Laugh Your Head Off Again(Pan Macmillan Australia) is a very funny book of clever stories by top Australian writers such as Andy Griffiths, Morris Gleitzman, Meg McKinlay, Frances Watts, Sally Rippin, Jaclyn Moriarty, Katrina Nannestad, Tony Wilson and New Zealander, Alan Brough. It’s ideal for primary school aged children and would be a good Christmas present.
Meg McKinlay answers my questions (and makes me laugh out loud):
Can you write funny stories because you come from a funny family? What’s something funny about your family?
I’m not sure where my sense of humour comes from but I do think all families are funny in their own way. Mine has recently developed a habit of replacing photos in other family members’ houses with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and seeing how long it takes them to notice. I find this pretty amusing.
What’s something funny about you?
It takes me an average of 78 days to notice that a photo of a cherished family member has been replaced with a shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What are your other books? What’s something funny in them?
I’ve published thirteen books, ranging from picture books all the way through to a poetry collection for adults. Some of my best-known books are No Bears, Duck for a Day, and A Single Stone.
One of my favourite funny moments is in Definitely No Ducks! – the sequel to Duck for a Day – when Max the duck disguises himself as a penguin in order to take part in a class assembly, and things go chaotically wrong.
What everyday experience have you been able to turn into something humorous? How did you do it?
I once drove past someone sitting at a bus stop and – due to their long limbs and black clothing – briefly mistook them for a speed camera. I turned this into a poem called ‘Walter’, about a boy with ‘unnatural angles’ who deliberately sets out to trick motorists. As for how I did so, I just let my brain think the weirdest thoughts imaginable and ran with them. I consider this to be a very sound policy at all times.
My story is called “Corn Chip Belieber”. It’s about two boys who find a corn chip that looks like Justin Bieber and come up with a get-rich-quick scheme, only to be thwarted by a kamikaze seagull. It was a ridiculous amount of fun to write but has complicated my love of corn chips.
Thanks very much Meg and all the best with this new book and your other work.
Australian YA writing is powerful, fresh and imaginative, creating spaces for thought and wonder. The finest novels from 2015’s field in my view are Meg McKinlay’s A Single Stone, an exquisitely written dystopia about lean girls who tunnel through stone. Younger readers in upper primary school can also read it and I hope that it finds a niche as a contemporary classic.
Lili Wilkinson’s Green Valentine is a hilarious tale about popular girl Astrid and how she and Hiro transform their ugly suburb through guerilla gardening. Humour is difficult to write and Wilkinson shines in this, as well as inspiring readers to beautify their surroundings with nature.
The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams is another urban caper loosely based on the real-life theft of a Picasso painting. Books about the arts often rank highly with me, as do books with an interesting structure.
Fiona Wood’s Cloudwish centres on Vietnamese-Australian scholarship girl Vân Uoc Phan who adores Jane Eyre. The story becomes magically surreal when she wishes that she “fascinates” Billy Gardiner.
Rosanne Hawke (interviewed here) writes hard-hitting yet compassionate stories based on young people in dire situations, often in Pakistan. Her latest, The Truth About Peacock Blue follows Christian girl, Aster who is accused of blasphemy by her Muslim teacher. Her life is at risk. A number of topical issues are raised with sensitivity and balance.
Trinity Doyle’s Pieces of Skyis an exciting debut. Doyle is part of a group of female Australians who debuted with a splash in 2015. (I’ve interviewed many Australian authors on the blog.)
Goodbye Strangerby Rebecca Stead is about Bridget whose friends seem to be growing up faster than she is. Stead always does something to surprise and parts of this novel are told in 2nd person. It’s clever and intriguing.
Dumplin’by Julie Murphy is a (mostly) feel-good story about a big girl who enters a beauty pageant.
I can’t wait to read novels coming for young people in 2016, including Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall, A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, A Tangle of Gold by the luminous Jaclyn Moriarty and James Roy’s new YA novel.
A.J. Betts has achieved great popular and critical acclaim for her YA novel Zac & Mia(Text Publishing).
Why A.J. rather than Amanda?
I chose to use my initials for the publication of my first novel, Shutterspeed, which was, amongst other things, a book written to appeal to reluctant male readers (14+). After teaching teens for many years, I realised how little was written to engage and excite this group. I worried that a female name on the cover might give potential readers a reason – however small – not to pick up the book. My decision was also a homage, of sorts, to S.E. Hinton, and her amazing work and legacy.
Where are you based and how involved are you in the YA and children’s lit world?
After growing up in Far North Queensland, then living for a time in Brisbane and overseas, I’m now based in Perth, where I’ve been since 2004. I’m fortunate to live beside the ocean. I’m obsessed with the blues.
I’m quite involved in the YA scene. I’m a member of WA branch of SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), which regularly meets for workshops and talks. I’ve made some incredible, like-minded friends through this organisation. I spend a lot of time speaking at schools and festivals, including working with The Literature Centre in Fremantle, which promotes Australian children’s creators, and conducts writing programs for young people. More generally, I’m a proud supporter of the LoveOzYA campaign, as well as the Room2Read projects.
How else do you spend your time?
Besides writing and presenting, I teach high school English part-time. I’m a keen cyclist (I own five bikes) so I try to get out most days, followed by an ocean dip. I read when I can, for pleasure or research. If I need some ‘down-time’ I watch films or I wander around shopping centres like a zombie.
What inspired you to write Zac & Mia (which I reviewed for The Weekend Australian here)?
For the past eleven years I’ve worked as a high school teacher in a children’s hospital in Perth, and most of that time has been spent working on the cancer ward.
Even so, Zac & Mia was a surprise to me. In the past, my writing has always been sparked from random moments, followed by ‘what if?’ questioning. I never imagined I’d write about topics so close to my real (working) life. I never thought I’d write a novel so emotionally testing.
The book came about from two separate things: firstly, my empathy for teenagers stuck in isolation during a bone marrow transplant treatment (imagine being stuck in a room for five weeks!?); and secondly, because of a request I had from a cancer patient who wanted me to write a romance. I didn’t know which idea to pursue first – isolation or romance – so I wondered if it was possible to bring the two ideas together. This raised the question: is it possible to fall in love with someone you can’t meet?
Cancer wasn’t a driving ‘theme’, but the catalyst for bringing the two characters together. As the story developed, so too did the ideas, such as finding ‘a new normal’ after illness or change. It was only in the editing process that I realized what is truly at the heart of the story: What is beauty? What is courage? What is love? The characters are working out their own answers to these questions – and I certainly learned a lot from them along the way!
I’m indebted to the hundreds of teenagers I’ve worked with on the cancer ward – they are the reason I persevered with this book, honestly and earnestly. They continue to inspire and surprise me.
Could you tell us something about your main characters, and also about the book’s structure (which I love)?
Zac is a very level-headed kind of guy who likes sport and the outdoors. He uses humour to deal with problems, and has a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of approach. He was lots of fun to write and his voice came to me quite naturally. I’d say he’s made up of 50% me and 50% teenaged male students I’ve known over the years. (Please note: while Zac & Mia is influenced by real people, the actual story and events are fictional.)
The entrance of Mia’s character, on the other hand, needed to prompt contrast and conflict, and as a result she’s more impulsive, self-focused, and quicker to anger. She’s feisty! Whereas Zac’s decisions are based on logic, hers are emotion-fuelled. She was also fun to create, but it took me a long time to get her character right. Again, she’s made up of teenagers I’ve known (their comments; not necessarily their actions) and parts of me. I had to delve into my teenage recollections to truly bring her to life.
The three-part structure – Zac’s perspective; alternating perspectives; Mia’s perspective – evolved through the writing process. Originally, the novel was going to be completely narrated by Zac, but when I was approximately eight chapters in, I realized the main character arc was going to be Mia’s. This meant I needed to give her the chance to reveal much more of her inner life. I liked the alternating chapters in the middle third, as it contrasts the characters’ experiences while showing their lives intersecting. By devoting the final third to Mia, I came to like her more – and hopefully the reader does too! The novel’s three-word title came directly from its three-part structure.
Have you received any responses from young readers about Zac and Mia that particularly resonate with you?
I’m overwhelmed by the sincerity of the emails I receive from young readers, both here in Australia and overseas. Some have cancer; some have witnessed it in a friend or relative. For most readers, though, they really relate to Mia’s experience, which is not about illness but universal experiences such as hope, rejection, fear, self-loathing, love, vulnerability and frustration. Readers tell me the book moved them, and that they see their worlds with new eyes. What a privilege this is, for me.
What else have you written?
My first novel is Shutterspeed (Fremantle Press; 2008), followed by Wavelength (Fremantle Press; 2010). They are completely different from each other, and from Zac & Mia. Shutterspeed is fast and edgy, exploring ideas of obsession and secrecy. Wavelength is more funny and philosophical, reflecting on the decisions that teenagers (nearing the end of Year 12) need to make.
What are you writing at the moment?
My current project is already three years in the making. It’s something unexpected and exciting – a work of speculative fiction set in a future Tasmania. It’s my most adventurous story yet. I’m about 2/3 through the draft, though the overall shape keeps changing and I’m continually having to rework earlier chapters. It could be really good or a terrible mess. I’m yet to find out! But I’m enjoying it right now, which must count for something.
Christmas is coming. How do you plan to celebrate and what books would you like as Christmas presents?
Already!? This Christmas will be a quiet-ish one in Perth with good friends, good food, and some cooling ocean swims. For Christmas, I need another bookcase, and only then I’m allowed to buy/receive new books. No-one dares buy me books for Christmas as they know how fussy I am.
For the New Year I’ll be going to New Zealand for a one month cycle-touring trip of the South Island, (with some research and bookstore events/visits thrown in). Travel, bikes, books – what more could anyone want?
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.
Could you tell us about the literary texts that helped inspire A Single Stone?
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.
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.