Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with Matthew J. McKee, author of Keeping the Stars Awake.
FQ: What single piece of advice would you give to someone preparing to read your work with no previous knowledge of its outré content?
McKEE: Wow! That’s a great starting question. Well, my advice would be: think of reading Keeping the Stars Awake on multiple levels. There is a story that is complete, acting as the basement level; it’s a humorous and self-contained creation that can be enjoyed all by itself. Above that there is a house full of psychological analysis and above that a meta-work sky that extends to eternity. These overlapping layers force themselves into that basement narrative and the book begins to bend and flex and ask you: as a reader, what power do you have here? The book asked a similar thing of me as the Author, and part of this outré—as you so eloquently put it—is that the book came alive to a certain extent and asked the characters to consider that question as well. What power do you have here? So, I’d advise my readers to look for those strains of story, psychological analysis, and meta-work and how they tie together, if they so wish. It’s wild, strange, and crazy, but also very upfront and real. Having a rotational perspective will make Keeping the Stars Awake that much more of an enjoyable and impressionable read.
FQ: "Dead in a matter of pages!" So starts the book’s synopsis. Did you ever hesitate about using that to open your book’s description? It certainly grabs one’s attention!
McKEE: I’m glad to hear it made some eyes boggle, ha ha! But did I ever hesitate? No, it was a very natural phrase that came to me and it worked on several levels, which I liked. First, it is—how you said—attention-grabbing, and second, it lets the reader know that plot armor doesn’t exist in the universe of Keeping the Stars Awake. I wanted in some way, even if only on a subconscious level, to let the reader know this book wasn’t safe. People will die; shit will hit the fan.
FQ: Did this teen saga have any connection to your own teen years?
McKEE: Well, nothing so ludicrous happened to me in small town Wyoming, of course, but books have always been a form of escape for me and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I had daydreamed more than once about some magical portal opening up and whisking me away on a grand adventure when I was young. I’m probably not alone there. That being said, I can distinctly remember a heavy lazy-haze hanging over my teenage years. And once again, I’m sure many people know what I mean. So, what if—just for example—a queen in battle armor showed up and offered teenage me a magic journey? Um, can I do it from my sofa? With a little bit of thought, teenage me probably wouldn’t have wanted to put in the effort. In that sense, it’s perfectly fair to say that yes, there is certainly a connection to my past experiences. That outlook certainly framed the story of Keeping the Stars Awake and informs the baseline for Oh Ok’s je ne sais blah blah blah attitude.
FQ: Have you ever experienced the kind of “shock” that your hero goes through?
McKEE: Hmmm. That’s an interesting question. And yes, I probably have. I was actually a danger-prone child growing up and I’ve broken a lot of bones. The worst of all, however, was when I broke my back. I was skiing in Grand Targhee and took a jump wrong. If I close my eyes I can still picture the sky floating above me, and the horror gripping my heart as I felt gravity claw at me. I fell backwards, face up, so that was pretty terrifying, too, in an existential dread sort of way. I never knew when I was going to hit the ground, so when I did, I hit hard and it jarred me so bad that I couldn’t breathe well for a few minutes afterward. Turns out I broke a vertebra in three places, and I’m pretty lucky that I still have full body function and no lasting trauma. Other than that, driving up to Anchorage in Alaska was a terrifying experience. I had to drive for almost a whole twenty-four hours straight through the dark on a road carved out of snow and there were signs posted along it telling me to keep the car moving over twenty miles per hour, else the engine would freeze and die. And as nerve-wracking as that was, worse were the eyes. They glinted in the dark just off the shoulder of the road: wolves, waiting. Just...waiting...
FQ: What writer(s) of bizarre fiction, or any fiction, inspired you to take off on this incredible fictional journey?
McKEE: Ah, this is the question to kill all those feelings of imposter syndrome! Because—yup. No matter what it is, someone has dipped their toe in it first and we who come after can be proud to take our inspiration and take our turn at the plate, swinging for the fences. In my case, here in Japan, the book world is overflowing with the “Isekai” genre, aka the “sent into another world” genre. There are also some great western classics that I can think of in “Portal Fantasy” like Jumanji, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Tron, but Japan leads in the genre currently. And seeing as a core tenant of being a writer is: read, read a lot; I have done just that. In the case of Keeping the Stars Awake, direct influences would have to be Nisio Isin and his Bakemonogatari series, Natsume Akatsuki’s Konosuba series, and in a quick shift in pace, P.K. Dick’s Ubik, C.G. Jung’s The Red Book: Liber Novus, and Natsume Soseki’s world famous I, am a Cat. If those sound spread out, I wouldn’t disagree, but for me the underlying shift in perspective and the welcoming of absurd turns in logic connect them all, and it is that aspect that I drew inspiration and experience from.
FQ: Do you have plans for the next book, or a sequel?
McKEE: Plans? Well, it’s hard to make a plan of the absurd, but yes, Oh Ok and Sen will return—or rather, their turn to drive my brain will come back around. Those two occupy an important place in my Jungian Shadow, as it were, and I’m not through with them just yet.
FQ: Is writing now your primary avocation or will you explore other avenues of creativity?
McKEE: Oh, I’ve always been a writer. I can’t talk as lucidly or laconically as I write and anything I draw looks best on a refrigerator door. I’ve always loved writing and I always told people when I was growing up that I wanted to be a writer. Getting a good start with Keeping the Stars Awake is a fantastic experience for me and I’m only getting started.
FQ: In your afterword you characterize this work as satire – what do you feel it is most pointedly satirizing?
McKEE: The big question! Perhaps THE question! Well, the answer to that must start in a slightly roundabout way: I didn’t write Keeping the Stars Awake with the intention to satirize to begin with. My brother asked me to “write something serious.” So I thought: all right, let’s get out all my silly, first. Let’s make a vomitorium of stupid, low brow chuckle-hut bits. But, at some point in the process, I showed a page of what I’d written to a friend. And he didn’t laugh. Instead, he turned his nose up at it and said something along the lines of: “That’s…honest, yeah. But I don’t know man, if you gotta get this guy out of you I suppose its good, but I’d get rid of him if I was you.” And that really struck a chord with me. I had to have a sit down with myself and the pieces of myself that were these characters and have a discussion about what was really going on. And from that sort of self-analysis, I came to the conclusion that it was an expression of me “learning to grow up.” To quote Jung: “The descent into the depths always seems to precede the ascent.”
That was the journey Sen, Oh Ok, and I were on, and while those two aren’t capable of the changes, they put that change to work in me and helped me see it. I wasn’t a bad person, but the bad parts in me were not things I had been able to clearly see up until then. And then I thought: How many people do you see like that these days? People who are not “bad” perse, but who say or do things that make you go “wow, that person has ZERO self-awareness.”? The answer is: way too damn many. And that is who Keeping the Stars Awake is sending up with its satire. All the people who start sentences with “I’m not a (fill in blank with whatever evil word you can think of e.g. racist) but...”, all the people who are shocked to learn they aren’t the hero they thought they were but don’t change, all the people who refuse to be part of the solution even as they declare they aren’t part of the problem, all the people who think they’re being witty when in fact they are being mean—those people. Because I believe there are some people who are too dogmatic to change, but others just need to be approached the right way. They need to see the truth for themselves without having it shoved in their face. The people who could change for the better if they looked in the right place in the mirror, those are the people I think Keeping the Stars Awake can reach.
We’ll go down to Dimension 23 together, laugh, stop laughing, start thinking, and start to climb up.
FQ: Having successfully created a wild ride of a story, can you now imagine writing something – perhaps set in your childhood haunts of Wyoming – of a more realistic, settled nature?
McKEE: Absolutely. I’m currently writing a collection of short stories. It should be a book even my grandmother could read. Of course, I’m also writing another story that is more in keeping with my usual style of insanity. But I will say writing Keeping the Stars Awake took a lot out of me, and it feels good to write something a little quieter before heading off in to the great open wilds of the absurd once more.
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