You have written: “The Russian writer, Dostoevsky, once said that the best education for a writer is a single, glowing memory of childhood. I am fortunate enough to have a marvellous storehouse of these, which are happily proving much more useful to me than high heels and business suits!” Could you give us an example of one of these childhood memories and how it has helped you with a story?
There are some direct ways in which memories of actual events have fed into my writing. In Going For Broke, the boys set out to break a world record and this was something my older brother was always keen to do (and eventually achieved!), though he didn’t try all the crazy things I let my characters get up to. The same boys set out to dig a backyard pool in The Big Dig, and this is also something my older brother attempted in our yard. I suspect I’ve also drawn fairly broadly on my experiences growing up with my brothers to construct the characters of the boys in a general sense.
When I think about the Dostoevsky quote, though, it has more to do with remembering the emotional timbre of childhood, or at least what it was for me. One of my strongest memories is of sitting on the freshly mown oval on sports day – smelling the grass, running in bare feet, feeling the sun on my back and also feeling, really acutely, that this was a perfect moment that was already passing and that there was nothing I could do about that. And that that was as it should be. I was ten, thinking about transience and change and the bigness of things and the smallness of me in it, and in some intangible way, that particular memory, which does ‘glow’ in a way the others don’t, gives me access to my childhood self in a way that’s very important to how I approach writing for children, and the way I think about the readership.
You have written children’s fiction, poetry and young adult novels. Do you approach each in much the same way, or do you treat them very differently from one another?
Well, they’re all very different in form and so on but when I think about it my approach is similar for each. There’s always an initial spark – something that sets an idea in motion. For me it’s often an image or a single interesting sentence that presents itself, often apparently out of the clear blue sky though I suspect there’s often more to it than that. I jot it down, like I jot everything down and at some point, if it’s going to go further (a lot of notes don’t, of course) a cluster of ideas accretes, attaching itself to the original idea. I take a lot of notes – random, scattered thoughts, waiting for some kind of form to emerge from the mess. I don’t start writing until I can clearly hear the ‘voice’ of the piece. And I don’t take any of it lightly. Each kind of writing presents its own particular challenges and pleasures.
Children’s books are often very short. What is the key to making something special out of such a small piece of writing?
Regardless of length, I think the key lies in getting underneath the skin of a child, in really understanding their concerns, seeing with their eyes.
From a language point of view, of course, the very economy of the text means that each word must be chosen carefully, with attention not only to meaning but also to rhythm and patterning. Every word, every sentence has to work very hard, to carry more than its own weight. I like to think that, as with poetry, there is a lot more underneath and between the sentences of children’s books than makes its way onto the actual page.
It’s important, too, to recognise that short does not equal simple. Writing with economy of language and perhaps making a work appear simple is a very difficult thing.
What is it that makes a great match between the words and pictures in a children’s book?
I don’t illustrate my own work so can only speak from the point-of-view of an author who has been fortunate enough to have her work illustrated by others, and of a reader. I’m not very visually literate but I think words and pictures work together best when each informs the other, when it’s not a question of ‘pictures’ ‘illustrating’ a text which is always considered primary, but of a symbiotic relationship, of the two forms working together to construct a narrative which is a composite of both and greater than the sum of its parts.
You are currently doing a writer’s residence in Japan. What are some of the most important things you have learned or taught about writing fiction during your writer’s residence?
Because I speak Japanese, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions to give talks to Japanese students of children’s literature. Something which has struck me in a new way is that many of the so-called ‘rules’ about children’s literature either simply don’t apply here, or are modified in interesting ways. Maxims such as ‘the children must drive the story’, ‘child characters must solve their own problems’, ‘stories should not set out to overtly “teach” child readers’ don’t have the same kind of currency. And I’m interested in this because I teach a university course in children’s writing and something I like to offer up for discussion in the first class is the notion that all literature is a product of its socio-cultural context, that it’s all ideological even (and perhaps especially) when it professes not to be, and that the ‘rules’ we imbibe about what children’s literature should or shouldn’t be are not set in stone but are often constitute little more than a kind of fashion which will likely be outmoded in the not-too-distant future.
The synopsis of your book The Big Dig is: “Nathan’s plan is brilliant. Brilliant and simple. Dig. Dig some more. Put water in. Swim. Professionals? Who needs ’em? Measurements? Boring! This pool is destined for greatness. What could possibly go wrong?” How do you come up with the initial idea for a children’s book, and what separates a good idea from a bad one?
It’s interesting that you should choose that quote to illustrate your question because I draw on that a lot when I talk to kids about writing. I use the question of ‘what could possibly go wrong’ as a way of getting them to think about the complications that could drive a story but it also applies to the writing process in a more general sense. And now that I think about it, that quote speaks to my own process as well. As I mentioned above, I’m not a planner. I don’t set out to write an ‘idea’ or a ‘theme’, to write ‘about’ something. I don’t even get ‘ideas’, really. I begin with an initial line or image and go from there. I often start writing before I have much sense of what the story is about, but as I also said earlier, I never start writing until I can ‘hear’ the voice of the protagonist. So I don’t separate ideas into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ because I don’t work from ideas as such. What I think makes a story fail for me, or peter out, has more to do with me not really having understood the character or their motivations sufficiently. If the character fails to become ‘real’ enough, nothing has legs. I suppose I might also say that a ‘good’ idea or beginning place is perhaps one that I feel internally driven to write, rather than something which is more a response to external concerns, such as thoughts about what the publisher or the readers might want, even though those things have their own importance.
What are some of your favourite works of fiction and what makes them stand out for you?
I can never answer this question. I’m really all over the place, equally as enamoured of pictures books such as Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or The Red Tree as I am of, say To Kill a Mockingbird or A Prayer for Owen Meany or Cloudstreet or We Need to Talk About Kevin, but in very different ways. What I can say is that I don’t read for plot, perhaps just as I don’t write for plot. I read for character, language, insightful or perhaps wry observation of the world and the human condition. That’s what interests me as a reader. I also read a lot of poetry.
You have a picture book called The Truth About Penguins coming out July 2010. What can you tell us about that?
Well, I can tell you that it’s my first picture book and I’m very excited about it. I love picture books and it’s really fascinating to me, as a fairly non-visual person, to see what an illustrator can bring to the work, and the kind of cross-pollination that happens once that collaborative process begins.
The story itself had very simple beginnings. It was back in the era of Happy Feet, March of the Penguins, and so on when penguins were all the rage and every child I spoke to seemed to want to tell me about them. One day my daughter came home from school and immediately started telling me all the penguin facts she had learned that day – Did you know that penguins live in Antarctica? Did you know that the dads put the eggs between their feet? Did you know that penguins mate for life? – that sort of thing. And I just thought I’d have some fun with her. I replied, “Well, you know, that’s what they tell you. That’s what the penguins want you to believe. But actually, penguins don’t even like the cold. The ice is slippery and the wind makes their beaks hurt.” Without really meaning to, I just began spinning a yarn about penguins who flew off to tropical beaches, leaving their chicks at home with nannies, and picking up fried fish at the drive through. And later I wondered if there was a story there. It took a couple of years of back and forth with my editor and a lot of redrafting to make it work as a picture book, but that’s where it all began.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I suspect I’ll continue in much the same vein as I have till now – writing whatever grabs my fancy in a fairly scattered and unfocused way which quite possibly makes my publisher despair. I have another picture book due out next year some time and a junior novel to be published in February. Here in Japan, I’m working on a novel for adults as well as a YA verse novel and I’m always writing poems. I have more junior novels on the backburner – or perhaps the frontburner? – completed work that needs extensive rewriting and which I’ve promised myself (and others) I’d get done ‘soon’. I will probably do that soon, I imagine…
More on Meg McKinlay and her fiction can be found at www.megmckinlay.com.
The Australian Literature Review