Lost letters and a dream debut novel for Helen Cullen

Lost letters and a dream debut novel for Helen Cullen
Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen left her job at 2FM to move to London and pursue her dream of writing. The resultant ‘The Lost Letters of William Woolf’ falls into the booming genre of ‘Up Lit’ — and yes, it showcases her love of letter writing. She talks to Rowena Walsh.

"The one thing Bono and I have in common is that we got our big breaks from Dave Fanning.”

Helen Cullen is joking, but the RTÉ rock journalist did actually play a pivotal role in her career.

Cullen, whose debut novel The Lost Letters of William Woolf has just been published, was a student in DCU when she met Fanning at a gig during Freshers’ Week. He had inspired her desire to work in radio, so with the kind of chutzpah only a teenager can muster, she told him she loved his show and asked if she could come out to 2FM on work experience.

The answer was an emphatic no, but, undeterred, Cullen convinced him to take her number in case one day he needed someone to help him with boring admin.

A few months later, he did call, and she found herself filling out his IMRO returns. “I think it was the classic case of the proverbial foot in the door,” she says, “because I ended up picking up some more occasional work and summer jobs, and then I was incredibly lucky that a full-time position opened up just as I was finishing my degree.”

Seven years later, Cullen was still working in RTÉ. Although she loved her time with the national broadcaster, she decided to take a year’s career break and move to London. It was there that she began to write the novel that would become The Lost Letters of William Woolf.

Budding writers everywhere can take heart from Cullen’s story. “I started writing quite late,” she says.

I was always a really voracious reader. I had an instinct that I’d love to try writing but I don’t think I had the confidence to do it. I think I thought if I was meant to do it, it would just happen naturally, that it wouldn’t feel difficult, that it would just come out of me fully formed.

Cullen signed up for a six-month mentored writing workshop, but she never actually anticipated her work being published. She thought of it as a kind of hobby or passion project. “When I first joined the writing workshop, I was really nervous about it because I’d never put myself to the test like that.”

The initial comments on her work at the workshop were encouraging and she burst into tears. She had been waiting her entire life for someone to tell her that she could write.

Cullen wrote the novel in sporadic bursts over about three years, and it took her another 18 months to actually send it out to publishers and literary agents. Even at that stage, she didn’t think it would be picked up, and was only sending it out to achieve closure and move on to another project. “It was a big surprise” she says, “and a brilliant surprise, I hadn’t been expecting it at all.”

The Lost Letters of William Woolf is the tale of the eponymous William, one of 30 letter detectives working inside the Dead Letter Depot in east London. There, they spend their days solving mysteries.

Missing postcodes, rain-smudged ink, and forgotten street names are just some of the culprits responsible for missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills, and unanswered prayers.

Dave Fanning inspired Helen Cullen to pursue a job in radio and eventually got her in the door at 2FM
Dave Fanning inspired Helen Cullen to pursue a job in radio and eventually got her in the door at 2FM

But when William discovers letters addressed simply to ‘My Great Love’, his work takes on new meaning. Written by a young woman named Winter to a soulmate she is yet to meet, her words capture William’s heart, which had begun to be closed down by the mundane reality of married life.

Soon he begins to wonder if he could be her great love.

Cullen’s original inspiration came from John Donne’s line, “More than kisses, letters mingle souls”, in his poem, ‘To Sir Henry Wotton’. She had read it in Soundings when she was studying for the Leaving Cert.

For Cullen, letter writing is powerful and she sees it as a kind of lost art. “I always knew that I wanted to write a novel with an exploration of letters at the heart of it. From there, I came up with the question of whether if somebody had read somebody’s letters but never met them, could they fall in love with them just from the way they had expressed themselves in those letters and if they did, would that be based on a realistic impression of that person.”

The Lost Letters of William Woolf is being heralded as an example of ‘up-lit’. A still somewhat ill-defined genre, up-lit, sparked by the success of Gail Honeyman’s acclaimed novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, has been described as a new book trend with kindness at its core.

Gail Honeyman
Gail Honeyman

The genre hadn’t been invented when Cullen was writing her novel, but she says that as it’s been quite a dark time globally, she can understand why any stories or art that give people a little bit of hope in the midst of all this darkness would feel timely.

“I think if people finish the book and they do feel more optimistic about the world that we’re living in or about their own relationships or the way that we communicate with each other or see the possibility for second chance in their own life or redemption, then that’s only a good thing.”

The book, which is an intriguing read, showcases a lot of Cullen’s own interests in the lives of the characters, especially her love of books, photography, and music. The latter features throughout the novel, and she says that one of the things that is always really clear to her is the soundtrack of her character’s lives.

“Often when I’m writing, if there’s a particular mood that I want to conjure up, I’ll have an idea in my mind of what would be the equivalent in my sound library and I’ll play some of that music before I start writing just to help myself settle into it and disconnect from the madness of the world that’s going on around me.”

Cullen is passionate about music, and spent a lot of her time at 2FM working in the live music department. She did broadcasts from Electric Picnic and Oxegen and developed the School of Rock competition and the RTÉ 2moro 2our that brought emerging bands, including the Coronas, on tour around the country.

She later travelled with the Coronas for their first US tour, going from San Francisco to New York. “It was quite an adventure, including an occasion where we broke down and were stranded in the middle of the desert, but so much fun. The Coronas men are all total gentlemen. To this day, I can’t meet Dave McPhilips without checking he hasn’t left his coat behind him somewhere.”

Her novel is predominantly set in London, but Helen’s characters do travel to Dublin, and she made the most of the opportunity to show off her loves, including The Long Hall pub and Larry Gogan.

When she was thinking about what the quintessential Dublin experience might entail, she decided that bumping into Gogan doing a live show from the Roadcaster on St Stephen’s Green would be perfect. Her affection for the legendary DJ is palpable. “I really think of it as being one of the happiest times of my life. I was gallivanting around the country with Larry doing Roadcasters. He’s genuinely one of the most wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.”

Cullen had originally planned to spend a year in London before returning home, but she was captivated by her new life and had fallen in love with an Irishman living there, so decided to stay.

After about four years, the two came home for 12 months and lived in a cottage in Sligo. It was there that she really worked on her novel, in between freelance assignments. “Having had the break away, coming back to London then, it felt like the right thing.”

Her sister Mary had also moved to London, when Helen was a little girl, and her mother had always encouraged her to write letters to her older sibling. “In the same way that vinyl made a big comeback,” she says, “I’d love to see letter-writing coming back and people start writing to each other again because I think it’s really enriching when you get to know people in that profound way that doesn’t happen through other mediums.”

Cullen love to think her book might inspire people to pick up a pen and write a letter. “I don’t think anyone will ever regret writing someone a letter.”

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