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.

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