Our recent Q&A with author Matt Killeen to celebrate the publication of his new young adult novel Orphan Monster Spy offered some interesting insights into how he started writing and the inspirations behind the novel…
Q: This is your debut novel…what were you doing before you started writing for teenagers?
A: For the last eight years I’ve been a writer for the LEGO® Group, channelling my inner 7-11 year old. Members of LEGO Club and LEGO Life app users will have read my stuff before. Before that I was an advertising copywriter and a sports and music journalist. I’ve had a varied and diverse set of jobs and “careers”. Not many people have played laser-tag for a living!
Q: Why did you make your protagonist female? Did you find any unexpected challenges in writing about a teenage girl?
A: I studied Film & TV at university and after a particularly enlightening workshop, I began to automatically switch characters’ gender as they entered my head. It immediately made my characters and my writing more nuanced and interesting.
I have long-standing issues with traditional ideas of masculinity and have been working hard on being a good feminist since my early adolescence… with varying degrees of success! Representation is invaluable, and let’s face it, there’s no shortage of male (and white and straight) heroes in fiction – more than enough to go around. They don’t tend to be very interesting. They’re always starting from a position of privilege in one way or another.
All this is kind of academic though. Sarah arrived in my head pretty much fully formed and I didn’t get a great deal of say. She’s kind of… in charge. Is it difficult? It doesn’t feel hard for me and I’m surrounded by smart, brilliant women who inspire me and who I can turn to when I need a sanity-check, but the more knotty question is whether I have got it right!
Q: Why did you choose to set the novel in Second World War Germany? What research did you do?
A: My mother’s best friend was German and as a child I had real problems squaring the lovely, pacifist people I knew with the war stories that made up the majority of the films, comics and TV programmes at the time. As I learned the details of the Holocaust that dichotomy grew more profound and disturbing. I’ve carried this horrified fascination ever since and a lot of the research for this book was built on that foundation. I’d say there’s nothing special about the Germans, as under those conditions it seems anyone was capable of it – British Police in the Channel Islands assisted in the “deportation” of Jews – and still are. That’s terrifying.
Q: I felt the book had a cinematic quality and could definitely imagine it being adapted for TV. Are there any plans to do this? Who would you include in your dream cast?
A: Plans? Well, I don’t know how much I can say… I do have a good friend who is a super-talented writer / director who has just finished her first feature. She is totally gunning for it, so I’m given regular casting suggestions. Several people have mentioned Millie Bobby Brown as Sarah, but believe it or not, I don’t have Netflix so I haven’t seen Stranger Things yet! When I started writing Orphan Monster Spy I was incredibly impressed with Saoirse Ronan and that was before I’d even seen Hanna. Of course, she’s a grown-up now. I need to write quicker. Everyone wants the Captain to be Benedict Cumberbatch, but I think he’s a little more Jude Law. It’s a fun party game.
Q: What do particularly enjoy reading and what are you reading at the moment?
A: I’m just finishing Annabel Pitcher’s The Last Days of Archie Maxwell which I found to be very stressful… in a very good way. She has such a beautiful turn of phrase, it turns a very simple story into something quite special. I’m on a feminism panel with her soon. This book has a male protagonist and deals with some very male issues, and the way those can be toxic to those around them. I think that’s an important feminist issue.
Well-written non-fiction that conjures a story from the information is a joy – I have to read a lot for research and some academic work is soporific in the extreme – and I like a big, fat, smart sci-fi. I’m still mourning Iain Banks. But the genre’s predilection for not finishing – just running out of pages and stopping – is endlessly infuriating. I’d say you can’t get away with that in young adults fiction, but Patrick Ness proves otherwise. That’s probably a bad habit.
Q: What are you working on at the moment? Fingers crossed for a sequel!
A: Same spy, different monsters! #amwriting
Orphan Monster Spy is available now via our schools website. We thoroughly enjoyed Matt’s book and we cannot wait for the next instalment!