Carrying on with the series of interview of Timelines* authors.
Today I am interviewing Matt Killeen.
Tell us how you got involved in the Timelines project.
I’m a student at MMU doing a Masters Degree in Creative Writing for Young People…or is it children? I can never remember. I met Iris Feindt at the Manchester Children’s Book Festival where she was promoting Animal Stew, an anthology of short stories for children written by students at MMU Writing School. I thought the idea was excellent and when she proposed a second anthology, this time for young adults / older children, I jumped at the chance to be included.
How and why did you come to write your story?
For a pacifist I have a probably unhealthy fascination with war. My work-in-progress novel is set during World War Two…I suppose it’s the result of being a boy growing up in the seventies…Timelines was supposed to be historical fiction and I already had an idea for a story about a Drummer Boy from the Napoleonic era, so that seemed a good fit.
Historically children have been sucked into conflict wherever it occurs – as refugees, as bombing victims and, at the most extreme end, as soldiers. Obscenely, this goes on to this day. Right now there are children fighting wars. That is mind-blowing. I’m in awe of children’s resilience, their ability to recover from suffering without becoming total psychopaths. I also think that it’s important for all children to make connections between violence and the trauma and fear that’s associated with it. There are plenty of books, comics, movies and games that talk about aggression and war, but really not enough discussing their after-effects.
Tell us a little bit about your story.
Lucky has just become a Drummer Boy in the British Army, which is in Spain fighting Napoleon’s French army. He’s grown up with his battalion, but he is about to go into his first battle and face the reality of his life from now on.
While I was researching the story I discovered just how important the drummers were, how children weren’t recruited by choice, just out of necessity. I could see how a Drummer Boy, aged just ten years old, could be the difference between life and death. History is good that way, it provides…I had an idea of how the battle would unfold and then found that the same events occurred in reality, giving Lucky his first battle.
Some people think it is easy to write while Ernest Hemingway said: “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” Where do you stand?
I’ve been a copywriter and journalist for twelve years and I still write for a living. While writing isn’t easy, it comes easily to me…right now that is, because you never know when it might be torn away from you. The words come from nowhere, apparently, so it takes nerves of steel to rely on their continued flow. So far so good. On more than one occasion my main characters have woken me up in the early hours to tell me what’s going to happen next.
The rational explanation is that I’ve trained my subconscious very well – I’ve four decades of life-experience, years of creative work in several different disciplines and a decade of professional writing practice. Practice makes perfect.
There are days, however, when every word is like pulling teeth and when I’m really going for it, when I’m really tapping into negative emotions to replicate them honestly on paper, the process is deeply upsetting. That’s probably what Hemingway was talking about.
What is it that appealed to you when writing for children?
There’s no fat on a good children’s book. You have a limited time to get them hooked and you have to keep them interested throughout. It’s a discipline I appreciate having worked in advertising where you had maybe two to seven words to communicate complex abstract concepts. I’ve also been a filmmaker, where less is always more. This means I have no tolerance for waffle. Literature for adults is dripping in it. I started on an award-winning sci-fi book recently. I got 50 pages in and nothing had happened, literally nothing. No great poetic emotions, no description that couldn’t have been done in half the time. People still look down on children’s literature – yes, Martin Amis I’m looking at you – but really it’s a much more challenging area that demands the very best writing, the very best craft, to transcend the limitations in form and content.
I’m also a big child really so it seems appropriate.
Thank you Matt for this great interview.
* Timelines is an anthology of historical short stories for children.