Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Matthew J. McKee, about his writing and his debut novel, Keeping the Stars Awake an original and strange story about identity, survival, and power dynamic. (Read the review here.).
Matthew J. McKee grew up in rural Wyoming where he gained a love of reading and writing from an early age. Matthew went to college in Montana before moving to Alaska, where, in the dark, in an isolated cabin in the mountains, he began to write in earnest. He currently resides in Japan with his fiancée and daughter. Keeping the Stars Awake is his first published novel. Learn more at matthewjmckee.com.
When did you start writing, and what ultimately inspired you to do so?
Oh, I think I really started writing seriously in my first year out of college, although I’d always been a writer in my mind. By that I mean I was always an avid reader growing up and I wrote a lot of short stories and poems all through elementary, middle, and high school, but I only started taking it seriously after graduating college. But what inspired that turn from hobby and simple exploration to actual conscious mind to word to page quote unquote Writing with a capital W? It had a lot to do with my location and a specific novel.
After college I moved around the western USA a lot but got it in my mind to go up to Alaska, and I put myself in a situation where I was isolated—living in a cabin in the woods—with a lot of time to read and write and not a lot else to distract me. It gave me a good chance to assess my life and what I wanted to do with it, and I felt like writing had always been a strong undercurrent weaving throughout all my years. So why not take that undercurrent and let it break out of the mountainside and become a river? I planned to do a lot of various exploration of forms of writing and I started by reading Stephen King’s On Writing. In it he recommended that you should (paraphrasing here): READ. READ. READ! And I did just that.
Because living and working in Japan was my final goal, I thought I’d tackle some Japanese novels to start. I’d read many classics of Japanese fiction in college, things like Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat and Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, so I thought I’d give some more modern novels a try. I went to the local bookstore and picked out Nisio Isin’s Wound Tale and was mesmerized almost immediately. That book left a deep and lasting impression on me. I’d never encountered a writing style like that and it blew apart my whole idea of what writing could and should be. I really felt like a door had been opened to me and was inviting me in. Reading that book loosened up my image of book and prose and flow and gave my inner voice a different avenue to explore. I’ve moved on to other kinds of writing and authors of all stripes since then, but I owe Nisio Isin and Wound Tale for galvanizing my spirit for writing and breaking up that mountainside of hesitation in me so my writing could flow out into the world.
In your book’s Afterword, you discuss the way that many people are “forced to confront their darker natures.” Are your characters designed to emulate archetypes of people you know or are familiar with in real life?
That’s an interesting and tricky question. The characters are archetypical in a way that I hope will allow any reader to be able to see aspects of themselves so that lessons can be taken on an individual basis and everyone can learn or experience something pertinent to their individual lives, but the characters themselves are not based or designed off of an actual person or likeness I am familiar with outside of myself. These were internal demons that are part of me. Personifying them and putting them to work for myself was draft one. Draft two was expanding their voice and making it more accessible and applicable to an audience. One of the tenets of writing is to have an audience in mind who you write to, and another contradicting tenet is to write for yourself; I look at those rules as guides for draft #2 and draft #1 respectively.
Of course, there will be more refinements that will call for more drafts and edits, but in general, I start by writing for myself, to myself, with the door closed. Once I have something, I then try to ask the questions of “Would other people get this? Do I need to do more explaining here? Less? How can I clarify what I’m trying to say without hand-holding my audience?” My editor did a very good job at helping me ferret out all those tricky details and helped me re-evaluate them, and I owe him a huge thanks for that. One could even say that’s the main job of an editor, because it’s a very good thing for a writer to get lost in their own mind, but when they find a way back out, they need to make the path they created easy for others to see, too, and that can be hard for the writer to do alone. But because I worked through that process, the end result of all these darker natures that I personified is a more accessible archetypal image. They come from my own personal turmoil in my soul and have their own character, but I hope they can reach into others and help them fight their own darkness therein.
What books or authors have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
Obviously Nisio Isin, but also Stephen King, Michael Crichton, H. P. Lovecraft, P. K. Dick, Natsume Soseki, and Raymond Chandler to name a few, but the list could go on for pages. I grew up reading the likes of King and Crichton and they gave me the very basic building blocks to understand how and why to write, and I benefited from the Japanese authors (both classic and modern) because they showed me how lively a character’s dialogue and expression of humanity can be. The Japanese writers are imaginative in subtle and explosive ways that bring character out in ways that western writing does not, most likely because the Japanese scenery is so ubiquitous to the Japanese people that a few subtle flourishes of background are all the detail an average reader needs or wants, so it is the characters that take center stage. In western writing, place is very important. The context is an ever-shifting influence on the characters and the western writing tradition as a whole I think values location very much to evoke a sense of emotion. I get to cherry pick from both of these wonderful traditions, and I have strong influences from both.
I also take lots of inspiration from C. G. Jung because my writing style is free flowing, a semi-unconscious stream of story. I let my characters run the show, I let them have their own lives, and I understand that in a Jungian way. There are aspects of myself, but they do have their own lives and their own words and their own ways of doing things. This simultaneously attaches me to them and also detaches me, and it gives the characters a chance to breathe and be more realistic but also more fantastical and amazing! And that’s a wonderful and gratifying experience for me as well. I have also been heavily influenced by philosophy, especially that of Friedrich Nietzsche and Christopher Hitchens. Most wouldn’t call Hitchens a philosopher perse, but both Nietzsche and Hitchens share “the hammer technique.” They are merciless and truthful and take a hammer to things we hold sacred or mirrors that we wish to hold up to blind ourselves, and I have a great deal of admiration for their unwavering spirit of veritas. In that vein, I pulled no punches in Keeping the Stars Awake, and I hope that shows. I agree that the truth—if there is such a thing—should hurt.
Tell us a little about how the actual plot of Keeping the Stars Awake first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
That’s a great question. The genesis of Keeping the Stars Awake was a conversation I had with my brother. He was talking about another manuscript I had sent him to look at and he said something along the lines of, “It’s not bad, but can’t you write something serious for once?” And that got me thinking that I should make a book and pour all my silly and weird into one place. I thought of it as a sort of vomitorium, a place where I could just spew whatever I wanted, however I wanted, all over the page. I started with the concept of the denial of destiny—also called refusing the call—where the narrator refuses his role, and went from there. That was also a very natural choice when paired with my brother’s suggestion because it leads to ridiculous situations right away. The idea that certain characters themselves would have expectations and would be left in a void of intent when that expectation wasn’t fulfilled made my imagination giddy. Oh Ok showed up from the very start as an apathetic anti-hero (as his chosen moniker would lead you to suspect), and that led me to consider the actual plot as something that was background because Oh Ok was forcing it there. This led to a deep world where anything was possible and where rules were shadows on the walls. I thought that was a really neat avant-garde kind of world. It’s insane and immense and immersing and then here I had a character that was clearly the key to what was happening—but he actively sticks his fingers in his ears! How much could I try and force on him, and how much tension could I generate with his resistance? At the start I wanted to take the archetypal story of a hero on a magical quest and put it behind bars. And that worked as a good baseline, but something was a little off.
A few weeks after that I showed a page of the first draft to a friend and he sort of wrinkled up his nose at it and said, “Yeah, I get it, but I really don’t like this narrator. I suppose if you need to get him out of you…” And that really hit me. I thought I’d been writing for laughs, and just a general sort of lighthearted madness; I hadn’t meant to write anything serious or malignant. Yet, somehow the story—still in its infancy—had taken a turn somewhere from fantastical to fanatical. I consider those two incidents of my brother and friend to be the cornerstones of the framing of the direction the narrative would take, but the real thrust came after I finished C. G. Jung’s The Red Book: Liber Novus.
I had actually put the manuscript for Keeping the Stars Awake aside after about one hundred pages and hadn’t touched it for about half a year when I finally finished The Red Book and it hit me just why I’d had difficulty conceptualizing and working through Keeping the Stars Awake: I’d been trying to control too much of the narrative, and I’d been trying to keep the vomit to a dribble. That wouldn’t do. I really let Oh Ok and Sen off the chain so to speak and let them do and say whatever they wanted and the story took off like a rocket.
What was the most satisfying thing about writing Keeping the Stars Awake?
My god, the ending was so so so satisfying. I felt released from a burden almost? I felt lighter having found a place of resolution that didn’t definitively end. That was important because we as humans should never stop learning and we should always have a drive to keep improving our inner and outer worlds. So, I should never be done with Oh Ok and Sen, they should keep living and learning and growing in me, and I need to learn to live and grow and work with them. It’s not a game of dismissal or a question of how do I get rid of them like my friend and brother suggested. Instead, it’s a process of growth and becoming; if done properly, hopefully becoming a better and more well-rounded and self-aware person. The ending needed to reflect that, and when it naturally did so without me needing to put in a godly hand, I felt extraordinarily satisfied.
Which of your colorful characters was most challenging for you to create? Why?
This might be what most readers have already guessed, but: Sen.
Sen was far and away the most fun and also the most challenging character to write. She had a lot of hidden backstory that needed some way to be written and transmitted without it being obvious. But that had a lot to do with the nature of Keeping the Stars Awake and not so much the character of Sen herself. In terms of the character herself, what was difficult for me was trying to find the consistency in her inconsistencies. Sen is a shapeshifter, and her personality shifts as well depending on the situation and Oh Ok himself, but I felt like there was a real core of character that did not change no matter what. Getting to that core and getting a feeling for what it was that made Sen tick was a real challenge for me and it took a lot of extra writing and deep dives down some meandering imaginations for me to really get a good hold on it.
On top of that, trying to keep Sen separate from what she is took a lot of effort at first. A good section of Sen’s growth in the story comes from this journey of separating who and what first and foremost, but when I thought about just leaving it at that, it seemed shallow and untrue. It felt like I was trying to put a mask over the reality and call it good enough. I struggled with each line when I was writing with that fixed attitude, but once I assimilated that base idea and let the character be true to not only that ideal but to herself as a living entity, she really came alive (so to speak). I also wanted to leave room for me to be surprised and give Sen a chance to do some unexpected things as well, and once I found that core of who Sen was and really started writing her the proper way, she took over and did some of the most unexpected things in the whole story! But at first that wasn’t easy for me.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
My favorite scene has always been—since the moment I wrote it—Chapter 13: WAYLAID. It has everything. WAYLAID is a microcosm of everything in Keeping the Stars Awake. It has homages to my inspirations; it has big reveals and sudden wacky twists; it has silly, stupid, rude, thoughtful, and profound dialogue—and most of all, it has a genuine heartfelt feeling of growth in understanding and connection between Sen and Oh Ok. I enjoyed writing that scene so much, I re-read it on occasion and sigh with bliss. If only the muse that visited me the day I wrote it could visit me every day!
As a piece of satire, Keeping the Stars Awake has the power to communicate a message to its readers. What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Hm, there’s a lot I hope for, and a lot I want to give. To start, I hope every reader—regardless of what I, the author, intended—gets something personal to work on out of the book. I hope they can find something of a mirror in the characters, grimace at what they see, but also receive the courage to face it and face up to it and work on that defect. And I can’t predict what that will be, if anything, but I hope this act of courage on my part gives others the courage to act, too. Because it’s okay to have faults and blind spots; we all have them. What is needed most of all is the ability to turn those faults and defects and blind spots into positives and grow with them and past them and be better people after seeing them. And that takes courage. It takes effort to look past the skin and look past the obvious.
Something of a moralist aphorism would be: Even the most inhuman monster is human; even the most human and innocent looking of us are monstrous.
I also hope readers shut Keeping the Stars Awake and have it keep them up at night, too, pondering just what it was that happened, what it means, and what is going on under the ink and the paper.
What’s next for you?
Me? Me, oh what could it be? Well, for starters, I recently finished a small book of short stories. Lovely little stories, too. No menace or crazy amounts of violence and cursing; a real 180 from Keeping the Stars Awake. I am also working on another long novel now that I would call “sci-fi noir.” This time I’m taking a cue from Raymond Chandler and Isaac Asimov and trying to aim for something with a heavier world-building style compared to Keeping the Stars Awake, which was closer to soft world-building. It’s harder for me, but I always like a challenge!
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