When people ask me what I do, I never quite know what to tell them. I’m an author, yes, but I also work part-time running The Writers’ Workshop, an outfit in the UK which offers everything from editorial feedback to running writing courses. Needless to say, many of the manuscripts we receive are still fairly raw, some are good but not exciting – and some, a very few, are simply mind-blowing.
Early in 2009, I got such a manuscript through the letterbox. It was huge. 160,000 words or almost enough material for a 600 page book. And it was a memoir, every word of it true.
The author was an 82-year-old British woman, Barbara Tate, but she hadn’t written the manuscript recently – she’d written the whole thing back in the 1970s. And the story she told tracks back still further, to a two-year period in 1948-49, when the author was a young woman, newly independent in post-war London.
Barbara had had a truly difficult childhood. Her father had been dangerous, her mother neglectful. When Barbara was still very young, she found herself abandoned to the less than tender care of her grandmother. Indeed, although she wasn’t directly abused, her childhood was scarred by lovelessness. She’d never really been loved, never really had a friend.
Her two passions were painting and writing. She painted as often as she could, and signed up to correspondence writing courses when and if she could afford them.
Then, to her joy, she became old enough to leave home. She had a few temporary jobs and was working as a waitress in Soho – one of London’s more exotic areas – when she encountered a woman, the like of whom she’d never previously encountered. That woman was Mae: glamorous, impulsive, charming, spontaneous and warm. She was also a prostitute.
The two woman made friends instantly. Although Barbara was (and would remain) rather conservative in her values, she knew friendship when she saw it. She knew love.
Mae offered Barbara a position as her ‘maid’ – half-companion, half general helper. Barbara accepted.
The manuscript told the story of how that friendship developed: touching, astonishing, moving. The trouble was that the manuscript did lots of other things too. Barbara had felt uncomfortable telling her own story, and kept writing herself out of the picture. The manuscript was amazing, but not quite publishable.
Normally, we’d suggest that such a plainly gifted writer do the necessary editorial work themselves. One of our writing courses teaches self-editing skills that a younger Barbara could have made excellent use of. Or we could just have offered detailed feedback and let her make any corrections herself. But she was in her eighties and simply not physically strong enough to tackle the work involved. So we agreed to do it on her behalf: cutting 70,000 words from that giant manuscript to tease out the amazing story that lay buried within.
The shorter and more focused the manuscript became, the more appealing it grew. It was a delightfully surprising combination of chaste and raunchy, nostalgic and energetic. Most of all though, it told a story. About a friendship between two women. Explaining why that friendship arose in the first place, explaining why the friendship was finally doomed.
We sold that book direct to publishers in a competitive auction. It was published very well, got glowing reviews, and sat for weeks on the British bestseller lists. It deserved all its praise.
Tragically, Barbara died (peacefully) before the book was published, but she had met her publishers, signed a contract, seen a book cover. And before she died, she told me repeatedly, ‘Harry, this book is the crown of my life.’ Considering that, after her time in Soho, Barbara became one of the best known women painters in England, that’s high praise indeed. She used to remind me that while her art teacher had wanted her to become a painter, her English teacher had always urged her to write. It turned out that it wasn’t an either/or choice. She’d done both and done them brilliantly.