Interview with Children's Author Meg McKinlay

For my latest interview, I'm delighted to welcome Australian children's author and poet, Meg McKinlay. Since 2007, Meg has published ten books for children with Walker Books Australia, and three of them have recently been picked up by Walker's U.S. counterpart, Candlewick Press. Her credits include picture books, chapter books, as well as middle grade novels. I'm going to be highlighting Meg's latest MG Below (Candlewick 2013) first published with the title of Surface Tension (Walker Books 2011) But before we get to that, please tell us a little more about yourself, Meg.

I'm a poet and children's writer who lives near the Indian Ocean in Fremantle, Western Australia. I grew up in a TV-free household, and was one of those bookish kids, in love with words, excited by dictionaries and spelling bees. Although I've always enjoyed writing, I didn't really plan on becoming a writer; I was a college professor for many years but started getting story ideas while reading to my young daughter and after a long and winding road towards publication, that side of things eventually took over.

Well, congratulations on having ten books published! That's quite an accomplishment. Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

It might be the poet in me, but as a writer (and a reader for that matter) I have a tendency to privilege things like image and language over plot and structure. As you can imagine, this leads to some interesting dilemmas, particularly when I'm working on a long-ish novel. I'm a 'pantser' rather than a plotter or even an outliner and my writing process is extremely chaotic, to the point where 'process' seems far too orderly a word to describe it. Over the years, though, I've learned to have faith that no matter how impossible it might seem in the midst of things, if I just keep on writing, a way will eventually open, and a novel will emerge from the mess.

Your story Below has quite an intriguing premise. Can you share a summary and then tell us where the idea came from?

Below, is the story of Cassie, born on the day her town was 'drowned' to make way for the construction of a dam complex, something which has happened to a number of towns in Australia and also, I believe, the US. Never having lived in the town in which her much older siblings spent their childhoods, Cassie feels excluded from her own family's history and grows up with something of an obsession for the drowned town. When she tires of the crowded public pool, she hits on the idea of swimming up at the reservoir, in an easily accessible but off-limits area above the submerged town. What neither she, nor Liam, a boy whose tragic past is intertwined with that of the town, realise is that the water beneath them holds a dark secret. As summer heats up and the lake waters become lower and lower, the shocking truth is slowly revealed and Cassie and Liam have to work together to make sure it is brought up fully into the light.

The seed for this story was planted a very long time ago. When I was in about Year 8, my class went on a camp to a town which had a 'drowned' version of itself quite nearby. When we were there, the water was quite low, and you could see some of the remnants of the old town above the surface, including the beginning of a road that led down into it. I remember being taken by the idea of setting off along the road and following it underwater all the way into the town. It doesn't make sense, but because there was a road, it felt possible somehow. That image sat in the back of my mind for over twenty years until one day the line The day that I was born, they drowned my town came to me, and the rest of the story slowly built itself around that. While I was writing, I found the central story turning into a mystery, which I hadn't anticipated, and that required some very careful plotting, which was quite challenging for me. I was pleasantly surprised last year when Below (under its Australian title, Surface Tension) won the Davitt Crime Writing Award for Best Children's/YA Novel; until it was shortlisted, I hadn't actually realized that what I had written could be considered crime writing!

Wow, now that's the kind of thing that makes all the effort worth it. And speaking of effort, what was your path to publication like? And has it become any easier over the years?

Somewhat ridiculously, my very first submission (of a picture book manuscript) met with a promising response and I thought, Huh. This is easy! But then the publisher 'changed the direction of their list' (away from me!) and my manuscript was dropped. And no one else wanted it. That story is still in a drawer, though I may dust it off one day soon. After that I wrote more stories and collected a folder full of rejection slips and the occasional note of encouragement, which was enough to spur me on. The manuscript that became my first novel, Annabel, Again, came close at a publisher who went out of business when apparently on the verge of making an offer. It was difficult at the time, but unbeknownst to me, the editor I was dealing with there kept my manuscript in mind and when she settled at a new publisher a few months later, she contacted me to see if it was still available. And that's how my first publication eventually came about, about five years after that first near miss.

As for whether it's become easier over the years, that's an interesting question. It does give me confidence when I'm in the very messy stages of a work-in-progress to know that I've done this before, and so can probably do it again. It's great to have a publisher who believes in me and champions my work; I do find that buoying. But in the end, it still comes down to me and the blank page and that's always a difficult and wonderful thing, and I still do plenty of work that never makes it across the line in terms of publishing. For me, the challenge these days is really about staying true to myself. I started writing because I love it and I want to keep doing the kind of writing that moves me and not get too distracted by what I imagine an editor or a marketing department might want. It's really easy to let that anticipation feed back into the writing process, and that can be paralyzing.

Great advice, Meg. Especially the part about writing what you love and staying true to yourself. What's in the works now?

The sequel to Duck for a Day (Definitely No Ducks!) has just been released over here, and I'm now in a fairly intensive writing phase trying to finish an upper MG/lower YA that has been eluding me for a couple of years. I don't usually talk much about things while I'm working on them, since I never really know what they're about until I get to the end, but I can say that it's provisionally entitled Set In Stone, and I'm at the stage where I have no idea whether it's going to be terrible, amazing, or somewhere in between. That space of deep uncertainty is quite unsettling, but also normal for me!

Thanks so much for stopping by the blog and sharing some insider knowledge with us. I'm really looking forward to reading Below.

To learn more about Meg and her books you can visit her site at
or check out her Facebook blog
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Published on June 28, 2013 19:29 Tags: author-interviews, below, meg-mckinlay, middle-grade-novels
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message 1: by Leandra (new)

Leandra Great interview, I'm on my way to check out Meg now. I loved the premise of Below, sounds right down my alley!

message 2: by Dianna (new)

Dianna Winget I agree, Leandra. Thanks for your comment.

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Middle Grade Matrix

Dianna Dorisi Winget
A place to share tips, questions, answers, dilemmas, complaints, and the many joys of writing for ages 9-12.
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