Helen Cullen – Q&A

Helen Cullen’s debut novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf was published by Michael Joseph on 12 July 2018.

Helen kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The Lost Letters of William Woolf.

William Woolf works as a letter detective in the Dead Letters Depot of East London; daily he tries to solve the mysteries of hundreds of undelivered letters and parcels to help them complete their journeys. When he starts to find letters written by a woman named Winter to her great love, whom she has never met, he begins to wonder, could this stranger be writing to him? Torn between his love and commitment to his wife and his romantic idealism, William must of follow the clues in Winter’s letters to solve his most important mystery yet: the human heart.

This novel meditates on the lost art, and power, of letter-writing. It is concerned with the juxtaposition that often exists between the portrayal of romantic love in the media and the arts and the pragmatic reality of sustaining a committed relationship over a long period of time. In the Dead Letters Depot, these notions of magic and realism collide on a daily basis and William’s story unfolds.

2. What inspired the book?

The book was inspired by a line from a John Donne poem, To Sir Henry Wooton, that reads, “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” When I sat down to write the book, that was the first sentence that I wrote, and the quotation is still at the very beginning of the novel.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?

I usually have a headline idea of the main premise and how the novel will start and end but no idea how we will get from one to the other. I like to let the story evolve as I write and don’t sketch out a plot in advance or I find it kills the spark a little bit. This means I don’t write consecutively and often jump about in the narrative in the first draft with the intention of piecing it together later. Sometimes, usually when I’m busy doing other things, an idea will occur to me though of how things may connect or that is a bit of a revelation about one of the characters and I will scribble it down to write later.

4. Having been through the publishing process is there anything about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?

I have been incredibly surprised to find how supportive other writers and the wider writing community have been to me. I had thought that writing full-time might make me quite isolated, but I’ve been so touched about the outpouring of kindness and know I have already made some friends for life which is an extraordinary benefit I hadn’t quite anticipated.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I love film and photography, meeting friends for dinner and drinks, walks through the city and the countryside, escaping to the sea with my partner. And reading, of course – the first love of my life.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

Oh, I never like to play favourites, but if I was going to choose just one book that would hold my interest forever, and keep revealing more of itself to me over time, it would have to be Ulysses I think. The book I have read most often in life so far, however, is Pride and Prejudice.

7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

Donna Tartt is wondering if she might take you out for tea, would you mind? And I think the answer is self-evident!

About the book

Lost letters have only one hope for survival . . .

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.

Read more on the Penguin website.

About the author

Helen Cullen is an Irish writer living in London. The Lost Letters of William Woolf is her debut novel.

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