‘I yelled with joy’: how Caleb Azumah Nelson went from Apple store employee to Costa First Novel award winner

The London writer on the success of his first book, Open Water, the limitations of masculinity and why his writing shouldn’t be compared to Sally Rooney’s

One day, during the first Covid lockdown, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s father offered to cut his hair. “He’s not great with his words, but that’s a very specific way of saying: ‘Can I care for you?’” explains the 28-year-old writer and photographer, who spent the pandemic back in his family home in south-east London with his parents and his younger twin siblings. It’s just such moments that illuminate his debut novel, Open Water: tender, carefully observed and reported, casting a gentle light on the limitations of masculinity.

A lot has happened since the 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. He was 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.”

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