Interview by Tehani Wessely.
Meg McKinlay is a children’s author and poet who has published twelve books for young people as well as a collection of poetry for adults. Her work for children ranges from picture books for lower primary through to middle-grade fiction. Her novel A Single Stone won the 2015 Aurealis Award for Best Children’s Fiction as well as the children’s category of the Queensland Literary Awards, and was shortlisted for a number of other prizes. A former academic in the fields of Japanese Studies and Australian Literature, Meg has spent her life resisting the admonition to focus on any one thing. Her path to becoming a writer can be summed up by a line from the band ‘Things of Stone and Wood’: If you see a strange door to your left, then drop your things and run for it!
Congratulations on the success of A Single Stone, which is (I think) your first foray into speculative fiction. What drew you to the speculative elements of the story?
Thanks! I’ve been equal parts taken aback and gratified by the reception A Single Stone has had. As to what drew me to the speculative side of things, I’ve never seen myself as a certain kind of writer. I start with the kernel of an idea and just play messily with it, seeing what sticks to it until I have some sense of direction. With A Single Stone, I began with the notion of someone who felt most at home underground, compressed by tight spaces. While there’s no reason why this couldn’t be part of a realist story, once I started thinking about why someone might feel that way, and what that might mean, I found things veering quickly into speculative territory. As things evolved, I became interested in exploring real-world issues such as gendered power, body dysmorphia, and religious fundamentalism, and I suspect that there was something about setting those things at a remove from their original context that gave me more scope to play. That said, I feel a little wary of trying to explain my decision-making process, as I’m not sure I really have a great deal of insight into how it works in those early stages; there’s a tendency in that backward glance to manufacture cause and effect – to craft a tidy narrative of the creative process – which I want to resist.
While I know you have written novels, many of your works are picture books for younger readers – which is more fun to work on?
I’m gritting my teeth a bit through my current WIP so the notion of ‘fun’ gave me a wry smile … but I think I’d have to say novels. I love playing with ideas, spooling them out as far as I can, hauling in other tangents along the way, and novels allow more room for that. Nonetheless, having started my writing life as a poet, in that sort of spirit I do enjoy the challenges of compression and economy that picture books call for.
Can you tell us what are you working on at the moment that we might see in the next year or so?
Firmly returning to the realist fiction camp, I have a picture book out next year about a small rhinoceros who defies naysayers to sail the world. That’s currently in the final stages of being illustrated by the marvellous Leila Rudge, with whom I’ve worked on three previous books.
And depending on how much scope there is for woolliness in ‘or so’ … I’m working on a junior fiction novel entitled Catch a Falling Star, which is set in 1979 against the backdrop of Skylab falling out of orbit. I’ve been doing the things I usually do – overthinking, overcomplicating, overwriting – which means the book is well overdue, but I’m hoping to have a solid draft by the end of the year. We were hopeful that would be out in 2017, but it’s looking more like 2018 at this point.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals. It’s a collection of short fiction narrated by the souls of animals who have been caught up in human conflicts at different points in history. It’s just beautifully written and wonderfully thought-provoking; really unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
The only thing I like about plane trips is the solitude and permission to be in a bubble – to read and watch junk and not talk at all. So I’m going to say Carson McCullers because I suspect she’d be the same. We could be solitary together, so to speak. And when we got to our destination, I could break the ice in that way introverts do post-arrival, when the risk of being trapped has passed, and just quietly say, “I love your work. Thanks for it.” and then be gone.