SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author HELEN CULLEN about working in radio, 1930s LITERATURE and the beauty of A HANDWRITTEN LETTER …
“More than kisses, letters mingle souls” ~ John Donne.
Few quotes could better encapsulate the message of Helen Cullen’s delectable debut novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf. Largely set in London’s achingly hip East End during the 1990s, we are reminded of a very recent past, where mobile phones and laptops aren’t yet mainstream – and handwritten letters are an everyday medium of communication. Here we meet loveable dreamer William Woolf, a dedicated member of the Dead Letters Depot team, whose job is to reunite recipients with their stray post. Also in the billing is William’s vivacious but frustrated wife Clare, with whom his marriage is cracking at its foundations. The richly descriptive prose brings us back to simpler times, but the dynamics of relationships are no less complex. A familiar conundrum seen in The Lost Letters of William Woolf is that of heart versus head, sense versus sanity. How often do people become stuck in the safe and familiar? When a mysterious series of letters from a lonely heart land in William’s lap, so begins a journey that could change his and Clare’s lives, for better or for worse. Broadcaster Rick O’Shea has said of the book, “An effortlessly assured debut about finding a lost letter and a twist of fate can make you question whether the love of your life is really meant for you after all.”
Helen worked at RTÉ’s 2FM for seven years before moving to London in 2010 to become an events and engagement specialist. Following freelance work for companies such as the BBC and The Times, she joined the Google UK marketing team in 2015. She wrote her first draft of The Lost Letters of William Woolf while completing the Guardian/UEA novel writing programme. She also holds an MA in Theatre Studies from UCD and is currently finishing an MA in English Literature at Brunel University. Helen now writes full-time.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf (€16) is published by Michael Joseph and available from bookshops nationwide.
Helen Cullen lives in Buckinghamshire with her partner Demian Wieland. She is currently working on her second novel.
When I started writing full-time at home, my partner and I decided to move from our beloved Clapham to Buckinghamshire. Demian had returned to education the year before as a mature student to study mechanical engineering at Brunel University so relocating reduced his daily commute on a Vespa from sixty minutes to less than ten. It was a big decision moving out of the city to a rural village but now we feel we have the best of both worlds. We can still jump on the tube and be in central London in forty minutes but now we have so much more living space and neighbour the incredible Black Park with five hundred acres of woodland and lakes. The forest backs on to the famous Pinewood Studios so there are often film crews on location there – scenes from Bond, Star Wars and many others have all been filmed there so I’m waiting for the day I bump into Daniel Craig having a stroll!
I grew up in Portlaoise, Co Laois, the youngest of six children. My childhood memories are filled with trips to the old library on Church Street; the clicking of heels on the mint green tiled floor, the gleaming hardwood shelves and that very particular aroma of an old building filled with books. It was a wonderland, and I’ve no doubt the reading I did as a child laid the foundations for me becoming a writer today. I can picture myself as a teenager too meeting my best friend Karen in the Top Square, half way between our houses, before going to gigs in what was the Prison Officers Club and, when we were older, dancing at Club 23. The big blue bridge at Laois Shopping Centre was a constant through that time; I always thought it was an eyesore, but like so many things in life, I miss it now that it’s gone!
I am delighted to have a lovely office at home now; pale grey walls (one covered in white-wood shelving), wooden floors with a navy Turkish carpet, a sofa-bed for guests sleeping over, and my pride and joy is a navy-blue hardwood desk that I bought when I signed my publishing contract. It sits in front of the window that overlooks our back garden and I never hear a sound but those made by nature. On the walls I have artwork by two very talented artist friends of mine, Andy MacManus from Mullingar, and Jennifer Rosemary Hooper. I also keep a framed print of a page from David Bowie’s school copybook where he scribbled the lyrics to Life on Mars. I bought it at his V&A exhibition and I find it really inspiring to see that so many of the most brilliant ideas originated as scribbled thoughts on a page.
I am in love with so many beautiful independent bookshops that are fighting the good fight and making the world a better place. At home, I have a huge soft spot for Dubray Books in Bray which was my local bookshop for years. I am also humbled by the incredible support they have given me since my novel was released – it was beyond my wildest dreams to imagine ever finding my own book on the shelves when I shopped there. My other absolute favourite is Liber Books in Sligo. Brian and Ailbhe curate with great consideration the books they champion there and are always on hand for excellent advice and top recommendations. They have been incredibly supportive of me too and really are just a tremendous example of how important indie shops are to our communities – we have to keep supporting them as we would really be so lost without them.
On her “TBR” pile
I am currently completing an MA in English Literature and have my reading list for the new term stacked on my bedside locker awaiting my attention:
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas
D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable
John Sommerfield, May Day
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
Edward Upward, Journey to the Border
They are all books from the 1930s, some I’ve read before, but others such as Elizabeth Bowan and Mulk Raj Anand I’ll be reading for the first time. Discovering new authors, and broadening my reading horizons, are the exact reasons I decided to study this course so I’ve really loved every minute and am looking forward to going back to school.
My favourite place to escape to is Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands. I first discovered it when I went to the Gaeltacht there in secondary school and despite travelling to many far-flung places since, I’ve yet to find anywhere that makes me feel more at peace. There’s something magical in the air there that is just good for the soul and I always breathe a huge sigh of relief when I stop off the ferry on to the island. My second book is set on a fictional island off the west coast of Ireland and I was really inspired by my time spent on Inis Oírr. I cannot recommend it enough for rejuvenation, invigoration and inspiration.
On the handwritten letter
One of the greatest possible outcomes of people reading my novel would be if it inspired them to sit down and write a letter to someone. I really grieve for the lost art of letter-writing and think as a society we are really missing out by allowing the tradition to fade away. I feel that with social media, mobile phones and email, we live with a false sense of connection that sometimes doesn’t run very deep and leaves us feeling more disconnected and lonelier than ever. There are generations of young people who will never know the thrill of seeing an envelope arrive in the post with their name written on it by the hand of someone they love. I think we communicate in a more considered, profound and meaningful way by letter than in any other medium and I would love to see a letter-writing resurgence akin to the way vinyl has had such a fabulous revival. I’m hoping for a revolution!
Working in 2FM was an incredible experience and I look back on those years as such a happy time in my life. I alternated between working on programmes for the legends like Larry Gogan, Dave Fanning and the late Gerry Ryan and working for the live music department where we recorded festivals such as Oxegen and Electric Picnic for broadcast and invited bands in to record the famous Studio 8 sessions. In my time I also developed the RTE 2FM 2moro 2our that brought emerging Irish bands on tour across the country and the 2FM School of Rock competition for secondary school students. I made friends for life there and will always be grateful for the experiences I had. When I first moved to London, it was just meant to be a year-long career break and I fully intended to return but one thing lead to another and I found myself staying. I don’t think I could have left if I’d known that at the time, but life evolves in unexpected ways sometimes and I’ve no regrets.
On the dream
The instinct that I wanted to try and write a book was always with me since I was little and dreamed of one day holding a book I’d written in my hands, but it wasn’t until my very late twenties that I really had the confidence to try and do it. When I saw an advertisement for a six-month writing course that mentored writers through the writing of their first draft I decided to finally I go for it. I was drawn to the idea of the course because it offered some structure, a proper commitment with deadlines, and some guidance as I felt a bit at sea as to where to start. As it happens, the very first thing I wrote seriously, for my first workshop critique, ended up being the first chapter of what is now The Lost Letters of William Woolf.
I remember discovering John Donne’s poem ‘To Sir Henry Wooton’ in Soundings when I was doing the Leaving Cert. The line, “More than kisses, letters mingle souls” stirred something in me and lingered in my mind for many years. When I eventually sat down to try to begin the novel, it was the first sentence I wrote. It triggered a meditation on the lost art, and power, of letter writing, intermingled with questions concerning how love endures with the passing of time; the juxtaposition between the pragmatism required to sustain a relationship and what the arts and media suggests to us about affairs of the heart. I wanted to create a world of infinite possibility where magic and realism could collide and the Dead Letters Depot manifested itself. I didn’t do any research while writing the first draft at all, but later did a lot of fact-checking to ensure the music, films and cultural references sprinkled throughout were all correct.
I love living in London; there is more to discover, explore and experience than you could ever imagine in your wildest dreams. After many years here, I still feel like I have barely begun to understand all that the city has to offer in the myriad theatres, parks, art galleries, venues, markets, events, exhibitions and communities that are thriving throughout. Just strolling up a different side street you can encounter a whole new favourite place that you didn’t know existed. The hardest part about living in London, however, is that the geographical scale, and the busy lifestyle of Londoners, can make it difficult to co-ordinate seeing friends despite your best intentions. Plans are made often weeks, sometimes months, in advance so I miss how close my friends were to me back in Dublin. Casual, spontaneous socialising is all but impossible over here but when we do make it happen, there is always somewhere wonderful to go.
On what’s next
I am now working on the second book and delighted to have completed the first draft. It is a completely different experience writing this time around; being able to work on the book consistently has been such a gift as the first one was written in fits and starts in stolen hours over such a long period of time. The most important lesson I’ve learned along the way that has helped me focus on the new book is that I cannot wait for the perfect time, feeling or environment in order to get to work. For me creating the opportunity for the work to happen activates the inspiration. Even if I don’t feel like I’m in the right frame of my mind before I start, just the practice of writing seems to unlock the ability and I can write my way into the story. I’m constantly surprised to find that is true but for me it works almost every time.
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