With Below having been out in the US for a couple of months now, reviews have been coming in, and it’s made me realise something.
I was nervous about this book.
That is perhaps a little odd as it’s been out for two years in Australia already. It’s had plenty of reviews and feedback from readers over here. I’m not sure why I felt nervous about the US release; it just somehow felt like I was diving into a different sort of pond. Even though Candlewick had already published my picture book No Bears and chapter book Duck for a Day, there was something different about this, perhaps more of myself in this work somehow.
Whatever the reason, this publication made me feel more visible, more vulnerable.
So it’s with a very healthy dose of relief that I report that most people seem to be liking it.
It’s had good reviews from Kirkus: “A quietly intriguing meditation on history and truth”
The Wall Street Journal: ” … memorable and suspenseful”
The Bulletin of the Centre for Children’s Books: “McKinlay neatly weaves together an offbeat realistic tale and an accessible mystery, writing with calm, easygoing accessibility and a touch of poetry … an impressive feat”
and a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly: “A poetic sensibility shines through this coming-of-age mystery … a very real sense of excitement and danger …”.
Apart from these formal reviews, I’ve had some lovely responses from readers — sometimes in the form of email, sometimes as personal reviews on blogs or review sites.
Reading some of these has reminded me of a simple truth, of something we all know on an intellectual level, but can easily lose sight of in reality — that reading is an intensely personal, subjective experience, that no book can please all readers, that no writer should ever remotely consider trying to do so.
I’m aware that my work tends to fall on the ‘quiet’ side. That I privilege image over plot, ideas over action, that internal movement is at least as important to me as external, and probably more so. I was completely prepared for readers to find the book a bit slow-paced, even a little dull. Some readers have done so. Some have described it as boring. That’s perfectly fine with me, and of course it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t. Once the book is in the hands of readers, I’m not part of that conversation, unless I’m asked to be.
But something I’ve found very satisfying is that there have also been comments along the lines of, “Slow and quiet but absorbing” … “Nothing much happens for a while but somehow I couldn’t stop reading” and “I kept waiting for the story to start and then realised it had been creeping up around me the whole time”.
I love that there are readers to whom this kind of book appeals — who can sit with a slower pace, a gentler sort of forward movement. I think I was that kind of reader myself, and probably still am, although I like a fast-paced novel as much as the next person. In fact, when I’m reading one, devouring page after page, I sometimes catch myself wondering why I don’t write like that. Next time! I tell myself. And then I sit down to write, and there’s just no way I can do it. I simply can’t tell the stories that mode demands; or at least, I can’t tell them in that way.
Surprisingly enough, there’s been a third kind of response to my book. There have been people who have defied all my expectations in declaring it ‘a page turner’, ‘fast-paced’, ‘unputdownable’.
Clearly, my readers are out there. It is a lovely feeling to know that they are, and that some of them are finding the book. There have been a handful of immensely satisfying responses that have brought this home to me very keenly.
I’m so grateful to those readers who have put their thoughts down — whether to me directly or out there somewhere for paranoid authors to accidentally stumble across far too late at night for their own good.
In a roundabout way, this is one reason I’ve been silent here lately. Because I’ve been writing, neck-deep in my work-in-progress. Knowing there are readers are out there, waiting to call my endlessly circling, meditative stories unexpected things like ‘gripping’ and ‘mesmerising’, helps me keep the doubts at bay, helps me put words on the page — one by one by one.
Which is what it’s all about. And even though I write as slowly as the pace of my books probably suggests, there is something new coming, inch by gradual inch. I’m currently at the stage where I have no idea whether it’s going to be terrible, amazing, or somewhere in between, which in terms of my process means that I’m right on track!