Sofie Matson is not one to shy from a challenge. She didn’t become one of Maine’s most accomplished high school distance runners without plenty of discipline and focus.

On Thursday, the 18-year-old added another distinction to her already impressive resume: author. In a matter of months during her senior year at Falmouth High, Matson completed a novel that is part coming-of-age story, part spy thriller, and most of all a wry, insightful look at how social media creeps into all corners of life.

Matson was one of four writers in The Telling Room’s annual Young Emerging Authors program. It is an intensive, year-long fellowship with the intent of producing a published book. On Thursday, Matson read the opening stanzas of her 265-page novel, “Amateurity,” at a small gathering of friends and family members at The Telling Room in Portland’s Old Port.

She was joined by the others in the Young Emerging Authors program – Maya Denkmire, a recent graduate of Casco Bay High, who wrote “Summer of Lost and Found,” Windham High senior Leigh Ellis, who read from their book “Bach in the Barn,” and Yarmouth High student Lerman Abdoulkader Waiss, author of the upcoming book, “Astur Unveiled.”

This was the eighth class of Young Emerging Authors. The program has now produced 30 books.

Matson won numerous Class A state titles in cross country and track, and at 16 was the top finisher among Maine women at the 2019 Beach to Beacon. She’ll head to Columbia University this fall, where she plans to continue to compete as a distance runner.

Matson said she had been interested in participating in the Young Emerging Authors program since coming to the nonprofit’s offices as a middle-school student to hear a reading.

“I went to the book launch of my friend’s older sister, Olivia Peelen, and I remember thinking, ‘I love writing. That’s really cool. I’d really like to write a book some day,'” Matson said. “I was always thinking about doing it in high school, but sophomore year was pretty busy for me, so was junior year, and I hadn’t really settled on a novel idea that I was satisfied with and really wanted to pursue with the level of depth that this program requires. This summer before senior year, I kind of stated writing and decided to submit to The Telling Room and see what happens.”

The plot line of “Amateurity” points a satirical lens on the time-suck that is social media.

Maggie, a 15-year-old girl, is recruited to be part of a CIA investigation. Previously a passive consumer of “social media’s hall of mirrors,” Maggie is asked to begin creating short videos to post on “ClickClock,” so the CIA can track her specially chipped phone. The objective is to find evidence that the ClickClock app is covertly transferring personal information to Chinese operatives. Before long, Maggie’s mundane day-in-the-life videos attract over a quarter-million followers.

Sofie Matson signs copies of her novel, “Amateurity,” Thursday at The Telling Room in Portland. Courtesy of The Telling Room

“I was trying to explore how amateur-created entertainment, just videos made by just random people on their phones, kind of shapes the way we relate to each other and think about entertainment and art,” Matson said. “Does art imitate life, or life imitate art? And what happens when that is made by everyday people on their phones? What kind of culture is created by that?”

Matson’s characters, particularly Maggie and Julia, a 43-year-old State Department bureaucrat who is also brought into the ClickClock investigation, are developed in insightful and nuanced ways.

“I was so taken by her voice and especially the sophistication that she brought to Julia’s character,” said Kathryn Williams, the lead teacher of The Telling Room’s Young Emerging Authors program.

“I definitely wanted it to be nuanced because ultimately there are so many different things in play in the book and what the book is trying to say about real life and how social media affects people differently,” Matson said.

Matson had about 30 pages of her manuscript written when she applied for The Telling Room Fellowship. She did most of the writing during the late fall and early winter after the cross country season had ended, writing the majority of the first draft by hand.

“I just found that typing on the computer, I would rewrite the same sentence over and over again. Hand-writing forced me to keep going,” Matson said.

Among the small crowd at Thursday’s reading was Danny Paul, one of Matson’s cross country coaches at Falmouth High and her teacher in a year-long sophomore honors literature class.

“What jumped out at me about her as a writer was two things. One was her phenomenal vocabulary for someone at 15 and mostly her skill at already writing sophisticated sentences,” Paul said.

Paul said he believes there are connective threads between Matson’s running and writing talent. There is the discipline to do the work, Paul said, but also a quiet knowledge that the process will yield results.

“She’s very confident in what she does and what she knows and that’s kind of what makes her who she is,” Paul said.

There is also a desire to improve.

“When Sofie was finishing this book, one of the comments she made to me was ‘I’m curious to see how I grow as a writer,’” Paul said. “I thought that was very profound at her age. She’s very intent on being as good as she can be, is the way I see it, and I don’t think it’s ever a burden for her.”

Sofie Matson was a three-time Class A cross country state champion and also won multiple titles in track and field while at Falmouth High. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Asked if she “writes while running,” Matson laughed softly.

“We had to write up a one-page pitch for the application. I came up with that on a run,” she said.

“Of course when you’re running 6-to-10 or upwards of 10 miles, you get bored. You start thinking about things,” Matson said. “If you’re writing a book, you tend to start thinking about what you’ve been writing, what you’re planning to write that day. For me, I would run in the morning and kind of just brainstorm ideas and general themes. Maybe I would come up with one or two lines that I thought were especially pithy or that I really liked, and would think, OK, I want to work with that later today. But I wouldn’t really compose any long-form prose while I was running, just basic ideas.”

When it comes to her own social media habits, Matson said, “I’m not super active on social media. I guess I’m a lot like my protagonist, Maggie, I’m more of an observer. Or initially like Maggie before she becomes super involved with her role in the CIA investigation.”

In the book, Maggie starts out as a mostly anonymous sophomore. As her followers grow, she learns to deal with strangers’ comments, both good and bad, regarding her videos. But those comments, and even her increased celebrity at her high school, are still filtered through the ClickClock app and text messages. Maggie ponders how difficult communication would be if everyone’s phones, and their attached photos, memes and videos, were taken away.

“Sustaining a conversation without her phone as supporting evidence … seemed tedious. Maggie considered it impossible to get to know someone this way,” Matson wrote.

For Matson, being in the public eye – and learning to communicate with strangers – became a fact of life when she was a freshman dominating the fall cross country season. Now as a published author, Matson has added another reason for people to ask her opinion, to put a recording device or a camera in front of her face.

“I’ve learned that it’s part of being involved in sports. It’s just a fact of life that you have to be able to talk to people and be able to communicate.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified which school Lerman Abdoulkader Waiss, author of the upcoming book “Astur Unveiled,” attends.


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