Lost letters have been around since the very beginning of correspondence. Illegible writing, no forwarding address: what happens to such missives? Historically, post offices have hired smart, trustworthy, kindly people who spend their days trying to track down senders and recipients. They function as detectives, really. Often their work involves more than a letter. Money, jewelry and random valuable objects also go astray.
While lost letters have occasionally figured in literature, The Lost Letters of William Woolf (Graydon House) by Helen Cullen appears to be the first novel that involves an employee of what is called the Dead Letters Office. (Cullen uses “depot” instead of “office” since the book takes place in England.) William Woolf, who followed his father into a career in Dead Letters, is in his mid-30s, a resident of London drifting along joylessly, buoyed only by a series of enigmatic letters that has come his way at work.
William has disappointed himself, his wife, Clare and his agent by failing to produce a long-promised book. The marriage is fraying badly. Clare, a successful law partner, has become impatient, bored and enticed by a colleague named Max. Meanwhile, William increasingly obsesses about the lonely woman whose letters, enclosed in dark blue envelopes and addressed in silver pen, continue to appear in the sacks of mail at the Dead Letters Office. They all begin My Great Love, and are signed Yours, Winter.
Correspondence started to dwindle after the invention of the telephone in the late nineteenth century. Decades would pass before the advent of email, which has been, by far, the greatest factor in the decline of letter-writing. There is a certain poignancy in Helen Cullen’s decision to set The Letters of William Woolf in 1992, before the Internet took over our lives. It doesn’t seem very long ago.
As William and Clare struggle to revive the happiness and spark that once filled their marriage, the book becomes a bit of a roller coaster. Indeed, it evokes the fate of letters that end up in the shredder: “where lost letters became dead letters, and all hope was vanquished.” Mysteriously, the reader may never know for sure what the future holds for William and Claire.
I had the chance to interview Helen Cullen on the setting and characters in her nostalgic novel.
Claudia Keenan: What led to your interest in the Dead Letter Depot? It’s not a place that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue!
Helen Cullen: The novel really began for me with a meditation on the lost art of letter-writing so the themes of the novel came before I began to consider where or how the story would be set.
There were two questions that I wanted to explore the answers to: could one fall in love with a stranger 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? Developing the idea of the Dead Letters Depot, where letter detectives solve the mysteries of such very missives, felt like a revelation where William Woolf as the protagonist could help me find the answers I was looking for.
In the beginning, I thought the depot was something I had just conjured up in my imagination but then was so thrilled to discover that such places exist both in America and closer to home in Belfast.
Placing this story in the Dead Letters Depot was the greatest gift I could unwittingly have given myself as a writer; it allowed me to pull on the threads of so many short stories in the form of the letters that arrived there. It is a world where magic and reality could collide and co-exist on a daily basis; a place borne purely of the imagination where the gritty examination of relationships could be interrogated whilst also allowing for the potential magical elements of life to play; the serendipitous, the fated, the charmed.
From the perspective of our age of email, do you foresee a time when there won’t be a Dead Letter Depot?
I think for as long as we are still posting letters and parcels in the mail, there will be a need for letter detectives to help those that have gone astray. Even though we write less letters now than we used to, I really hope that there will be a revival. I worry that there are generations of people now who will never know the thrill of seeing a letter on their doormat, with their name written in the handwriting of someone who loves them.
In this digital world that we live in we can communicate with more immediacy and efficiency than ever before, yet so many of us are feeling isolated and disconnected. Technology can give us all a false sense of intimacy that really doesn’t permeate to the heart of who we are or eradicate loneliness or always demonstrate the truth of our experiences. If those other 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.
I believe we are really pining for these physical connections and tangible experiences which is why we see people rediscovering their love of vinyl records, and making their own clothes, and experiencing an upsurge in craftwork.
What is the significance of the fact that William Woolf’s father also worked in the Dead Letter Depot?
I think it’s very significant that William inherited his job from his Uncle Archie. As the book tells us, it was through Archie that William began to understand the extraordinary stories that were evolving every day in the lives of ordinary people and set him on the path to becoming a writer. Growing up hearing about the depot inspired William to believe that it was a place where incredible things could happen and so it was always a very special place to him.
Your description of Clare and William’s deteriorating marriage is so apt – did you write with any particular inspiration or insight into fraught relationships?
Thank you – it’s lovely to hear that it read authentically to you. I think as an author you unwittingly absorb the human truths of many different relationships and stories that you experience in the world that help inform your writing. Hopefully through observation, you notice the details that will ring true when you develop them in a character later.
You have created an unusual cast of characters who work in the Dead Letters Depot. Do you think that a certain type of person is best suited for that type of work?
It was very enjoyable creating the characters who worked alongside William Woolf in the depot – they are a diverse group of people with very different personalities, but they do all share a deep curiosity about the human condition and a tenacity that means they will always endeavor to overcome any challenge that prevents a letter or parcel reaching its destination.
Do you have plans for another book? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes, I am just finishing editing my second book. It is provisionally titled ‘Leave A Light On’ and it tells the tale of Murtagh Moone, a potter who lives with his family on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The novel begins with a family tragedy on Christmas Eve before moving back in time to explain their story up until that moment. Then we follow the Moones on their journey forward.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is available for purchase.
ABOUT HELEN CULLEN:
Helen Cullen is an Irish writer living in London. She worked at RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster) for seven years before moving to London in 2010. In the UK, Helen established a career as an events and engagement specialist before joining the Google UK marketing team in 2015.
The first draft of her debut novel The Lost Letters of William Woolf was written while completing the Guardian/UEA novel writing programme under the mentorship of Michèle Roberts. Helen holds an M.A. Theatre Studies from UCD and is currently completing an M.A. English Literature at Brunel University.
‘The Lost Letters of William Woolf’ will be published this year in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Italy, Greece and Israel.
Helen is now writing full-time and working on her second novel.