Matthew McConaughey is in author mode. In 2020, he wrote a best-selling memoir, “Greenlights,” a walkabout in his mind made up of a lifetime’s worth of musings. Now the actor, who lives with his wife, Camila Alves McConaughey, and their three children in Austin, Texas, has distilled his philosophy — his persona, even — into a children’s book.
“Just Because,” published earlier this month and illustrated with playful subtlety by Renée Kurilla, is composed of inspirational lessons in the form of couplets. “Just because you can pull it off, doesn’t mean that you should do it,” reads one. “Just because you failed, doesn’t mean that you blew it.”
Fans of “Greenlights” — or, indeed, of McConaughey’s long career — will not be surprised by the book’s occasionally gnomic tone and approachable style, or by the philosophical meditations interspersed with moments of self-deprecation: “Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean that I read it.”
In a way, “Just Because” feels like a manifesto. “To my kids, your kids and the kid in all of us,” reads the dedication on the last page. “We’re all as young as we’re ever gonna be, so let’s just keep learning.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Did anyone tell you not to do this?
No. I’ve had people saying for a while, friends of mine, to write a children’s book. We’ll be sitting around as parents, talking, and sometimes people will go, “Hey, that’s a great way of saying what you just said. I’m going to use that with my own kids. I like the way that you threw that off, how you informalized that very formal-feeling lesson.”
How did you arrive at this structure?
I had a little ditty in my head. I’d been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” I woke up and I was like, I got a rhythm going here. I think I got something kind of cool.
I wanted to get some more sleep, but I was like, no, get up and start writing. Next thing, I’m up for hours and I’ve got 120 couplets. Got some more sleep. Woke up four hours later and I looked at it. A bunch of these are cool, touch on what my kids are going through, stuff that I’m talking to them about.
So wait, should we imagine this in your voice, or a Dylan voice?
I imagine it in my voice, but to a Dylan riff. I mean, Dylan was the original rapper.
His rhythm was big for me in “Greenlights”: slinging it from the hip, yet still structured. He goes out and about and brings stories back home in a roundabout way. That is a lot of the way that I think.
Is that typical of your writing process?
I write daily, so I write anything that turns me on. I have never gotten up and said, “I’m going to go sit down and write.” I write freestyle, and at the end of each month, I’ll look back and find that I had themes, different associations to a subject. Then I’ll try and log those together, throw ’em in there, and see, how do I connect those? What’s the through line?
The hardest part is getting the first line. As soon as it comes, the rest just goes. It just comes out. It’s getting the note, the meter, the tone, the jive, the delivery; how much swing does it have?
I read it to my 3-year-old and now I can only talk and think in transactional couplets.
I find that either humor or music, in things that could feel so weighty, put rhyme to the reason. Now my Monday morning feels like a Saturday night. Now the broccoli tastes good.
I think when we are going through something frustrating or confusing, we think the world’s revolving around us, that we’re the only ones who feel that way. Then you get a little riff and you put a couplet to it and you’re like, oh, this is a human condition. People have felt this way for all time.
It’s kind of a Rorschach, too: You show that book to anyone, adult or kid, and you’re going to get a different reaction. And a bunch of different couplets.
No one likes to get advice. I can’t stand getting advice. You tell me what to do and it’s a good way to get me to do the opposite. But if you throw out an open-ended sort of couplet, that frames a situation. Everyone has their own personal, subjective story, and can put themselves into it in a completely original way.
Can you talk about your collaborative process with the illustrator, Renée Kurilla?
I wanted the illustrations to be specific enough — Oh, I know that kid at school. Oh, he’s the bully — but not so specific that we can’t see ourselves in the character.
She got it right off the bat. She sent back in these illustrations, and I was like, oh, bam. She got the irony. She got the subtext.
There were times you had to be more literal than others. “Just because I let go doesn’t mean that I stopped climbing,” that’s really about forgiveness. Letting go is a way to evolve and ascend. But how do you show that in a digestible, fun way? And so we have a very simple illustration of a young boy taking a skateboard, letting go to drive down the ramp, to then rise on the other side of the ramp.
Or the girl taking risks off the high diving board. She’s nervous, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t take risks. Every time I go to work, I have butterflies. I talk to my kids about it: You can be confident and have butterflies.
You mentioned some of the book came out of conversations you’ve been having with your kids, who are now 15, 13 and 10.
Indirectly, they probably had a lot of input. Since I’ve been a father, the way I think and the way I try to figure out the world is definitely seen through the lens of their lives.
Do they like it?
They dig it. My daughter’s very visual. My eldest son really gets it and thinks it’s really cool. My youngest is still letting me know what he likes; he sits back a little more and lets me know later. My mom digs it. She was a teacher. She’s like, yeah, this is all the stuff I taught you, Matthew.
But why a children’s book?
Paradox is a tough thing for a mind to grasp, not just a young mind.
It’s almost like we can go, hey, I’ve got my amnesty card here, comedy. So I can’t really be blamed or victimized or chastised for it because, hey, it was a ditty! And I think it’s a fun way of communicating.
So, a children’s book is an easier place to express certain kind of nuance.
No doubt. No doubt. That’s why it was freeing for me to go there. I’m writing like an 8-year-old because — what an innocent, fun place to go. What a place of forgiveness and freedom and creativity.