Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed Matejs Kalns, who has recently released his debut novel, Beasts of the Night, a gritty, hard-hitting story about child trafficking.
Matejs Kalns was raised in the Latvian diaspora community in Toronto, Canada. He holds degrees in History from the University of Ottawa, and Human Security & Peacebuilding from Royal Roads University. He has worked in the fields of education and human rights for over ten years. Beasts of the Night is his first novel.
BookView Review: Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
Matejs Kalns: I have a vague memory of walking down a dusty side street in Cairo when I first had the idea. It was a much darker concept at the time—the main character, Quinn, was far more of a vigilante, a real loose cannon. My work at the time involved reading a lot of case studies, doing a lot of research about child trafficking and it was a really troubling topic. The scale of it all was a bit overwhelming and I think the idea was born out of frustration with how widespread the abuses were. The idea of a vigilante, in a way representing all humanitarian workers, the social workers of the world doing what needed to be done—despite all the red tape— and this little girl, Mei, on the other hand, as a reflection of the vulnerable communities I kept reading about. The topic itself is fairly heavy, I wanted to make sure the story wasn’t a slog for the reader, so I changed Quinn’s character a little, the story became more of a mystery than a tale of vengeance. Though in the end, at its core the idea is still very much what it was that first day in Egypt.
BookView Review: What’s more important: characters or plot?
Matejs Kalns: I suppose it depends on who you ask, haha. For me, I really enjoy books with characters and locales that really grab my attention. The mood and atmosphere the writer conjures, and the style of writing itself is very important to me. In a way, plot is almost secondary. That being said, for some I think it’s all about the story. One of my favourite books is a historical fiction work—it takes place across 1930’s Europe. My father read it and said the main character simply ‘floated like a leaf’ throughout the book and nothing ever happened. I mean, he’s wrong, of course, lots happened, the book is incredible haha. It really depends what you like to read.
BookView Review: Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
Matejs Kalns: I think my favourite scene takes place with Ling, our ‘mistress at midnight,’ as she would say. She’s really a character that leaps off the page for me, even now. I can vividly picture her in any of those Bangkok haunts, someone truly steeped in the seedy culture of those neighborhoods. She’s this complex little businesswoman, there’s more than meets the eye there—as charming as she is aggravating—and I feel that if you were to visit some of those nightclubs in the Thai capital you could easily bump into her.
BookView Review: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Matejs Kalns: I have a couple in the chamber, so to speak. I’ve had one idea for years now, a Second World War adventure that I started writing a long time ago, I’ll certainly come back to it one day. I actually planned to complete it after Beasts but I had another idea pop into my head, I began flushing it out and that’s what I’m writing now. So I guess, to answer the question: one book somewhat written, one book actively being written, and Beasts will be the first I’ve published.
BookView Review: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Matejs Kalns: I usually have the entire story in my head, the characters, the twists and turns, and the stories are usually based on some knowledge that I already have. Beasts was very much inspired by my studies and previous work in the field of human trafficking, and I have a history background in regards to my schooling which provides a lot of inspiration as well. I’m always researching both before and during the writing process. To be honest, there seems to be no end to it, but I enjoy the progression. I feel that with historical fiction it’s especially important to get the details right in order to bring the work to life, so there’s quite a bit of research and fact-checking involved, digging around in books and articles, memoirs, etc.
BookView Review: What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
Matejs Kalns: I read mostly historical fiction. What really got me into it was when I discovered Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy. I’m a big fan of Kerr, Joseph Kanon, David Benioff, and Alan Furst is exceptional. I once had to put down one of his books after reading a passage and thinking: “There is no way I’ll ever be able to write something this good,” and then I turned out the light in a huff and fell asleep. Of course, in additional to historical fiction, I’ll read just about anything that gets really good reviews. Speaking of, I recently read Amor Towles’ Gentleman in Moscow which is absolutely brilliant. I would recommend it to anyone.
BookView Review: Is writer’s block real?
Matejs Kalns: I feel I should say yes; if I say no I’ll end up jinxing myself! I’ll say that it might be real if you sit down with a blank page or a blank screen and expect things to just flow. They say you should force yourself to write everyday, although I feel I’m at my best when truly inspired. The vast majority of my inspiration comes when I’m in the shower or taking a walk, and then I have to make notes so I don’t forget everything before actually drafting it into a story. I once heard Chuck Palahniuk say, (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing here), that coming up with the story is the easy part, the fun part; it’s the sitting down and typing the ideas out that can be tedious at times. I find I’ll be miles ahead in my own mind with my story, and typing it out is almost like trying to catch up.
BookView Review: What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
Matejs Kalns: There’s nothing difficult about writing a novel, it’s a labour of love for sure. The research, the writing, the editing, I really do enjoy all of it. However, I’ll admit that I was pulling my hair out towards the end of the proofreading process. Once you’ve read the story for seemingly the hundredth time, your eyes start to go a bit funny trying to catch every little error, and being a bit of a perfectionist, that part can be pretty tedious.
BookView Review: Are any of your characters based on real people you know?
Matejs Kalns: People seem to have all sorts of ideas about who character’s are and where they come from. They’re all mixes and amalgamations for me. A certain character will have the physicality of someone I met in passing, the temperament of a movie villain, a personality trait I develop, the background and motives I’ve fleshed out, etc. I’ll twist and contort and reconstitute, making these sort of Frankenstein characters in combination with all the other ideas just floating around in my head. It’s amusing how people assume that, “Oh, she has red curly hair and so does our friend Jane. This is Jane!” And then they’re almost hurt when I tell them I wrote that entire part of the book before ever having met ‘Jane’!
BookView Review: What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Matejs Kalns: Well I hope they enjoy it, I suppose! The book is meant as entertainment, of course. I hope readers don’t just read about Cambodia or Thailand but get a real sense of being pulled into the back alleys of Cairo, the nightclubs of Bangkok. I love the idea of the reader being able to travel without really traveling—by turning the pages in the adventure. And while the subject matter is never intended to preach anything, I do hope some readers who might not be familiar with such human rights abuses maybe do learn a thing or two, maybe even get inspired. Every little bit helps when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable communities. In the world of human trafficking, especially with some of these particularly at-risk populations, it’s knowledge that’s most important. The more we know about how to protect them, and ourselves, the better.
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