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!