Caleb Azumah Nelson has been shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award, with his debut novel, Open Water. In this interview, we find out more about Caleb’s writing process, and what he’s planning next.
What does being shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award mean to you?
It’s really something wonderful. To have anyone read Open Water and not only recognise the energy that I put into writing, but have it resonate with them, is a humbling feeling. To be shortlisted amongst such brilliant writers too, is special.
What made you want to be a writer, and when did you first start writing?
I’ve been writing since I remember. I was drawn to storytelling first, through family and the oral storytelling tradition. Coming from a big family, it was always necessary to know how to hold the floor!
How did you come to write Open Water?
I had been writing a personal collection of non-fiction in the year prior, centring photography, music and love. I was thinking about the ways we love each other, and how we express that love, and what happens when we fail to do so. I was also thinking about love as a site of freedom, which ended up being the spine of the novel. I met my literary agent in May 2019, and after showing her the essays, she suggested I had the voice for a novel.
Can you tell us a bit more about the writing process? How long did it take you, and what did it involve?
I wrote Open Water over the summer of 2019; it took around four months to write. Around the time I started writing, I left my job to try to write full time, and set up camp at the British Library for a period. I would start my days checking out as many books as I was allowed – poetry, photography, prose – following any threads of curiosity. After an hour or so, I would start writing and usually leave around closing time. The process felt a bit like a fever dream, but I’m grateful for that time.
Which writers do you look up to, and why?
Toni Morrison, for her ability to create worlds which sprawl and meander, yet her writing is so precise. James Baldwin’s voice will stay with me forever. Hanif Abdurraqib, for his closeness to the page and attention to craft. Zadie Smith, I’ll always be grateful for her rendering of NW London, which encouraged me to try to render my own community.
Finally, what are you planning to do next?
I’m working on another novel, Small Worlds. The narrative follows Stephen, a young jazz musician, as he navigates first love, his relationship with his father, and his faith. I’m also working on several projects for film and TV, including the screen adaptation of Open Water.
Caleb Azumah Nelson is a 27-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His photography was shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and won the People’s Choice prize. His short story PRAY was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020. OPEN WATER is his first novel and is currently longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2021.