Author Crush Friday with Matt Killeen
Glitter girls, you have pressing questions for your favorite authors and we have their answers. Welcome to our weekly segment, Author Crush Fridays.
We love asking questions and we love the answers from some of our favorite authors. Today we’re talking to Matt Killeen, author of the page-turning thriller YA, Orphan Monster Spy (March 20, 2018; Viking Books for Young Readers). Thank you for talking to us today, Matt! We’re honored!
GLITTER: Tell us five things that people might not know about you.
- I’ve seen The Sound of Music (40+) more times than I’ve seen Star Wars (30+)
- I love costume parties and take it all too seriously.
- I have an auto-immune disease and two artificial hips.
- I’m a former laser-tag professional.
- I own four lightsabers. One is designed for combat training, at which I suck.
GLITTER: How would you describe Orphan Monster Spy to a new reader?
MATT: Orphan Monster Spy is set at the outbreak of World War Two. Sarah, a German Jewish girl, is orphaned in an escape attempt but runs into a British agent. He recognizes her special skills – she’s smart, a gifted athlete and a cunning actress – but critically, she’s blonde and blue-eyed. He sends her undercover in a school for the daughters of elite Nazis so she can infiltrate the estate of a reclusive nuclear scientist…but the school is full of human monsters and the mission becomes a living nightmare. What does my editor call it? Mean Girls meets Inglorious Basterds.
GLITTER: How do you find the emotional truths in your writing?
MATT: I spend a lot of time watching documentaries and listening to oral histories waiting for a word, phrase or event to trigger a feeling or mind-set. Sometimes it’s an incident that captures the essence of what happened. More than a few conversations in the book are based on these moments. The last decade or so, those involved in the horrors of the Second World War have felt that they’re old enough that they can say what they really thought or did, so there are any number of eye-opening and distressing sources. My wife asks why I watch the same programmes – and get upset by them – over and over. The answer is, you never know when something will snag and in doing so, reveal itself.
GLITTER: Is this book something we will see on TV or the big screen?
MATT: It’s very early days, but I’ve had a few “meetings”…which makes me sound like a character in a David Mamet play, sorry. I’m trying not to get overexcited though.
GLITTER: What one question sparked the whole plot?
MATT: Moving to South London, I regularly passed a mural dedicated to Violette Szabo – an SOE agent who had parachuted twice into occupied France to help organise resistance and sabotage. I knew her story well, as I’d seen the movie Carve Her Name With Pride as a child, but I was amazed how young she was when she volunteered for what was barely more than a suicide mission. At 21 I’d been a mess, not much more mature than I had been at 18 or 15…and Sarah was born, pretty much fully-formed. Would the Allies use a teenage agent if they needed to? They did much worse before the end of the war. It turns out there were plenty of teenage partisans, couriers and resisters fighting the Nazis, some as young as 12.
GLITTER: Do you have any particular writing rituals?
MATT: Music is very important – it helps both block out the rest of the world and occasionally inspires whole scenes. It needs to be interesting but not too distracting. I’ve an enormous playlist of ambient, classical, piano and world music that I use to focus. Nothing like A Winged Victory for The Sullen to get the Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails out of my head. Oh, and super-strong coffee with sugar-free hazelnut, my real vice. The definition of an author is an alchemist who turns caffeine into words.
GLITTER: What character do you relate most to?
MATT: In the book? There’s a lot of me in Sarah, at the risk of fulfilling the “thinly veiled author avatar” trope. I was mercilessly bullied for large parts of my childhood without ever really knowing why and got zero help or protection from those in authority, so I do identify with her challenges. She’s the better me though. She plays the piano, while I learned to play by listening to The Cure, and she speaks multiple languages, while I can barely order coffee in French. Her athletic ability also expresses some of my own frustrations. I’ve spent a lot of time on crutches and was struggling a great deal when I began writing the book. Of course, I’m the person that makes her life so miserable, so there’s an element of masochism at work. The psychology is definitely problematic.
GLITTER: What was the first book that you ever wrote, even if it wasn’t published?
MATT: Nothing I’m prepared to share with the world…oh, OK, it was a very rough middle-grade novella based on a script I’d written at film school. It was about a boy trying to resurrect his dead parents and accidentally bringing all inanimate objects to life. I finished it, learned from it and filed it away. It was a mess. To paraphrase Rossini, it had some good moments and bad half-hours.
GLITTER: Do you have anything that you love to collect?
MATT: I have many collections, bordering on hoarding. I do love my toys. I’m really trying not to, but I’m amassing a collection of Katniss dolls and the Star Wars: Forces of Destiny thing is turning out to be a really expensive. I also have an unreasonable amount of LEGO sets. I worked for them for nearly eight years and the staff discount was dangerous. I’d also say I collect guitars, but I’ve recently enacted a “one in, one out” policy. I had some tattered Enid Blyton first editions and some very old girls’ school novels, but the dog ate them at a moment of high anxiety. We got over it.
GLITTER: Did any of the authors you read in high school affect how you write now?
MATT: At that age, I kind of rebelled against anything academic in a very unreasoned and scattergun fashion, so I missed out on quite a few books that should have been fundamental. I was reading Douglas Adams, which I don’t apologise for one bit, and a lot of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction. There was a schlocky spy novelist called Craig Thomas – of Firefox fame – who I read voraciously. His writing abilities sharply improved as he went along and eventually he did stream-of-consciousness and action as well as anyone I’ve read since. I was also consuming a lot of what you might call “girls’ fiction” as part of my journey into all things feminine, from the sublime (Anne of Green Gables) to the less so (the Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton). Those are clearly big influences.
GLITTER: What are you passionate about in life?
MATT: Making the world a more compassionate place, starting with equality and justice. Bringing down the patriarchy. My family. Music. Soccer and my team, Birmingham City…no matter how much they punish me or try to prove they’re undeserving of my love. Would swap endless defeats for an end to war, but suspect that isn’t my deal to make.
GLITTER: What are you working on right now?
MATT: I’m writing the sequel to Orphan Monster Spy. Same spy, different monsters.
Matt Killeen was born in Birmingham, in the UK, back when trousers were wide and everything was brown. Early instruction in his craft included being told that a drawing of a Cylon exploding isn’t writing and copying-out your mother’s payslip isn’t an essay “about my family.” Several alternative careers beckoned, some involving laser guns and guitars, before he finally returned to words and attempted to make a living as an advertising copywriter and largely ignored music and sports journalist. He now writes for the world’s best-loved toy company, as it wasn’t possible to be an X-wing pilot. Married to his Nuyorican soul mate, he is parent to both an unfeasibly clever teenager and a toddler who is challenging his father’s anti-establishment credentials by repeatedly writing on the walls. He accidentally moved to the countryside in 2016. Follow him @by_Matt_Killeen.