Q and A with New Novel Award winner, Cam Terwilliger
RL: Your novel was quite distinct in theme and tone from all the other novels submitted for our award. It is actually quite difficult to categorise. How would you describe it, and how did you come upon the idea and theme?
CT: Thank you very much for the kind words. Receiving this award is a great honor and I’m very happy to hear that my project felt original. Set in New York and Quebec in 1757, Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart focuses on Andrew Whitlaw, a gentleman physician living on his family’s manor in the Hudson Valley. Specifically, the plot follows Andrew as he grows embroiled in his older brother’s obsessive pursuit of a mysterious counterfeiter named William Bell, a man whose false bills are costing the Whitlaw family business dearly. Bell is suspected to operate among the Mohawk people, a nearby indigenous group whose language and medicine Andrew has been studying while residing at Whitlaw Manor. As a result, Andrew is reluctantly pressed into the hunt for Bell due to his unique familiarity with the Mohawks. As these events take place, the French and Indian War is also unfolding in the background, adding an extra layer of dread and tension.
In terms of theme, I consider the book to be a reimagining of nineteenth-century American adventure novels such as James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, another novel set during the French and Indian War. I view my novel to be a postcolonial take on the subject, a story that examines the imperial forces that gave rise to the North America we know today. In this way, I’ve been inspired by recent novels such as Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.
However, this point of view is something I developed after a number of years exploring the material. My initial interest began quite coincidentally, when my parents moved to Albany, New York in 2002. Though most of America has forgotten about the French and Indian War, its memory still lives in Upstate New York, where several major battles took place. After reading a little about the period, I became immediately hooked by its complexity. At the time, North America was controlled in part by the English, in part by the French, and in equal measure by Native people who pitted these powers against one another for their own ends. My time researching this amalgam of cultures has entirely upended my notion that globalization is a thing of recent invention.
RL: Andrew is an unusual and engaging protagonist. Did he spring up fully formed, or did you discover him in the writing?
CT: When I started the project, I actually wrote a number of chapters without Andrew. These third-person versions of the book jumped around in point of view, focusing on several characters caught up in the French and Indian War. I enjoyed writing the scenes, but they lacked the unifying momentum to sustain a plot over several hundred pages. It wasn’t until I tried telling the story through a first-person narrator (Andrew) that the book snapped into place. As soon as I switched to first person, Andrew’s voice came ringing in my ears, just as it is now. I still had to explore his history to understand how this voice came to be; however, I felt much more anchored and purposeful after deciding to focus on him. He allowed me to view this overwhelming time on the scale of an individual human being.
RL: The judges particularly commented on your depiction of landscape and hardship. How easy was it for you to imagine your “wilderness?”
CT: I love books with a vivid sense of place. Nothing else conjures the mood of a story in the same way. For this novel’s depiction of landscape, I drew on a few different sources to provide concrete detail. The most helpful were the travelogues of Pehr Kalm, a Swedish naturalist who traveled through America and Canada in 1750. He views the natural world with a true sense of wonder, describing the geography, flora, and fauna with an almost reverential eye. This provided a lot of wonderful imagery, which I used to conjure the landscape as it would have been viewed at the time.
RL: The other word that stood out to me from the judges, and from my own reading, was “lyrical.” Do you try to write lyrically? Which of your characters do you think is most lyrical?
CT: Thank you so much! I feel honored to have my novel described that way. To me, the lyricism of the book derives from the voice of Andrew, who is a man of letters, patterned on several gentleman physicians of the eighteenth century such as Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Smith Barton. Unlike today, the sciences and humanities were not separated in the eighteenth century and these men were just as invested in philosophy and poetry as they were in anatomy and chemistry. Similarly, Andrew is both a keen observer and a deep reader, allowing him to view the world in sharp detail and to supply any necessary context. Yet he also has a romantic streak that leads him to describe the world with plenty of figurative language, which is central to lyricism in my opinion. Metaphor can transform the familiar, making it beautiful and strange.
The other characters in the story provide ballast to Andrew. They break into his lushly observed world with doses of action and severity. In my mind, Andrew’s narration is especially counterpointed by the character of Béatrice, the young Mohawk girl who has converted to Catholicism. As a religious zealout, Béatrice views the world with a stark simplicity that is completely at odds with Andrew’s ruminative narration.
RL: Our competition allowed the submission of unfinished or early draft novels. Was Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart in this draft when you submitted your first three chapters back in April 2015?
CT: When I submitted my initial chapters last spring, I was in the middle of a gigantic second draft revision. Though the characters and plot stayed intact during this process, many events were reordered and I sheared away a lot of digressive scenes and description. Overall, I cut about 30,000 words, resulting in the full manuscript I sent to HNS once I made the long list. Doing that rewrite was a big challenge, but when the dust settled I had a much clearer view of what was at the heart of the story.
RL: When can readers hope to get their hands on the book? How far are you advanced on the road to publication?
CT: I’m currently finishing yet another revision, which I expect to complete this summer. In 2017, I’m hoping to begin working with an agent to finalize the manuscript and pursue publication.
RL: I gather that you teach writing – is that a help or a hindrance to your own work?
CT: For me, life as a teacher helps my writing a great deal. Teaching is one of the few professions where you spend a lot of time examining and discussing writing. My conversations with students are often just as illuminating for me as they are for them. Our time together is a constant reminder of the challenge of writing well, the fact that none of us have all the answers. No matter how developed you may be as a writer, every piece of writing requires a substantial process of exploration and a series of missteps. It’s an ongoing education.
RL: I saw also that you have received scholarships to work on your writing. Do you have any advice to people applying for such funding?
CT: I always encourage emerging writers to apply for grants, fellowships, and scholarships. Early in your career, it’s easy to become focused on trying to get published, which is great—of course! But for most new writers, they would be better served putting that energy into applying for grants, scholarships, and fellowships, which allow you to spend more time on your writing, preparing you for publication.
In terms of application advice, every opportunity is different. It’s very important to read the guidelines closely and think about how your project suits the goals of the granting organization. Then your proposal can clarify how your writing and the institution’s goals are aligned, which is crucial.
RL: Do you have another novel underway? If so, is it historical fiction? Do you regard yourself as primarily a writer of historical fiction, or do you have other kinds of writing that attract you?
CT: I definitely plan to continue in this vein with future novels. In my opinion, history is a compelling subject because it is simultaneously the source of our myths and the source of our daily nuts-and-bolts reality. In that way, historical fiction satisfies all my desires: extreme realism, cultural relevance, and the ability to enter a fantastic world. For my next historical fiction project, I have the beginnings of a novel set in the red light district of New Orleans during World War I, when jazz first came into being. Similar to Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart, this novel also focuses on a time and place where a variety of cultures were mingling and conflicting.
In addition to writing fiction, I’m an active journalist and I’m working on a book length collection of nonfiction about contemporary life in the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake, a community located just outside Montreal. Originally a Jesuit mission, Kahnawake plays a central role in Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart and I did a lot of research there as a Fulbright Canada Scholar in 2013–2014. Each week, I visited Kahnawake’s very excellent cultural center to study books from their library and to speak with members of the staff and community about Mohawk history and culture. This experience deeply shaped the novel project; however, in the course of researching Kahnawake’s past, I encountered many fascinating stories about the ways in which Mohawk traditions and culture are being translated into the twenty-first century. As a journalist, I found these moving stories impossible to ignore.
RL: Which writers do you most admire?
CT: I am a massive admirer of Andrea Barrett. She’s a writer I recommend to everyone. However, lovers of literary historical fiction must absolutely read her work. Her recent collection of stories, Archangel, was a highlight of my reading in 2015. The book focuses on characters drawn from the history of science and the stories’ ability to deal compassionately with thorny people and situations is both technically masterful and emotionally profound.
In nonfiction, I’m a fan of the journalist Tony Horwitz, whose work explores the legacy of history and how it influences the present day. I especially admire his book Confederates in the Attic, which explores contemporary echoes of the American Civil War. At times the book is extremely funny, especially when Horwitz reports on the lives of obsessive Civil War re-enactors. At other times, the book is very serious, wrestling with America’s long history of racial injustice. The book was published in 1998 and it focuses on the culture wars of the 90s. However, I just reread the book and I found that these divisions are still playing out—twenty years later—in almost exactly the same way.