By Jill Dawson
In the early ’90s, writing my first novel, Trick of the Light, I longed to have some feedback from another novelist. And not a beginner either, but one who knew what she was doing and would somehow know what I was trying to do and help me to better express it. (My fantasy was Margaret Atwood, but how on earth to get hold of Margaret Atwood? Or ask her to read my novel?)
Popular wisdom is that writing workshops, or writers groups, are the way new writers learn. And at the same time we suspect this wasn’t the route for the writers we admire. Didn’t they simply find the right reader: often a contemporary or a writer trying to do similar things (think Plath and Hughes discussing their poetry, or Virginia Woolf and Katharine Mansfield)?
And after all, what if you are shy (not that unusual a trait in a writer), overly sensitive, or like me – hate groups?
What if you find it bewildering to try to make sense of a cacophony of critical voices and the jostling of egos that inevitably accompany a bunch of people who want to be writers and haven’t yet proved themselves by publishing anything much?
I suspected that my writing desire was to connect in private with the mind of a stranger that I never had to meet; was vaguely conscious that writing fiction was somehow a curious negotiation between the joys of being hidden and the potential disaster of never being found.
At that point in my life I’d never met any published writers. I was on the dole, a single parent of a toddler and living in a council flat: why would I have? What I longed for, was not a group critiquing experience, nor an MA (or MFA) qualification, it was an opportunity to meet and learn from those I thought of as ‘real’ writers: published authors with a body of work, and discover if I really could count myself among them.
There seemed no way to find that, so I signed up for an MA in writing anyway, aware that a novelist I admired (Jane Rogers) ran it, and hoping for her input. That was many years and eight novels ago but it is still quite difficult for unpublished writers to gain access to published ones.
So, in 2007, I set up a mentoring program, Gold Dust, to provide an alternative to the group workshop model. This is a scheme that offers sixteen hours of input from a mentor selected for his or her experience and exceptional gifts as writers.
We have 14 in total, including me. Some of the others are Louise Doughty, ex-Booker judge and author of seven novels; Australian author Kathryn Heyman; Romesh Gunesekera, whose novel Reef was shortlisted for the Booker; Andrew Miller, winner of the IMPAC for his first novel and the Costa Prize for his novel Pure; and Kate Pullinger, author of eight novels and winner of the Governor General Award, Canada’s most prestigious prize.
‘Gold Dust is for people who take their writing seriously,’ wrote Cherise Saywell, one of the writers mentored under the program. She went on to publish two novels. For her, the program was worth the investment.
Alexandra Cameron, whom I mentored, is about to publish her first novel in Australia, Rachael’s Gift. Jane Rusbridge, whom I taught on one of the well-respected, long-established Arvon courses in the UK and who was mentored by Kathryn Heyman has become a well established author, published by Bloomsbury. Ruth Dugdall, mentored by Michelle Spring, has become an established author of crime novels. Rosie Rowell, mentored by Sally Cline has published two young adult novels since joining the scheme. Sally has an extraordinary success rate in getting her ‘mentees’ onto the Tony Lothian prize shortlist for first-time biographers and memoirists. Gold Dust’s website shows other authors we have helped to publish.
It’s satisfying to have dreamed up and created the scheme I wanted to find, years ago. I also love the process of match-making: putting applicants together with potential mentors, which I do with the help of others in the scheme, based on the sample of work sent in. Not everyone is accepted; it is competitive, but then not everyone can write a novel or memoir and we are trying to discover and help those who can.
The cost of a mentorship with Gold Dust is £3,000 (around US$4,880). It is only for writers who are serious and able to afford to work with the mentors, all of whom are serious authors paid for their time and input.
Jill Dawson is the author of eight novels, including Fred and Edie (shortlisted for the Orange and Costa Prize), The Great Lover (a Richard and Judy choice and best-seller) Watch Me Disappear (long-listed for the Orange Prize) and her most recent The Tell-Tale Heart. In addition, she has edited six collections of short stories and poetry and won prizes for poetry and short stories. Jill was an early supporter of the APWT and hopes to join more of the APWT’s annual conferences.