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Archaeologist to Author: An Interview with Matthew McKee, author of Keeping the Stars Awake

McKee 1

I was born in Denver, Colorado, but was raised in small-town Wyoming. From a very young age, I was an avid reader and tinkerer with the written word. I had always considered writing the medium that suited me best and always felt a call to it. I went to university in Montana, then ranged up to Alaska where I lived in a small cabin in the woods in the Matanuska Valley. After a year of building trails, I finally made the jump to my lifelong dream of living and working in Japan, where I currently reside on the rural seaside. I teach English, write, read, and enjoy sauntering through nature and life.

You can buy the book here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

My book’s title was taken from something one of the main characters said at midnight when I was composing the first draft. I’m not sure if it made it into the final book, but I recall the main character, Oh-Ok, telling his travel companion, Sen, that she should just go to sleep instead of badgering him, and she responded despondently: “I’d like to, but these damn stars are keeping me awake, so I’m returning the favor.” And that really put a shiver down my spine—I knew there was depth and meaning in that phrase that really resonated throughout the entire book. So I wouldn’t exactly say it was an easy find, but I didn’t struggle for it either; it just materialized.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

Oh, it was a wonderful feeling. To see that haunting set of eyes… I felt enamored at first glance. And holding it really brought that feeling home in more ways than one as well. I could just stare at it and feel the visceral pull from the pages.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

For me, I think writing is what I am, in a sense. I have always enjoyed writing. I’ve always enjoyed reading. I like the feeling. So I wouldn’t say I was ever made “to” write, but that I “have to.”

As to writers that have influenced me, there are many, but in particular, Stephen King’s approach to story is something I aspire to, but NISIOISIN (a modern Japanese author) really opened my eyes as to just how much you can experiment with writing and that a story can really be a malleable thing if you change the way you examine it. In this way I mean to say that King is my foundation and NISIOISIN is the framework. If put more broadly, English-style writing is my foundation, but Japanese-style writing is my framework. I hope this keeps my prose fresh but also familiar. I certainly enjoy being able to absorb these vibrant writing cultures and combine them in the unique way that is wholly my own.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I have worked in a few professions. I have been an archaeologist, I built trails in Alaska, and I did some summer ranch work as a high schooler in Wyoming. And something my readers wouldn’t know about me? I have a twin! We don’t look so similar anymore, but when we were young you couldn’t tell us apart if you tried. Although our mom never seemed to have a problem.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

The most rewarding part of the publishing process was by far and away the editing phase. My word, the lessons gleaned. The ways a book can be edited, the depth you can take those edits, and how a few stylistic changes can completely alter the flow of a piece of writing was eye-opening to me on so many levels.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Keeping the Stars Awake would need some blues and jazz for sure. Some Miles Davis in general for the over-tracks. I feel that would set the mood right for this kind of dark and emotional work. For the action scenes, perhaps some heavy metal like Iron Savior, a real shriek of world-ending oblivion. Some personal song choices might be Iron Savior’s Starlight, Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath, Grim Reaper’s Rock You to Hell, and Gorillaz’s Feel Good Inc., to name a few (albeit a good few).

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope they take away a feeling of self-exploration. Of course I write everything for myself at the start, but as the work proceeds and you wish to publish it, you must think of how others will receive it and what it will mean to them. For Keeping the Stars Awake, I think that has to be a journey for the reader, mirroring somewhat the journey I as an author went through and also the journey the characters went through. And so, my ideal reader is someone who can see the light and dark side that is inherent in everything and in every situation. Someone who can see the darkness in a humorous light and also be willing to dive deep into the awkward or difficult discussions that none of us want to face. In short, I think Keeping the Stars Awake is a sojourn, and reading it is one too.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I am writing a collection of short stories focusing on the bleaker side of life here in small-town Japan. It’s a work that is very “in the moment” driven; all the stories focus on the secret heart of the subject, from a suppressed salary-man to a woman who failed to drown herself, etc. It sounds depressing, but I actually sincerely enjoy writing them and feel like I’ve found a sliver of pain to pull free from the woes woven into society when I finish writing one.

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

Atmosphere was a great experience from head to tail. I can’t recommend it enough but also want to caution prospective writers: YOU still have to work. You don’t just give someone your manuscript and then sit on your hands—the Atmosphere way (and it’s the best way) is to have the author involved through the entire process and work with the author’s input. Atmosphere isn’t a slouch; they want to pull the best out of their authors and they have a mighty fine team to do so. Another aspect I really appreciated was being matched with people who had something in common with the genre or style I was writing in, in a broad sense. So in a way I had an editor who “got me,” and a team who were determined to make my book the best version of itself it could be without missing my initial intent.

You can buy the book here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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