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My First Time...with Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, The Riff Raff

Helen Cullen, an Irish writer, wrote the first draft of her debut novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf, while completing the Guardian/UEA novel writing programme under the mentorship of Michele Roberts. The end result was published by Penguin on July 12th here in the UK, Ireland, Australia and South Africa and will be published in the USA by Harper Collins in 2019. It has also sold in translation to numerous foreign markets including Germany, Italy, Greece and Israel.

In her past life, Helen worked in broadcasting, the music industry, and marketing with her most recent job being a producer of events for Google across Europe. She holds a B.A. Communications from Dublin City University and M.A. Theatre Studies from University College Dublin and is currently completing an MA in English Literature at Brunel.

Helen is now writing full-time and working on her second novel due for publication in the UK in 2019. She is joining us at The Riff Raff on 13 Thursday September and is going to raise the roof so you know what to do...

Here's the blurb for The Lost Letters Of William Woolfe...

'Inside the Dead Letters Depot in East London, William Woolf is one of thirty letter detectives who spend their days solving mysteries. Missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names - they are all the culprits of missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers.

'When William discovers letters addressed simply to 'My Great Love' his work takes on new meaning.

'Written by a woman to a soulmate she hasn't met yet, the missives stir William in ways he didn't know were possible. Soon he begins to wonder: Could William be her great love? William must follow the clues in Winter's letters to solve his most important mystery yet: the human heart.'

Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.

I think the instinct that I wanted to try and write a book was present in me from my very beginnings; I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t dreaming 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 actually try and do it.

I was convinced that if it was something that I was meant to do that it would just be happening automatically, and that writers were born, not made. When I saw an advertisement for a six-month writing course that the UEA were running with The Guardian that mentored writers through the writing of their first draft, my partner, Demian convinced me I should 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.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?

That, for me, inspiration happens when I create the opportunity for it happen i.e. when I actually sit down to write. I don’t need to be in the right frame of mind, or know what’s coming next, or how it’s all going to fit together; I just need to sit in front of the page and trust that the story will unfold.

I’m never not amazed when somehow it always does, and I have to remind myself that this is true still all the time. So much about writing seems to involve playing mind games with yourself.

What’s your go-to procrastination method?

Admin and social media – I convince myself I need to do my “housekeeping” and clear the decks before I start to write – replying to emails and SM messages, organising my calendar, making lists.

It’s what my old boss used to call “busy work”, unimportant tasks you do to convince yourself you’re being productive while you avoid what’s actually important.

Any tantrums while writing it?

Not so much tantrums, but definitely moments of utter despair where I was convinced I would never, could never, reach the end of the first draft and felt completely stuck. It took me a while to realise if I was stuck it was just because I’d written myself into a corner, and so had the power to write myself back out of it!

Best thing about writing your book?

I think reaching the end of the first draft is an incredible feeling; even though you know you have loads more work to do, that feels like the biggest milestone to me in terms of the writing process itself.

The best thing about being published has undoubtedly been the incredible new friends I’ve made in the writing community; it was a completely unexpected but glorious surprise to see how many wonderful writers and publishing folks reached out to me and shared their own experiences and insights so generously. Writers are all lone wolves to some degree, but it is so heart-warming to have a pack you can run with too.

And the worst?

I think the most difficult part of this amazing business for me has been making peace with the fact that even though this is all a dream coming true, the practical reality of publishing a book and putting it out into the world can be terrifying and very anxiety-inducing at times.

You feel like you should just be delighted, constantly, with everything but it’s impossible and that in itself can make me feel terribly guilty.

Like any other job in the world, there are ups and downs, achievements and challenges so it’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

Go-to writing snacks?

Endless, endless cups of tea and more than the occasional sugar rush with them. Since I started writing full-time last July, I’ve piled on the pounds, so I need to eradicate this practice sharpish.

Who or what inspires you to write?

All the books, music and art I’ve loved and the desire to create something that captures a feeling, a person, a thought or image and crystallizes it in a perfect moment that rings true.

The book that changed you?

The first book I truly loved was The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. It inspired me to chase for the rest of my life that feeling of being lost inside the pages of a world you adored.

I think falling in love with reading so passionately when I was little laid the foundations for me becoming a writer today and so I would consider that very first love affair with a book to be the one that changed me in a fundamental way.

Your pump up song?

I don’t have a pump up song, per se, but I always play music before I start writing to help me settle into the right mood for whatever I’m working on.

I love choosing an album, or song, that I think resonates with the characters or particular scene at that moment in time and playing it before I start to work. Music and literature are my two great loves; one of my favourite fantasies I like to engage in about my characters is what their favourite music is.

If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer, who would it be?

If dead, it would have to be Jane Austen; I would really revel in taking a turn about the parlour with her. Alive, I would love to have a tipple with Donna Tartt. I heard her read and being interviewed at a literary festival in the summer and I was blown away by her; she really intrigues me.

One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get published?

Try to just keep moving forward with your first draft until it’s done rather than constantly going back to edit earlier work. It is so much easier to edit, and finesse, when you have a sense of the book as a whole and getting that far will motivate to keep you going.

All the writers I’ve met tell a different story of their path to publication and only share one thing in common; they all finished their books!

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