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Heather McQuillan
Photo by Kate Christie

Check Out an Author: Heather McQuillan

Jackie McMillan —

Heather McQuillan is a writer and teacher and those two parts of her life are interwoven.

Heather McQuillan is a children’s and flash fiction writer who usually resides in Ōtautahi Christchurch where she is director at Write On School For Young Writers; she was based in Ōtepoti Dunedin for the first half of 2021.

She has published fantasy novels for children, and for adults she has published poetry, short stories and flash fiction, which she describes as really really short stories. Her three novels (to date) for young readers are Mind Over Matter, Nest of Lies and Avis and the Promise of Dragons. Her collection of flash fiction, Where Oceans Meet, was published in the UK. Heather is director at Write On School For Young Writers and she loves helping new writers get their ideas on the page and polished for publication. She is also a board member for the New Zealand Society of Authors. Heather worked on a number of writing projects whilst here in Ōtepoti Dunedin, as the 2021 recipient of The University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer In Residence.

I put some questions to Heather about her writing projects and her previous books.

Q: When did you start writing? And, did it take a long time before your first book was published?

A: It was a huge surprise to me when my first book, Mind Over Matter, won the Tom Fitzgibbon Award for a new writer in 2005. I learned how to be a writer after that win, as I had to do a lot of restructuring and redrafting before the book was published the following year. Most people have to go through multiple rejections before they publish their first book, so I know how lucky I’ve been. Rest assured, I’ve had plenty of rejections since then.

Cover Image — Image by: Scholastic

Q: Have you got a favourite age group you like to write for? For instance, do you start with an idea and then decide which audience level it is for?

A: Because most of my teaching was at the Year 7-Year 8 level that tends to be the age many of my characters turn up with, so the ideas develop around the things that affect them. It’s a fascinating time of transition from child to young adult and thinking beyond your family to the wider world.

Q: Of all your characters, which one would you most like to hang out with?

A: My first thought was Humbert the dragon but he is not entirely trustworthy so maybe Malinda the scientist. She’s about my age and knows so much! (I know because I had to research it all). I’ve just finished a new book and there’s a very cool librarian called Cindy. Rumour is that she’s a Ninja and if you bend the pages of a book then she’ll go hi-yaah! She feels like a friend.

Cover Image — Image by: Ahoy, an imprint of The Cuba Press

Q. Are there any particular fantasy novels, or writers, that have influenced you and your writing?

A: I’ve read a lot of fantasy since I was a child and went through a big Sci Fi phase too. A few key ones were the Narnia, Wizard of Earthsea and Moomintroll series. And of course Lord of the Rings which I was besotted with as a young teen. My mum made me a green elf cape so I reckon I could have invented cosplay. In my own fantasy books, fantastical things happen in an otherwise real world. My characters deal with an alien from another universe or hatching a baby dragon and still having to go to school.

Q. What were some of your other favourite books, or writers, when you were growing up?

A: I loved The Country Child by Alison Uttley when I was about eleven. I think it is when I first recognised the superpower of the writer in putting the words together to help you see, hear and feel. I also recognised a kindred spirit in Susan with similar fears and excitements even though we lived in very different times and places.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I’m reading Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood because it is about a troubled friendship which is the theme that I’ve just finished writing about. It’s a very different troubled friendship though, far crueller than I have written and not nearly as funny.

Q: Tell us about any children’s or young adult books you have discovered and enjoyed as an adult?

A: When I was teaching I often read The Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee to my classes. It’s a great fantasy, but a thing that connected with the children was that it was set in Aotearoa New Zealand. I think it is really important for our young people to read books where they can recognise places and people and maybe themselves. Having said that, I also understand the author’s need to reach a wider market in order to be able to keep writing. It would be great if libraries and schools really supported and promoted the marvellous New Zealand-based books that are available. The young adult book I recommend to all teenagers is The Messenger by Markus Zusak.

Q: What projects have you been working on during your Dunedin residency?

A: I have completed Book Two of Avis’s Animals: Avis and the Call of the Kraken. It was really great fun writing another adventure for characters I knew well and to watch them grow. It’s certainly not easy being responsible for a couple of dragons, especially when the dragons have very firm ideas of their own. My brand new project is called The Crooked Child. It’s a middle grade story about the weaving of a tricky friendship between Anya and Chancery and it’s ultimate unravelling. There’s a team project at school but nobody wants to work with Chancery—she is attention-seeking, rude and self-centred. Noone chooses Anya either, she always has her nose in a book. When their teacher asks Anya to be a good influence she is drawn under Chancery's spell and she realises influence goes both ways. Then Chancery betrays Anya’s biggest secret.

I’ve also completed some flash fiction stories and a short story based on something I saw from the window of the Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage.

Cover Image — Image by: Reflex Press

Q: Do you have a ritual you follow before you start writing?

A: I just get started. I think that’s the best way. Once I’ve hooked onto a character and a situation I can’t wait to find out what happens next, so plotting happens after that. Mostly I follow the characters’ lead.

A: I’ve also come to love the process of redrafting. At the end of a first draft, it's as if you have all the pieces for a couple of jigsaw pictures and you have to sort them out, get them in the right place and make one complete picture. I always have scenes and characters I love that have to be left out. Maybe they’ll turn up in another book.

Q: How has your writing been affected by being in a different place this year?

A: I usually snatch writing time when I can—a morning here, a day there. During the residency I have had continuity. I can pick right up where I finished the day before. This has been really important during redrafting as I’ve been able to keep the changes in my head.

The front room of the Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage was such a great space to write. There is this expectation that ‘writing happens here’.

Cover Image — Image by: Scholastic

Q: Have you some advice for young writers about writing?

A: Yes loads! 

First up I tell my classes that writing is not like skydiving. You don't have to get it right the first time. You can have multiple goes at getting your ideas and words in the best order.

I also advise that writing is all about making choices. This idea? This ending? This beginning? This order? This form? This word? You can make the choices to suit yourself as your first draft gets on the page. Then, during the redrafting, you make choices that consider what your reader needs.

Writing should be a joyous activity. Sometimes I find myself overthinking so I go for a walk and let my brain settle. You might have to wait a day or two but the solution always comes.

I also think it’s essential to find a community of writers; people you can trust to look at your muddy and messy first drafts and see the hidden gems, and people who will ask you questions that open up new possibilities for your writing.