“The Hackney that I live in and the Hackney of Waking are exactly the same place to me”: Helen Richardson on her debut novel
Helen’s life has changed, but she has to remind herself that it has. “I’ve been asking myself why,” she says after pausing to think.
Despite what she may feel, Helen Richardson, 29, is as real a writer as one can be. Last year her first novel Waking, a thriller interweaving romance and darkness, was published by Accent Press, marking her official debut. Yet, she has long been writing essay and poems, and publishing them on her blog Read me Softly.
The idea for Waking first came to Helen when she was still a teenager. “I had a vision of two people meeting and feeling as though they knew each other,” she says, “and there being some kind of slightly unnerving memory or shared past that they needed to uncover.”
It would be years before she sat down to work on it. But when she finally did, the novel was finished in eight weeks. “The reason why it was possible was that by that point I had been toying with the idea for well over 10 years,” she says.
Waking is built on a moment of recognition. It follows the life of Anna Caldwell, who is every night haunted by nightmares. When she meets Jack, she’s instantly drawn to him – so much that it almost feels as if they already knew each other. But as their relationship develops, Anna’s nightmares take on a disturbing clarity. The space between her dreams and waking mind slowly starts to close, filling the holes in her impression that Jack is part of her past.
The events of the novel unfold against the backdrop of Hackney, in east London. “The borough is a very contemporary place, and it’s very fast moving in terms of its atmosphere,” says Helen. “It definitely felt like a modern place and to me Waking feels like quite a modern book.”
Yet, even more than that, the setting of Waking is a reflection of the author’s own love affair with the capital. Originally form Cambridge, Helen moved to London when she was 18 to study English Literature and Language at University College London. “I lived in Camden, so my first experience of the city was very central and north-London based,” she says.
When years later she moved in with her partner in London Fields Park, she instantly felt at home. “I was falling in love while discovering the area,” she says. “It’s always been a romantic place to me, which is one of the reasons why I set Waking there.”
And just like that, the streets of the east London borough became a physical extension of Helen’s imagination. “I think all writers are a bit mad,” she chuckles. “As a novelist you know that what you’re writing is fiction, but you also live it and the people you’re writing about sort of exist in a funny way.
“I walk past places in Hackney now and think: ‘that’s where that scene happened!’ The Hackney that I live in and the Hackney of Waking are exactly the same place to me,” she says, and she laughs again.
Helen also works full-time as a freelance film producer. Her job brought her to travel the length of the Mississippi River. “There are lots of similarities between writing and making films,” she says.
“We all have a primary way of translating things. Mine is definitely verbal rather than visual, and it’s a language that I’ve had to learn. Yet, while the medium is completely different, the creative process is really similar.”
Whilst Helen is already planning the release of her new book (set in North London), her writing career is just at the beginning. “This book plays on the idea that it is necessary as part of human character to believe that we are somehow special,” she says. “It is about how far you can push that essential narcissism.”