Caleb Azumah Nelson: From Apple store employee to Costa First Novel award winner

Caleb Azumah Nelson says he yelled with joy when he went from being an Apple store employee to Costa First Novel award winner.

According to a report by The Guardian, a lot has happened since his book was published, “he’s toured Germany, Austria and Switzerland; won the American accolade of a listing among the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 under 35’ for exciting young writers; and this month he scooped his first big prize, the Costa first novel award, which brings with it the chance of being chosen as the overall book of the year, next month”. 

The report quoted Nelson as standing in the street when the news came through: “I yelled with joy. It absolutely hadn’t been on my radar. I’ve been too busy trying to write the next one.”

At the heart of the novel is a love affair between a young couple – he a photographer, she a dancer – which repeatedly runs up against the man’s inability to process his anger about the injustice and violence he sees all around him. 

“When I was writing, I wasn’t conscious that I was trying to understand and sort through this idea of masculinity,” he says. “I was exploring two people who were trying to be as honest as they could with each other. And I think so often in love, men aren’t necessarily dishonest, but they don’t know how to express the whole truth.”

Azumah Nelson wrote the book in 2019, after a grim two years in which he had suffered a rush of family bereavements. “I was beginning to feel very hazy. Like I’d lost some form, and some detail, in myself,” he says. He would go to the cinema, to art galleries, spend hours listening to music – “just trying to be as present as I could be”.

And that, he says, “is where the writing started from”. At first it was “very lyrical essays that were a bit all over the place, to be perfectly honest”. He was working four days a week at the Apple store at Oxford Circus (hard on the feet but very handy for dialogue) and devoting the rest of his time to his photography and writing. “I was sending stuff around to literary agents, because, despite the fact that I was quite young, I really felt I had something to say.”

He was reaching the bottom of his list when one agent finally bit, suggesting that fiction might be where his talents lay. Within a month he had submitted an early draft, which she batted back. So he scrapped it, quit his job, and by September had produced a novel.

The book, Open Water, the report says, has been compared with Sally Rooney’s Normal People when in fact it is nothing like it. For a large part of the novel, the unnamed characters aren’t even lovers; they share a bed as friends, exhausted after nights out on the town, getting to know each other.

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