In the isolated society of A Single Stone, only the seven smallest girls can tunnel into the mountain in search of the mica that allows their isolated society to survive harsh winters. But Jena, one of the seven girls, begins to question her society’s traditions, forever altering her understanding of the world around her. Meg McKinlay’s latest middle grade novel displays an intense reverence for the earth, the bonds of sisterhood and carefully chosen prose. McKinlay describes the inspiration for her novel as being like drops of water laden with sediment, disparate elements all building to something powerful.
The way a story comes together always feels a little mysterious to me—a kind of alchemy. It starts with a drop of something, which is joined at some point by a drop of something else altogether, and I’m never quite sure how or why certain things combine. I’m not sure I want to be, to tell you the truth. I like the mystery of it.
What I can say about A Single Stone is that its very earliest “drop” appeared when I was around 7 years old, reading The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Silver Chair, there are some gnomes who live deep underground and who express their horror of the "Overland," 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!
This had a profound effect on me, making me think for the first time about what cultural difference really meant. I wondered how I might feel—who I might be—if I had grown up somewhere else. I think it’s from here that my main character, Jena, eventually evolved—a girl so comfortable underground she feels ill at ease outside with nothing pressing on her.
There’d be no story, though, without the other drops. The most important of these presented itself when, as a teenager, I was introduced to the work of Franz Kafka, and became very fond of his aphorisms, among them this one:
Leopards break into the temple and drink what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance and becomes part of the ceremony.
As a teenager attending an Anglican high school and spending time in church youth groups, 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 that practice becomes detached from its origin?
For me, these questions are at the heart of A Single Stone, and with these two “drops,” I had the beginnings of both character and theme. But while I can see all this in retrospect, I had no sense of it at the time. I never consciously gather ideas; it’s more that these random fragments sleep quietly in the back of the mind, and at some point certain things seem to bump against each other and set a story in motion.
There are many other influences at work, too, some of which I was unaware of while writing, and probably many more I’m yet to discover. For example, my brother recently reminded me that I love rocks. It’s something I’ve inherited from my father, who always used to stop and point out interesting stones. And as a child growing up in a goldmining town, I spent a lot of time scanning the rocks around me for surface gold. It was a reader who asked whether there was any connection between this and the way the girls hunt for flashes of mica in the book. Somehow, I made neither of these links myself. And this is actually something I love about being a writer. I can’t count the number of times people have said things like, “I love the way you did this,” or “I was just wondering why you did that,” and I think, Well, but I didn’t, and then in the next breath, Oh yes I did!
For me, writing is a kind of discovery, and readers have a huge part to play in that. I can’t wait to see what a new audience brings to A Single Stone.