I am thrilled that the news has now been released that Meg McKinlay’s A Single Stone (Walker Books Australia) has won the Griffiths University Children’s Book Award in the 2015 Queensland Literary Awards. I hope it becomes a contemporary classic.
Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books Blog, Meg. I reviewed A Single Stone as YA lit for the Weekend Australian in August and chaired the QLA children’s book panel – with the wonderful Megan Daley and Maree Pickering, which it has just won. Why do you think it could be classed as either YA or children’s literature?
It’s an interesting question. When I started writing the book, I thought it would be YA, but along the way found myself resisting some of the tropes you might expect in a book of this genre for that readership. By the time I finished, I was thinking of it as more junior fiction, extending into lower YA.
The bottom line, of course, is that the boundary between children and young adults is not clear cut – either in literature or in life. Since the book’s publication, I’ve had positive feedback from readers as young as 9 and teenagers of all ages. As with most things, I think it depends on individual readers but there are certainly elements in the book itself that mean it can more readily straddle that range.
For example, the main character, Jena, is 14, which is sort of on the cusp of the two categories, and even though conventional wisdom holds that readers prefer to ‘read up’, I think that’s a generalisation. If a character is strong and compelling, a reader will want to follow them regardless of age. I also think the ideas in the book are complex enough for YA readers while still being accessible to younger readers, and at the same time there’s no content that might be considered problematic for that younger age group. That was in no way by design – it’s simply a function of what the story did and didn’t call for – but I do think it’s helped extend the book across a broader range. The only time that’s really a problem is when a firm classification is needed – for awards entries, library/bookstore shelving, and so on. I’ve been a little concerned about whether this might see the book fall through the cracks between categories, but so far that doesn’t seem to have been a problem.
Did you attend the awards ceremony in Brisbane? What happened?
Yes, I was fortunate to be able to make a flying visit to Brisbane for the ceremony. It was a wonderful evening shared with a room full of fellow writers and booklovers; there was a real sense of celebration across the whole event and I felt privileged to be part of it. I’m a fairly relaxed public speaker but as the announcement approached, I found myself feeling unexpectedly wobbly. There was something about the occasion that was quite overwhelming!
What is A Single Stone about?
A Single Stone is the story of 14-year-old Jena, who lives in a village which is enclosed within a valley; it’s encircled by an impassable mountain range and cut off from any notion of an outside world. In this closed society, which suffers very harsh winters, a mineral known as mica is essential for survival, but it can only be found deep inside the mountain.
Girls who are small enough, and skilled enough, will eventually join the line of tunnellers who harvest the mica from deep inside the mountain; this is work which is highly prized and for which every girl longs to be chosen. It is not an option for boys, who aren’t permitted inside the mountain.
For this reason, girls are kept as small as possible. There are various strategies for this, all of them closely monitored by the Mothers, a group of women who hold most of the power in the village. It isn’t always easy, but it’s the only world the girls know and they accept it as the natural way of things. That is until a tragedy leads Jena to a discovery – about the Mothers and the mountain – that leads her to question the world and beliefs on which she’s been raised, and sets in motion a chain of events that changes things in a fundamental way.
Have you based the characters on anyone in particular, or certain types?
None of the characters is based on anyone in particular, although on reflection I may have been thinking a little of Katniss and Rue from The Hunger Games in writing the relationship between Jena and Min.
I don’t think about character in terms of ‘types’ particularly, but I knew I wanted Jena to be someone who’s heavily invested in doing what’s ‘right’, in a way that threatens to blinker her to larger truths. Writing this now, I realise that there are some elements of my teenage self in her – conscientious and authority-pleasing, but with reasons for that, and also with a latent capacity to stand up and go against the grain if pushed to a certain point.
There’s a character in the book who’s a conscious counterpoint to Jena in some ways, and I’ve set this duality up in order to reflect a bit on the nature/nurture debate. I can’t say too much more on that without veering into spoiler territory, though.
The other characters I thought quite carefully about are the Mothers. I was very clear in myself that I didn’t want them to be simply antagonists; people are of course far more complex than that and I wanted the Mothers to reflect those ambiguities, the shades of grey.
You have created an intriguing, original setting and mood. How would you describe your writing style in this novel?
It’s very satisfying to hear these comments about the setting, because this is something I typically struggle with. I’m much more interested in the internal landscape than in where the action takes place in a physical sense, and often forget entirely about the literal setting.
In terms of style, I would describe my writing here as lyrical, measured and thoughtful, and hopefully all those things on the backbone of a compelling plot.
There are two that I’m aware of, but undoubtedly others whose footprints I haven’t yet recognised. The gnomes in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair, which is my favourite of the Narnia series, made me think about what it would be like to be so at home underground, in tight spaces, that you had a horror of being outside.
The other book was Franz Kafka’s The Zurau Aphorisms, which is a collection of fragments and pithy observations about life and the human condition. One such aphorism tells of leopards breaking into a temple so frequently that they are eventually co-opted into its ceremonies. As a teenager in an Anglican high school, I was taken by this notion of how something inherently random and meaningless might ultimately become part of sacred ritual. And from there to wonder what the consequences might be when that ritual becomes utterly removed from its point of origin.
These are both texts whose influence came a long time ago – at the ages of about seven and fourteen respectively – and laid very early seeds for the story that became A Single Stone.
What are your other books?
I’ve published 11 other books for young readers, picture books – No Bears, Ten Tiny Things, and The Truth About Penguins – and chapter books – Duck for a Day, Definitely No Ducks, Going for Broke, The Big Dig and Wreck the Halls – through to junior novels – Annabel, Again and Surface Tension. My latest release is Bella and the Wandering House, which is a chapter book for ages 5-9-ish. I’ve also published a collection of poetry for adults, entitled Cleanskin.
What have you enjoyed reading?
So many things! I like a book that makes me think, that shows me the world in a new or surprising way, and also one that treats language with care. I read a lot of literary fiction and poetry as well as children’s and young adult fiction. One of my favourite books in recent years is Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, a collection of startling short stories narrated by the souls of animals. On the plane home from Brisbane, I read Darren Groth’s young adult novel Are You Seeing Me?, which I really enjoyed, and I’m currently immersed in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.
Thanks for speaking to us, and all the best with this one, as well as your next book.
My absolute pleasure, and thank you right back!