Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Below" Review and Interview with Author Meg McKinlay

Meg McKinlay’s book “Below” is very much like a good dip in a clear cold lake: Refreshing, fun, a good stretch for mind and body and lastly, shrouded in mystery--when one slips below the surface to discover what lies beneath.
Here is the Goodreads Blurb:
On the day Cassie was born, they drowned her town. The mayor flipped a lever and everyone cheered as Old Lower Grange was submerged beneath five thousand swimming pools’ worth of water. Now, twelve years later, Cassie feels drawn to the manmade lake and the mysteries it hides — and she’s not the only one. Her classmate Liam, who wears oversized swim trunks to cover the scars on his legs, joins Cassie in her daily swims across the off-limits side of the lake. As the summer heats up, the water drops lower and lower, offering them glimpses of the ghostly town and uncovering secrets one prominent town figure seems anxious to keep submerged. But like a swimmer who ventures too far from shore, Cassie realizes she can’t turn back. Can she bring their suspicions to light before it’s too late — and does she dare?

McKinlay’s superb crafting keeps readers guessing as to the mystery hidden under the peaceful blue waters of that manmade lake, but we know there’s something down there.  As I read I wondered what it might be:  Mermaids? A doppleganger society of gilled folk? A dead body?  But while the roots of the mystery are firmly planted in the soil of this earth, their location--being submerged under water--lends an Otherworldly quality to it.  Who hasn’t been creeped out (at least a little) whilst swimming across a vast expanse of open water?  It’s prime territory for fears of all kinds.

Karl Jung thought that to dream of swimming underwater suggested the need to take control of one's life, and to dream of an underwater city represents the subconscious, and through a deeper understanding of oneself, one finds commonality and shared experiences with others. 

The book’s main character Cassie echoes this experience.  She is immediately likeable as a young girl who feels out of place with her family and is separated from her town’s shared history of living in Old Lower Grange.  She yearns to be a part of this collective and somehow be a part of this place she has only heard about it in stories.  Inexorably drawn to the lake and spurred on by her unquenchable desire to belong, she begins her cathartic quest though limited by weak lungs and an even weaker swim-stroke.  Her persistence pays off though as she discovers a secret about Old Lower Grange and must somehow find a way to bring the mystery to light—disparaging as it may be. 
(I love a hero who is a righteous whistle-blower!)
As protagonist, Cassie has all the right qualifications for hero without seeming pat or predictable.  She grows and changes over the story, a requirement for all heroes in my humble opinion.  Her cohort and friend, Liam is also heroic in his own right, with his own struggles and secrets.  And together, they must rewrite history.

The superbly constructed ending wraps up quite quickly, with the discovery of the mystery and the solving of it all rushing together in one final, flowing surge of a metaphor.  But I didn’t feel cheated.  I felt…refreshed.  Satisfied with the completion of a bang-up good story I shall remember every time I swim across open water.  I will forever be sweetly haunted and delighted by the idea of what is "Below". 

My interview with the fabulously sparkly Meg McKinlay:

  Could you tell us what inspired you to write "Below"?

This is a story which had its very beginnings a long time ago, well before I had thoughts of ever becoming a writer.

I was about 13 when I went on school camp to a place called Tallangatta, a lovely little town in northeastern Victoria, Australia. An earlier version of the town was flooded in the 1950s to make way for the expansion of a nearby dam complex and in certain areas you can see the tops of trees and so on protruding from the lake surface. When we were there, the water was particularly low, after some years of drought, and as I stood with my friends on the edge of the lake, I realised that what I had thought were just stones beneath my feet were actually the remnants of an old road.

I was completely taken by the idea of setting off along the road and following it underwater into the town and although I didn't do that, the image lodged in the back of my mind. When I started writing, I returned to it at some point, and over many years found a story slowly beginning to form around it.

I really enjoyed the build-up of suspense in the novel’s first half, especially pertaining to that “certain something” Cassie and Liam find beneath the water’s surface. Was it your intention to keep the mystery submerged, just out of reach for the reader, much like Old Lower Grange?

I love how you put that, and on reflection, I think you're right. I say 'on reflection'  because I often don't realise that I've done something until I've done it (and so the question as to why I might have done it that way comes later still).

Looking back, I think it worked something like this:

When I realised I was writing a mystery, I wanted the revelations to be gradual, analogous to the dropping of the water level in a certain sense. I didn't want a big 'aha!' moment too early; I felt like that process of a more gradual movement towards suspicion and then awareness was more authentic for the context, in which I have relatively young children who have grown up believing certain 'facts' about their world. I wanted that dismantled slowly rather than abruptly.

I do think that works for the sort of  book this is, but I'm also aware that I have a natural tendency to write like that in a more general sense, revealing things very slowly in a kind of roundabout way, even when the context doesn't really call for it. It's a habit of mine I have to consciously work against from time to time, as it can become quite laborious for readers. Even though I think it works here, and many readers love it, there are others who have felt that it takes too long to get to the 'action'. But I can't write for those readers, and wouldn't try to. Personally, I feel that there's plenty of action early on; it's just of an interior kind rather than outwardly dramatic events, but for me, that is equally important – particularly in the early stages of a story when character and context are being established – and just as compelling. I guess I'm writing for readers who feel that way too, and thankfully there seem to be enough of them out there!
Since you are a self-proclaimed “pantser”, how did all the juicy details of  the novel's  mystery surface for you? 

With great difficulty and over multiple rewrites! Hearing the voice of the characters is more important to me than knowing what direction the plot might take, and for me, this became a story worth telling the moment I heard Cassie's voice saying The day that I was born they drowned my town, even though I had no idea what her story was going to be.
From that point, there was a very messy and prolonged brainstorming process that took place in the cracks of other projects. The image of the drowned town and the voice of Cassie were in my head and every now and then I would get snippets of ideas or sentences that seemed to belong to that story, and jot them down in a file, waiting for some kind of shape to emerge.

[*possible spoilers ahead*]

Somewhere along the way, I realised I was thinking about secrets and that perhaps there was a mysterious figure in the town who had left something behind in the old one, something he wanted to retrieve. But of course it wasn't possible to do that and the council was always telling people to look forward and so on. And then I started thinking about the slippage between official discourse and personal narrative and the council/mayor as symbols of authority and so on. And I came up with Mayor Finkle as an embodiment of that.

From that point, it was a matter of trying to find a way of pitting him against Cassie in some sense and that was when I came up with the character of Liam, who didn't exist until quite late in my thinking. The roles of those characters evolved during the writing process and that's something I find very hard to explain, even to myself.

What I tend to do is just write, almost laying out words like bait until an idea comes along and grabs the hook and I think, Oh! Maybe Liam has an injury that Finkle caused and what's under the water is proof of that? And then I write some more and eventually I get another nibble … And Liam's Dad has a brain injury, a jumbled 'memory' that offers clues?Yes! And so on again. And every idea presents possibilities but also problems: But what could be down there? And why would it be there? Why not just hide it somewhere else? How can it be revealed? Would it still be identifiable? How could they make connections between what happened and what's in the lake? Would that even be plausible? Arghhh.

And so on, endlessly. It really does feel a bit like playing out a fishing line, waiting for something to latch on, and then seeing how far I can run with that little nibble until it either breaks the line and I have to try again, or I somehow manage to land it and can see a way clear to an ending. With this book, there were many false starts, and I spent a lot of time sitting despondently on the shore wondering why I bother fishing in the first place when I clearly have no idea what I'm doing.


I once swam over the tops of dead trees in a man-made lake and the pale, slimy arms reaching up from the darkness completely freaked me out.  Suffice it to say the idea of the fire-tree in your story was loaded with imagery and emotion for me. Hence my Swimming Related Questions: 

1) Have you ever swum across the tops of trees? 

Actually, I haven’t, though I’ve imagined doing so. Something as simple as swimming over lakeweed makes me think about what it would be like to swim over an underwater forest. I have a fairly vivid imagination, which comes in handy.

2) Are you the type who tries to touch the bottom, no matter how deep you are? 

Yes, always.

3) What’s your favorite swim-stroke? 

I’m going to say freestyle. I grew up swimming competitively (and worked for several years as a swimming teacher) so I have a decent style and I love that feeling when it all comes together and I’m powering through the water.
On your website it says you were awarded a grant to write "Below" from The Department of Culture and the Arts, Western Australia.  Can you tell us how that came about, and did it place undue pressure on you to produce while you were writing the book?

I would say that it did place a certain kind of pressure on me, but I wouldn't necessarily describe it as 'undue'. Writing this book was quite challenging for me and it collapsed completely on a couple of occasions. If I hadn't felt the additional responsibility of having received the grant, there's a good chance I might have abandoned it completely. I'm very grateful that didn't happen, so the pressure was useful to me, really. It was quite a good lesson in many ways, as I feel very proud of this book now, despite it having seemed utterly unsalvageable at times.

Below was originally released as "Surface Tension" through Walker Books in Australia.  Could you tell us a little about your book’s journey from Walker Books to its release on Candlewick?  How did the opportunity come about and how did you feel about the changes in title and cover?
Walker Books Australia and Candlewick Press are actually 'sister' companies (with their 'parent' being Walker Books UK), so most titles published by Walker here are considered by Candlewick for US publication. I've published eight books with Walker and three have been accepted by Candlewick; there are all kinds of factors that affect whether or not a book is considered able to 'cross over' into the US market. I'm very glad that Surface Tension/Below was one of them.

As for the changes in the title and cover, I was quite nervous about this, simply because I was very fond of both those aspects of the Australian edition.

However, as things have worked out, I absolutely love the US cover; if I'm honest, as much as I couldn't have imagined liking any cover more than the original, I've warmed to the new one so much that I think I do prefer it. I think the depth of colour is really striking and I love the way the town beneath the water becomes apparent only as you look closer, which really reflects the story itself, the way the mystery is slowly revealed and explored. Something else that's important to me on the US cover is that both Liam and Cassie are depicted. I never considered this as an omission on the Australian cover, but as soon as I saw the new one, I thought, “Oh, of course!”. Their relationship is so important to the book and I'm really glad to have it represented on the cover.
In terms of the title, I think I do prefer Surface Tension somewhat. I was concerned that Below was a little dull, but as soon as I saw it on the cover, I felt reassured. I feel like they work well as a package and I'm really thrilled with the way the book has turned out.

I should add that I was involved in all these changes; there was a lengthy consultation process and lots of time taken over the decisions.

How does being a poet affect your prose?
It slows me down a lot, for one thing! I’m always thinking about cadence and whether a sentence has the rhythm that I want and that can be very time consuming over a long novel. As a poet who's turned to writing for children, I find that I naturally use poetic techniques from time to time, and I think this sort of play with language can be of real value to readers of any age. Editors will sometimes seek to 'smooth out' my prose, suggesting removal of a word here or there, and while I'm completely open to editing and my work has benefited enormously from that process, I do sometimes dig my heels in for what might seem like incomprehensible reasons simply because I feel like a sentence needs an extra beat, or falling rather than rising cadence or something like that.

That's on the micro level, I guess, on the level of language itself. But a broader issue relates to my own priorities as a writer. And that has to do with my tendency to privilege things like image and idea over plot. I've heard some writers describe themselves as 'storytellers first' but that's not how I see myself. The ideas that have the most resonance for me generally begin with a single, compelling image, and the story becomes in a sense a scaffolding to hang that on. The story comes to matter, of course, but I don't really think in those terms to begin with; I'm always writing out of the central image, and I struggle mightily with plot and structure.

In many ways, at heart, I see myself less as a storyteller and more as a random scribbler, a collector of fragments, of bits and pieces of observation; that’s how my path toward becoming a writer began – in the way of a magpie, gathering shiny bits and pieces of the world, jotting them down into notebooks here and there – and I think that's where I still feel most at home.

Would you indulge us in a few hints about what you are working on now?
I'm in the home stretch of what I think is a Young Adult novel but might perhaps be upper Middle Grade. It's set in an alternative society in which girls are kept small from birth in order to tunnel through mountains to harvest something which is necessary for the survival of that society. My working title is Set in Stone and in many ways the story is about belief – about the basis for the ideas we choose to embrace, and what happens when those entrenched ideas become divorced from their original context.

I hope that makes sense! It probably sounds a bit dry but I think there's a good story in there as well as some interesting ideas, and I guess that's a combination I tend to strive for.

Many thanks Meg, for your time and for sharing your thoughtful comments with us.  It has been a delight to meet you and hear a little about the crafting of this wonderful book. Thanks for the great read!
~Just Jill

If you would like visit Meg's website you can do so here: Meg's website

 P.S.  ROW80,
 Long Story Short: Submitted homeschooling article to online magazine, website server problems, then article posted with substandard formatting!   No graphics!?  Aaargh!
I also submitted a story to "Chicken Soup for the multi-tasking Mother" or some such rot.  Seriously!



  1. Excellent and fascinating interview and very interesting book. I remember thinking about survivors of a mid-Pacific shipwreck floating about in life jackets...and I suddenly had the feeling of something coming up and up and up through the dark waters to break the surface... Whales? Sharks? Dark creatures found only in legend? (I had to drop the thought. Actually, it is creeping me out as I type.)

    Well done, Meg! Well done, Jill

    Diana at About Myself By Myself

    1. Diana Dahling,
      THanks for stopping by and providing us with your scintillating comments. Ahh...what lurks beneath. Go. Write.
      ~Just (Glub)

  2. Wow, you wrote a terrific review, Jill, and ladies, you pulled off an interesting interview, as well. Great job!

    The premise of this book sounds intriguing. I will definitely look for it on Amazon.

    1. Ahh shucks Susan Flett Swiderski. (I think I finally have your name memorized.)
      Thanks ever-so for the comments. I'm still a trifle scarred from your most recent post about Chinese Walmarts, though I want EVERYONE to read it!
      I hope you enjoy the book as much as we did over at our house. We are still talking about it!
      ~Just (Blub)

  3. What a fantastic idea for a novel. It's one of those ideas I wish I'd thought of first Curses!!

    In fact, the other day I got sidetracked when I stumbled across a photograph of a church tower sticking up out of a lake in Italy. It said the village had been flooded to join two small lakes into one big one. I kept imagining an entire town under all that water and what that might be like to go diving. Anyway, I'm glad someone wrote a story like that, and best of luck with it!

    1. Hi Luanne,
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing that image. I'm going to look it up meself.
      ~Just (glug-glug)

  4. Thanks, Jill, for this lovely review, and for asking such interesting questions. (And for adding images in cunning places in a cunning attempt to distract from the length of my answers).

    LG Smith (may I call you LG?), I saw that photo recently too, and was struck by how marvellously eerie it was. With regard to the 'drowned town' setting of the book, in 2011 (the year this came out in Australia), Riel Nason's The Town That Drowned was published in Canada and Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls was published in the US. Both these books have drowned towns at the heart of their stories.

    I also recently came across this page, which lists a range of other books that draw on this setting (up to 2006):

    I'm glad I didn't realise there were so many out there when I started writing my book, as I may have abandoned the idea as 'done'. I guess what I'm saying is that drowned towns looks like a pretty crowded 'genre' already, so you should feel free to add another if you would like!

    1. Ha. That was funny. I assure you the images were placed thusly only to add to your provocative answers. Like adding beads to a string of pearls, perhaps?
      I can't wait to see this images!
      And you are most welcome. Thanks for writing a really,really,really good book.
      ~Just Jill

  5. Very good review...made me want to read the book!

    1. I think you would love it Helen. Oh-- and we must talk! I'm reading a MG novel set in (Shhhh) the Sixties!
      ~Just Jill

  6. I did love this book and, after reading this terrific interview, will be busy looking for other books by Meg. Thanks for posting this. It was fascinating.

  7. Hey Rosi! Thanks right back at you for the tip! I first heard about this book through you...
    ~Just Jill

  8. Fascinating story premise - must get this book! I love the idea of a submerged town, like Atlantis or Pompeii (although that was ashes, of course!)and seeing what the original town was like. Thanks, Jill!

    1. There is something so irresistible about the premise...and the follow through with a most excellent story is awesome too!
      ~Just Jill

  9. This sounds so good! Have made a note to get it, read it, share it. How cool on how the story formed. Thanks for the heads up on the possible spoilers...I skimmed, lol.

    1. Ooh! I'm glad you skimmed! I wlmost put that part in red but didn't want to highlight it either!!
      Thanks for stopping by Deb!
      ~Just Jill

  10. What a perceptive review and post.

    It always takes conviction to "slip below the surface to discover what lies beneath", does it not? But what is it that makes us attempt so?What is that immediate something we achieve or get by remaining above that surface? As we stay put thus, can we contemplate the cost we may be incurring by not discovering what lies beneath?


    1. Safety is a biological need of our species, I'm afraid. (But so is contemplation...)
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments!
      ~Just Jill

  11. Oh, this is such a FABULOUS story idea! It sounds like it's excellently executed, too! Love the idea!

    1. Thanks for swinging by, Hart. Tis really a great read!
      ~Just Jill


Please use your words and comment freely! We really should meet!