Monthly Archives: April 2015

2, 2 and 2: Meg McKinlay talks about A Single Stone

Meg McKinlay is a poet, a writer of fiction for children and young people, and the author of my favourite laugh-out-loud picture book, The Truth about Penguins. (If you suspect you haven’t been told the truth about penguins, you’re probably right, and I suggest you order a copy immediately.) She and I also share a love of all things duck-shaped.

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Meg has published 11 books for children, ranging from picture books through to young adult novels, and a collection of poetry for adults. Her work has been shortlisted for (among others) the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the Environment Award for Children’s Literature, and the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award, and her novel Surface Tension (published as Below in the US) won the Children’s/Young Adult category of the 2012 Davitt Award for Crimewriting.

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She has a PhD in Japanese Literature and taught for many years at The University of Western Australia, in subjects ranging from Australian Literature and Creative Writing to Japanese Language. In 2010, she took up an Asialink Residency in Japan to conduct research for a novel for adults; she says she’s going to get that written any day now… I believe her. I believe she could write anything.

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Her new novel for young adults, A Single Stone, is about to be released and I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to talk about it here.

Here is the blurb:

Every girl dreams of being part of the line—the chosen seven who tunnel deep into the mountain to find the harvest. No work is more important.

Jena is the leader of the line—strong, respected, reliable. And—as all girls must be—she is small; years of training have seen to that. It is not always easy but it is the way of things. And so a girl must wrap her limbs, lie still, deny herself a second bowl of stew. Or a first.

But what happens when one tiny discovery makes Jena question everything she has ever known? What happens when moving a single stone changes everything?

Over now to Meg…

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2 things that inspired my book

1. This quote from Franz Kafka’s The Zurau Aphorisms:

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.

was a very early seed for the story, planted some 25 years ago. As a teenager attending an Anglican high school and skirting the periphery of church culture, I was taken by this notion of how something inherently random and meaningless might be co-opted into sacred ritual. For what reason, to what end? Consciously or otherwise? And what are the consequences when the ritual becomes completely detached from its origin?

2. The village in which A Single Stone is set relies for its survival on a mineral which is found deep inside the surrounding mountains. However, the prevailing mythology dictates that one mustn’t dig into the stone, but follow its natural passages. And for leopard-related reasons, only girls are permitted to do so. To facilitate this, girls are kept as small as possible, with one of the means by which this is done being a system of binding—not of the feet, but of the body as a whole—which begins at birth and continues in some form for many years.

This fictional practice has a clear antecedent in the Chinese cultural practice of foot-binding, my interest in which perhaps owes something to my background in Asian Studies, although my area of specialisation was Japan rather than China. I’m interested in how this intersects with gendered constructs of beauty, and specifically in the fact that the binding was generally practised by women, with mothers binding their daughters’ feet—often just as their own had been bound—in the belief that this would make them more attractive and give them better prospects in life. This led me to think about Western standards of beauty, about what’s being imposed on our own daughters now, and about who’s responsible for the perpetuation of these ideals—how that works between mothers and daughters, for example. What became a wider-ranging reflection on those sorts of issues—and also, I hope, a compelling story!—began with that concrete image of the body, bound and constrained, shaped to fit.

2 places connected with my book

1. As a young reader, I was very fond of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and in particular of the fourth book in the series, The Silver Chair. In the book, Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum, having made their way underground, meet some gnomes who come from the fictional land of Bism, a world far below. The gnomes express their horror of the ‘Overland’ world, saying things like:

They say there’s no roof at all there; only a horrible, great emptiness called the sky.

You can’t really like it—crawling about like flies on top of the world!

Reading this at the age of about seven had a profound effect on me. It made me think about difference in a very personal way, to wonder how I might feel—who I might be—if I had grown up in Bism. I think it’s from here, via a very roundabout route of course, that my main character, Jena, evolved—a girl who feels at home underground, in tight spaces, who is so comfortable there she feels ill at ease outside, with nothing pressing on her.

2. Manning Park is my local park, just around the corner from where I live in Hamilton Hill, and where I walk almost every day. There’s a sealed path that circles the lake so you can cycle or scooter or push a pram around with ease. Since I’m walking rather than doing any of those things, I don’t use the path. I prefer to walk on the grass, and find it mildly amusing that people who used to do so started following the path as soon as it was laid down. I have an irrational stubborn streak and on a certain level say fie on paths of all kinds, especially ones that smother and smooth over the perfectly good earth underneath.

But I also live with chronic pain, and there are days when even walking is a difficult prospect. On one such day, I found myself unintentionally walking on the path. I stepped off it, saying fie!, but a few minutes later found that I’d drifted back onto it. Once I was conscious of it, I noticed this happening on other days as well, and I came to realise that when I’m in pain, when I feel unsteady, I’m drawn to the path. And because I have a mind that sees metaphor everywhere, this led me to think about how when things are difficult it might be easier to follow a path—whether literal or figurative—that’s been laid out for you, one that’s regular and predictable and which flattens out the uneven, the unexpected. This is an idea that’s made its way into the book in a few different guises.

2 favourite things about A Single Stone

1. The bird motif. Birds appear at a number of points in one form or another, and I’m quietly pleased with how I’ve used them to represent certain things, and with the way that shifts across the course of the book. There were many more bird scenes that hit the cutting room floor during the re-drafting process and the book is stronger for that; I have a tendency to get a bit drunk on metaphor and overplay things.

I also love that the main character’s name has a connection to this motif, because that was serendipitous rather than by design. She had a different name until the very final draft but somehow it never felt quite right. I was casting about for another when I came across Jena, and there was something about it that immediately clicked. I thought I should investigate possible meanings before settling on it, just to make sure it wasn’t at odds with her character in some fundamental way, and discovered that it was generally considered to mean ‘endurance’ or ‘little bird’. And that was that.

2. These lines, from a scene where an important shift takes place:

She has never been a girl to see a box without opening it. To leave a lid pressed firmly in place.

She will only move one stone, and that just a little. The finest margin, to widen the gap.

I like the sense of quiet portent here. I’m a chronic overwriter, and I’m always pleased when I manage to pull back and be a bit sparing.

 

A Single Stone will be in bookshops from 1 May 2015.
Find out more at:
Walker Books
Meg’s website

 

 

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2, 2 and 2: Stephen Daisley talks about Coming Rain

Stephen Daisley was born in New Zealand and now lives in the South West of Western Australia. He spent five years in the New Zealand Army, and cites an interesting list of previous occupations: sheep herder, brush cutter, truck driver, road worker, bartender and construction worker.

Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos sweeping by a chapel amidst rainforest.If authors were birds, I think Stephen would be a Forest Red-Tailed Cockatoo—much admired but only occasionally seen! But I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival in 2013, at which time I was yet to read his debut novel, Traitor (Text Publishing, 2011). This was probably a good thing, as I am prone to becoming utterly tongue-tied in the presence of those whose books I count among my favourites.

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Traitor was shortlisted for a string of major awards (NSW Premier’s Awards, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, ABIA Newcomer of the Year) and won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2011. Stephen Romei (in The Australian) called it ‘one of the finest debut novels I have ever read. Indeed it’s one of the best novels I have read in recent years.’ It is an exquisitely written story of friendship and compassion and deserves every one of the many accolades it has been given.

His much-awaited second novel, Coming Rain, is about to be published, and I was delighted when Stephen agreed to talk about it here.

First, here is the blurb:

They returned to the main part of the shed and it was Lew’s turn to sharpen his cutters. The woolshed now bright and well lit. Painter walked to his stand and connected the handpiece to the down-rod. He drizzled oil over the comb and the cutter, adjusted the tension and pulled the rope to engage the running gear.  The handpiece buzzed and he studied it for a moment, pulled the rope again to disengage the running gear. Repeated the  process with his spare handpiece. Filled the oil can and stepped to the catching-pen door, leaned on it and looked at the sheep in the pen. Lit a cigarette, waiting for Lew.

Western Australia, the wheatbelt. Lew McLeod has been travelling and working with Painter Hayes since he was a boy. Shearing, charcoal burning—whatever comes. Painter made him his first pair of shoes. It’s a hard and uncertain life but it’s the only one he knows.

But Lew’s a grown man now. And with this latest job, shearing for John Drysdale and his daughter Clara, everything will change.

Stephen Daisley writes in lucid, rippling prose of how things work, and why; of the profound satisfaction in hard work done with care, of love and friendship and the damage that both contain.

Over now to Stephen…

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2 things that inspired my book

I once watched two farmers greeting each other at a stock sale.

‘Gidday mate, how’re goin’, had any rain?’

‘Good good. No rain. You?’

‘No.’

‘Reckon it’s coming?’

‘Yep.’

‘Good and bad.’

The ubiquitous 1890 painting by Tom Roberts called Shearing the Rams. [You can view this, and read about it, on the National Gallery of Victoria website.]

2 personal connections with the book

Having worked on sheep and cattle stations and in shearing gangs, I continue to feel an admiration and deep compassion for people on the land. The dry humour and endurance of that existence and how this formed such an enduring part of what shaped modern Australia. I believe this myth is almost as strong as what Gallipoli has come to mean.

The rural landscape of Western Australia is, for me, an almost physical expression of the belief that rain is coming. What that is. The hope and sometime despair. The acceptance of both.

2 favourite passages from the book

The sun woman’s fire spread across the sky as the moon fled and the red light came dawn and over them all. A great flock of pink and grey galahs flew above the road and Lew watched as the light rose and for as far as he could see, the earth turned pale blue and mauve in the smoky pink of early morning. The sunlight coming over the horizon and into his eyes. It blinded him as he sat up in the truck. The sun rising quickly now. Painter also woke.

Clara laughed at this most beautiful of sights, put her hand to her mouth as if to weep; she had no idea how much time had passed. A moment or two, five, fifteen minutes. A newborn standing, staggering, falling and desperate somehow to keep trying. Pearl came to her foal, some of the white shroud and afterbirth still swinging from her uterus. Made an ancient throat and belly noise of recognition. Using her nose and face, she lifted and gently urged him to stand. The foal seemed to nod and steady. He swayed and found his feet. And, after a moment, began to search for her teats beneath her front shoulder. Pearl guided him as he kept smelling along her belly until he found her milk. He somehow knew to bend his head, turn it slightly, open his mouth and begin to suckle.

Tears were streaming down Clara’s face and she was laughing.

 

Coming Rain will be in bookshops on 22 April 2015.
You can find out more at Text Publishing.

* Red-tailed Cockatoo photo reproduced under licence from BigStock.

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An April photo-reminder…

to look down and catch the colours of autumn…

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