Shining light into the darkness – Matthew Fox on the magical seriousness of writing children’s books

“I’m trying to write novels for young readers that are as serious as possible and as magical as possible.”

MATTHEW FOX is the author of The Sky Over Rebecca (Hodder 2022), which won the Bath Children’s Novel Award in 2019 and The Lovely Dark (Hodder July 2023). Here he describes how he writes and why he hopes his readers know they are braver than they think.

What’s been your favourite reader response so far to one of your books?

The books are written to be read quickly: short chapters, simple prose, lots of action. So when one of the junior judges for the Bath Children’s Novel Award said of The Sky Over Rebecca that ‘I read it in an hour’ I was delighted. And then just a couple of months ago I was at a garden party and an eight year old boy sat down and read The Sky Over Rebecca from start to finish in an hour and a half – completely absorbed, oblivious to all the goings on around him – and the absorption alone is the best review you could ever get. ‘I read your book,’ he said. “Well, you’ve got to put me out of my misery,’ I said, ‘What did you think?’ ‘It was good,’ he said. And he walked off.

Describe The Lovely Dark…

It’s a story set partly in London and partly in Hades, the world of the dead. Twelve year old Ellie dies in an accident and is ferried across the river Styx by Charon. In the Underworld, she finds herself at a strange boarding school for recently-deceased children. But something’s not right in Hades: Ellie’s best friend Justin, who should be here, is missing…

The Sky Over Rebecca and The Lovely Dark brim with kindness and humanity while exploring the darker sides of life. Is it important to you to be as truthful as you can for your readers’ age?

It’s magical seriousness. I’m trying to write novels for young readers that are as serious as possible and as magical as possible. Middle Grade is the perfect place for me: it’s a sweet spot where you can write about some really dark things – bullying, grief, death, the Holocaust even – just before your readers graduate to YA.

I should stress that the magic in these stories only works one way: it can only get you into trouble, not out of it. The characters have to do all the hard work themselves – by being braver than they’ve ever been before or by making a sacrifice for something worthwhile, something greater than themselves…

What’s the one thing you hope children take from your books?

You’re braver than you think you are. You are Kara and Rebecca, Ellie and Justin: you’re kind, clever, ordinary kids. And because you’re kind and clever, you’re also brave. Maybe you don’t know it yet – maybe the right circumstances haven’t arisen, but trust me: you can be heroes.

(My own view: kindness and courage and intelligence are correlated.)

We love that your books are as emotionally intelligent as they are exciting to read. Do you plan emotional arcs from the off or let them develop as your plot evolves?

No. It would be nice to plan everything – to know all about the world and the characters and the plot before I write the words ‘Chapter One’ – but then why write the book? There’s so much still to discover, and it always, always, always changes…

I need to be honest. These days, I do try to plan. I try to work from an outline or a treatment or at the very least a synopsis. And at the same time I try to leave as much room as possible for the ideas to develop as I go along.

I didn’t plan The Sky Over Rebecca. It just downloaded itself into my head, with complete scenes, lines of dialogue, the characters. It is absolutely the book it wanted to be, flaws and all: it’s hewn from the same piece of rock. The Lovely Dark was the opposite – it took ten years to write rather than a single year – with lots of false starts, lots of experimentation, lots of re-writing; the stone to build this house came from many different places.

The Lovely Dark is set in London during and immediately after the Covid-19 lockdowns. Why was it important to write about the pandemic?

It’s the why of the book, in one sense. We found out who the heroes are during Covid-19, and the heroes are the doctors and nurses and paramedics of the NHS. And the other heroes are the rest of us – ordinary people who gave up the chance to see our loved ones – for fear we might spread the virus even further through the population…  It was important to honour that, in some way.

Izzy Burton’s cover is stunning, what it is like seeing the heart of your story captured as art?

Izzy Burton is an Artist with a capital A and the A stands for Awesome. Is there a better book cover out there, right now, than the one she has created for The Lovely Dark? It’s so evocative and mysterious – and yet also somehow calming; it just draws you in.

Izzy shares insights into her process on her Instagram – you can see the Japanese/Studio-Ghibli influence there, which I adore. I am going to beg her to do my next cover, too!

How many drafts did you write and rewrite for The Lovely Dark and over what length of time?

I had the idea for The Lovely Dark more than a decade ago now:

A girl dies in London and is ferried across the river Styx to Hades, where she meets a boy called Justin, who will be her guide.

And that’s as far as I got. I couldn’t figure out the why of the story: why did I want to tell this story and what did I want to say?

Then along came a pandemic… Suddenly a story I’d tried to forget about seemed relevant and resonant and I wrote three drafts over a period of about eighteen months. There was lots of trial and error, lots of experimentation, lots of re-writing – thankfully I had a very patient editor, Jenna Mackintosh, who gave me time, and helped steer the slow ship we were sailing on.

What was the hardest part to write?

The opening chapters – the ‘before’ bits – were revised the most times. There’s a lot of ground to cover before Ellie dies, both in terms of plot and in terms of information, and it has to be done as smoothly and as simply as possible. I’m not sure I’ve been entirely successful in this.

And yet – it is a book of ideas. It’s deliberately chock full of weird and wonderful notions: life after death, the ‘fetch’, reincarnation, Orpheus & Eurydice, Charon, the Styx, Hades. It’s all there to feed the imagination, to excite young readers. So some of the exposition is going to be a bit clunky.

What did you edit out?

There was an epilogue, set many years after the events of The Lovely Dark, which diluted the power of the ending. It ends where it has to end, in the perfect place, and the epilogue had to go.

And yet… I may resurrect the epilogue as a stand-alone story one day. I’d love to return to these characters, to see how they’re getting on – in our world and in Hades.

What’s next for you?

OMG it’s a really exciting moment. My agent Lauren Gardner and I have been working on a middle grade cli-fi idea that we’re a little crazy about. We’re ready to pitch it to Hachette now (wish me luck) in the hope that it will be the third book.

MATTHEW FOX is the author of The Sky Over Rebecca (Hodder 2022), which won the Bath Children’s Novel Award in 2019 and The Lovely Dark (Hodder July 2023).

He grew up in Wiltshire and studied at Balliol College, Oxford and at the Northern Film School. He has worked in the non-profit sector in the UK for more than two decades, focusing on film, LGBTQ causes, sustainability and air quality. He now lives in Stockholm with his partner, daughter and son. 

The Lovely Dark by Matthew Fox

“Fox is a beguiling writer, whose prose cocoons us through the unusual adventures that follow … [the twist] left this not-so-young reader close to tears” The Telegraph, 5-star review

When 12-year-old Eleanor Newton dies in an accident, she finds herself journeying down a mysterious river that takes her to The Underworld. She apprehensively embarks on her “afterlife” at Eventide House, a boarding school of sorts for children who have died. The Underworld is captivating: always sunny and warm but also fractured. Strange things have been happening to Ellie since she arrived: she knows something isn’t right, and she doesn’t want to be there. She desperately wants to get back to the world of The Living to meet her new baby brother, even if it means being a ghost.

Can Ellie find a way out of the Underworld? And who – or what – will she be if she does?

The Lovely Dark is out July 2023 in all good bookshops including who give us a commission, at no cost to you, which helps to fund our sponsored entries scheme.