Given Semour’s self-confessed need for control, It will come as no surprise then to find out that she is now writing the screenplay for noted director John Moore (of Die Hard fame, who she also knows from advertising). Was writing the screenplay herself a must for Helen?
“I had always wanted to write a screenplay. I had done screenwriting courses in New York and London and LA as I was writing the book because they are very good for character development. Most writers don’t want it. Marianne said to me ‘do you know what? none of my writers are really interested in writing the screenplay themselves. They’re novelists and they just want to be novelists.’ I want to write for film, for television and for theatre.”
Isn’t that a bit odd I suggest? Shouldn’t writers feel more of a need to control what gets put into adaptations of their words?
“Some do, I mean Roddy wrote the screenplay for The Snapper and The Van. I know John, I used to make TV commercials with him in the nineties so we already had a relationship. He went to America about 12 years ago and like all Irish people he came home at Christmas and I bumped into him and he said ‘what are you writing?’ As soon as he heard ‘pirate radio’ he was like ‘I want to read that’. I gave it to him and as he was fifty pages in said ‘I want to option this’. I knew that once production started that I may get shifted to one side but I said to him ‘look, just give me a crack at writing the early drafts’. To my surprise he said ok.”
It occurs to me that although Helen has bags of editorial and PR experience when it comes to packaging a brief for a client, her book is her baby and a very personal one at that. Not only did it take 6 years for her to write but the need for total personal control strikes me as a particular part of the story of this book and more than simply a personality trait:
“I was probably very attached to it which is not necessarily a good thing”she says. “I will acknowledge that. ‘There’s a thing called ‘entrenchment’, but I’d like to think that in the editing process I let go of that. I was protective of it to the point where I said I’m not going to destroy it. There’s 50,000 words lost and an entire storyline pulled out and I’d like to think that was because I was not too deeply entrenched in it and able to be objective. I’d like to think the stuff that I’d remain firm on is part of what the book is. I felt that it would have lightened the book and made it very happy clappy- and I don’t do happy clappy!”
I want to talk about the book cover now, which is something I have been musing on since I picked the story up. What struck me most about the cover image (on which appears a beautiful mohawked young woman -fag in hand, smiling self-consciously, caught in what feels like a private moment) was how beautifully private it felt on looking at it.The echo of the character of Iris- the beautiful, stubborn and musically opinionated character at the centre of the novel is also inescapable. I asked her about this having no clue just how resonant my initial impressions were:
“That was my friend Julie. Matt Kavanagh of the Irish Times took that photo on 17 September, 1983. It’s 30 years old this year. She is standing outside Freebird records [a truly excellent second-hand record store in Dublin]. It then appeared on the front page of the Irish Times. She’s 18 in the photo- a straight A student and left school after her Inter. All she ever wanted to do was ride horses. Her teachers (in Thomastown, where she went for her horse exams) actually had her tipped to represent Ireland in the Olympics. She was fearless- really fearless. She was killed by a horse when a stallion kicked her to death. It was horrific. She was in a coma for a week and then she died. I was 21 and she was 24. You don’t expect people to die at that age. I went numb…’
I am on the verge of asking her about the image and its relation to the book when she reads my thoughts and answers me:
“This is a very lighthearted book. It’s a happy book but part of me writing the book was me coming to terms with her death. I never got to say goodbye to her- it happened so fast. It was savage and it was swift. I didn’t cry at the funeral or for three months after it until I woke up one day and couldn’t stop crying . Part of it was (and a therapist would have a field day with it) I kind of resurrected my friend and hung out with her for the three years that I was writing the book and then I said goodbye to her on my own terms. The truth is, it’s not actually about Julie- it’s inspired by her spirit but once you write characters and create them you get to a point where they go ‘back off!, I’ll take it from here’. Iris became a character of her own.”
Helen is now on her second espresso, which also comes in a rather beautiful and ceremonious cup(ette) and as she sips I ask her tentatively about the Bono aspect of the whole thing. I mean, not everyone gets their first book launched by Bono, however, it turns out that these two go way back to the days when Helen worked with Ali Hewson [Bono’s wife] on a project to close the nuclear power plant Sellafield by sending hundreds of postcards to No. 10. Bono had in fact asked to read her manuscript in the early stages of publication and so I asked her how nervous if at all she was at giving it to him.
“I was very nervous because he was my friend and he had been my friend for a long time. But also he’s Bono. He’s an amazing and talented person within his own right. I thought well, yeah we’ll just see and if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t, you know? I did say that giving it to him. I said look be honest with me and if you don’t like it you can tell me. I was, by the way, equally nervous about giving it to Roddy Doyle who is one of my all time heroes. He said to me ‘you know the deal’ and I did because Stephen King in his book on writing says just remember when you give your book to a writer in the hope that they’re going to give you a quote- if they don’t like it, they’re not going to give you a quote. So when I gave it to him he said ‘unless I can really gush about it I can’t give you the quote.’ I said ‘I totally understand that 110 %’. So I was very nervous about giving to him and giving it to Bono but in two very different ways. I couldn’t move until I heard something and when I got the positive feedback I was over the moon and so happy. That in itself was just the biggest vote of confidence.”
We then get interrupted by a rather dapper and official-looking gentleman, who I assume is the manager of the hotel (and yes, he is yet another of Helen’s friends) who is then introduced to me and I feel like I have wandered into some kind celebrity situation. Once back on track, however, Helen continues onto the nerve-racking experience of the launch night of the book itself and specifically how generous Bono was to her on the night.
‘”Well it’s hard enough being the support act but the following act- forget it! I had no idea he was going to do that [Bono took this opportunity to sing an a capella rendition of Beautiful Noise at the launch]. A lot of people were actually singing it the next day, saying that they couldn’t get it out of their heads. I had no idea what he was going to say. I was worried I would be very nervous coming up on stage myself. He’s a very hard act to follow. I had something written but I also wanted to speak from the heart so I said ‘if I lose it up there will you just grab my hand and hold onto me?’ He then said ‘just slag me- slag my height’. He actually said that to me! He said ‘if they laugh, you’ll relax and you will actually get into it’. Fair f***s to him- he’d flown in from Germany and gone straight to the Phoenix Park to do the gig with Michael D. Higgins [Irish President], he’d come straight to my thing and then he was flying back out to the States. He’s the hardest working man I know. So when I was speaking, he was the first person I wanted to thank. It was probably the most incredible night of my life. It was very special.”
It was during the launch that Bono (in addition to adding a little Neil Diamond a capella segue) described the book as being not about radio transmissions in itself but “human transmissions”.
Is this a fair cop I say to her?
“Completely. He said that from the outset- that this is a book about communication and he was right. When I described the story and characters to him he asked me ‘what’s it about?’I said ‘well, they’re all lying to each other- they find it very difficult to tell each other what they really want to say’. He said at the launch that it was a book about ‘human transmissions’ and I think that’s a lovely way of putting it. Some people like Squirrel shoot straight from the hip and are very direct whereas someone like Elliot is choked up. Anthony (Elliot’s father) by comparison is a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of person and yet he can’t actually ask Elliot what he’s doing in his bedroom because he’s afraid of what the answer will be. He thinks that maybe he’s having a breakdown and that he’s talking to himself. And you know what? I worked in the communications business so it makes sense!”
So we have come full circle. From listening to the radio to see who, like her, was out there, to working with the same said people on their ad accounts to writing a book about the whole communications business it seems that Helen has well and truly articulated what it means to communicate and also what it means when you can’t do it effectively. Beautiful Noise is about the heart of what communication is as it weaves around characters- some of whom are straight talkers and are unafraid to be their own person while others seem to be fatally overwhelmed by their inability to stand up for themselves. The fact that this complexity of character development is woven through a visceral and believable passion for music makes this debut novel all the more compelling and a must for anyone who loves music, or just loves a good story. Helen and I finish off our celebrity elevenses (which has at this stage become lunchtime- we have been talking for nearly two and a half hours) and resolve to face the withering snow outside. As we part I think I have never been so excited to see a movie adaptation of a novel in my life.