Douglas Westerbeke: A Short Walk Through A Wide World

American author Douglas Westerbeke was Highly Commended in the Caledonia Novel Award 2022 with his escapist adventure A Short Walk Through A Wide World.  His debut follows the extraordinary life of Aubry Tourvel, whose mysterious illness sets in motion an epic tale of survival and flight. A Short Walk is published in the UK today by Jonathan Cape.

Hello Doug! Many congratulations on today’s UK publication of A Short Walk Through A Wide World! How will you be celebrating?

I don’t think anyone would consider it celebrating, but I’m working on another book. Every day I get to sit back and write is like a little celebration!

A Short Walk was published to wide acclaim in the US earlier in the year – can you tell us a bit about what the experience has been like, and something about your Jimmy Fallon book club listing!

It’s a bit of a double-life, like a spy movie. A lot of friends and neighbors haven’t even learned about the book yet! So basically, I’m living my life, driving the kids to school, cooking dinner, feeding the cats, but when everybody’s out of the house and everything gets quiet, I’m secretly writing my next novel that nobody knows anything about. Meanwhile, stuff like the Jimmy Fallon show happens and that’s part of the double-life, too. My book was one of sixteen from which his audience picked his next read. I made it to round two. It was exciting, surreal stuff and I wanted to tell everyone I met, but didn’t because that wouldn’t be very cool, so I stood in the grocery line or got my hair cut and went about my day, living this secret life the whole while.
What inspired you to write A Short Walk Through A Wide World?

It began as a short story idea about an old lady, a bit of a hypochondriac, who goes to the doctor for some mild ailment. The doctor tells her to travel somewhere warm and dry for a bit. All she hears is the word travel and spends the rest of her life running from a fictitious disease. It was a comedy of sorts, but the more I thought about it, the bigger it got. I was imagining some pretty elaborate adventures and I realized I had the makings of an epic adventure. The old lady became a little girl. The mild ailment became a horrific, unexplained illness. It was like a starter’s pistol going off. I knew I had something pretty special.

Which part of the whole process have you enjoyed the most, and what has it been like working with your agent, and this year’s Caledonia Novel Award judge, Alice Lutyens?

What I enjoy most these days is the ability to write full time, to put everything I have into it as opposed to just squeezing in a page or two here and there whenever I found the time. I never realized what a hard-working writer I really was until I started doing it full time. I put in seven, eight, nine hours a day and if I didn’t have to eat or pay attention to my family once in a while, I’d write non-stop!

Alice Lutyens is any writer’s dream agent. She works hard and knows her stuff. The literary world is a whole new place to me and the way she navigated me through it was invaluable. We had some tough choices to make and some scares along the way and even in retrospect – especially in retrospect! – she gave me all the right advice.

What does a typical writing day look like for you – if there is such a thing!

It doesn’t feel regimental to me, but I guess it is. I wake up early, 6 am during the school year, pick the laptop off my bedside table, and write. Sometimes I’m still half asleep. Don’t shower, don’t eat, just write. I’m interrupted to drive my kids to school, but come home and keep writing until I have to pick them up again. Then I’ll shower, take a walk, cook dinner, whatever it is I haven’t done that day. At night I’ll watch a little TV with my kids, write for another couple of hours, and crash.

At the centre of your epic adventure is Aubry Tourvel, who we first meet as a nine year old. She suffers from a strange illness which places her in a permanent state of exile from her home and family. How did you find and develop Aubry’s unique voice and character, and how did you keep her so believable?

I’ve been asked which characters were the hardest to write and the answer is, the supporting characters. Uzair, for example, is only in the story for thirty pages or so, but in that time I have to show he is a scientist, very lonely, very proud, but make him sympathetic, too. I have to describe their love affair, their journey across North Africa, their dramatic parting. It was difficult trying to get all that in just right. Aubry, on the other hand, is in every scene, and we follow her from being a little girl to old age. It was more comprehensive and, therefore, a lot easier to capture her. When she was little, she was a bit of a brat, and I wasn’t much different. She becomes a sullen teen and, though I wouldn’t call myself sullen, I had my moments. When Aubry was a fun-loving middle-aged woman, I just had to remember my mom. In old age Aubry becomes a bit of a hermit, and she wasn’t far my grandmother. I wasn’t thinking any of this while I was writing but looking back, I’m pretty sure that’s how Aubry came to be
A Short Walk is also available as an audiobook, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld – were you involved in the process, and what did it feel like hearing your words spoken for the first time?

I was asked for my input when we were choosing narrators. I didn’t realize authors had much of a say in this stuff, but I’m a huge audiobook fan and remembered Saskia from books I had listened to. I suggested her to the audiobook team and it was very exciting when she agreed to do it. I knew she’d make a terrific Aubry and she did. I remember being pretty terrified when the book was released. Having your work put out there to the public for the first time is a scary thing. I wanted to hide under my bedcovers for a week. But when I listened to the audiobook, Saskia hit just the right note of intensity, made me laugh at jokes I’d forgotten I’d written, and gave me a lot more confidence in what I wrote.

As a librarian, surrounded by books all day, this question could take you a while to answer, but which novelists have influenced your writing, and what debut novels have you enjoyed recently?
I could answer this one all day! There’s a lot of Somerset Maugham in A Short Walk. He’s one of my favorites. The Master and MargaritaOne Hundred Years of Solitude, White Fang, The Brothers Karamazov, The Bridge of San Luis Rey all had an impact on me, as well as more recent writers like Haruki Murakami, Kate Atkinson, Julie Otsuka, and Anthony Marra. I think the best book I’ve read lately is Fruit of the Dead by Rachel Lyon. Amazing prose.

What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you embarked on writing A Short Walk Through A Wide World?

I don’t remember a lot of bad advice. Almost all the advice I got was good. Working with my editor Margo Schickmanter was terrific because she pushed me hard. Even when I was exhausted, she pushed, and I would grumble a bit, but I rewrote and surprised myself by how much the book just kept getting better. I’m so grateful for how much she pushed me, and I’m proud of myself, too, for coming up with lots of new and creative ways to tell a scene.

It’s important to have a serious critic on your side. When a book gets the attention of people, the author only tends to hear a lot of praise and wonderful things. That part can be pretty deceiving. You really need to be a brutal self-critic, and sometimes even that’s not enough. You need others to be brutally honest with you as well, or how else do you improve?

What can we look forward to next from you – more exciting speculative fiction, or something completely different?

What I’m finishing up right now is the same genre, a little more of a literary fantasy novel, I suppose, but a very different setup. One location, a short stretch of time, a large cast of characters.

And finally, what made you decide to enter the Caledonia Novel Award 2022, and what advice would you give to other writers who are thinking of entering this year’s competition?

I had tried getting my book out there strictly through cold calling. It was several years of my life with a few ups but mostly downs. It didn’t get me far. I almost gave up. Then I thought, what my book needed was some cachet. I thought if I could do well in a literary contest, that might help. I submitted to many, and did well in a few, but the Caledonia Novel Award is the one that people noticed. I remember submitting and thinking to myself, Caledonia is the one I want to win. How much I’d have loved a week in that beautiful Scottish countryside to write! I didn’t win that but it turns out you don’t have to. Even placing somewhere on the list in such a well-respected literary award helps so much. I’ve got a novel out there to prove it. I hate to think of a life where I decided not to submit to the Caledonia Novel Award!
(Author photo by Roan Westerbeke)
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