‘A life-affirming story that is nostalgic, charming and utterly unique’
Helen’s story began with a truly original, marketable idea in a credible yet creative setting
Helen Cullen, right, with her publisher Jessica Leeke
If the charmingly diffident William Woolf presents as a most unlikely fictional hero, his creator Helen Cullen is his opposite in every way. Helen’s impressive reputation reached us at Penguin before a single line of her prose. “Her idea for book two is even better,” said one of the eight agents seeking to represent her. “She works for Google,” was a detail that bounced off her CV and into the conversation – in “strategic marketing”. And so the buzz began before the novel even landed in my inbox.
We are used to reading between the lines of our industry’s enthusiasm for the new and shiny, and for an editor, the quiet acquisition of a seemingly overlooked talent can be as exciting as winning that seven-publisher auction. At Penguin we’re passionate in the belief that a story can start anywhere, and it’s vital that writers of any background and professional experience know our door is open to them.
But in this instance, Helen’s story began with the kind of buzz that enabled me to make sure I was not only in the running, but ahead of the curve. I was able to contact Helen’s agent and request to be put on his submission list and when the manuscript landed, it went straight to the top of my pile. Because in editorial that is half the battle – making sure you’re in the running; knowing what to leap on; knowing what to read first.
Some novels make this easier on us than others. For me, the premise of The Lost Letters of William Woolf is irresistible. It’s the story of one man’s quest to solve our most universal human mystery – the nature of lasting love – and how to recognise it when it appears. But his is the most unique of vantage points: his desk as a letter detective at the Depot for Lost Letters. His job is to unite lost letters with their intended recipients. He is gatekeeper at a place where “lost letters have only one hope for survival” and he decides which of these paused epistolary puzzles have the potential to be solved. And yes, before I’d read my way through the first chapter, I checked. To my amazement and professional excitement these depots really do exist. Helen had gone and discovered a setting that fiction editors dream of – one that actually brings myriad human stories by the postal sackload under one roof and delivers them to the desk of her protagonist.
And so perhaps this is where Helen’s story really began. With a truly original, marketable idea in a setting that is both credible yet creative. That a television production company has since optioned the novel for not one but five series – all set in this waiting room for lost letters – is further proof that her idea well and truly sets the imagination alight.
But a good idea is one thing, its execution another. As a publisher it’s difficult to separate stories from the context of what we’re currently reading and selling and this was no exception. At a time in the industry when it seemed that every other submission was aimed to land at the hypocenter of the psychological thriller explosion – here was a novel from a simpler time. This is a life-affirming story of the extraordinary power and resilience of the human heart. It’s nostalgic and charming – a call to arms for a return to letter writing – and above all things, it’s utterly unique.
And Helen Cullen has more than lived up to her reputation. Nothing is more important in our business than the quality and integrity of the work. The writing has to speak for itself in this age where the consumer review makes or breaks, no matter how convincing the author.
But the fact remains that behind almost every recent success in this area of the market has been an author with the unique ability to embody, talk about, represent their story. Gone are the days when a writer would deliver a script and quietly start working on the next. Every day Helen is as present to me as her work and there’s nothing I love more than to plot our path to market alongside an author who instinctively knows what questions to ask.
This focused, determined, astute woman sits just the other side of my inbox, telephone, desk literally humming with creativity and ideas. It’s her conviction that she wants to present the world with this story that has an ‘ending for everyone’. It’s her ambition to start a letter writing revolution. Her debut interview on Radio 2 with Steve Wright was one of the most confident I’ve heard from a new author. “We’re going to be talking to you for the next 40 years,” Steve declared at the end, as he mused on whether revealing that “their eyes met” was a William Woolf spoiler or not. (It isn’t.)
But the real ambition undertaken in this remarkable novel is to tackle – beyond the gimmick of a great idea – the most timeless and personal of questions: what does love mean to you? Helen has an answer for all of us.
And she’s just delivered that second novel.
Jessica Leeke is a publisher at Penguin. The Lost Letters of William Woolf is October 2018’s Irish Times Book Club pick. Helen Cullen talks to Books Editor Martin Doyle on Friday, October 26th, at 7.30pm, in the Book Centre, as part of the Waterford Writers Weekend curated by Rick O’Shea