I don’t recall when I first began writing. As far as I know, I’ve always loved stories. My grandmother told me that even before I could speak I would scribble with crayons on paper and babble away, trying to articulate ideas without possessing the words. However, the moment when I first knew that I was a writer is clear in my memory; it was at the award ceremony for the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize.
After spending the previous day travelling to the venue with my grandparents, I arrived as one of six shortlisted contestants. The time came to announce the winner and the judges read out the names of the runner-ups, until only two of us remained standing. When it was my name that finished the sentence, “The winner of the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize is,” I couldn’t believe it. All I could think to say was, “Are you sure?” It wasn’t until I looked over and saw my grandmother crying in the second row that I knew it was really happening. From trying to write before I understood language to the moment I won a writing competition, she saw me become this person. I had never seen her cry before.
I spent that afternoon as a naïve twenty-one-year-old listening to the older writers discuss their projects and experiences as though I understood what they were talking about, but I didn’t. What were simultaneous submissions?What did literary agents do? This was my first time sending my work anywhere. The entire experience was alien to me. Then these words came into my head as one serene sentence: I’m a writer now. A fortnight later the judge, Broo Doherty, drew up a contract and became my agent. My winning manuscript went on to earn me a bursary from Literature Wales to continue its development.
Since then I’ve celebrated numerous poetry and prose publications, graduated university, and started my own publication – Cape Magazine – with a dear friend. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have done these things anywhere near as well had I not received the early encouragement and support from Broo Doherty and Creative Writing Matters.
Winning the Exeter Novel Prize changed my life. It marked the moment I became a writer and kick-started my career. The prize money paid my deposit for university halls so I could begin a degree and better educate myself on writing. The entire experience filled me with a confidence that has never dulled; no matter where I go or what I do, I know I won a novel prize and that feeling is irreplaceable.
Winning the Exeter story prize in 2017 for my story The Improbable Yarn of Clark Curtis was such a fantastic boost. Winning a prize, being published and (not insignificantly) being paid. At the time I had just finished my MA in Creative Writing from Chichester University and like many people found the transition away from having the input of tutors and peers really difficult. I was encouraged by the course and my feedback to begin sending off some of my work but I never thought that it would win.
The validation and feeling of elation that it gave me knowing that other people had enjoyed my work is hard to describe. The same story was also nominated for the Trisha Ashley award for humour – this also meant a great deal. I am drawn to the silly and comical and love work that manages to be both funny and moving.
When the anthology arrived, I greedily read the other stories and was delighted by the company I was keeping. I think without having this boost I would have drifted along a bit, lacking the confidence to share my work. As it was, I started sending off everything I had. I was shortlisted both for the Cambridge story prize making their anthology of stories across 2017 and 2018 and for the Myriad First draft awards.
My background is in theatre and puppetry, mostly as a performer and sometimes director. On the back of my writing successes I managed to gain a commission from Get Lost and Found Theatre Company to to write a theatre show for the Southbank Centre in connection with their Moomin Installation as part of the celebration of Finnish Independence. I co-wrote the piece with Emma Edwards and it has toured nationally for the last 3 years and enjoyed two runs at Southbank.
Recently I co-founded a company called Puppetbox which provides puppets for education, training and performance and this has been absorbing most of my creative energy. A lot of my writing has been channelled into creating education packs, copy for website and newsletters. It has been really exciting launching a company from scratch and I am immensely proud of it.
I do however have a few short stories on the go and a third of a novel that needs some attention. That’s the plan for 2021! More importantly being a writer has become part of my identity, something that I can say that I am, that I do. Winning the Exeter story prize was the first big step on that journey.
As a performer Sophie works frequently with Long Nose Puppets amongst others. A regular teacher at Rose Bruford Drama College she has also taught at Central School of Speech and Drama, Northbrook College and in many community settings.
You can find her on Instagram @apinchofsaltsophie and @puppet_box and on twitter @SophiePowell
What they did next...
Scroll down to find out about our previous winners.