It’s been another good few days here at Curtis Brown Creative. On Wednesday we heard that another student from our online creative writing courses has landed a book deal with Penguin (more on that later…) and the same night we went to the launch party for Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel The Ship, which will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on Thursday 19 February.
At the party, held at London’s wonderful Grant Museum of Zoology (if you haven’t been yet, seek it out), we bumped into plenty of Antonia’s former classmates from the CBC Spring 2011 Novel-Writing Course – including Catherine Chanter, whose own debut novel The Well is to be published by Canongate on 5 March. Over a few glasses of wine, we talked about her time at Curtis Brown Creative and her excitement at becoming a published author, and about the novel itself – a chilling tale of a family’s paradise becoming their prison thanks to a well which waters their land while that of their neighbours decays around them.
Here’s what she had to say…
Had you done much writing before signing up to your Curtis Brown Creative course?
I’ve always written. I have shelves full of diaries from my childhood and adolescence, full of dull and inconsequential information about school lunches and maths lessons. I then graduated to poetry, but I didn’t consider writing for any audience other than myself until about 10 years ago when I submitted a poem to a competition and it was published. It was the most extraordinary feeling, seeing my poetry exist as a text in a space between myself as writer and out there – the reader.
So, before signing up to the Curtis Brown Creative course back in 2011, I’d had a novella and collection of short stories, Rooms of the Mind, published by Cinnamon Press, and I’d had poems published in a number of anthologies and journals. I had also written two short series for Radio 4.
What convinced you to take one of our creative writing courses?
Looking back, it seems a bit mad. I was just finishing my Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University, where I’d concentrated on poetry – The Well was a sort of parallel project. So, I was working full-time in adolescent mental health, I had to complete my dissertation, I still had kids knocking around at home and I applied for a course that meant travelling to London from Oxford once or twice a week in the evenings. But, even so, I was thrilled when Anna Davis rang up and said I had a place.
I’m sure part of it was that I anticipated feeling very insecure and lonely as a writer when the Masters finished and I was worried that, if I lost the discipline of study, I would let the writing be buried by my other work and lose impetus. I was also conscious that I needed to grow up a bit as a writer, and that I couldn’t spend my life being precious about manuscripts in the attic and not engaging in the world of publishing. Even stepping into the lift at the Curtis Brown offices for the first time gave me a wake-up call. This is a business: there are editors, publicity people, lawyers, agents, media rights… I hoped the Curtis Brown Creative course would empower me to come out as a writer who actually wanted readers. And it did. One hundred per cent.
What sort of shape was The Well in when you began the course?
The first draft of the novel was complete and I was pretty close to finishing revising it. So in my mind, when I began the course, I thought it was nearly finished. It didn’t take long for me to realise how wrong I was.
What drew you to the story of The Well? To a world in which water is scarce and fought over?
Actually, the story of The Well started somewhere else entirely. I was working on a series of poems inspired by visual art representations of the Annunciation, ranging from the medieval blues and golds of Fra Angelico to more modern interpretations by artists such as Tanner, who shows Mary as a frightened girl, slumped into submission on an unmade bed. I began to play around with the idea for a short story about a ‘chosen woman’ in contemporary Britain.
A little later I was staying in a cottage that had no mains water. It was a very dry summer and the pump had to work hard to bring water up from the well. It made me think about how we take water for granted, how cavalier we are in our treatment of precious resources. So the two trains of thought came together and I began writing The Well.
How useful was the workshopping process integral to Curtis Brown Creative courses – in which you submit extracts from your novel to be critiqued by your fellow students?
The workshopping process is so useful, but in many ways beyond just the comments from other writers. Our cohort was amazing – a really robust, supportive, creative group of people. Being in the same room as them every week was inspirational. I learned as much from reading their work and listening to everyone’s feedback as I did from their written comments on extracts from The Well.
What’s your writing process?
When I look back, I find it hard to think how I wrote The Well. It’s a bit like looking back and wondering how you ever managed to bring up three children: both just happened somehow, crammed miraculously between the day job and getting some sleep. So there was no routine. I do write quickly and Ruth, as a character, came to me almost fully formed. Her voice was very strong in my mind and that drove the writing process.
Now I have a little more time, I have developed a bit more of a routine and I go to a library where I have no internet, no mobile phone signal, no friends. I sit in a little room full of Russian literature and I can’t read Russian. I write from 9am to 1pm without stopping and it sometimes feels as if it is time borrowed from another planet. I look up, four hours have passed and there are words on the page. Very strange.
How did you motivate yourself to finish the book?
It wasn’t a struggle to finish The Well, at least not in terms of the story. It drove itself and I clearly remember writing the last sentence and it was as if those words had always been there from the beginning.
It was more of a struggle to keep returning to it, to find the discipline to keep cutting, to keep working at the detail until every word felt as though it was earning its living.
And how are things going with your next novel?
Because I finished The Well some time ago, I’d already started writing another novel even before it was taken on by an agent or sold to Canongate. I’m really glad that’s the case, because I am very immersed in this second book, though I’m not sure I would have had the courage to write it as it is if I’d have known about The Well’s success in the UK and overseas. I’m sure I’d have felt constrained by that.
I am about 90 per cent of the way through the first draft, but I confess, I am stuck! I know there’s something not quite right about the narrative voice towards the end, but I can’t work out either what it is that’s wrong or what to do about it. Perhaps I should re-enroll in a Curtis Brown Creative course.
The Well by Catherine Chanter is published by Canongate on 5 March.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our selective three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.