She wasn't mine, but I was able to benefit from her criticism.
The way the program worked we would spend all Saturday critiquing each others' writing as a group, the four fiction writers and the four poets. We each had our own reader who was also critiquing all our work in those long, sometimes painful sessions.
In addition, one at a time, we would go with our own reader for an in-depth analysis of what we had produced since the last session.
Mornings, Helen would breeze into the room, her long blond hair flying.
It is fairly easy to notice something that is glaringly bad writing. Helen had the talent to pick out the phrase that was almost there. She could diagnose a hairline crack in a plot better than any bone surgeon could find a break that an X-ray had trouble seeing.
When she made a comment, I listened. My work was better because of her. Her observations carried over into my other writing.
This was before she won the Orange Prize in 1996.
For some reason I never read her work until I saw Birdcage Walk at the English library in Geneva. They talk about books you can't put down, and this was one. She drew me into the lives of the characters and the period. When my husband spoke to me, I had to cross a couple of centuries to answer.
Now, I need to order The Siege, about a family trying to survive in Leningrad in WWII.
Helen was supposed to give a workshop at the Geneva Writers Group. Sadly, the cancer that would kill her at 64 was too advanced to allow it. Even though, I've published 11 novels since then, I knew I would still have benefited from her wisdom.
And it would have been lovely to see her breeze into the Press Club where the sessions held, her long blond hair, flying around her face.
Her other works are:
- Zennor in Darkness (1993) (McKitterick Prize 1994)
- Burning Bright (1994)
- A Spell of Winter (Orange Prize 1996)
- Talking to the Dead (1996)
- Your Blue-Eyed Boy (1998)
- With your Crooked Heart (1999)
- The Siege (2001; shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and the Orange Prize 2002)
- Mourning Ruby (2003)
- House of Orphans (2006)
- Counting the Stars (2008)
- The Betrayal (Longlisted for the Man Booker prize 2010)
- The Greatcoat (2012) (ISBN 978-0-09-956493-5)
- The Lie (2014)