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>> Plague as a weapon of war

Plague as a weapon of war
26/03/2020

Plague as a weapon of war


DEVIL DARLING SPY by MATT KILLEEN - the sequel to ORPHAN MONSTER SPY, takes us back to the second World War but this time to Africa, where young spy Sarah uncovers an evil plan to wreak havoc through pestilence.

As Sarah confronts the Nazi's desire for victory at any cost, she must build the inner resources she needs to help defeat them, without turning into a monster herself.

Author MATT KILLEEN tells us more about DEVIL DARLING SPY:


Q: Before becoming a writer, you worked at LEGO - really? What was your job?

A: Yes! I was a writer for the LEGO Group for eight wonderful years, working primarily for LEGO Club and its successor, LEGO Life. There were five million members of LEGO Club...I'll probably never write anything again that gets read by so many people!



Q: What's been your all time favourite LEGO purchase?

A: The LEGO staff discount, which I miss terribly, allowed me to pick up a few (actually a lot of) choice items which litter my office, mostly unfinished.

But my childhood was built on LEGO Space and the all-time greatest set is, for me, the Galaxy Commander (6980). Best. Xmas. Ever. There are those who rate the Galaxy Explorer (928) more highly, but a) I never owned the Explorer at the time, and b) there's something about the blue cockpits and white wings and the spikiness of the Commander that's ridiculously exciting.

When I was four, I wanted to be an X-Wing Pilot, an astronaut or work for the LEGO company...one out of three isn't bad, and I played a lot of X-Wing at uni.



Q: Orphan Monster Spy was your debut novel. What brought you into writing?

A: I had been a professional writer for a good while before I started the MA. I was enjoying writing fiction bits for the LEGO company but that's a lot of time inside the head of my inner seven year old boy. I wanted to do something darker, older and more complex.

I initially began the book for my MA in Writing for Children. I had three years, so that's exactly how long it took. I need a deadline, or procrastination and fear will consume the time.



Q: How did Sarah, your main character, emerge?

A: Moving to London, I passed Stockwell Tube Station every week or so, and there's a war memorial mural dedicated in part to Violette Szabo, the SOE agent.

I knew her story but was shocked to see how young she was when she was executed, and to discover she was just 21 when she had volunteered. It made me think of how useless I was at 21, little more than a teenager...and that's when Sarah dropped into my brain, pretty much fully formed, and telling me what to do.



Q: How did you feel when you started the second book, and how did writing Devil Darling Spy compare with writing Orphan Monster Spy?

A: It was a nightmare really. I had a notion as to the plot and the conclusion, but it was a mess of journeys and events in my head. And the more feted Orphan Monster Spy became, the more the pressure built, the less likely it seemed that I could write anything as good again. I missed a deadline - I hate doing that, it's anathema to me - and the whole project got pushed back a year.

I didn't make it easy on myself, though. I chose difficult subject matter, took on a lot of extra responsibility...I don't know what I was thinking.

In the end I had to make myself write it - I had 45 working days left which meant 1400 a day and I didn't go to bed until I'd done them. That was how I got over myself - old school panic style. It came to me, the characters spoke, became people. Phew.



Q: Orphan Monster Spy is set largely in a boarding school, in war time Germany. Why did you decide to take the action to Africa for Devil Darling Spy?

A: I knew that the story would be set in 1940 and I wasn't much interested in Dunkirk or the Battle of Britain as there's a lot of stuff out there about the fall of France...at the same time I had just read The Kaiser's Holocaust by David Olusoga and Casper W Erichsen, which discusses the extermination of the Herero and Nama peoples by Imperial Germany at the start of the 20th century.

It wasn't just the pre-echoes of the Holocaust that I saw in the book, but the reality of the whole Imperialist framework that just tutted about the atrocity, as it had the horrors of the Congo Free State before it.

I suddenly 'got' empire and colonialism in a way I hadn't before. I knew I had to write about it.



Q: Why did you decide to bring in real historical characters to the novel, even though many of your readers won't know of them?

A: In Orphan Monster Spy I wanted to make Lise Meitner a character because she had inspired part of the story and I really wanted more people to know who she was and what she did, so heinous was her airbrushing out of history.

There's also a strand of what if? to these books, and while not counter-factual as such, they run alongside the history. If the Captain knew a nuclear scientist who had sussed the whole thing, it could conceivably have been Lise Meitner. She was one of humanity's smartest cookies.



Q: You also have much to say about feminism, was this an important part of the characters for you?

A: I'm not sure I know how to write any other way...but I'm struggling to think of many more important issues to be honest. The greed, hate and wilful ignorance that has so consumed society is at the heart of most of humankind's problems, and they are largely patriarchal in origin.

Whether you're preoccupied by the economy, the climate, education, healthcare, or just basic happiness, social justice is the starting point of any realistic answer, and bringing down the patriarchy is a major part of that. Where women have agency, education and self-actualisation, society prospers. And this is in everyone's interest.



Q: How does it feel having written about Ebola at a time when a new virus is doing the rounds?

A: I've always had a terrified fascination with disease and contagion and Devil Darling Spy was partly born of watching the West African Ebola virus epidemic play out - a disease so uniquely horrible that it occupies a special place in our nightmares - and seeing the same cycle of superstition and colonial condescension that so plagues its eradication, all while families were extinguished.

I'm no expert and certainly in a dangerously, semi-informed place, but there is, at time of writing, a bit of panic going on about COVID-19. There's a lot of unthinking racism, a bit of paranoia and way too much ignorance, but all that does rather mirror society at large at the moment. Also, humans are very poor at correctly judging risk.

That said, the way that the United States delivers its healthcare - in that it doesn't deliver any for a great many people - is likely to be sorely tested by the coming months.

Surviving pandemics means paying your taxes and spending them on healthcare. Western Society is currently allergic to this form of civilisation, so...we'll see. We can't keep hoping that the next nasty is going to be as difficult to catch as SARS or as less lethal as Swine Flu. The latter almost seemed like a joke, didn't it? There have been nearly one and a half billion cases since 2009.

Wash your hands.



Q: What would you like your readers to take from Devil Darling Spy?

A: War, conflict and violence are complex. That's not to say that evil mustn't be confronted - it absolutely must, on every occasion - but do not allow yourself to be wooed by easy notions of goodies and baddies. Morality quickly becomes grey once you pick up a gun.

WW2 has been a common refrain in UK political discourse over the last four years, often in the mouths of people who do not understand what happened, why it happened and what the allies did to win. Which brings us to colonialism...

All major powers are tainted by a past that they are happy to shrug off, while billions still suffer in a quasi-colonial world of voracious and exploitative corporations. We need to teach this history in schools, the way the Holocaust is taught to German children. Never more than right now, with people talking about empire as some golden past, rather than a bloody reign of institutionalised theft, rape and murder.



Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing?

A: I love football. It's an endless, unpredictable soap-opera narrative at the macro-level, and a personal emotional rollercoaster of belonging and disaster at the level of my club.

I also love videogames. There's nothing better for my brain than space trucking in Elite: Dangerous or presiding over the flan-like collapse of the Roman Empire in Total War.

Then there is mandatory child-care, of course...



Q: If you could go anywhere you wanted to research a new book, where would it be?

A: Is that 'dream destination' or 'dream book research'? I'm plotting a visit to Volgograd, that's the new money Stalingrad, for research - hopefully next winter - but queuing for that visa is not something I'm looking forward to.

If I can figure out a research angle to get me to Japan, I'd be very happy. I wrote extensively about Anime and Japanese Cinema at Uni and it's been on me to-do-list since forever.

I would also like to return to Hawaii to 'research' Waikiki Beach for a few months or so, just to make sure I was right to love it so much. To doublecheck.
 
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