren MacDibble

Her award-winning writing career is a story of survival.

By Fleur Guthrie
Author Bren MacDibble agrees that chapters of her own life have all the elements of a dramatic, action-packed novel.
There was the time the Australian-based Kiwi was almost killed when a truck clipped her car on an airport motorway, sending her vehicle flying into the median barrier.
And then there was the shock of watching the family home burning down in Melbourne and realising her two nearly completed manuscripts were still on her laptop, which was sitting on the kitchen table.(Spoiler alert – a firefighter managed to save it.)
And then last year, the mother-of-two got the shock news her husband Ken (58) had broken his neck in a serious motorbike accident and had to be airlifted from the Outback.
Yes, The Nine Lives of Bren MacDibble could make a good read, says the 53-year-old, who was recently named a winner in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults – but for now she'll stick to writing dystopian ecological stories.
Bren's book The Dog Runner has just been declared the junior fiction book of the year.
Chatting to the Weekly from Wellington, where her eco-drama The Dog Runner won the best junior fiction category, Bren says nearly losing her life and then most of her possessions inspired her and Ken to forge a simpler path.
Early last year, they decided to sell everything they had left and travel around Australia in a house bus with Basil, their "nutty little schnauzer"."It was kind of an opportunity that was forced on us after the fire," tells Bren.
The couple were riding home after a weekend away when they turned down their road to see their sons Cliff (26) and Harley (24) standing outside holding the dog, while thick, black smoke surged from the house.
"The evaporative cooling unit had caught fire," explains Bren. "The outside cover of it was flammable and was dripping into the roof space of our hardwood house.
"The windows busted out and a firefighter yelled, 'It's going to go!' That's when I remembered I had manuscripts on my computer that needed to be handed in.
"So I ran to the back door where the Fire Brigade was trying to keep everybody out and pleaded, 'Can you please reach in through the back door and grab that laptop from the table? I need that laptop – you don't understand…'"
In the following days, the shocked family began throwing out everything that was waterlogged or blackened.
"Obviously, it's really sad to see it all going in the skip bin, but you realise there's lots of things you've never used and they kind of weigh you down. So it's been liberating to think, 'Oh, we can live in a bus.' Life is simpler when you don't own heaps of stuff."
So at Easter 2018, Bren and Ken headed for the Northern Territory to begin life on the road. They invited their sons to join them, but the lack of internet connectivity proved a deal-breaker.
A devastating house fire (left and above) gave Bren the impetus to try life on the road
A few months later, while Bren sat writing a book at a campground in Mataranka, 420km southeast of Darwin, a man pulled up in a four-wheel drive and told her that Ken had come off his motorbike and was seriously injured.
"The speed limit out there was 130km and he had bounced down the road, smashing up his leg and his arm, and breaking his C1 vertabra in his neck," she recalls.
"He almost died on the roadside. Thankfully, there were people around, so staff from the medical centre came and did roadside triage before transferring him to the airfield."
Ken was airlifted to the Royal Darwin Hospital and Bren endured an anxious drive to the city to be by his side. He stayed in hospital for three months and remained in a wheelchair before undergoing three operations.
A year on, he has almost recovered from the surgery but still wears a moon boot.
"Ken's always been optimistic about getting back on his feet," says Bren.
A few months into their trip Ken broke his neck in a crash.
After celebrating her book win, Bren is heading back to Darwin, where they'll start their next road trip, down the Lucky Country's west coast.
Born in Whanganui, Bren grew up in "backwater farms and towns" in heartland New Zealand. Her mum bought her a typewriter for her 14th birthday and she'd spend hours tapping out stories to avoid doing homework.
"I wanted to be an author but thought I was too stupid."
She left school early to work in a legal office, which didn't appreciate her creative editing.
"I'd be typing dictation and adjust the sentences to make them sound better, but they'd make me change it back!"
Reading children's books to her young boys was her catalyst to start writing again.
"I fell in love with the books and thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if I could do that?' So I joined night classes on children's fiction writing and my world started opening up.
"When I wrote my first book, In the Dark Spaces, I never intended to show it to anyone. I just wanted to play around with different voices. But I sent it off to a first novel competition and won! It's been a pretty amazing ride ever since."

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