In search of inspiration, Caroline Deacon invites established writers and illustrators to tell us about their creative space. This month features Matt Killeen, author of Orphan Monster Spy, which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Branford Boase Award, as well as winning the 2019 SCBWI Crystal Kite. The sequel, Devil Darling Spy, has just been published.

Tell us about your creative space. 

I’m lucky enough to have my own office in my house – I moved south down the train line out of London until I could afford somewhere that would provide one. I was so delighted that I didn’t notice initially that I’m basically in the countryside now.

When I worked for the LEGO® Group I worked from home, so I had to have my own space and I’ve clung onto it. I ran three workstations along a big u-shaped desk arrangement to demarcate work, writing and play. Now I’m down to two – a big three monitor monster PC for flying around space and whatnot, and a supposedly sparse Mac setup, soon filled up by notes, inhalers, mini-figures and unopened bills, where I write. There’s a beanbag that I’m supposed to sit and read in, but there’s always something on it and my reading demon will use that as an excuse if he can.

The room is packed full of toys, dolls, props and guitars – lots of sci-fi and fantasy stuff like Alien, Star Wars and anything with a kick-ass female protagonist. Barbie has started selling collections of awesome women and that’s turning out to be very expensive. The LEGO® staff discount just swallowed the rest of the space. I also keep the best of my old vinyl collection on my shelves, close at hand. I don’t play them often as mp3s are just too convenient, but there’s nothing quite like dropping the needle onto the start of The Kiss by The Cure, crackles and all.

I like to keep these things near me. It feeds my inner child and that child is the source of all the ideas and creativity. It took me years to realise the distinction between child-ish (a stinging slag-off for the youngest child) and child-like (the font of all that’s worth doing and knowing). I’m over-compensating. I also keep a copy of every edition of my own book to the side of my desk for inspiration when imposter syndrome strikes me. There’s usually some encouraging gubbins tacked to the shelves next to them. Currently, it’s what my editors said about the first draft of Devil Darling Spy – we like it, we love you – printed out nice and big.

Matt's workspace

Why does this place work for you?

It’s quiet when I need it to be, cosy without being cramped, lots of desk space because that’s all it is. But the big feature is the view. My desk is next to the window so I can look past my monitor into the garden, to the park behind it and the woods beyond that. I can see the light change and darkness growing, I can see the dawn light paint the black a pale blue through the branches when I’ve worked all night and I see the seasons come and go. It’s the best kind of distraction, the same but always different, and … my four year old came up with a word the other day, tranquilating. It’s tranquilating. Calming without being soporific … centring? Is that a better real word? At night it’s virtually pitch black, so there’s a mirror room, and I am both inside and out.

Do you need particular prompts to get started? 

Music is very important to me, but I need a very specific kind of music to write to. It usually can’t have words or be too up-tempo, and guitar-based stuff is too intrusive. It has to allow a certain detachment, but can’t be drivel either – something that I can get lost in, but doesn’t dominate my brain. Soundtracks don’t always do this and not all classical music hits the spot, but I think what works best is called New Classical or something equally dismal. A Winged Victory for the Sullen is the best example. There are certain pieces or albums that are absolutely tied into my work, both as inspiration and as a soundtrack to the action. Agnes Obel and Kathryn Joseph are rare examples of vocalists that I work to, as they’re all quiet pianos, pain and anguish. So I have an evolving and ever-growing playlist of this stuff, and when it goes on, I’m ready.

Next to the inspirational pages are the images I’m using for the new book … this varies, but I struggle a bit making fictional faces, and my characters risk merging into one big feature soup. I like to find reference images for a few major characters, particularly contemporary sources, so right now, it’s WW2 era Soviet combat medics and some denizens of the Volga basin. Did you know there are more redheads per population near the Volga than anywhere else on Earth? So, redheads everywhere.

The prompts that keep Matt inspired. 

If I didn’t have a very small person about who’d be distressed by it, I’d also have a few specific pictures around me – some images from the ramp at Auschwitz, so I never get desensitized to it, and particularly Kenneth Jarecke’s famous photograph from The Highway of Death in Kuwait, to remind me, always, what war really is.

I also have a lava lamp. Because they’re awesome.

Do you have a routine? 

I’m in the privileged position to be writing for a living right now – don’t know how long that’ll last, but fingers crossed. So, I keep rough office hours and work that round Child #2. I try not to return to my desk after Child #2 has gone to sleep, but there’s often something due I need to work on. However, I tend to do my actual author writing in all-encompassing bursts, where I sit and write until I’ve hit the required word count, even if I have to stay up all night. I’m screwed without a deadline to be honest. Except for the hours between school and bedtime, I’m opting out of everyday life during that period.

Literature inspirations and Matt's published novels.

What is the best creative advice you’ve been given? 

I think … don’t get it right, get it writ. You can always edit text, but you can’t improve a blank page. I came from a creative copywriting background and that’s a very "deliver by 5pm" environment, and it was there I realised the power of good enough. I think a lot of us need to bring that thinking into the wide-open vistas of long-form prose. If you’ve a month to stress out about 80,000 words, chances are you will, to the exclusion of writing them … I guess that’s not creative advice though … no, no, it is. Definitely. It’s about trusting your creativity and not overthinking it.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

Watership Down by Richard Adams takes some beating and is probably my favourite book of all time. It’s a deep and exciting story, beautifully written, with the power to delight and appal in equal measure. There are many layers, and each time I read it I see something else. Most of the things I’ve ever learned about responsibility and leadership come from that book. Needs more females though …even Richard Adams realised that which is why Hyzenthlay becomes Co-Chief rabbit in the sequel. I haven’t read that … too scared it will disappoint. Sometimes it’s better to know it’s there, just in case. That said, The Phantom Tollbooth is a work of genius. Every step of Milo’s quest to rescue the Princesses Rhyme & Reason is a delight, both intellectually and emotionally. It has one of the most terrifying demons ever created and has a great map. All fantasies need a good map.

Does walking or exercise help the creative process, and if so, what do you do and why? 

One of my bits of advice for aspiring writers – get a dog. The exercise is mandated, no matter how tight that deadline is. There have been few plot issues I haven’t solved in the woods with something abstract in the headphones. I do my best thinking there. Also, no one will ever show you that they love you like a dog will, and writing is a harsh and damaging business. A wagging tail is therapeutic. I try to run it in the summer months, but I have two artificial hips and I know I’m pushing my luck when I do.

Planner or pantser? 

I have a start and a finish, a couple of tent pole moments in the middle, but I write chronologically and let the characters, events, and research fill the gaps. It’s helpful to have a basic structure to contain you, but I find the characters say and do unexpected things and I’m usually happy to accommodate them. In Orphan Monster Spy I was barrelling towards the climax, when a minor character from earlier in the book appeared to block the heroine’s way. I typed it without thinking and there it was, a major problem to solve. I could have just deleted that line, but it was there for a reason … I asked my Facebook writer friends what I should do, and they replied, en masse, KILL HIM.

Why children?

I think, like most people, I read the most significant books of my life as a child and why wouldn’t you want to be part of that? Concision and brevity are underrated in the literary world. They’re harder to master than waffle and they’re essential when writing for children or young adults. I used to write film scripts at university and that’s good practice – where, what people say, what’s happening and a sentence or two to give the reader a feel for the mood and emotion.

Also, after working in the advertising industry where I had, at best, two to six words to say EVERYTHING about a product, from utility to emotional truth, most lit-fic seems ridiculously, laughably self-indulgent. I read an award-winning piece of sci-fi and after 100 pages NOTHING HAD HAPPENED. Instead, you can read Philip Reeve conjuring a world, a feeling and a smile in just two or three lines. I want to be in that club.

Matt was born in Birmingham and, like many of his generation, was absorbed by tales of the war and obsessed with football from an early age. Guitars arrived at fourteen, wrecking any hopes of so-called normality. He has had a great many careers – some creative, some involving laser guns – and has made a living as an advertising copywriter and a largely ignored music and sports journalist. He fulfilled a childhood ambition and became a writer for the world’s best-loved toy company in 2010. He lives near London with his soulmate, children, dog and musical instruments, looking wistfully north at a hometown that has been largely demolished & rebuilt in his lengthy absence.

You can find Matt on the following platforms: his website, Twitter and the hashtags #devildarlingspy #orphanmonsterspy

Caroline Deacon lives in Edinburgh and is the author of several childcare books. She now writes MG and YA and is agented by Lindsay Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates, Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter @writingdilemmas and at

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