‘I met Malorie Blackman and was starstruck’: 21 Questions with Caleb Azumah Nelson

The author of Open Water and Small Worlds on the multi-faceted genius of Zadie Smith, the magic of a good meal, and how books can evoke music.

Photo: Stuart Simpson. Credit: Getty Images / Jeff-Spicer / Stringer

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel Open Water more than justified its pre-release buzz.

An elegantly told love story, written from a second-person perspective, Open Water explores race, masculinity, and the power (and terror) of connecting with another human being. It’s also a rich rumination on Black creativity which has earned praise from fellow authors such as Candice Carty-Williams, Yaa Gyasi and Diana Evans. Vogue referred to Nelson “an exhilarating new voice in British fiction”.

To celebrate Open Water’s release, we asked Nelson to answer our 21 questions; here, he reveals his love of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, the culinary career that could’ve been, and the depth of his admiration for Zadie Smith’s NW, a book that has shaped Nelson’s life in more than a few ways.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Toni Morrison, for her pacing, her rhythm, her wisdom.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman. I told everyone who would listen to read that book, friends and teachers alike. I felt fortunate to have this book, written by a local author of such magnitude.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and that was a significant, transformative experience. Hurston does something with language which even I could really admire and appreciate. What a voice!

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

NW by Zadie Smith. It was unlike any novel I had read at the time, and emboldened me to tell my own story, about my slice of London.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Working hospitality for a temp agency – we’d be shipped out to various parts of the country to work parties and weddings. I worked a big company party with 1200 employees in the middle of nowhere.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

‘Writing is fictionalising memory.’ My work isn’t often autobiographical, but it’s always personal. I’m always trying to delve into feelings I have known.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

NW by Zadie Smith. I think because of its experimental nature, I find something different emerging every time I read it. Also, the dialogue is excellent and really affords the characters a fullness which isn’t always seen. 

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It’s been sat in my TBR pile for years at this point.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A chef maybe? I really enjoy cooking and preparing meals for others, there’s a real pleasure

What makes you happiest?

When I’m with my family and those I love. Oh, and food! A good meal will light up my eyes.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I recently bought a saxophone – I’ve always wanted to learn a brass instrument and have been teaching myself slowly!

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Headphones on, a good playlist playing (I always prepare a playlist before starting a new piece of writing). I like to get out of the house when I can to write and appreciate having a regular space to go – usually libraries.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

'I recently bought a saxophone.'

I met Malorie Blackman when I was 10 or 11, and was suitably starstruck. It took me a while to get the words out when she was asking my name to sign my book!

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Yaa Gyasi, a fellow Ghanaian. I feel like she’d appreciate a good home-cooked meal, so perhaps some jollof rice.

What’s your biggest fear?

I’ve always had a really good memory, so perhaps that I might begin to forget.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?


What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks. An incredible meditation on identity, as well as an exploration of the rich histories which make us who we are. It also has an astounding rhythm propelling the narrative – it reads like music.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?


Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?


What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Such a hard question! I have to say NW by Zadie Smith again. No book has changed my view more on what fiction could be. It informs how I write today and I hold it very dear.

What inspired you to write your book?

Open Water is a love story but it’s also an ode to everything I love: South East London and books, music and photography, film and fine art. I wanted to write a book which read like an album, like music, so musicians such as Kendrick Lamar and Solange and J Dilla were instrumental to the conception of the book. Photography too – I often feel like when I’m writing, I’m transcribing snapshots of moments I can see.

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