Helen Cullen on Lost Love Letters, Why Letters Are Better and her mother’s role in her writing career.
You may have noticed our recent competition #LettersAreBetter on Twitter and Facebook to win a copy of Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen and a canvas tote bag.
To mark International Women’s Day, we interviewed Helen to understand the inspiration behind the book, what letters mean to her and those female authors who most inspire her in her work..
What inspired you to write a novel about lost letters?
I remember discovering John Donne’s poem ‘To Sir Henry Wooton’ in Soundings when I was studying for my Leaving Certfiicate exams in Ireland. The line, “More than kisses, letters mingle souls” stirred something in me and lingered in my mind for many years. When I sat down to try to begin working on a novel for the first time, that was the very first line I wrote on the page and I was off. 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 depot manifested itself.
I began with two questions that I wanted to explore the answers to: could one fall in love with someone one had never met purely on the strength of their letters alone and, if that happened, how would the physical reality of the person differ from how they represented themselves on paper? Accordingly, the character of Winter emerged; an Irish woman writing and posting letters to the great love she aspired to find but had so far not met. From here the narrative began to unfold; where do all the lost letters and wayward parcels go? And who would find Winter’s letters? Creating the world of the Dead Letters Depot, where letter detectives solve the mysteries of such very missives was a joy; and the discovery of one detective in particular who was fully susceptible to Winter’s letter-writing charms was a revelation. William Woolf emerged as the protagonist of the story who could help me find the answers I was looking for.
Have love letters been a part of your life?
Yes, I have been the happy recipient of some love letters and some love postcards in my time and my partner still writes to me whenever he travels alone.
We’re making some assumptions that, like us, you are a fan of snail mail. Can you tell us why you feel that letters are better in our digital world?
I think that letters can be a very powerful means of sustaining a relationship across land and time. These days we can communicate daily with friends and family at home and across the globe with whatsapp groups, text messages, social media, email, Facetime but I’m not convinced that our relationships are any better for it. I fear the immediacy and efficiency give us all a false sense of connection that really doesn’t permeate to the heart of who we are or eradicate loneliness. If those mediums were all to vanish overnight, and we became dependent on letters once again, I think we would all get to know each other in new and profound ways. Yes, we would communicate less, but what we said would matter. Letters are written with such greater consideration and, I believe, come from a deeper consciousness. It is only when you create the opportunity of writing a letter, that all the things you have to say reveal themselves, safe in the knowledge that the recipient won’t, and can’t, reply immediately but will also have time to think and reflect about what they want to say in return.
In your research for the book, what was your favourite letter discovery or fact?
That the Dead Letters Depot actually exists! I had already written the first draft before I discovered that real letter detectives work doing for Royal Mail in Belfast. I would love to visit one day.
As a female novelist, which fellow female authors inspire you in your work?
There are so many but the authors that immediately come to mind are Anne Enright, Elizabeth Strout, Donna Tartt, Jane Austen and Sarah Winman.
As we are celebrating IWD, who has been the most inspirational woman in your life?
My mother – she introduced me to all of the incredible children’s books that I fell in love with and laid the foundations for me becoming a writer today.
A huge thankyou to Helen for her time. If you would like to enter our competition to win a copy of the book then please visit:
and enter via the pinned post on the page