Flash Frontier

Interview: Heather McQuillan, On Writing for Children

Interviews and Features


Gail Ingram: You wear many hats as a writer, Heather. How does writing for children differ from the flash fiction you do?

Heather McQuillan: These two forms of writing involve very different processes. While both start from a place of playing with ideas and words, that play is extended in the children’s novels. At the end of each scene is the question, “and what happens next?” This is essential in writing for young readers, drawing them on to turn the page. Scenes build on each other and characters make mistakes then put things right. In Avis and the Promise of Dragons, 11-year-old Avis is waking up to a number of ethical questions and is realising that adults are not always reliable and responsible. Scenes in novels for young readers need to have a balance of tension and release of tension. Humour and kindness must balance pain and cruelty. In flash fiction the playfulness of the ‘story’ only lasts for a moment. There is no “what next?” There is also no need to consider a balance of tension and release–a flash can take just one emotional stance and strike it there.

While I spend a great deal of time redrafting/ restructuring and refining my novels, it is not to the same obsessive extent that I approach flash fiction. Novels require hours of writing time available in a day for consecutive days, particularly at the second and third drafts, to maintain momentum and continuity. I find that Flash Fiction can be plonked down, picked up, shelved, rediscovered and revised in short bursts.

GI: What kinds of things inspire you to write? And do those differ from project to project — compare, for example, your flash fictions with your children’s books.

HM: My writing for children often originates from a What If? question. I have a lot of those, and I love working with young writers who generate even more! At the outset, I have a vague idea about characters and situations but, as I write to find out what happens next, my initial ideas shift and evolve.

Most of my life I have engaged with young people, particularly those aged 10-14, so it is not surprising that many of their experiences infiltrate my books. I am fascinated by the transitions that occur for this age group as they start to discover the world is not as they once thought and they seek to find their place amongst all that confusion.

Ideas for flash fiction come from a great variety of sources; a snippet of conversation, a misspoken phrase, a personal experience, a given prompt, a random thought at 3.00am. I am particularly interested in flawed characters and the difficulties we humans face in building relationships and communicating so as not to be misunderstood. Misunderstandings occur far too easily! Many of the stories in my collection Where Oceans Meet are about the undercurrents and collisions within relationships.

GI: Tell us a bit about Write On the School for Young Writers and the work you do for young writers of Christchurch, as well as the online offerings – now more important than ever.

HM: I started tutoring at Write On the School for Young Writers in 2014, while on a much-needed break from a long career in education. It was a welcome relief to be able to respond to young writers’ work and mentor them without the demands and strictures of school assessment. In 2018, I took on the role as director. My job mainly consists of gathering together keen and clever young writers, providing them with a keen and extremely talented tutors, and letting the magic happen.

Writing is such an important gift to give our young people. It gives them agency in the world. Some of our young writers do not believe in themselves as writers until they see the end result so we love to help young writers get their words out to a wider audience through our blog, competitions, and Write On magazine. The magazine is published twice a year and is filled with the voices of young poets, storytellers, and article writers.

About Avis and The Promise of Dragons

My most recent book for young people, Avis and the Promise of Dragons (published by The Cuba Press, 2019), has been recognised as a 2020 Storylines Notable Book. Storylines produce an annual list of outstanding books for children and young people published in New Zealand by New Zealand authors and illustrators during the previous calendar year. This award for Avis is especially thrilling as it means that all three of my published novels for young readers have been awarded Notable Books (Mind Over Matter in 2007 and Nest of Lies in 2012).

Avis has a dream to work with animals, so when a scientist with a witchy-looking house offers her a job as a pet-sitter she jumps at the chance. But it turns out Avis is not looking after pets at all – the animals in Dr Malinda Childes’ backyard are as eccentric as she is and Avis has to promise to keep them a secret. But one promise and one secret leads to more promises and more secrets and before long Avis finds herself overwhelmed by promises and secrets and responsibilities and one very BIG chocolatey dragonish problem.

What people are saying…

“This is a fast-paced junior novel that does a lot more than meets the eye. On the surface this is a fantasy novel, about a young girl who takes on a pet-sitting job and ends up minding dragons. However, McQuillan has written a much more nuanced story than this.”

-Rachel Moore, The Sapling

“The main characters (including the dragon) are believable and it is easy to identify with them because of the lively dialogue and evocative description. The story takes a few twists and by the end Humbert becomes one of my favourite fictional dragons. This book lends itself to a sequel, and would also be an excellent addition to a library or a class read aloud.”

-Julie Prince, READ NZ Highly Recommended Library List

“An entertaining and well written tale of magic realism … Avis isn’t perfect and makes mistakes along the way, but discovers that she is strong and capable, and a more talented pet-sitter than she ever could have imagined.”

-Melinda Szymanik, author

Heather McQuillan is a writing teacher and an award-winning novelist for young readers. She writes regularly for Flash Frontier and has won awards in New Zealand (National Flash Fiction Day, 2016) and Australia (Meniscus CAL Best Prose Prize, 2018). Her stories have been selected for anthologies including Best Small Fictions 2017, 2019 and 2020; Best Microfiction 2019; Bath Flash Fiction Volumes Two and Three; and Bonsai: best small stories from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Heather has a Masters of Creative Writing with distinction from Massey University. Her first collection, Where Oceans Meet, is published by Reflex Press, 2019. More on Heather’s website and at The Cuba Press.

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