Helen Cullen Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

An interview with Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen discusses The Dazzling Truth, her writing style, and writing and reading habits.

How did you get the idea for The Dazzling Truth?

The Dazzling Truth was initially inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi – the practise of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The breakage, and the repair, remains visible to show the history of an object rather than something to be disguised, and so the pots become even more beautiful than before they were broken.

As any family spans decades, both hairline fractures and critical breaks, can damage its foundations. Some tragedies seem insurmountable; we can't go on, and yet we do. Some cracks feel irreparable, but then often reveal themselves to be the gap we squeeze through so that we can find a way to keep moving.

The Moone family of the new book are no exception and as their narrative revealed itself to me, I became more and more convinced of how powerful it can be to confront the past, to stop burying inconvenient, uncomfortable or hurtful truths. Telling the story of Maeve, an actor from Brooklyn who arrived in Dublin in the 70s, her husband, Murtagh, and their four children, Nollaig, Mossy, Dillon and Sive, I was inspired by the power of the truth – how it can give your legs the power to keep walking, your heart to keep beating. And the setting for their story is very special to me - their lives on a fictional island on the west coast of Ireland was inspired by my own time spent on the Aran Islands in Ireland and in particular on Inis Oírr.

Where did the title come from?

It comes from an Emily Dickison poem, Tell all the truth but tell it slant. The theme of personal truth is a very important one in the novel - and in particular, how personal truths may not always align with what can be considered universally accepted truths. Sometimes it is only with acceptance of that that we can find peace. And sometimes that truth or awareness needs to creep up on us slowly as it would be too blinding if confronted too quickly or head on. My working title as I was writing the book had been Kintsugi as mentioned above but I wanted the title to reference the truth that is at the heart of the novel. I had spent some time thinking of it when one day the Emily Dickinson line just came me as I was sitting on the London tube. In the UK and Irish edition, the title is the full quote, The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually, but in America we opted for The Dazzling Truth.

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

I always really enjoyed spending time with Murtagh Moone, the father of the family, as he was the first character that came to me out of the ether and where the story began for me. He isn't based on my own father at all but his great love for his children definitely is a mirror of how devoted my own father is to his six children and so I have a huge spot for him.

Which character do you relate to most and why?

I think it's true to say that I relate to all of the characters in different ways– if I didn't I'm not sure I would be able to write them with any empathy or authority.

How important is music to your writing process and to the novel itself?

It's incredibly important to me. Every day, before I begin to write, I choose a song to listen to that encapsulates for me the energy or the feeling of the scene I want to work on. Sinking into the music, the physical world around me slips away, and I am able to cross the bridge from reality to the wonderland of the imagination. I also love working out the musical tastes of all the characters and curating a soundtrack for the novel as I'm writing – there is so much music scattered throughout. The song, Moon River, is definitely the theme song for The Dazzling Truth and I listened to it on vinyl record a lot while writing the book.

Do you find it easier or harder to write character and dialogue for the opposite sex?

The gender of the character doesn't really affect my approach in that way – as individual characters some just tend to evolve more easily than others for lots of different reasons.

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I'm a pantser. I would really struggle to plot out a novel in advance and think if I did I would get bored with following the plan. I find the most exciting and engaging writing I do is usually a result of the narrative taking a surprising turn. At the beginning I tend to know in a big picture way what the story loosely is and what the closing image is that I'm working towards – everything else is a mystery until I discover it on the page.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Anxiety – if I'm anxious about anything that is happening in the real world I find it really difficult to disconnect and focus on the writing. It would be amazing if I could use the fictional world as an escape pod but unfortunately it doesn't work like that for me.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I've learned not to become too superstitious or precious about where I can write as those things just become excuses for me not to get work done in the end but I do love escaping on writing retreats where the only thing I have to focus on is whatever book I'm writing. I've been to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig in Ireland a few times and absolutely love it there – despite the fact that I'm scared out of my wits by the resident ghost Miss Worby.

What book have you read recently that you loved?

There are so many wonderful books coming out of Ireland at the moment that it feels like a glorious age of literature. One of my all-time favourite writers and literary heroines, Anne Enright, published a new book this year called Actress which is unsurprisingly phenomenal. I recommend it whole-heartedly but also every single book the genius has written.

The book's title comes from a line from Emily Dickinson, "The truth must dazzle gradually." What appealed to you about that quote, and how was the title chosen?

What are you working on next?

I'm working on what will hopefully be my third novel and preparing a commence a PhD in October at the University of East Anglia.

What was the first book to make you cry?

I don't remember the first book that made me cry but the last one was probably My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout which I loved.

What are you reading?

I'm always reading multiple things at the same time. Recently I've started Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell and Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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