The Keeper of Night seriously had me in tears. What a moving book about identity and family. About trying to fit in. And so I knew I had to reach out to Kylie Lee Baker to collab. This is such a fun interview and I loved being able to get to know more behind the book.
The Keeper of Night
Death is her destiny.
Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.
When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death… only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task—find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons—and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side.
Porter Square Books: https://www.portersquarebooks.com/signed/signed-keeper-night-hardcover
Indie Bound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781335405661
Ren’s biracial identity deeply resonated with me, can you talk about your journey to writing the character of Ren?
Some people start with an idea for a plot or setting, but The Keeper of Night started with Ren Scarborough. I’d read so many stories about characters who are half human and half god, half fairy, half vampire, etc. and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sad that to some people, being torn between two very different worlds is just a fantasy trope. To me, as a biracial woman, it’s just how I live every day. I really wanted to write a character who was both two different races and also two different magical creatures so I could deeply examine the trope of “torn between two worlds” in a way that I hadn’t seen done before in fantasy.
Another element I loved was Ren and her brother’s relationship. How did you go about creating her brother’s character? Was he the same in all the drafts? A big contention between them is that he doesn’t understand Ren’s struggles being biracial and how that feels, do you wanna talk about this conflict between them?
Neven began as a soft, sensitive character to counteract Ren’s harshness. She’s such a sharp character that I needed someone to both be the voice of reason and also humanize Ren by showing that she’s capable of caring for someone besides herself. In early drafts, Neven had less of an arc and was less willing to stand up to Ren, but in revisions, I really wanted him to go through his own journey from being the coward his father thinks he is to someone who will stand up for what’s right.
As for the conflict between him and Ren… I know that Ren comes across as very unreasonable in comparison to Neven, who is much more likeable, but Neven also represents how easy it can be to think you’re doing the right thing while being unaware of your own privilege and how that shapes your experiences. He centers himself when she’s expressing her pain, and he thinks that because her race doesn’t matter to him, that he can talk about it however he wants. He’s such a kind person, but it’s difficult for him to understand why saying something like “you’re a Reaper” bothers Ren so much, and he doesn’t really try to understand, even when she confronts him about it. That’s why it’s so interesting to me that so many people say Neven is their favorite character. I know his kindness and likeability mask some of the more privileged things he does. He’s definitely not perfect.
Incorporating stories is incredibly important in THE KEEPER OF NIGHT, how did you go about choosing which stories and creatures to include?
Part of my decision was based on wanting diversity in region and climate—a lot of Yokai, like the ones in THE KEEPER OF NIGHT—are associated with specific places. I wanted to take the reader all across Japan to show how different its cities and towns can be, since I think that American readers are not often exposed to Japan in a very three-dimensional way, so I chose Yokai from very different places. I also wanted the Yokai to grow progressively more dangerous, so the final Yokai is one that Japanese people consider one of the top three “Most Terrible Yokai” in Japan. It was easy to make that story creepy because she has quite a high kill count.
What were some of your YA bookish inspirations for THE KEEPER OF NIGHT?
Scythe by Neil Shusterman was a big one. People say my book is dark, but I had to take breaks from reading that book because it was so horrific (in the best way). That book is a great example of how raw and terrifying death personified can be, which is something I tried to emulate in my book. Also, this is MG, but I’d just finished beta reading an early draft of Girl Giant and the Monkey King by Van Hoang when beginning this book. I loved the Vietnamese mythology and was inspired to write a book about the mythology of my own heritage.
Did you always know how THE KEEPER OF NIGHT would end when drafting?
Yes! Even though the way I framed Ren’s character towards the end of the story definitely changed a lot (I had some beta readers screaming and threatening to throw their computers across the room because of some of the decisions Ren made in the early drafts), the outcome of the story was always going to be the same. Without saying too much, the problems that Ren faces are not ones with straightforward solutions, and I wanted that to be reflected in my story. This was never going to be a story where every problem is neatly tied up by the end and everyone makes it home in time for dinner, because that just doesn’t reflect how I feel about being biracial, which is the central focus of the book.
What was the hardest, and easiest thing, about drafting THE KEEPER OF NIGHT?
I always say the hardest thing was writing the romance. I write most things very intuitively, but I really needed to map out every stage of the romance in a very formulaic way to make sure it developed evenly. Even after doing this, it was challenging to write because it’s not a traditional romance—I don’t want readers to think that all relationships should mirror this one. This is difficult to execute well in YA because readers sometimes assume that if romance is there, they’re supposed to like it and root for it to succeed, or else the author is doing something wrong. But the romance I wrote is less about the love between two characters and more about figuring out what that love really means.
The easiest thing was writing Ren’s sharp dialogue. It’s a lot of fun to write a powerful female character, especially an Asian one, since so many people unfortunately still think of Asian women as quiet and submissive. It’s satisfying to counter that stereotype with an unapologetically fierce Asian girl who takes what she wants at any cost.
Do you have other favorite biracial MC books?
I enjoy Akemi Dawn Bowman’s work a lot, and I’m very excited about Only a Monster by Vanessa Len, which comes out in 2022!
About the Author
Kylie Lee Baker grew up in Boston and has since lived in Atlanta, Salamanca, and Seoul. Her writing is informed by her heritage (Japanese, Chinese, and Irish), as well as her experiences living abroad as both a student and teacher. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing and Spanish from Emory University and is currently pursuing a Master of Library and Information Science degree at Simmons University. In her free time, she watches horror movies, plays the cello, and bakes too many cookies. The Keeper of Night is her debut novel.
Author website: https://www.kylieleebaker.com/