Workshopping The Lost Letters of William Woolf

When, five years after we met, Helen called to say she had a publisher and a book deal, it was exciting but not surprising

Helen Cullen with her writing mentor Michele Roberts, Booker-shortlisted author of Daughters of the House

Helen Cullen with her writing mentor Michele Roberts, Booker-shortlisted author of Daughters of the House

 

I first encountered William Woolf, flawed hero of Helen Cullen’s estimable debut novel, in early 2012. It was a memorable meeting. Even at such an early stage in his creation, it was clear that here was a character truly alive in Helen’s imagining, a character richly conceived, a convincing presence in her lyrical prose. That’s not to say that he was fully formed, and neither was the extraordinary story being woven around him, but it was obvious that Dead Letters – Helen’s working title at the time – had real potential. All she had to do was get the darn thing written.

It was a wintry Tuesday evening in January. In a harshly-lit meeting room on the second floor of the Guardian’s offices, next to King’s Cross station, London, eight wannabe authors, including Helen and me, sat around a long table, some with sheafs of paper and notebooks in front of them, one or two with MacBooks. A couple of us had little more than the germ of an idea for a novel, while others were progressing fitfully through a first draft; all of us recognised we needed expert advice and support if we were going to complete our literary quest.

Which was why we had all enrolled in this Guardian/UEA masterclass, led by the much loved and highly regarded author Michele Roberts, who had been Booker-shortlisted for her novel Daughters of the House. We could not have hoped for a better tutor: if anyone was going to guide us through the literary minefield, alerting us to the pitfalls that lay ahead for innocent first-timers, it was Michele.

Her first task was to soothe our nerves and prepare us for the rigours of the intensely creative, six-month odyssey we were about to embark on. More often than not, novel-writing is a solitary pursuit, yet for our little gang it was going to be a very public process; week in, week out, until the beginning of summer, we would be baring our souls, giving these relative strangers glimpses of the inmost workings of our imaginations. Was what we were writing worth reading? Did we really have anything to say, and did we have any idea how to say it? Were we just going to look silly?

Initially, we were a little uncertain of each other – and ourselves. What if there was an undiscovered literary star among us, a talent that would emerge and overshadow everyone else, leaving us convinced that it was pointless carrying on? What if our scribblings were simply not up to scratch, just embarrassingly bad? Happily, these nightmare possibilities did not materialise. It became clear we were all working on something worthwhile. And, just as importantly, we all had much to offer each other.

It was remarkable how different our eight stories were; and it was particularly gratifying getting to know and care about each of their key players. Among this collective dramatis personae was Christopher, a young boy growing up nervously at the outbreak of war; then there was Graham, an idealistic teacher using drama lessons to inspire his boisterous class; and George, a boorish, dissolute restaurateur transformed by a shocking near-death experience. Then there was William Woolf.

Although it was true that none of our novels looked as if they would be bothering the bestseller lists any time soon, there was always something special about Helen’s. For a start, the premise was irresistible. There was a fairytale magic about the idea of a “letter detective” whose job it was to track down the intended recipients of mail that bore wrong or illegible addresses or that had gone astray in any number of other ways. Then there was the added delight of an impossible romance between two people who had never met, one of whom didn’t even know the other existed.

For me, however, the greatest appeal of what would become The Lost Letters of William Woolf was the gorgeous, shimmering quality of Helen’s writing. It was obvious instantly that she had a tremendous gift for language: the unexpected image, the arresting phrase. I loved her description of a tentative first date between William and his future wife Claire during which “he wondered if a kiss was waiting in the air between them”. Elsewhere, the description of an overbearing co-worker included a tiny but enormously telling detail: her tea mug was inscribed “Auntie of the Year”.

Throughout the course, our tutor Michele was relentlessly encouraging and, in her analysis of each of our fortnightly submissions, forensically precise. I, personally, was grateful to her for the revelation of so many aspects of the craft of novel-writing that I didn’t know I didn’t know. One thing I certainly didn’t know on that first Tuesday evening was how important the feedback from my fellow students would become; plus, it was particularly heartening to know that, for as long as the course lasted, every word you wrote had a guaranteed – and enthusiastic - readership.

A number of the friendships formed during those six months have endured, which is how I came to know William Woolf as well as I do.

As Helen persevered with her writing – and I kept failing to complete my original novel and various subsequent efforts – I had the huge pleasure of reading increasingly polished drafts of The Lost Letters, supplying, at Helen’s request, some text edits. (My day job is on the Culture desk of the Guardian.) She began to take the project very seriously, eventually retreating to a village by the sea in Co Sligo so that she could finish it away from the distractions of life in London.

When, five years after we met on that winter’s evening, Helen called to say she had a publisher and a two-book deal, it was exciting news but not surprising: a combination of natural talent, hard work, sacrifice and dedication had finally borne fruit. But I think she would agree that the masterclass played a crucial role in her eventual success. However long it takes, I know that if I ever manage to finish a draft, it will be because of what I learned there and the confidence it gave me.

Helen and I still meet regularly to discuss our writing. And I can tell you that her second book is even better than her first.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is October 2018’s Irish Times Book Club pick. Helen Cullen talks to Books Editor Martin Doyle on Friday, October 26th, at 7.30pm, in the Book Centre, as part of the Waterford Writers Weekend curated by Rick O’Shea

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