Matthew J. Kirby is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of the middle grade novels The Clockwork Three, Icefall, The Lost Kingdom, Infinity Ring Book 5: Cave of Wonders, and The Quantum League series.
Kirby has been named to New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing, and the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults lists.
More important: The first three of the books listed above are on the Riverside Center for Education’s suggested reading list. (Perhaps after reading this interview, the directors will add some of Kirby’s other books as well as more from the authors he names.)
Kirby was gracious enough to speak with Conor Hernon, 10, who is in his third year of Riverside’s Tutorial program, and thinks being a published author someday would be pretty cool.
How did you get your start as a writer?
I wanted to write since I was your age. I was 12 when I decided I wanted to be writer when I grew up. I kept that as a dream for a long time. It didn’t come true until my first book came out in 2010. Sometimes those dreams take a long time and a lot of hard work. It is one of those lifelong dreams I had and it took a lot of determination to make it happen.
What was the inspiration for Icefall?
(Icefall Synapsis, www.matthewjkirby.com: Trapped in a hidden fortress tucked between towering mountains and a frozen sea, Solveig, along with her brother the crown prince, their older sister, and an army of restless warriors, anxiously awaits news of her father’s victory at battle. But as winter stretches on, and the unending ice refuses to break, terrible acts of treachery soon make it clear that a traitor lurks in their midst.)
Icefall is the only one of my books that was inspired by a dream. I don’t normally remember my dreams very well, but I had a very vivid dream and it was a scene that ended up in the book. Having the dream, I didn’t understand the scene; I didn’t know what it meant. Basically I dreamed about the scene where (all the characters are) there when the Berserkers (From Wikipedia: Champion Norse warriors, primarily found in Icelandic literature, who fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury) arrive. Everyone is really tense and it is really cold. But when I had the dream when I woke up, I didn’t know who any of those people were. I didn’t know why they were there and I didn’t know why they were scared. I sort of had to figure all that out. The dream was so vivid that I couldn’t let it go. As I figured out the answers to those questions, that was how the book of Icefall came to be.
What is your writing process like?
I have a really odd writing process compared to a lot of other writers I know. I work as a school psychologist because I loved that too much to quit. When I get home from work, I open up my laptop and sit down at the kitchen table and I start writing. Life is going on all around me. The kids are doing homework. I might stop to help my wife cook dinner. I am able to multitask and if I need to leave my writing for a few minutes to go do something I can do that and then I just go back. Definitely I am sort of out and working on it while everything is going on around me so I am available to my family, but I still get my writing done.
When you were a kid what books did you like to read and why?
I loved to read fantasy and historical fiction. I liked to feel I was going to a different place in a different world. Fantasy obviously feels that way but historical fiction can feel that way too. Sometimes places and events in the past are so different from our world today that they feel like they could almost be a fantasy. I read Elizabeth George Speare (Bronze Bow, Witch of Blackbird Pond), Natalie Babbitt (Tuck Everlasting), Ursula K. Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea), Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising Series), a lot of those (kind of) authors.
What is your favorite part of being an author?
I have two favorite parts of the job. There is the job of writing the book and then there is the job of being an author. Being an author is when I go out on school visits, book signings. My favorite part of that is meeting readers like you. Definitely. My favorite part of the job that is just the writing is that usually when I get an idea, when something comes to me, it really does feel like that bolt of lightning, kind of that lightbulb going on over your head. I love when an idea comes to me and I am saying to myself, holy cow this is awesome. I wonder what kind of book this will turn into. So the job to me has those two parts and each has their best (aspect).
Who is your personal favorite author and why?
My personal favorite author is Ursula K. Le Guin. She is the one who inspired me to be an author. I loved writing stories ever since I was a kid. Ever since I was in the third grade. But, I never thought about being a writer when I grew up until I read her novel, A Wizard of Earthsea. After I read that book, I knew this is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to write books like she is. If you notice on the back of Icefall, the hardcover, there is a blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin and that is the best thing that has ever happened in my writing career.
(Here is what Le Guin said about Icefall: Clear, lively, exciting, and unstoppable as the torrent of meltwater from a glacier, Icefall confirms Matthew Kirby as one of our finest new writers for young adults. Readers of any age may be enthralled by the bitter Nordic winter setting and the story of a girl who needs a lot of courage to discover who she is.)
What is your favorite book you’ve read?
It is A Wizard of Earthsea just because that was what wanted to make me a writer. But I’ve read so many books that I love that could be a list that is 20 books long and every time you ask me it would be different. The thing about books is that we bring ourselves to them when we read them. There is the story, but also how we read the story. I don’t know if you have had this experience, but sometimes I’ll go back and reread a book that I read years ago and when I read it the second time, it is a totally different experience and I get something totally different out of it. I’ve changed since the last time I read it. That is why my list of favorite books is always changing. But, the one book that will always be the book that inspired me to read a writer is Wizard of Earthsea.
What did you major in in college and how did that help you be an author?
History and Psychology. Both of those things have definitely helped me be an author. The history is kind of obvious since a lot of my books have historical settings. But the other thing I learned how to do when I majored in history, was I learned how to research. I can research historical settings so I can write my books. The psychology background has helped a lot too just because I understand people better and I understand why people do the things that people do—good guys and bad guys. (It helps me) write characters I feel that are hopefully realistic and hopefully feel like people you could know in your real life.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
I usually have two pieces of advice. First I tell aspiring authors that they need to read a lot. The best writers are also the best readers. That usually means reading really widely, reading lots of different kinds of stories. Reading science fiction, reading fantasy, reading realistic fiction, reading historical fiction, reading mysteries, reading even things you don’t think you are going to like. Find people that do like them and ask what is a really good one that I should read. Because the more you read and learn about stories, the better you are going to be at writing stories.
The second piece of advice is to write every day. Get in the habit of writing a little bit every day because writing is a skill. It is like playing the piano or playing sports. If you want to get better at it, you have to practice. You have to practice a lot and you have to practice frequently. So I tell aspiring writers start practicing now. The more practice you get, the better you will get. You have to do the practice anyway so you might as well do it now.
What is your least favorite part of being an author?
Revisions. I cannot stand doing revisions. I tend to be pretty impatient and I tend to have lots of ideas going on in my imagination and so as soon as I am done writing one book, I want to take on the next one. I can’t because I have to revise the first one. That feels a little more boring to me. I would definitely say revision is my least favorite part.
What would you say the key to being a good author is?
The key for me is something I figured out early on: that you kind of have to separate yourself from the story because the story is an expression of you. It is your thoughts and ideas, but it is not you. The thing is, there is no story that everyone is going to like. You are going to have critics. You are going to have people say, “I didn’t like it.” Some writers think their stories are an expression of them so when someone says, “I don’t like that story,” they think they are saying, “I don’t like that writer as a person.” I kind of learned early on that my stories, I created them, but they are not me. People can criticize them if they want. No one is going to like every story and that is just fine. It is one of those lessons that I think applies to anyone who is going to do things for the public. If you want to play music, or you want to play sports, or if you want to be an actor, you are going to have to learn that people will criticize you and how are you going to deal with that. That is a part of rejection. There is no reason to let rejection stop you.
What is more important to a story: characterization, plot or voice?
I don’t know you can separate which one is more important. I have found that each of those is important for different kinds of stories. Some are very plot driven, like my book, Quantum League. If I were to put a lot of focus on voice or on character, it would lose that plot. It would lost that excitement. That excitement is a part of what makes that story what it is. Icefall is different. It is much more about character and voice. If you had this crazy plot that was going all over the place, the character would get lost. Every time I come up with an idea, I think about what kind of story is this going to be. Then that helps me choose what I am going to focus on when I am writing. Will I focus on character? Will I focus on voice? Will I focus on plot? They are all part of the story, but which part do you focus on more. That is how I decide.
Did you get a lot of rejection letters and how did you face them?
Lots. I started trying to write professionally. That is I was writing something and sending it out, hoping to get it published. I started doing that in the year 2000 and Clockwork Three didn’t come out until 2010. That is about 10 years. What was going on during that time was a lot of rejection. Lots of rejection letters. I would basically deal with them by taping them up to the wall by my computer. I covered the whole wall with them. That was because I considered that a part of the process. Every skill requires practice. I considered that, well, I am practicing. I am doing it. There are definitely times I wanted to give up. When you face rejection, you have two choices: you can give up or you can keep going. I knew I wanted to be a writer so I kept going.
What is your favorite thing to do outside of writing?
I love other forms of storytelling. I love movies, TV shows. I don’t have a lot of time for either of those things so when I get a chance I love to do that. I also love video games. That is another form of storytelling that I think is really cool. I also love to cook. My wife and I have a huge collection of cookbooks and we are always trying new stuff. And I love spending time with my family and friends. I don’t have as much time for the fun stuff because I have two full time jobs, as a school psychologist and a writer.