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)