#LoveOzYA Q&A with Meg Gatland-Veness for WHEN ONLY ONE
When Only One is Meg Gatland-Veness’ second YA novel, after I Had Such Friends (2018). Look out for it on 31 May 2022.
Meg spoke to #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about writing topics that make you angry and her dream to inspire Australian teens to help people going through tough times.
For those who haven’t read it yet, what is When Only One about?
It’s set in a small Australian town, very similar to the town in I Had Such Friends. It starts with a school shooting, but we don’t know who the shooter is or who the victim is, we just know it’s happened. Then the book jumps to 1 year earlier and we get to find out all the things that happened leading up to that moment and readers can try to figure out who the shooter is.
The main character is Sam, he’s a surfer training for the Ironman Championships, and it’s really about him dealing with things in his life, relationships, friendships, and especially his friendship with Emily, who is going through a tough time at home and he’s trying to support her with that.
What inspired you to write this story?
That’s a tricky question. I’m a teacher and what I usually say to my students when they’re doing creative writing is to write about the things that make them angry. It really makes me angry that people can just go and buy a gun and shoot people with it. I really, really hate that that can happen. So that’s one reason for the story. But when I’m writing, I usually start with the characters first and then develop the plot. I had these ideas for these characters, Sam and Emily and Rei, and their relationships with each other and then the story came from there. But also, similar to my first book, I wanted to shine a light on Australian teenage issues, as opposed to other countries, and write a story about that.
Why did you decide to make When Only One historical fiction and set it in 1987?
The first book and this one are sort of part of a series. Not technically a series because each book has different characters, but they’re all set in the same world. You might notice some of the characters in this book show up in I Had Such Friends as older, because I Had Such Friends was set in 1990. And there are other books in the making that will fill the gaps between the two. I’m working on one now that’s set between I Had Such Friends and When Only One, but there are possibly another 8 books that will be part of the series, all set at different times.
Do you plan to work up to the current day or do you like working historically?
The most modern one is in 2014, but I do like setting them before mobile phones. Mobile phones often ruin the suspense of the story because you can just call and ask them. I like setting them before technology develops so there is a sense of urgency that we don’t have right now. I also like celebrating a simpler time, simpler things.
I’m fascinated that you have so many books you’re planning. You say that you start with the characters, but it sounds like you have several books mentally plotted out. Is that how you work, you plot them all out before you start working on them?
Yes, so I have about 10 or so books in my head. Some of them, I just have a few characters in mind and that’s it. When I get to the writing stage, I like to plan out approximately 25 chapters and then I’ll plan out what is happening in each of those chapters. Then I might write Chapter 11 today and Chapter 4 tomorrow, I just write whichever bit I’m feeling at the time. I don’t always write in chronological order; I just dip into whichever bit I’m feeling like at the time.
So having a plan gives you the flexibility to write whatever you feel like writing?
Yeah. If I started from the beginning, I might get stuck and not know what’s going to happen next, but having a plan means I can forget about writing Chapter 2, I can write the very last chapter or whichever one I want.
Being a high school teacher, you wanted to shine a light on things that Australian teens are going through. What do you hope readers will take away from When Only One?
I hope teenagers living in rural areas, especially, will know they’re not alone, they’re not the only ones dealing with these kinds of things, and that there is help available if you ask for it or look for it. There’s a lot of things in this book about helping your community and helping each other out. There’s a lot of charity work going on and some of the students start a social justice club to try to help the more disadvantaged students at the school. I hope it might inspire teenagers to try to make a difference, maybe just in their town, they don’t have to try to change the world, just help one person at your school who is doing it tough. Even if just one person wanted to do one thing to help someone else, that’s my dream.
There are some very difficult things in the book, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, death. They can feel very overwhelming for people, so you’d like teenagers to focus on the small things they can do to help?
Yeah, in the book there are a couple of easy, small things you can do to help. If you have a friend who is going through things, it can feel overwhelming and like, “how could you possibly help them?”, but sometimes even just the smallest thing, like baking them cookies, or helping them with their homework, or lending them some clothes, can really help them.