How did you become a writer?
After living and working as a journalist in London for 12 years, I moved to rural Denmark five years ago when my husband was offered his dream job working for Lego. On learning the statistic that Denmark kept getting voted the happiest country in the world, I resolved to investigate Danish happiness first hand. I set out to explore every area of Danish living and interview as many psychologists, economists, sociologists, historians and experts as I could - as well as native Danes - to uncover the secrets to getting happy, Danish-style. I wrote a column on this for the Telegraph newspaper and it became the jumping off point for The Year of Living Danishly.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I read a lot and I listen a lot. The last three books I’ve really enjoyed and tend to recommend are Sara Pascoe’s Animal, Robert Webb’s How Not To Be A Boy, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. But mainly I people-watch and eavesdrop – and I often find myself in absurd situations. I’ve always been a magnet for the ridiculous so writing is a great way of making sense of the world around me. Plus I like to keep on learning, so I’m always keen to research new topics or different ways of living – something I find incredibly inspiring.
When and where do you write?
Anywhere and all the time – I have a desk in the living room but I’m currently on maternity leave with twins so it’s a baby changing station at the moment. I also have a bureau in the bedroom and am a familiar face at coffee shops in the town where I live. The Notes app on my phone is in constant use and one advantage to a lifetime of insomnia is being cognizant enough to capture ideas, thoughts and interesting turns of phrase at 2am.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished my first novel, Gone Viking, out April 2018 (Ebury), my second book on change, Leap Year is out in paperback in December, and I’m working on ideas for my novel and non-fiction book.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
During the planning stages, occasionally – but once I’ve started a new project, I’m so engrossed in the research or characters that I’m itching to get going every morning. And honestly, with three children aged three and under, I can’t afford writer’s block. My time is limited, but rather than finding the pram in the hall to be an impediment to creativity, I’ve found a freedom within the boundaries. I have to be ‘on’, creative, buzzing and productive during my writing hours – there’s no time to procrastinate. Coffee and 80% cocoa solids chocolate also help.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I used to feel torn between wanting to write all the time and feeling as though I was missing out – as though I should really be out playing in the sunshine or seeing family and friends. But then I read a quote by the comedian Frank Skinner who said: ‘It’s hard to achieve something truly wondrous unless you’re prepared to sit alone in a room for hours on end.’ So the solitary part of writing is necessary and I embrace it rather than apologising for it.
I also love the Peter Ustinov quote: ‘Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious’. I live by this.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Enjoy getting older – I’m far bolder and more confident in my prose now than I was in my 20s.
Don’t be scared by the sheer volume of what ‘a book’ looks like when you’re grappling with a 100,000 word document – tackle it a chapter at a time and you’ll get there.
And only do it if you love it – because it isn’t an easy option. It’s an unusual lifestyle and a lot of work. I sweat when I write – it becomes a physical thing, acting out dialogue and blocking movement. You have to live it.
Helen Russell is a British journalist, author and speaker. Helen has previously worked for The Sunday Times, Take a Break, Top Sante and on new launches for Tatler Asia, Grazia India and Sky. She joined Marie Claire as editor of marieclaire.co.uk in 2010 and was BSME-shortlisted in 2011 and 2012. Helen now writes for magazines and newspapers around the world, including Stylist, The Times, Grazia, Metro, and The Wall Street Journal. Helen is a columnist for The Telegraph, a correspondent for The Guardian and her first book, The Year of Living Danishly, is now a bestseller. She is also the author of Leap Year and Gone Viking.