Q&A interview with Matt Killeen (author) and Sarah Stewart and Kendra Levin, editors of
When Sarah’s mother is shot dead, there’s no time to grieve. A Jew in Nazi Germany, she uses her talent as an actress to become a school-girl spy, though she’s keenly aware that her life counts very little to her spy-master.
The judges described Orphan Monster Spy as a chillingly good spy story, very well told and admired the way it explores an area well-covered in fiction while feeling very fresh, original and contemporary.
Did you always want to write for children?
I came to writing quite late – or I thought I had, the truth was that I had always been a writer – but cutting a long story short, I was working as an advertising copywriter after years as an art director and designer. I was looking at a film script I’d started at Uni and, out of the blue, I realised it wasn’t working because it needed to be a story for children. It was a real white‐profiles‐black-candlestick moment. Not long after I joined the LEGO Group as a writer – that was a childhood ambition, along with being an astronaut and an X‐wing pilot – and found it was infinitely more fulfilling than writing car adverts. I wanted to hone my craft a bit, so I went “all in” and started an MA in writing for children. I think it’s inevitable that the books that mean most to us are the ones we read as children so when I imagined being an author, that was where my head went – albeit into its darker and difficult corners.
What gave you the idea for Orphan Monster Spy?
I’ve had a life‐long horrified fascination with WW2, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, partly because I grew up in the war‐mad ‘70s and partly because I knew real‐live Germans who were evidently not the Nazis of the comics. My mother’s best friend was German and I had real problems squaring the lovely, pacifist people I knew with the war stories that made up the majority of the films, comics and TV programmes at the time. As I learned the details of the Holocaust that dichotomy grew more profound and disturbing. I’ve carried this horrified fascination ever since.
Moving to South London, I regularly passed a mural dedicated to Violette Szabo – an SOE agent who had parachuted twice into occupied France to help organise resistance and sabotage. I knew her story well, as I’d seen the movie Carve Her Name With Pride as a child, but I was amazed how young she was when she volunteered, just 21, for what was barely more than a suicide mission. At 21 I’d been a mess, not much more mature than I had been at 18 or 15…and Sarah, my lead character, was born, pretty much fully‐formed. The outsider, the girl who fits everywhere and nowhere. My small, young looking heroine needed a mission, somewhere she could hide in plain sight, so the school, Elsa and her father fell into place shortly after, fed in part by my love of the Malory Towers books. A little research revealed that not only did the Napola schools exist, but there were several for girls and very little written about them. Would the Allies use a teenage agent if they needed to? They did much worse before the end of the war. It turns out there were plenty of teenage partisans, couriers and resisters fighting the Nazis, some as young as 12.
What were the main elements Sarah and Kendra asked you to work on?
Oh, I’ll need to think back…I think they wanted to understand better how Sarah’s mother’s death affected her and get some clarification about the Captain’s responsibility for it. Sarah is very compartmentalised and pretty traumatised, so she’s not always conscious of her anger or grief and what it’s doing. The narration comes from a space on her shoulder but accesses her thoughts as well, so they helped me find that sweet spot of ‘just enough’ information and emotion for the reader, while maintaining the realistic complex trauma symptoms. There are lots of characters who are basically sociopaths, who needed a little more depth on the page as well. And then tighten everything. Tighten and clarify. More gymnastics. And more of the Mouse. Everyone wants more of the Mouse.
What would you say are the elements of the book that were hardest to get right?
Orphan Monster Spy deals with both the Holocaust and sexual abuse. These are subjects that should be discussed but there’s a huge responsibility to do that discussion justice. At the same time, it needs to be a compelling and exciting story, without it becoming prurient. It’s a fine line and I’m still worrying about it a year after publication.
What is the best piece of advice they, or indeed anyone else, has given you as a first‐time author?
Sarah and Kendra have looked out for me in innumerable ways. I also had a lot of nice emails from other published authors telling me to watch out for my mental health – it’s a rollercoaster ride of imposter syndrome and disappointment in many ways – but I think often of something my agent Molly sent me on the day Orphan Monster Spy was published: ‘It’s out of your hands now. It’s not even really yours anymore — it belongs to the readers, and the world in general…Think about what you can control, which is actually very limited: the book you’re writing now. That’s all you can ever do.’
What most excited you about Matt’s manuscript when you first read it?
Sarah: The first chapter of Orphan Monster Spy hits you like a slap in the face – Matt drops you straight into the middle of the action (with Sarah escaping a crashed car, leaving her mother’s body behind and being chased by Nazis) and it feels like he doesn’t ease up on the pace through the entire book. Interestingly, we are split on historical fiction - Kendra loves it, while I am the first to admit I am not generally a huge reader of it, and it was helpful to have those different perspectives during the editing process. With Orphan Monster Spy I was instantly addicted to the thrilling action of the story and then fascinated by the (often horrific) historical detail. It grabbed my attention on so many levels and wouldn’t let go – I couldn’t stop telling people about it! ииии
Kendra: I also loved the novel’s portrayal of a strong, incredibly capable, deeply flawed Jewish girl in Nazi Germany. As a Jewish kid, I grew up reading plenty of books set in this period that depicted Jewish characters as victims and focused on their suffering. Seeing this Lisbeth Salander-like girl spying, scheming, and fighting the way so many real-life girls did at the time felt empowering to me, and I hope will inspire many real-life girls in the present day to fight against today’s white supremacists.
What were the things you concentrated on when editing it with him?
Sarah: Orphan Monster Spy is a pretty complex book with so many elements to balance, so at times Kendra and I asked Matt to help the reader by adding a little more explanatory detail, or conversely asked him to cut back a little on some of the motifs he wove through the narrative so as to give the main plotline a little more space to breathe. We also discussed finessing Sarah’s reaction to her mother’s death – Sarah is an incredible character and at times came across as almost superhuman with her wealth of skills, resilience and death-defying courage, but in this area we felt she could be a little more vulnerable and human to give her room to grow and develop into a more hardened spy across the story. и
What’s the most effective scene in the book and why?
Sarah: There are some incredibly dark and dramatic scenes in the book, but the one that stands out in my mind is the River Run. Sarah is challenged to compete in an annual race by the dangerous queen bee of the Nazi boarding school, known as the Ice Queen. If she wins, she may be accepted by the Ice Queen and able to get closer to her target and the crucial information she has been put in the school to collect. If she loses, she’ll be leaving the school, probably injured and with the mission in ruins. And the Ice Queen doesn’t play fair. This scene is where we see just how far Sarah is prepared to go to succeed and to survive, a blow-by-blow account of pain, sweat, blood and determination set against a frozen landscape and populated by vicious characters, that had me on edge from start to finish. Matt expertly shows how Sarah uses the wits and skills she honed scrambling over city rooftops to steal food as a starving Jewish outcast, to now defeat her supposed superiors. It’s pure genius.
Kendra: I love that scene as well. Matt does such a terrific job of balancing the profound intensity and terror of Sarah’s experience with moments of lightness, and one of my favourite moments in the book is when she’s visiting a wealthy school friend’s home and gets to taste peanut butter for the first time. Later, when everything falls apart and is literally on fire all around her, Sarah grabs the peanut butter to take with her. It reminded me of the classic moment in the film The Godfather when Clemenza says, ‘Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.’ It’s a beautiful humanizing detail in dehumanizing circumstances.
What advice would you give debut authors writing fiction set in this particular period of history?
Sarah: Do your homework! Matt is tireless in his research, which is evident in the incredible level of detail and colour he paints the story with – as a reader, you are entirely transported to the horrors of Kristallnacht, the viciousness of a National Socialist boarding school, or the oozing opulence of dinner in a grand house of the Nazi elite. But also don’t forget the importance of the story itself – the historical detail has to be balanced with pace and plot for a truly gripping read. And although I fell for Orphan Monster Spy firstly for the relentless, heart-stopping action scenes, it made me realise that there is so much to be learned from our past – that terrible things happened and they could so easily happen again. Matt makes history relevant to readers’ lives today, and it’s just one reason why Orphan Monster Spy is so chilling.
Thanks to Matt, Sarah and Kendra for answering our questions.