Meg McKinlay is a Fremantle-based author. Her publications include picture books, illustrated chapter books, and novels for upper primary, all published by Walker Books Australia. In a past life, she was an academic, teaching subjects ranging from Australian Literature and Creative Writing to Japanese. Basically, she just enjoys pottering about with words.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Would it be odd to say that I'm still not sure? I started writing for children because I was reading books to my daughter and had a story idea, rather than because I had decided I wanted to be a writer. Once I had one idea, I kept getting others, and the only way to quiet 'the voices' was to write them down. I guess I'll keep writing until I run out, which doesn't look like happening any time soon! I should add that I've always been a collector of fragments, jotting down interesting sentences and observations about bits and pieces. I never really saw those as the beginnings of anything though, not parts of 'story' as such, so wasn't really thinking they might make a writer of me one day.
What was your road to publication like?
A near miss on my very first submission (a picture book manuscript), which gave me a false sense of how the industry works ie "Write story, send it off to one publisher, who writes back with an editorial report and expressions of enthusiasm. Revise book and wait for launch date." That near miss (brought about by a 'change of direction' in the publisher's list, which I can only interpret in hindsight to have meant 'away from you'), was followed by years of submission and rejection, peppered with the occasional personal note and encouragement to keep going, send future work and so on. That kept me going long enough to eventually snag that first contract in 2006, with the newly opening Walker Books Australia.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for this years 'Young Readers Award' for your book
'Duck for a Day'. Can you please tell us about it?
Duck for a Day is the story of Abby and Noah, and of Max the duck who arrives in their class along with their new teacher, Mrs Melvino. Everyone wants to take Max home for a day, but a duck is no ordinary class pet and there are all sorts of demands that must be met before Mrs Melvino will part with him. Abby, who has never had a pet of her own, wants to be first. But so does scruffy Noah, who lives over the back fence with his chaotic family. And every day Mrs Melvino's demands become more ... demanding. Getting a duck for a day turns out to be harder than Abby had ever imagined. And when she does, things don't exactly go according to plan.
This is a story I'm personally very fond of, so it makes me very happy that it seems to be striking a chord with readers. People often ask me where I got the idea for the story and I think the very beginnings of Duck for a Day formed when I saw an interview with the cartoonist Michael Leunig, who draws lots of ducks. He was talking about how people are sometimes confused by his ducks, wanting to know what they’re about, and he said, “I thought everybody would understand what a duck is about, and it’s just ... there is the duck”.
That line stayed with me. It had a certain weight - the idea of “the duck” who was just “there” refusing to explain himself, but just being. A duck character began to form in my head, and one day the line “The duck was different. The duck had demands” came to me and I stopped in my tracks. Because I knew it was a line that had fallen out of a story, one that I was going to write. I had no idea what it was going to be about, other than that there would be a rather glorious and stubborn duck in it, but eventually other ideas came along and attached themselves to it and slowly, the story began to form.
When and where do you write?
All over the place and in whatever time is available. I was working in academia full time when my first novel, Annabel, Again, was published, but was feeling like it was time for a change. I now do very little teaching work but have taken on other arts-related jobs, which means I usually have perhaps 2-3 days a week of potential writing time, and that is often eroded by other responsibilities. I guess I seize whatever time is available, though when I have a day, I try to discipline myself to make the most of it. Otherwise, I guess I just squeeze it into the cracks of other things.
Location-wise, I'm very fortunate to have recently moved out of a cold, pokey, wall-facing corner into my own home-office, a north-facing, sunny (and warm!) room that looks out onto our native garden and its many lovely birds. I also often work at a kind of treadmill desk I've set up in a corner of another room and on a writing day I try to do at least a couple of hours there. This probably sounds very odd but it's a great antidote to the excessive sitting that is otherwise part and parcel of our work, and I find that moving also helps to shake ideas loose, which is handy.
What in your opinion determines a books success?
Of my own work, I would say the most successful for me on a creative level have been Duck for a Day and my recent novel Surface Tension. What that means for me is that I think those books leave the reader with the feeling I wanted them to have at the end of the book, which of course is not about the ending as such but rather the product of a whole range of things that go on in the narrative itself.
When I start writing, I never know how the story is going to end in terms of the plot, but what I do know is the feeling I want the reader to be left with. And I think I managed to do that in those books, so they feel successful to me on the most important level. For Duck for a Day to have also found success in the marketplace is very gratifying and I can only hope that Surface Tension will find its readers in the same way.
What do you like to read?
I'm drawn to lyrical, quiet books which have at their heart a concern with observations about life, the human condition, the way we relate to each other and the world. I love poetry and even in prose I want to read work that values the medium - the language - rather than simply constructing or advancing a story. I've heard some authors describe themselves as 'storytellers rather than writers'. That's not me. I generally don't care much about plot, or at least it isn't central for me as a reader. This causes all sorts of problems for my own writing. I'll happily write a whole book simply because I've fallen in love with a particular sentence or an idea and the story or plot becomes a rather elaborate scaffolding for that one thing. Likewise when I'm reading, as long as there's one compelling image or observation I can take away with me, I'm not concerned if nothing much happens plot-wise.
How do you develop your ideas?
"Develop" is far too orderly a word for the way I go about things! And mostly I don't start with an idea as such. An image will take hold of me, or a line of prose that sounds interesting, or I'll 'hear' the voice of a character saying something that sounds intriguing. All of those bits get thrown into a massive file I call 'slush' and they bump around in there until eventually something pushes its way to the front, begins to look more like part of a narrative, rather than just an isolated fragment. I find that often what seem to be disparate fragments end up fitting together and that's where a story starts.
Once I think I might have the beginnings of a story, I start a document for that project and I guess I think more actively about that idea from that point. I spend a lot of time throwing bits and pieces that seem like they might go into that story into the document and then when I have a mess that looks like it might have the elements I need hidden in there somewhere, I start trying to shape things in a somewhat more focused way. I'm emphatically not a planner, though. I tend to just dive in and try and work things out as I go. I've tried outlining/planning and find it impossible. I have no idea how to work out what a story needs to do without being in the middle of it. I used to get frustrated with myself for not being more organised (I do a lot of rewriting!), but I've come to accept that this is just my process, even if it feels nothing at all like process and everything like chaos.
What has been the biggest highlight of your career?
I'm not sure. I struggled with this question for a while and realised it was because of the word 'career'. I don't think of what I'm doing in terms of 'career' and I think a word like that leads me to think about more tangible outcomes than really matter to me - sales, industry recognition, that sort of thing. Those things do matter, of course, but I wouldn't want them to sit at the centre of things.
I think really my highlights have been things like finding what felt like the absolute right final line for Duck for a Day, or managing to wrestle Surface Tension into shape when I thought it was dead. That's what matters to me - creative satisfactions; they're the highlights. And I suspect that's as it should be for me, because it's the daily stuff that needs to be satisfying if I'm to keep going. I can't look for that in the external validations that come along with a word like 'career', because I have no control over those things at all.