Fresh from winning the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2019 with The Sky Over Rebecca, Stockholm-based writer and filmmaker Matt Fox believes his persistence has been key: “The lesson is keep writing. Every day. Keep producing new complete drafts of whatever it is you’re writing. This takes years, so fill the years with your writing. One day, everything is going to change.”
Congratulations again, Matt. How did it feel to hear Lauren Gardner announce The Sky Over Rebecca had won?
You may have noticed I was shaking. My body, clearly, didn’t want to win, didn’t want to get up on the stage in front of all those people. But I was so happy to be up there. I’ve been writing for years. The stars were in alignment this time.
It’s a short longlist, with only 19 novels out of 965 entries selected, so I was very happy to have made it that far, and assumed that would be the end of it.
The thing is, if you want to write fiction, there’s going to be a lot of waiting to hear back from agents, publishers, competitions. While you’re waiting you need to press on with your next piece of writing. So you try not to think about what’s happening to your manuscript out there in the world. You just try to keep writing.
I remember thinking I should probably re-draft The Sky Over Rebecca so that I can enter it again next year. Things didn’t turn out like that…
You were seeking agent representation when you won. Can you say what’s happened since?
I can! I’ve signed with Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton! Barely a week has gone by since I won the award, and I have an agent already.
This is why you have to enter the Bath Novel Awards if you have a manuscript that’s almost ready to go. So many writers get representation by entering.
You don’t even have to win: just getting on the shortlist or the longlist puts you in a very strong position when you’re querying with agents.
“Atmospheric, beautifully written, a high concept and totally original narrative journey, and a way of sensitively taking on a well-known part of history from a completely fresh perspective. I was gripped from the very first page.”
Award judge Lauren Gardner on The Sky Over Rebecca
What has Lauren said about her decision?
The Junior Judges’ reports played a key role in Lauren’s decision, I think. It was great that she quoted from them when she was announcing the winner. She took what the Junior Judges had to say about Rebecca very seriously.
Lauren is also really strong on character and in this case she seems to have responded to Kara, the narrator, and to Rebecca, who may or may not be a refugee from another time…
How was meeting some of the Junior Judges?
It was great to hear the extracts of the shortlisted novels read by the Junior Judges, and to meet them! I wish I could have been a Junior Judge when I was a kid!
I’m also secretly hoping my daughter gets to be a Junior Judge in a few years’ time.
Your prize includes a compilation of the Junior Judges’ reports. What does it mean to know children loved and voted for your book?
It’s absolutely the best. The Junior Judges are the key innovation of the Bath Children’s Novel Award. I can’t think of another contest anywhere in the world that does this, that willingly hands over the shortlist decision to young readers. And it makes sense: young readers are the target audience for these books. You can’t argue with their feedback, you can’t argue with their decision.
In my case, I feel really lucky to have stumbled upon a character, Kara, who was determined to tell her story, and the Junior Judges responded to it.
You mentioned The Sky Over Rebecca was written quickly, while your baby daughter was napping. What would you say were the pro’s and cons of writing in short, intensive bursts?
I was already a fan of the sprint before my daughter came along. Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones advocates free writing in short bursts just to see where it leads you and I’ve found this a really exciting new way to work.
It’s different when you’re revising a manuscript later on. Then, you need to take your time over every sentence. The timescales involved are longer and calmer.
As a filmmaker, why did you write this story as a novel rather than a script?
The last few years I’ve found myself writing stories both as screenplays and as long prose pieces, and I’ve been toggling between the two, going back and forth between two versions of the same story – until one of them dominates. The Sky Over Rebecca started out as a screenplay, but the narrative voice and POV were so clear it demanded to be a novel, told to us in the past tense by Kara.
Would The Sky Over Rebecca be a different book if you’d had more time to write?
It might never have been finished if I’d had more time. That’s the danger of having no pressure on you, no deadlines. You drift. The discipline having a kid gives you changes everything. Now, every hour you spend writing is an hour you don’t spend with your kid – it’s an hour you’re never going to get back. So what you’re writing better be good, and it better be finished.
You mentioned writing with your daughter in mind as a future reader…
That’s right. I wanted to write something she might read in a few years times and there were some things I had to say… You have the power. You can change the world. You can save the planet. Never let anybody tell you otherwise.
You tweeted that you’ve entered hundreds of fiction competitions in the past without winning. Does that make this win all the sweeter?
It’s the sweetest feeling! I’ve been working towards this for a very long time. I would say I’m probably one of the older writers to win the Bath Children’s Novel Award.
The lesson is, keep writing. Every day. Keep producing new complete drafts of whatever it is you’re writing. This takes years, so fill the years with your writing. One day, everything is going to change. You only have to be lucky once.
What’s next for you?
Working on the manuscript of The Sky Over Rebecca with my agent, Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Morton.
Interview: Caroline Ambrose
Matt Fox lives in Stockholm and is a writer and filmmaker. He has worked in the non-profit sector for more than a decade, focusing on the Arts, LGBTI+ issues, sustainability and air quality. He co-created and programmed the Outsiders LGBTI+ Film Festival in Liverpool, and his short films have screened at festivals all over the world. Matt has a Masters in Screenwriting from the Northern Film School. He was the runner-up for the Pen Parentis Fellowship in 2018 and last year won the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Category of the Emerging Screenwriters Contest. The Sky Over Rebecca is his first novel for children.
Read the full winner’s announcement here