Name J. Matthew McKern
Where are you from
Walla Walla, Washington, USA
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
I’m married with a 13-year-old daughter. My education is in fine arts
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I began writing in college. I was a fine arts major looking for additional ways to express my creativity.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
After my first book signing (in December of last year) exceeded all expectations, I thought “I can do this.”
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
A good friend of mine, Patrick Carman, began publishing books and making a career of being a writer about the time our daughter was born. My fine art endeavors all had toxic chemicals involved and as a result, our house typically smelled of paint thinner. I needed to find another outlet and was inspired to write a novel.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
Since I write YA and middle-grade books, my style is fairly straightforward. I do employ flashbacks as a method for conveying a backstory—this allows me to start off with a gripping action scene, hook the reader early, then go back to fill-in the blanks once I’ve got them hooked.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Since I have a background in marketing, I tend to agonize over titles. Both my books began with different titles than they have now. I Didn’t Go Looking for Trouble is a book about friendship, adventure and antiques—not an easy group of topics to describe easily. I came to the decision that a certain sort of innocence was the quality that holds the book together. My protagonist has great motives but tends to take great risks in solving the problems that confront her. It’s this naive quality that I captured in the final title.
Raven’s Secret is a YA novel with a supernatural twist that occurs at the end of the first chapter. The central theme of the book is trust—or a lack thereof. Every character possesses a secret that plays an important role in the plot. Despite the fact that Branwen Riley, the hero of the story, shares her secret with her readers early on, her secret is the hub the story revolves around.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Both my books possess strong themes of friendship. I like to believe that finding people you can count on is key to a successful existence.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
While both books contain aspects of the fantastic, I ground my books firmly in reality. I feel that this makes the magical qualities more powerful.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I Didn’t Go Looking for Trouble was inspired by a trip I took to Iowa. My aging in-laws wanted to attend a pair of family reunions one summer before their cousins in the midwest were “called up to Heaven.” I wanted to make up t-shirts to commemorate the tour.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Shining, and The Shipping News. There
Fiona: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
I’d have to say Stephen King. He speaks the language of real, salt-of-the-earth people. He writes by the seat of his pants and shares such a wide variety of work. He’s fearless and doesn’t have the slightest interest in letting obstacles stand in his way. He just puts his work out there to speak for itself.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. I’ve read about five chapters. So far, it reminds me a great deal of The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
I recently had the privilege to read Logan Keys’ collection of short stories, Unhinged, before it was published. Her work provides great insight into certain twisted aspects of humanity. It’s a real page-turner. John L. Monk’s book Kick is based on a truly original concept. Take it from me—keep your eyes on these two.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
I’m revisiting a project that I’ve been working on for thirteen years. It’s a book for middle-grade readers based upon the fact that we’re on the cusp of discovering a number of new inhabitable worlds. It’s not as sci-fi as one might assume. It’s a cross between Johnny Quest and A Wrinkle in Time.
I’ve also begun outlining a story about the effects technology might have on dividing our society. There will be a teen romance at the heart but will the theme music be Love Will Keep Us Together or will it be Love Will Tear Us Apart, Again. ( not that anyone in the target audience remember either of these two songs, since they weren’t even alive when they were released.) ( man, I’m getting old.)
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Happily, I’ve met a number of really interesting, creative, and supportive individuals through social media. It’s been a truly inspiring experience.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
I’ve been involved in creative endeavors all my life. The resulting books and paintings are like family. I don’t expect them to support me and they might not even leave the house. But I’ll still love them. If they do end-up helping a little more when it comes to paying the bills, that would be a welcome development.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I might increase the romantic aspect a bit. My protagonist, Branwen, is quite independent. She’s quick to turn against the object of her affection and doesn’t think about him a great deal afterwards. Making her obsess a bit more seems realistic.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
As a teenager, I always assumed I’d end-up in a creative field. Writing was one option, but I jumped at the chance to go into visual arts. When my daughter was born, I needed to cut down on the level of toxins in our environment. A friend of mine, Patrick Carman, had recently set out on a career as a writer. He enlisted my help with certain visual elements—illustrations for his website. These efforts got me involved and made writing seem possible for the first time since college.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
“Well, that was a catastrophe,” Cecily said, flying through traffic.
She’d gone to all this trouble to set up a birthday party for me and introduce me to her friends. I’d just blown it.
“Let it go already.” I crossed my arms, sinking down low in the passenger seat. “I said I was sorry a dozen times already. I didn’t plan on getting cornered out on the balcony. I’ll meet Josh some other time. You don’t have to make it seem like the world’s coming to an end.”
The rain sparked in front of our headlights. Red taillight halos appeared in the mist as we reached the top of the on-ramp. The speedometer tilted upwards of seventy miles per hour.
I had tests scheduled at the Cancer Institute first thing in the morning and I had resolved not to stay up late. The clock had already ticked a half-hour past my self-imposed curfew.
“That was very uncool, Branwen. I told Josh tonight was the night. He was dying to meet you.”
“Why can’t you just drop it? I know Josh wanted to meet me but—”
“It’s not just Josh. Everyone I’d invited thought this was their chance to get to know the mysterious Branwen Riley a little better.”
“I’m not like them,” I said.
Cecily seemed shocked to hear this, though it was the most obvious thing in the world to me.
“They’re so full of themselves,” I said, immediately wishing I could just bite my tongue. “I don’t know who I’m supposed to be when I’m around people like that. Maybe Josh isn’t my speed anyway. He didn’t have to jet. I wasn’t out there that long.”
“They’re just normal people. You make us sound like a bunch of elitists or something. Who’s this Steven, anyway? I certainly don’t remember inviting him.”
How could she not see the contradiction in her own words, I wondered? How did she get to be the one who decided who was in and who was not good enough to make the cut?
It was my party. I was the one turning 17. I’d only seen hints of this side of her and I wasn’t impressed.
“I hardly know Steven. He’s new like me. I think tonight was the first time I’d even spoken to him. I didn’t even know his name before.” Re-enrolling in high school had been Cecily’s idea. I’d only been allowed to attend half days for about the last month or so, since my health had started to improve. “I’m not your pet project, you know. You can’t tell me what to do or who to talk to.”
“So what was going on out there?” she asked, ignoring my statement.
“Steven kept peppering me with questions one after the other. How did I kick cancer? What kind of treatment was I on? What kind of music did I listen to? What was Dr. DeGoia like? On and on and on.”
“How did he even know DeGoia’s name, Branwen?” she demanded.
I mulled that over for a minute. “I don’t know. I sure didn’t tell him. Maybe Steven heard of him from that fundraiser concert several months back.”
It wasn’t like Dr. DeGoia was hiding from public view but what went on at his research facility—that part was top secret. I might have slipped, but I think I would have remembered if I had since we’d been drilled over and over to keep the nature of our treatment under wraps.
“This is not good,” Cecily said. She began tapping the steering wheel, acting all agitated. Since she had begun dating Dr. DeGoia’s son Nico the need for secrecy had become an obsession for her, like it was a family matter now. Compared to Nico, Josh paled in comparison. Nico was thoughtful, mature, dark, mysterious, rich—and utterly out of reach. I was totally in awe of Cecily having the nerve to make a play for him. The very idea of it would never have crossed my mind.
“Why are you making such a big deal about this, Cecily? I didn’t know how to get away from him. I was trapped out there. I’ll send Josh a text right now and apologize, alright?” I began rummaging in my purse, then checked my pockets looking for my phone. “Can I turn on the dome light for a minute? I can’t find my phone.”
“Josh’s been asking to meet you for a couple of weeks. I can’t believe you didn’t even talk to him. He’s such a great guy.”
“I’m sorry, all right? I’m sure he is a great guy. Not that he’d want to talk to me with my eyes like this. I’m such a freak.”
“It’s a side effect, Branwen. It will go away.”
“If that’s all it is, why didn’t it happen to you?” I flipped down the mirror. The whites of my eyes were all gray and my irises had gone from dingy brown to nearly orange.
“How many times have I told you, I don’t know,” she answered.
I checked my purse again, holding it under the light. Still no sign of my missing phone.
Cecily opened the sunroof despite the fact that the mist was threatening to turn into a light rain. Having been inside all night with all those bodies milling around, she was probably overheated. I, on the other hand, was shivering against the chill.
I dug down in-between the seat and the console. Not there. I checked under the seat. Not there either.
“Can you call my phone?” I asked. “I might have left it back at your house.”
“Well it’s a little late now to go back and get it.” Cecily replied. We were high above the city where the freeway spanned the canal that split the city in two north and south. The skyline reflected gently in the mirrored surface of the lake below, all backlit by low-hanging clouds burnished to a brassy sheen by the city lights.
“It has to be here somewhere.” I reached down again, searching blindly for it.
“Here, you do it,” Cecily said, handing me her phone without taking her eyes from the road. At least she had that much good sense.
I punched in my number and hit ’call’, holding the phone away from me, hoping to hear a ringtone somewhere in the car. To my surprise, someone answered.
“Hello?” a boy’s voice said.
My eyes grew wide, my mouth falling open. I snapped the phone to my ear.
“Hello? Who is this?”
An uncomfortable silence followed.
I yanked the phone away from my ear and ended the call.
“Steven has it.”
Cecily came unglued.
“Oh my gosh! Honestly, Bran, how did this creep end up with your phone? Now he has my number, everybody’s number in your contact list. This is so not cool.”
The bridge began its gentle descent into the city. Traffic began to close in around us. I was trying to remember if I’d taken my phone out of my purse when I’d been out on the balcony when Cecily’s phone rang. My name appeared on the caller ID.
“It’s him again,” I said, dejected. I was torn between wishing he’d just leave me alone and asking if he could somehow bring it to me.
“Well, answer it,” Cecily ordered.
“I will. Oh my gosh!”
I hit the ’call’ button and held the phone to my ear.
“Hello,” I answered in a tired voice. “Hey, I don’t know how you got my phone—”
“Roll down your window.”
A cool chill trickled down my spine. That could only mean that he was in the car right next to us.
“He said to roll down my window.” I turned to Cecily, hoping she might know what to do.
“Seriously? What’s he expect?”
I held up my hands in a gesture of helpless frustration. I could make out the dark shape of a car beside us but I couldn’t see inside. Rivulets of water from the mist were coursing across the glass, obscuring my vision.
Giving in, I released my seat belt and rolled down the window, thinking that he was going to reach out and give it to me, passing it between cars. Boys always wanted to do stuff like that, showing off like life was one big circus.
When I rolled down the window, I saw that the car next to us was a generic gray sedan. This surprised me a little. It looked like a rental car. Everyone who attended Cecily’s high school seemed to have some amazing sports car gifted to them the very moment they turned 16.
I leaned out a bit, my hair whipping sideways. When the window of the sedan rolled down I was surprised to see that there were two boys inside. Steven gazed cooly at me from the passenger seat. The driver was white with a head of close-cropped brown hair. His face was unfamiliar to me. I reached out, waiting for Steven to hand the driver my phone. Cecily snugged in close, until there was only about a yard separating our two cars, racing down the freeway at about 70 miles-per-hour. I got on my knees and leaned further out into the darkness. The driver flashed a gun, its muzzle only a few inches from my face.
Shrieking with panic I pulled myself back inside the car, ducking down just as the shot rang out. Hearing my scream, Cecily must have tapped the brakes just enough that the bullet missed me. Her instinctive reaction saved my life. The shot missed me and struck her instead. In slow motion, I saw Cecily’s head snap sideways.
Screaming, I began rolling up the window as though the glass would stop a second bullet. Cecily’s hands released their grip on the steering wheel, suddenly free of care and responsibilities. We swung hard left and I saw our headlights sweeping across two lanes of traffic. I felt my body morph as I shifted mid-scream. I could literally feel myself shrinking, the feathers sprouting from what used to be my arms, the distinctive tingle of magic rippling through me.
I gathered myself, my wings pulling me upwards, out the open sunroof, exiting the car which was now sliding in front of oncoming traffic as horns blared and tires shrieked.
The act of flying was entirely foreign to me—I’d never done this before.
I watched with revulsion as Cecily’s body lolled lifelessly in the driver’s seat, unaware of the oncoming guardrail. A sickening crunch sounded. Her airbag deployed on impact. Careening back in front of cars swerving on the slick pavement, Cecily’s car tipped up on two wheels and was struck immediately. The impact was to the driver’s side window and roof, doing more insult to poor Cecily’s body. Her car jolted forward and began to cartwheel. It collided with no fewer than three other vehicles including a truck. I let out what was supposed to have been a scream. It came out as a desperately raw birdcall.
You really do see it like it’s happening in slow motion. Watching such a scene unfold does wonders when combined with a little Catholic guilt. In my dreams I will always see myself directing traffic, trying to stop the oncoming cars somehow. Not that it would matter. Cecily was dead before her fingers released the steering wheel. Of this much, I’m sure.
I remember landing in an open spot between cars, not really even trying to be discrete. I shifted back and ran towards Cecily’s car.
Trying to put together the pieces, I think Steven’s car must have stopped somewhere up ahead. I don’t remember for sure but I think I may have seen two figures running away from the accident. They must have stopped and come back to Cecily’s car to see what had happened or maybe to finish me off. The memory was fractured into a million pieces. My eyes were for Cecily and Cecily alone. I remember the eerie quiet once the traffic stopped. Hazard lights flashed. People started emerging to see if they could help once the bumper-cars action had ended.
A small crowd circled Cecily’s car. I heard someone ask if anyone had called an ambulance. People were down on their knees, looking in the window of Cecily’s car to see if there was any way they could help.
I pushed my way through the ring of concerned onlookers, explaining how I’d been in the car, getting nothing but looks of confusion in return. Someone asked if I was okay. I don’t know if I answered or not but I’m sure I was screaming bloody murder by the time I got a glance in the window. The airbag had begun to deflate. Cecily’s hair left a curly pattern in blood as it pulled away from the tan fabric. She hung upside down, suspended by the lap belt. Her hand lolled lifelessly towards the ceiling of the car, which had come to rest on its top.
It was like she was waving goodbye.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I’m a bit the opposite of some people in that when I find myself in a creative space, I have two or three ideas all vying for my attention. I have to pull myself back and really put an effort into outlining a single idea, rather than sketching three separate ideas simultaneously.
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I have two favorite authors. They couldn’t be more opposite. Stephen King and John Irving. Stephen King has described his writing style is to put a character in a situation and see what came of it whereas John Irving knows exactly how a novel ends before he writes a single word. It’s an interesting contrast.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I haven’t yet had the opportunity.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
I designed the covers of both my books. I’ve been a designer and illustrator longer than I’ve been a writer.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Outlining a novel is a challenge. I always find myself wanting to jump in with both feet, to discover the characters and learn their interests and how they interact with others.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I write for a fairly young audience but I’m also very interested in issues that are more suited to adults. It’s very difficult to subdue those issues and make them serve the interests of the plot. My first novel, I Didn’t Go Looking for Trouble, was a bit more scripted. I definitely knew where the story was going. It was a book about a teenager who really wanted to grow up, an individual who’s parents where out-of-the picture for various reasons. Her father was a partner in a failing antique business. I knew from the start that it was a treasure hunt story and that finding this certain treasure would be the key to cementing her future. And I knew what the treasure was. She would be collecting clues as to the location of this treasure would propel the story. The key to writing this story was to filling in the blanks in the middle. My second novel, Raven’s Secret, revolved around a character finding herself in a world that would turn against her and hold her down. In this instance, the plot was secondary. Writing this book was more difficult. Her success would come despite everything happening to her. Making the book work would occur despite everything happening to the protagonist. It was a much more chaotic experience. The key to Raven’s Secret was creating a world that was constantly at odds with the protagonist. Branwen, the protagonist, is an outsider. I had to continue to take from her until she’d finally turn and fight. My instinct is to help my protagonist. Even when I gave Branwen allies, I had to turn her against them in ways that didn’t always serve her best interests. In fact, her actions were often self-destructive. At a time when I was learning to be a parent, I was also learning to deprive Branwen of any comfort she might find. This exercise was unnatural. I had to crush my own paternal instincts. But that’s what makes the book work.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
When I was in college, I went through a brief period where I wasn’t feeling the creative urge. My painting instructor told me that if I wanted to be a painter, I had to paint—that I needed to paint every day, that I needed to make a schedule for myself and hold myself to it. The same is true for writing. Writing is a craft. You need to be treat your craft with respect.
In a similar vein, I knew another young artist who stated that art was a postcard from a creative place—that true art is an idea. The art itself is secondary. For a moment, I found this concept fascinating. In truth, it’s self-defeating. Art without art is a foolish, sophomoric myth. If you get sucked in by such a self-indulgent urge, you’re certain to trip yourself up.
Work. That’s where you’ll find your gift.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
First, thank you for your support. You’re the key to everything we do. Thank you.
I hope you’ll find something illuminating in my work—in any author’s work. The ideas are what it’s all about. Search for the meaning in everything you read. The concept that we can share our thoughts and be successful in understanding the depths of each others feelings, this is a truly amazing thing, once you stop to think about it. It’s a great privilege and responsibility to share my ideas. Thank you for sharing them with me.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
I can’t say I do. I read a lot of Dr. Seuss. I highly recommend his books. They’ve got a lot to say.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
As I’ve noted previously, I’m a visual artist as well as a writer. I’d like to believe that my experience as an artist provides me with an unusual perspective that informs my writing.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
This is an amazing time in television. Movies used to be the more accomplished form. Actors who’d made it in the movies would avoid making television shows. Now, long form television has caught up to movies. I’ve often gone back and watched movies that I once given very high marks and thought “Wow. It’s too bad that they couldn’t have split that into episodes and spent more time on the story. It could have been so much more.” The Sopranos, Mad Men, House of Cards, Game of Thrones—some amazing stories have been made into television in the last ten or fifteen years.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
I’m a big fan of Asian cuisine. The hardest part of living away from the city. My daughter asks me all the time: “What’s your favorite color?” My favorite colors—plural—are combinations that are useful at the time, for telling different stories.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
It’s good to be telling stories, sharing ideas. It’s good to have a day job, to pay the bills, save money for my daughter’s college education, to pay off the house. I don’t think I’d do anything different per se. I might put together an art exhibition again. But I’d still be finding ways to tell a story, to share ideas. If I weren’t writing the story I’m currently writing, I’d write the next. Ideas renew themselves. They’re completed, they might be set aside, they will be retold in a new way. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. In a way, I think that’s what we all do. We live our lives. We fulfill our responsibilities. We do what we do. It’s a good thing.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
I have a few, actually.
(for my art)
(for graphic design)
See? I’ve got enough going on. There’s no time to daydream about doing something else. I’m already doing it.