Music & Me: Helen Cullen
What are your earliest musical memories?
As the youngest of six children, I was bombarded by music from the moment I was born and I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a house filled with music. There are three musical memories from my childhood that are really vivid in my mind: Seeing Culture Club on Top of the Pops, acting out the video for “I Don’t like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats with my sisters in our living room, and singing “What a Wonderful World” as a duet with my father. That’s a strange combination when I think about it now!
Who or what were your musical influences growing up and why?
Again my siblings were a big influence here. I grew up listening to and falling in love with David Bowie, The Cure and The Smiths and my love for all three is evergreen – they are probably the artists I still listen to most often today. As a teenager, I began to claim bands of my own for the first time and was completely smitten with Smashing Pumpkins, Suede, Placebo and Radiohead in particular but I also loved Tori Amos and Kate Bush who are really any teenage girl’s dream feminist icons. Towards the end of my adolescence I also discovered Jeff Buckley and to this day every time I listen to Grace it gives me shivers. I suppose I’ve always been drawn to melancholic songs and loved bands who could articulate something for me that I was experiencing, thinking or feeling but hadn’t founds the words for yet.
Does music influence your writing?
Absolutely – it’s rare I go to a concert and leave without scribbling something into a notebook on the way home. And if I’m ever feeling a little dehydrated in my writing, music will always fill up the well again.
Do you listen to music while writing, editing, etc.?
Never while working on the page but always before I start writing. Every day, before I began to work on the book, I would choose a song to listen to that encapsulated for me the energy or the feeling of the scene I wanted to work on. Sinking into the music, the physical world around me would slip away, and I was able to cross the bridge from the reality of life to the imaginary world of the novel. With the new novel I’m working on, I continue to do that habit also and I can’t really imagine writing any other way now.
Is there one particular novel or piece of writing you wrote that was directly influenced by a piece of music?
Not directly but I absolutely loved creating the soundtrack to accompany the narrative of the novel. The curation of the songs allowed me to indulge in the perfect intersection of my two great loves – music and literature. It was a moment of great revelation for me as I was developing each character when I realised who each of their favourite artists were; knowing what music they chose to listen to at pivotal moments in the narrative.
Understanding, for example, that William Woolf was listening to The Smiths as he strolled through Dublin city made the whole scene crackle with life for me; I could place myself in the very heart of him. Understanding that Clare’s musical heroine was Kate Bush gave me such great insight into the longings she nursed in private; the artistic instincts that she was working hard to oppress. And discovering that Winter’s favourite band was The Cure reinforced in me her melancholic disposition, and how art could articulate sadness for her in a way that was restorative, uplifting and ultimately joyful. Situating the novel in the late 80s allowed me to revel in the music that I loved from that time.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
All of the aforementioned are still in regular rotation but in more recent years I also fell in love with Feist and Stornoway who both feature regularly on the soundtrack to my life now. Feist encapsulates for me everything I love about music, and women, and art and I think her album Metals is just beyond the beyonds of brilliant.
Musically, what’s your guilty pleasure (or is there such a thing)?
There is no such thing – whatever gets you through the night!
The Lost Letters of William Woolf Playlist
1. Chet Baker – Old Devil Moon
2. David Bowie – Wild is The Wind
3. Nina Simone – My baby just cares for me
4. The Cure – Pictures of You
5. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
6. Beethoven – Moonlight Piano Sonata
7. Culture Club – Karma Chameleon
8. Sonny & Cher – I got you babe
9. Madonna – Like A Prayer
10. The Platters – The Great Pretender
11. Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
12. George Michael – Careless Whisper
13. Michael Dees – What are you doing for the rest of your life?
14. The Undertones – Teenage Kicks
15. The Bangles – Eternal Flame
16. The Smiths – There is a Light and It Never Goes Out
Listen to The Lost Letters of William Woolf Playlist on Spotify: https://tinyurl.com/y94zn8uf
Helen Cullen’s debut novel, ‘The Lost Letters of William Woolf’, was published by Penguin in July 2018. She was nominated as Best Newcomer in the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. Helen is now writing full-time and working on her second novel.
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie's SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in 'Surge', an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – and on Twitter as @derekf03