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Helen Dunmore: An Editor's Afterword

Posted on 22nd August 2017 by Waterstones
As we continue our celebration of Helen Dunmore's final novel Birdcage Walk as Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month for August, we look back at the lasting legacy of an author whose books left an indelible impression on her readers. In an exclusive article for Waterstones, Selina Walker, Dunmore's editor and friend, remembers a writer with a keen eye for human experience and for whom every word counted.

In early 2013, a novel, The Lie, dropped into my inbox. 

A year previously we had published a wonderful novella by Helen, a ghost story called The Greatcoat, and I had hoped we might have the chance to publish more books by her in the future. So the arrival of a whole novel, and a perfectly formed one at that, rendered me pretty incoherent with excitement. 

And what a book it was. Haunting, lyrical and at times deeply shocking, The Lie focuses on a young man, Daniel, who has come home from the First World War. He has crippling shell-shock, and he has returned to a country that has no place for him and no understanding of people like him whose pasts are more real than their presents and whose inner demons allow them no respite. As I sped through it back then I remember thinking what a clear, linear narrative line it had – only to find as I re-read and worked on it several weeks later that Helen’s narrative was not linear at all but moved fluidly back and forth between flashback and real-time often several times within one scene – like memory in fact. As one reviewer wrote subsequently it was ‘a deceptively simple masterpiece’. 

It is also one of Helen’s most visual novels. Set mostly on an isolated small-holding in Cornwall, every scene is infused with the understanding of what it’s like to live in a harsh, beautiful, rain-washed world of sudden storms and bright sunlight. In one of the final scenes Daniel stands on the headland and looks out over the vast expanse of restless sea, a still point in a world that is changing around him.

The truth about editing Helen’s novels is that it was never hard work. I am a very commercial editor (for me the story is always king) and Helen was a truly literary writer: her writing was about so much more. And this dichotomy between form and content, between surface and what lies beneath, between the said and the unsaid, fascinated us both. We also both loved the business of working and re-working a sentence, or a paragraph, or sometimes even a whole chapter. Did a certain scene convey all that it was intended to? What was its purpose? How did it affect the forward drive of the narrative? As in her poetry, every word counted, and we’d go back and forth debating whether an insertion or deletion changed the rhythm of her prose. The role of an editor has become so much more complex in our modern digital world, but here it was pared back to its essence – to words on a page. I was in heaven!

Working with Helen was exacting, exciting, fun, and always that little bit scary. She had a fierce intellect, was very widely read and spoke several languages. She didn’t suffer fools, and I very badly didn’t want her to think I was one. And yet she also had this amazing capacity to make one feel valued. She would consider my opinions and suggestions gravely and carefully, sometimes with a little nod as she took them on board. I think she enjoyed the process of being edited, and I absolutely loved working with her. An editorial session with Helen was like the best sort of university tutorial: an honest and sometimes challenging exchange of views in which your best work was expected, and you made sure you gave it.

Like all the best authors too, she was ambitious for her books. She wanted them to be well reviewed and respected, and also to have the widest readership possible. Book sales were important to her, and she loved hearing about our campaigns and promotions. She enjoyed talking at festivals and bookshop events; she loved meeting her readers and you could always see how they loved meeting her. We often spoke about her books’ journeys: how on publication her books stopped being uniquely hers as her characters moved away from her into the outside world and began to live in their readers’ imaginations. She understood this process as she was a reader too and wrote eloquently about the importance for us all of books as creative food for the intellect and the imagination.

We learned very soon after the final edit of Birdcage Walk that Helen was gravely ill. In its Afterword she talks about its darkness and of how her subconscious must have known it was to be her final novel. Our earlier edits though had focused mainly on its modern-day prologue or ‘prelude’ in which an older, recently widowed man walks through Birdcage Walk in Clifton, finds the headstone of an unknown woman writer and puzzles over its barely legible inscription. It was a lovely self-contained piece of writing, I said, but it didn’t tell us very much about the subsequent historical narrative. Why was it there? Maybe we should take it out? And yet there was a melancholy, lingering quality to the scene that we both liked so we decided to let it be. 

Looking back now, I can see that this prelude clearly articulates the themes that lie at the heart of so much of Helen’s writing: the way the past haunts our present, the importance of ‘place’, the extraordinary braveness and capacity of ordinary people to endure in silence, and most importantly in this novel the legacy that women writers leave behind them. Helen’s subconscious knew this too, and I’m so very glad that we listened to it.

Just after we published her penultimate novel Exposure in 2016, I remember going to an event in London with Helen, having dinner with her afterwards – always a treat – then walking with her to Paddington Station. She was catching the sleeper train to Cornwall where she would be joining her much loved family. I waved her off as the train pulled away from the platform feeling a bit like a character in one of her novels. Cornwall, I thought. In a sleeper train. What an adventure! 

The next morning I pictured her, like Daniel in The Lie, standing on a headland looking out on a glinting, restless sea that stretches to infinity. And it’s where I think of her now: constant, still there in a world where words matter.

Selina Walker
July, 2017

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