High school students help offer realism to author’s novel

Local author Mark Mathis wanted to write a young adult novel that resonated with teenagers, so he went right to the source to help make it authentic.

Holly Springs High School juniors Emma Fry and Anna Southwell served as editors for Mathis’ upcoming novel “Nightdivers,” which tells the story of five teenagers who have lost their sight and are now learning to swim competitively. Mathis said the advice from the two 17-year-old aspiring book editors added a sense of realism that the 40-something author needed for the story.

“I feel like I got the voice right from the mouth of the demographic that I was going after,” Mathis said at a book release party earlier this week at Holly Springs High School. “It was an extraordinary opportunity.”

Fry and Southwell feel the same way about the unexpected opportunity they got this school year.

“With this experience I have come to love editing,” Southwell said. “This has really helped us focus on what we want to do.”

Mathis had decided to write a novel about a swimming coach suddenly finding himself having to raise his son by himself. But he decided to recast the story into a young adult novel that focused on five blind teenagers being trained by the coach.

Mathis had plenty of adult editors, but he wanted to add some teenagers as well.

The Apex author runs Ry-Con Service Dogs, a nonprofit that trains service dogs. Some Holly Springs High School students help out with Ry-Con, so Mathis reached out to Steven Herrick, the school’s career development coordinator.

Herrick said he knew he had the right people when he went to an English class and asked for a show of hands from people who’d choose a table with books over a table with pizza.

Fry and Southwell jumped into the work as beta readers, returning Mathis’ manuscript filled with comments and suggested changes. Many of those suggestions made their way into the final version of the book.

“Anna and Emma, as well as others, were very helpful in reminding me of what it was like to be 14 or 15,” Mathis said.

Mathis said both students didn’t hold back in their comments, such as telling him when the words coming from the teens in the book didn’t ring true.

“When you’re editing, you have to be really blunt,” Fry said. “Don’t be really soft and shy because the author really wants to know what’s wrong with the book.”

The result is a book that deals with some tough issues such as suicide and being a transgender teen or a deeply religious teen confronting the unexpected loss of your sight. The novel is scheduled to be released in June.

In the end, the experience was a win-win for Mathis and the two students.

“We never imagined we could get this opportunity,” Fry said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui