Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Cam Terwilliger, winner of the Caledonia Novel Award 2017

Cam, firstly, many congratulations on winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2017 with Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart. 

We were very drawn to the main characters, especially the syphilitic physician Andrew Whitlaw and the Mohawk girl Béatrice, and to your well-executed storyline. Was Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart character or plot driven? 

Great question! It’s hard to separate plot from character in my view, but if I had to choose I’d say that my writing process started with the plot, and then explored the characters I’d attached to that overarching storyline afterwards. This was my goal at the outset due to a prior experience writing a novel set in the Aleutian Islands during World War II – which also featured a doctor as its protagonist, in fact! I learned a lot through the missteps of that project. Specifically, it had an atmospheric setting that I loved, and a character with a fraught history that felt very round to me. But there was no forward-moving story, and the book soon devolved into a moody, static blob of character sketches.

So, when I started writing a new novel about 18th-Century New York and Québec, I knew I wanted to have a clear goal at the centre of the book, to give it a sense of structure and purpose. That goal turned out to be the hunt for William Bell, the elusive counterfeiter at large in the North American wilderness. I explicitly borrowed parts of this plot structure from Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby. As in Conrad’s novel, we have a journey into the wilderness to capture some enigmatic figure. But then that figure turns out to be a charismatic yet pathetic charlatan (similar to Gatsby). In all cases, however, this central figure (Kurtz/Gatsby/Bell) is held at a distance for most of the book, which provides an intriguing mystery for the main characters to explore, creating a process of discovery from chapter to chapter. After so firmly establishing this plot, I felt far more at ease. I could relax into developing the protagonists because I always had a clear sense of where the story was going in the big picture. Within the bounds of that large canvas, I was free to paint the complex character-based motivations of Andrew and Béatrice for getting involved in this journey.

How long did your novel take to write? Were there many redrafts?

I started writing what would become the novel in 2007, but I had a period of re-conceiving the story several times as I did the initial research and drafting. The current version really began in 2010 during a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, when Andrew’s voice as the narrator came to me all at once. I’ve been working away at the novel ever since, with a few stints on other projects along the way. After working on the opening fifty pages for a good long while, I wrote the full initial draft pretty quickly while on a Fulbright Fellowship in Montréal in 2013-2014. Since then I’ve done two major redrafts that altered the structure and a number of smaller passes to tighten the language and clarify details.

Did you show your work to other writers before submitting it?

I had the great fortune to get feedback on the opening of the novel at some excellent writers’ conferences we have here in the US (Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts). This feedback gave me the ruling signs of the project, and I often returned to the critiques I received as I was writing. Later, after writing the entire draft, I got more holistic feedback on the manuscript from my friend, the writer Chip Cheek, and my partner, the writer Cara Blue Adams, both of whose opinions I value so much that showing my work to them is a little stressful – though always incredibly illuminating!

Several of our readers commented on the novel’s accurate historical context and your attention to detail. Research is clearly important to you – are you a stickler for facts?

I’m a writer who feels very nourished by researching the time and place I’m writing about, as well as people who have lived lives similar to my characters. The concrete, specific details of reality are such a gift, in my opinion, because they provide a trove of images and language that you can repurpose in a literary way (in my case the details of 18th-Century medicine, the stages of syphilis, Mohawk culture, Catholicism, North American geography, and the process of engraving and printing). The challenge, though, was to create a story where all of those details could coexist convincingly. By creating a set of purely fictional characters (rather than writing about real people from history) I gave myself a lot of latitude to weave the strands of my material together in a way that is basically plausible. The events of my novel would be quite exceptional in their time, but – to my mind – that makes them all the more interesting.

When you are writing a novel of this length and complexity, what motivates you to keep going?

I wish I knew! After a time, the novel just became a part of my life, like a family member or a close friend, someone you love unconditionally, even though he or she might be completely exasperating at times. It’s shaped my days and thoughts so regularly that I now can’t imagine my life without it. I actually find the prospect of stopping more alarming than continuing to work on it, which is its own kind of problem. To write a book, you must madly commit to the concept of never quitting. Yet, one day, against all instinct, you must find the way to finish.

Where and how do you work? Are you a disciplined writer?

Right after I graduated from my MFA program, I was a much more disciplined writer. I had an office day job and I got up each day to write for an hour before work. After I started teaching at universities, my daily schedule quickly became shifting ground, and so I’ve started to write in short bursts – as much as I can during breaks and at the beginning of the semester, before things get really busy.

Are you currently working on another novel? If so, are you sticking with historical fiction or are you trying another genre?

I do have another novel project in the works. And, yes, for better or worse, I think I’m going to be a historical novelist for life. A few years ago, I started a novel that follows a series of characters in New Orleans’s famous Storyville red-light district at the opening of World War I, the brothels and honky-tonks where jazz was born. It’s very different than Wilderness, rotating among seven different points of view, all orbiting the mystery of a young soldier’s death by poison in a high-end brothel.

Which novels and authors do you enjoy reading?

I’m a gigantic fan of contemporary authors working in the vein of literary historical fiction such as Andrea Barrett, Jim Shepard, Joseph Boyden, Hilary Mantel, and Laila Lalami. I’m also a longtime devotee of J.M. Coetzee, especially Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, both of which use a present-tense narration on which I modelled my own novel’s style. I love books from the past very, very deeply as well. A few of my favourite reading experiences of all time include Moby Dick, The Master and Margerita, and Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno.

Which novel – if any! – do you wish you’d written, and why?

Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger or Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. These are two monumental books that completely blew me away – Sacred Hunger creating a large cast of characters on the voyage of a slave ship, and Memoirs of Hadrian recounting the entire life of Hadrian. I don’t think I could ever write a book like these, which are so moral and wise, so vivid on the level of the sentence, and so magisterial in their massive scopes. Reading these books made me feel like I’d lived several additional lifetimes. And though they look like doorstoppers, I found them completely enrapturing.

You have been very successful in a number of other literary competitions – do you have any advice for other writers who are thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2018?

I’ve read submissions myself for a number of literary magazines, and I’ve learned a few things from the experience. In my opinion, it can’t be overstated how important it is to have a very strong opening when you are competing alongside hundreds of other submissions. The opening is the most challenging and precarious part for the reader. Those first pages are when the reader is most likely to give up on the story, because you have to spend so much mental energy figuring out how the world works, where your attention should be, and whether you should bother at all. So, if the writer can get the reader to commit for a few pages by offering a sharp, intriguing opening, the reader is far more likely to give the rest of the manuscript a careful read, since the reader now has an initial investment in the story. Obviously, it’s important that the whole manuscript be as strong as possible, but extra attention should be given to the opening.

And finally, what next for Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart?

I’m aiming to finalise the manuscript this summer, which I will be very lucky to spend in my beloved Montréal, as a fellow in the New York-Quebec Artist-in-Residence Exchange Program, hosted by the marvellous Quebec Writers Federation. After some revisions to the conclusion of the novel, and some further editing, I’m hoping to find an agent to work with in the fall, then pursue publication in late 2017 or early 2018. I have heard from a number of interested agents in recent years, so I intend to speak to a few and find someone to collaborate with on the culmination of this project and – hopefully – the novels ahead!

Interview: Andrea Crossley Spencer, Winner of The Caledonia Novel Award 2016

Andrea, congratulations on winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2016 with ‘A Promise of Water’ – what was it like finding out that your manuscript had won?

I am five hours behind, so I feel fortunate that I was able to see the announcementfacetune early in the morning without having to wait half of the day! I refreshed the Caledonia web page and saw my
image there, refreshed it again to be sure it was me, and then I instantly ran to my husband and kids to show them the good news. What a thrilling way to start a week!

I have to say that I was overwhelmed with the celebrations and good wishes on social media, both from my circle of friends and family and from others in the creative-writing field — people I didn’t even know — who were Facebooking and Tweeting congratulations. Social media is so great for that. It’s wonderful to connect with people from all over the UK and the world, especially my fellow long- and shortlistees. Credit is due to the Caledonia Novel Award team for communicating so well on Twitter throughout the competition. I think all authors understand how much time, effort and patience goes into not just writing and revising a novel, but also earning recognition for it and getting published. In that way, authors are great cheerleaders for one another. We all know what a wonderful feeling it is to have readers connect with something that we put so much into and began as just a seed of inspiration.

We loved the setting – Lake Superior – which felt almost like another character in ‘The Promise of Water’. Why did you choose to set your novel here?

My husband introduced me to the North Shore of Lake Superior when we married. His parents have a sweet little cabin there, and we visit just about every year. The lake and its extremes are awe-inspiring to me. It’s not just a gorgeous body of water; its size, temperature and depth are formidable, especially for what many think of when it comes to lakes. Sailing on Lake Superior is like sailing on the North Sea: the depths, the currents, rapidly-changing weather conditions, rocky shores and shoals. Add to this the fact that conditions are right for bodies to be preserved — what an eerie thing! That image grabbed hold of me, and I knew I wanted to make Nora a sailor and have readers wonder whether she was out there somewhere in the depths.

In addition to that, I love to hike, and the hiking on the North Shore is fantastic, especially along the waterfalls. I relished the idea of spending time in Northern Minnesota — even if it was often just in my mind and through my research. Choosing this area as my setting helped me get to know a place that I already had a crush on and, consequently, caused me to fall madly in love with it.

The story is a really moving one about family, loss and secrets – what inspired you to write it? 

When I joined my MFA program and began writing my manuscript, it was my first serious attempt at a novel. I was hesitant to write a female protagonist simply because I thought I might be tempted to put too much of myself into her. That’s why I chose Nate. Learning how to write from a man’s perspective was an entirely different challenge, I found! But from there, the story came together, piece by piece, starting with this male character who, deep down, was trying to find his way back home. How would I get him home? His twin would go missing. What would he find when searching for her? Secrets. How would the fact that they were twins play into the story? And so on.

Another decision I made was to give the reader a chance to experience these twins as children because their past was so critical, so I opted for a few flashbacks. Also, I was interested in the notion that being successful in a certain profession does not necessarily mean we are spending 40+ hours a week doing something that speaks to our soul. I wanted Nate to be brave enough to face that realisation and create his own definition of success.

Ultimately, I just listened to my MFA professors. Author Katherine Towler mentored me in my first semester, when I was literally staring at a blank page. She told me not to assume anything from the outset and to just have faith that the story will unfold through the process of writing. I am a huge planner; this was hard for me. You have to be willing to discover your story, which likely means scrapping full chapters if need be. But suddenly, I found myself deep into my story, and my characters began to do a few things that surprised me. That’s when scenes and rough chapters began to gel and form a legitimate story arc.

Several of the judges commented that ‘The Promise of Water’ is a mature, well-conceived novel – how long did it take you to write, and did it go through many drafts?

You know, I’d long thought I would never learn the virtue of patience, but leave it to creative writing (and trying to publish creative writing!) – that soon gets sorted out! You’ve GOT to have a mix of fortitude and patience. And, yes, ‘The Promise of Water’ went through many drafts. I worked on it for two years while getting my MFA. Then, at author Jessica Anthony’s suggestion, I put it in a drawer for a while – 18 months. After that, I made more revisions, sought beta readers, finally began looking into agents, and then revised one more time with the guidance of my wonderful agent, Elizabeth Copps. I am certain she and I will revise once again when we get closer to working with an editor. They say a book is never done until you publish it and simply can’t revise it any more. I believe this wholeheartedly.

What does a typical writing day look like for Andrea Crossley Spencer? Are you very disciplined?

I can honestly say I write every day of the week, but much of my writing right now is for marketing and communication projects. Fortunately, many of my projects involve storytelling, just from a non-fiction standpoint. About two years ago, I joined five other colleagues in starting a creative collaborative called Tigermoth. We craft stories for our clients. As with any start-up, helping run Tigermoth is more than a full-time job, and fitting in my creative writing has not been easy. But I’m taking the advice of a fellow writer: she said to touch my book every day — even if just for 20 minutes here and there. Like most busy working moms, my best opportunity to write is late at night or early in the morning. Right now, I am working on a novel tentatively called “Cloudspotting” –  I am trying to touch those clouds a little bit every day. However, I do see a couple of writing-weekend getaways in my future, when I can do a deep dive into this next book and get closer to a full first draft.

Are you a member of a writing group? 

I am not currently part of a formal writing group, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I would say that I have writing soulmates, mostly from time spent in my MFA program. If I need feedback, inspiration, encouragement, that network is always there. A year or so ago, one of my soulmates and I made a commitment to conference call with each other every month or so. I end every call inspired to write the next chapter.

Have you thought about what you’ll be spending your prize money on?

I think the perfect thing would be a trip to Scotland for my family, so I’ll be putting the prize money in a savings account and making a plan to finally come and see your lovely country.

What can we expect next for you and for ‘The Promise of Water’?

My agent sent the manuscript to a great group of editors, and we are currently awaiting their feedback. We’ll soon see how that pans out and what the next steps will be.

What advice would you give to other writers who are thinking about entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2017?

Write your best possible draft. Have others read that draft — people who you feel would be typical readers and who will give you honest feedback. Trust that you know how to determine which revisions to make and which to ignore. Write a strong synopsis. Follow all of the contest rules. Hit submit and enjoy the ride. If you’re not listed this time around, enter more contests, revising as you go! Contests are a great way to remain inspired while you are biding your time querying agents and publishers.

(Interview by Wendy Bough)