Interview: Debut novelist Jodie Matthews on shortlisting, becoming agented and signing her first book deal

Jodie Matthews is a queer Cornish writer and poet, living and working in the West Midlands as a gardener. Her first novel Meet Me At The Surface is a page-turning, horror-tinged mystery and moving tale of love and loss set on the windswept Cornish moors. It was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2021 and is to be published by 4th Estate in spring 2024.

Many congratulations on your deal with 4th Estate. How does it feel to know Meet Me At The Surface will be published by the publishers of Hilary Mantel, Anthiny Doerr and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?

Thank you! It’s so surreal—seeing those names listed together is wild, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’ve been pulling up pictures of Wolf Hall on my phone to show the non-readers in my life when they ask about the deal, and then they get excited. There’s a lot I admire about 4th Estate, which makes this so exciting. They’ve published a few of my favourite books of the last few years, like My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell and The Answer to Everything by Luke Kennard. I actually already knew some of their marketing team, like the lovely Liv Marsden, through my book review account on Instagram (@jodierhianmatthews), so I’m really looking forward to working with them too. 

What I’m most excited about though, is the chance to work with editor, Katie Bowden, and assistant editor, Sadé Omeje. Seeing Katie’s work at Picador and reading about the books she’s been acquiring since for 4th Estate, I feel extremely lucky. Friends had told me she’d be a great fit, way back before the book was ready to go on submission, so it feels like everything has come full circle. 

How did the deal come about?

It was all very fast. My agent, Olivia Maidment, sent the submission out to a list of editors on a Monday afternoon. Less than 24 hours later, Katie Bowden from 4th Estate had read the book in one sitting and emailed Liv to say she loved it. From there, everything sped along. We waited for the acquisitions meeting to go ahead, and then a week after that Liv and I were in London in the 4th Estate offices, hearing their pitch. A few days later and it was all agreed. I barely slept—I’d been prepared for weeks and weeks of waiting to hear back from someone, I never met expected that I’d hear back from 4th Estate (who were and are my dream publisher) that quickly.

You accepted representation with Olivia Maidement at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency shortly after shortlisting – how did you know she was the agent for you?

I found Liv on Twitter in spring of 2021, and I could see from her wishlist that we had similar tastes. When I sent my query, she came back and asked for my full the next day. I knew she was the right agent for me because she was so open and communicative during the querying process—she kept me updated whilst she was reading my full, she answered every question I had quickly and clearly. I also knew the Madeleine Milburn agency is a complete powerhouse, and the other books Liv had signed sounded amazing, so I knew I’d be in safe hands. It’s almost been a year of working together now, and I know I made the right decision. I can’t imagine going through this process with anyone other than Liv. 

Since signing with Liv you’ve been working together editorially to get your novel into the best shape for submitting to publishers. How many more drafts have there been and how has your novel changed?

We started with a structural edit, where I stripped a whole character out. Then we moved on to two more rounds of editing, focusing first on pulling chapters together, and then really bringing the ‘bones of the plot up’—as the BNA reader feedback said! There was a fair amount of cutting and stitching back together. I wanted it to be a fairly contained novel, but as I rewrote sections, the words ran away with me, so I had a lot to axe at the end, which was really fun and cathartic. I don’t mind killing my darlings, I actually love it.

What happens between now and publication?

It’s being published Spring 2024, which feels like a long time to wait, but 4th Estate have some exciting plans for the lead up. Over the next few months I’ll be making the last few edits with Katie on Meet Me At The Surface before the first proof copies out. After that, I’ll be back on my second novel. I started it around the time I entered the BNA with my first, and I’m really looking forward to picking it back up. There’s a lot of research and rewriting in my future, especially now I’m under contract. I’m really looking forward to being in that stage of a book again. 

You’ve said that the shortlisting made a huge difference, helped you to get an agent and ultimately helped you get to this point. Can you say a bit about how it helped you along the way?

It’s been almost a year exactly since I was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award, and I can’t overstate how much that meant to me. The initial longlisting in May 2021 was the first public acknowledgment that my book could be something. I was lucky, I’d been working with a mentor (Tom De Freston, artist and author of Wreck), since summer 2020, and he’d encouraged me every step of the way. After not listing in a comp at the end of 2020, I was nervous. I’d decided, with Tom’s encouragement, that I was going to enter the BNA just to give myself a deadline and something to work towards. I wasn’t expecting this outcome. 

Bath gave me the push to query agents. I worked on my query letter and submissions package for a long time (with the help of Charlie Carroll, fellow Cornish writer and author of The Lip), but I felt like my bio was a bit blank—I didn’t have the qualifications that a lot of authors seem to have. There was no Creative Writing MA, no degree at all actually. Of course, these things are definitely not necessary to write a good book, or get an agent, but from the outside, it’s easy to feel unqualified. Adding in that line that said ‘longlisted for the BNA 2021’ made me feel so much more confident. 

When the shortlisting happened, I was at work—I’m a gardener at a large public estate—and I couldn’t believe it. I think I spent most of the afternoon in a daze, I definitely didn’t mow the grass in a straight line. I emailed Liv, who was reading my full at the time, to let her know, and shortly after that, she offered me representation. Then, when I was editing Meet Me At The Surface, Liv and I looked at the reader feedback from BNA shortlisting, which was just excellent, and incorporated that feedback into the edits too. 

The shortlisting helped me in a lot of ways, but I think the most important is the confidence it gave me—it made me feel like people wanted to read my book, and now they’ll be able to. 

Jodie Matthews is a queer Cornish writer and poet, living and working in the West Midlands as a gardener. She has written for numerous publications including Ladybeard, Parallel, and Ramona magazines, and she runs a successful bookstagramaccount @jodierhianmatthews. Meet Me At The Surface is her first novel, and it was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2021 and the Blue Pencil First Novel Award 2021.

Meet Me At The Surface is a page-turning, horror-tinged mystery and a moving tale of love and loss that explores dysfunctional friendships, fractured families, isolation and the experience of being queer in a small village on the windswept Cornish moors.

It tells the story of Merryn, who has grown up on the wilds of Bodmin moor, raised by her mother and her aunt in an old farmhouse. Here, the locals never leave the decaying village, fear for the future of their farms and cling to the folkloric tales that are woven into their history. Except Merryn, who has escaped to Manchester for university, briefly untethering herself from her past.

When Merryn returns home for the memorial service of her ex-girlfriend Claud, she finds the place stranger and more secretive than ever. The villagers are hunting something on the moors at night, but what? And then there’s the notebook, found in an old chest of drawers, full of long-forgotten folklore than seems to be linked somehow to Claud…