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With Hunger Games currently lurking around every corner of our popular culture, survival isn't a new theme in young-adult literature. As Utah writer Matthew J. Kirby knows, it's much, much older than that.
That may be one reason he set his 2011 suspense novel Icefall in ancient Norway. The story puts three Viking siblings in a small fortress, beset by the triple threat of impending winter that will freeze the fjord, hunger, and terrible mishaps that point to a traitor within.
Readers across the field of "YA" novel fandom have praised Kirby's writing to high hosannas as precise to the point of terrifyingly austere and, above all, packed with the kind of momentum that leaves paper cuts on your fingers as you race toward the end.
The Mystery Writers of America must have surely agreed when it presented Kirby an Edgar Award for Icefall late last month in New York City. With that, he joined elite company that includes past Edgar winners Raymond Carver, Patricia Highsmith, Ross Macdonald and John le Carré. The 36-year-old writer won a ceramic bust of Edgar Allan Poe.
Kirby grew up in a U.S. Navy family and now makes his home in Layton, where he works as a school psychologist. The writer expressed gratitude for the win, but says it won't make writing great books any easier.
"I certainly don't feel I've arrived there yet," Kirby said. "Every new book is a fresh opportunity to fall on my face."
You work as a school psychologist for Davis School District. How has that influenced your writing?
The one thing my job does is keep me in contact with kids on a daily basis. In that way, I'm constantly connected with my audience. What kids seem to really be into today is books that show them a magical world just beyond their view. They want to imagine themselves in a world like that. I don't know that's any different than it was years ago.
What was your favorite reading growing up?
Elizabeth George Speare's The Bronze Bow was a huge book for me, and I really enjoyed Lloyd Alexander. But probably Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea was the book that made me want to be a writer. My parents gave me the Earthsea Trilogy for Christmas, and I devoured them all before the end of winter break. It's been a family tradition ever since I could remember that we always had books for Christmas.
Almost everyone who's read Icefall remarks on how you pour the fear on really thick.
I wanted a climate of paranoia and fear that was pervasive. At the same time, I also wanted each of the characters to feel complex and believable, so you wouldn't know whether or not you could trust them. I was doing something a little unconventional for a mystery. If I did what I set out to do by book's end, the reader doesn't want to know who the traitor is. These are all people the main character, Solveig, loves. It's heartbreaking for any one of them to be guilty of each of these acts. I want the reader to feel that heartbreak as well.
Can you divulge details of your next book?
It's a Jules Vernesque, colonial American fantasy that will come out fall of next year. I've also another installment of the Infinity Ring series coming out next year. It's a time-travel series that puts kids at the center of important historical events with installments written by me, Jennifer Nielsen, James Dashner, Lisa McMann, Carrie Ryan and Matt DeLapeña. The first will be published this August, with a new one every few months after that for seven books total in the series. It's kind of amazing that with Nielsen, Dashner and me half the team is from Utah.
Why are people of all ages drawn to young-adult novels instead of reading, say, John Updike?
In kids' books, you often find story in its most pure form. That's going to appeal to anyone. I received an email last week from a 75-year-old woman who read The Clockwork Three during her stay in a hospital. It really goes back to the explosion of Harry Potter. Almost every email I get from an adult reader begins almost with an apology. I don't know why that is, but with Harry Potter I think most people are removed from that stigma.
Matthew J. Kirby
Pages • 336
Price • $17.99