Nod Ghosh

Novels, short fiction & poetry

interview with heather mcquillan


                                                                                        Heather McQuillan 

                                                                                        Heather McQuillan 

Here is an interview with HEATHER McQUILLAN. Heather has been a regular contributor to Flash Frontier - An Adventure in Short Fiction. We were introduced by our kids who went to Cashmere High School. Heather McQuillan lives in Christchurch New Zealand. She has published two novels with Scholastic NZ and been awarded the Tom Fitzgibbon Award in 2005. Heather teaches at the School for Young Writers. She has recently arrived at writing Flash Fiction and Poetry.

  •  N: How long have you been writing, and what drew you to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard when you began?
  • H: I have always written, just not for the eyes of others. As a teen I wrote angst-ridden poems and hopeful parables. As a young mum I had a go at writing children’s stories, sent one away, got a rejection and that put me off for another 15 years. Then I had a story stuck in my head and started to write it so I could find out what was going to happen. That turned out to be my first book, Mind Over Matter. It won the Tom Fitzgibbon and was published by Scholastic NZ.
  •  N: Until recently you had a heavy teaching commitment. You are actively involved in providing professional development for teachers, and working with The School for Young Writers, commitments that may take you away from writing. How do you free your busy mind to apply it to writing?
  • H: The busiest time in my life was full time teaching and sharing a house with four teenagers. It was during that time that I wrote my first novel, getting up very early in the morning on the weekends to claim my rights to the one household computer. I edited my second book early in 2011, accompanied by seemingly constant aftershocks. Writing has been my escape from other pressures and I make an effort to hold on to that precious time even if it has to be in small sips, which is why flash fiction and poetry have drawn me in. Redrafting and structuring of a novel is difficult to do in short bursts. Twice now I have taken a week away alone to a retreat to restructure. It isn’t a coincidence that the Akaroa area features strongly in the second half of Nest of Lies!
  •  N: Looking back, can you think of a particular achievement in your writing career that stands out as being particularly poignant? How did you respond?
  • H: I certainly remember the phone call to tell me I’d won the Tom Fitzgibbon. At the time I was shy to tell anyone and didn’t realise it was quite as big a deal as it is, to get a publishing contract on your first book. I wish I’d known some other writers back then who would have got it! I was more excited though when I had a short story chosen for a collection ‘Pick n Mix’ and was alongside Joy Cowley, David Hill and with illustrations by Jenny Cooper. I felt I had hit the big time in NZ Children’s lit then!
  •  N: How do you deal with rejection?
  • H: I hate showing people my work to start with, so rejection isn’t good but I accept it is a part of the job. I’ve had a couple of delightfully apologetic rejections that show my rejected books have been read, enjoyed and discussed. I know that children’s publishing in NZ is at a low at the moment, so I console myself that what I’ve written is as good as stuff that has been published in the past and that market forces are at play. Some well-known names in children’s publishing can’t get their work out, so who am I to complain?
  • I have tried a few of those online “portals” with no response. That’s discouraging, but I now know I have to work on my “pitch” to grab attention. Who would have thought a polite and sincere letter doesn’t cut it any more. I’m still naive when it comes to marketing myself.
  • I had some poems rejected from one publication “none of the poems were quite what I was after,” and then, lo and behold, two of them are now in a national anthology. A flash fiction I entered in a competition bombed out, I changed the title and it was immediately picked up elsewhere. Different folks, different strokes. I try not to let myself feel anything with a rejection; I go blank, file it and try not to dwell on it. It does take me a while to build up courage to resubmit the piece though
  • N: Your next project involves working with migrant kids. Could you tell what you have planned?
  •  H: I have already started and it's more marvellous than I imagined. Thanks to a research grant from CLNZ and NZSA, I am running writing workshops with young migrant teens who have arrived in Canterbury since the earthquakes. I have just gone back to my first class and worked one to one with three or four wonderful kids to elicit more information. Once I’ve collected the stories then I’ll ‘fictionalise’ them to protect the identities of the students, and to develop some strong themes that arise. My goal is to publish a book, with support notes, that will be a great resource for schools and migrant centres. There are so many anecdotes that have to be included so I’m thinking of interspersing the full stories with some of these snippets.
  •  N: What are your writing goals for the next three years?
  •  H: I am starting on a Masters of Creative Writing at Massey next year and hope to focus on flash fiction as a research and thesis genre. That will be a big part of my next two to three years in writing and will mean lots more flashing!
  • The Migrant stories project is very dear to my heart, combining my teaching/ writing/pastoral care experience, and also has a whole range of other possibilities opening up, working with young people.
  • I also have a few children’s and young adult books in the hunt for a home so I shall be working on my ‘query’ letters and may resort to self-publishing just so they have a chance for readership. And there are a couple more stories that just won’t leave me alone, so I’ll have to fit them in too.
  • N:  What's your most embarrassing writing moment?
  •  H: Having some writing proofread by a professional and discovering some absolute clangers! Feeling like the dumb kid who hadn’t properly checked their work, but I swear I did! Oh, and sending off a flash and discovering that the protagonist changed names half way through and having to sheepishly send an amended version.
  •  N: What are you reading at the moment? Name some authors whose work you admire.
  •  H: I’m on the final chapters of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which has been very tense reading (a confessional of Greek Tragedy proportions), and before that I raced through Where the Rekohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti, which I’d been meaning to read for a year and am so glad I finally got to it. It is beautifully woven from stories across time and joined by ancestry. It is one that will require a second, closer reading.
  • I have new books from two of my most favourite authors on my Christmas wish list: David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood. I have to read everything by Kate Atkinson too, and think her Life After Life is an outstanding achievement.
  • I read a lot of children’s and young adult books, particularly by fellow kiwis, and have recently read, and recommend, James Norcliffe’s Loblolly Boy and the Pirates, and Jane Higgins Havoc (sequel to The Bridge).
  • I also admire the work of Patrick Ness, and I found his recent book The Rest of Us Just Live Here to be witty and funny with very believable teen characters in a parody setting. There were times I laughed out loud and times wanted to hug the narrator, Mikey. I’d love to write like that!
  • N: Finally, what tips would you give someone who's recently started writing? Name some pitfalls to avoid, invaluable resources etc.
  • H: It has taken me 15 years to find other writers! Don’t leave it so long. Hunt them out, they occasionally emerge from their studios, blinking at the light and needing reassurance.
  • Join the NZ Society of Authors, even if it’s just to find out submission deadlines for competitions etc. Beattie's Book Blog also has lots of interesting local and international links.
  • Write. Redraft. Put it away for a while. Redraft some more. Enter competitions, or submit to journals, because they give you a deadline to work to.
  • Read. Lots.


  • N: Many thanks Heather, it's very good to have the opportunity to interview someone with your wealth of experience.

20th December 2015