Meet Meg McKinlay

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Meg McKinlay, author of How to Build a Bird, chats to Reading Time reviewer, Julie Murphy

JM: How long did it take to actually write this book?

MM: A split second, a couple of hours, several days, many months, sixteen years.

By which I mean:

The idea, along with the shape and form of the book, and some of the actual lines, came to me very quickly, almost in a flash. It felt like the piece was there, complete, and I just had to see it clearly, put it on paper. This is not at all characteristic of how I usually work, which perhaps has something to do with the inspiration for this particular book, which was also unusual. I’ve written about that, including my act of shameless theft, and the debt I owe to Martin Murray, on my website.

After that split second, I held my vision of the book precariously in my mind until I got home, and then scribbled for a few hours, finding more lines, testing out words, sounds, rhythm.

I continued that process over the next few days, cutting and shaping and muttering out loud, weighing and measuring each phrase, trimming here and there. I began my writing life as a poet and, in many ways, the process of writing How to Make a Bird was much more like working on a poem than narrative. It really felt like the piece was there from the beginning and I just had to find its true, clearest shape.

All of this was done back in 2004 and the manuscript really hasn’t changed since then. The months and years came into play once I started sending it out, gathering rejections: Lovely language but not for children; I don’t think I understand it; Beautiful but unillustratable; What about something more child-friendly, like “How to Make a Birthday”? After this dispiriting response, I tucked the manuscript into the metaphorical bottom drawer and moved on, eventually finding publication with other work but always carrying a quiet torch for this odd little bird.

JM: Why do you like to write books about birds? (What do you like about birds?)

MM: Allow me to be a little contrary. I don’t think I write books about birds. Even though I’ve written work featuring ducks, penguins, and now this one. I’m sometimes asked why I write so many books about animals, a question that surprised me because I also don’t think I write about animals, even though I’ve published books featuring rhinoceroses and bears and sheep, oh my!

Do you see how cunningly I’ve set the word ‘about’ against the word ‘featuring’ there? The animals are a vehicle for the ideas: those books are about power and voicelessness and speaking up for yourself and many other things besides. And How to Make a Bird is not about birds; it’s about loss and the beauty in transience, about creativity and life and letting go.

With all that said, I do like birds. Or maybe, now that I think about it, it’s more to do with flight. As a child, one of my greatest griefs was my inability to fly. Doesn’t everybody long for that? My most vivid dreams are still about flying. In an essential part of me, I don’t think I’ve quite accepted that it’s never going to happen. I think what I’m saying is that creatively, I’m drawn to birds because of their metaphorical potential, the way they stand in for a sense of freedom, among other things.

JM: What would you like readers to take away with them after reading How to Make a Bird?

MM: As I’ve alluded to above, in terms of meaning, there are a few different ways to read the book, quite possibly some I haven’t even considered. At a certain point in my creative life, though, I realised that what often matters most to me is the feeling book generates: I rarely know how I want a piece to end in terms of plot or character arcs, but I always know how I want the reader to feel. And that’s possibly more true of this book than any of my others. What I want most is for the reader to feel a deep ahhh, that poignant happy sadness that is so central to many things. I want them to have the feeling of vast skies and the always-nearness of an open window.

JM: As you wrote this story, did you have any idea about the illustrations? (Do you tend to think visually as you write?)

MM: None whatsoever. I don’t think visually at all. As a reader and a writer, I generate no images in my head; it’s a process that feels quite foreign to me, something completely ungraspable. Again, though, I always know how I want the illustrations to feel, the sort of experience I want them to generate for the reader. I just have absolutely no idea how to get there and I suspect that works quite well because it is, after all, the illustrator’s job. I love nothing better than taking a big step back and getting out of their way. With How to Make a Bird, I talked with Matt about where the book came from for me, the influences of Japanese philosophy and so on, and then he just disappeared for months, eventually coming back with images that absolutely took my breath away.

JM: Thank you, Meg, for sharing so openly about your latest publication.

Read Julie’s review of How to Build a Bird here.

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