Helen Russell is a journalist and bestselling author of ‘The Year of Living Danishly’ and ‘Leap Year’. Her first novel, ‘Gone Viking, is out April 19th.
Formerly the editor of marieclaire.co.uk, Helen now writes for magazines and newspapers around the world, including Stylist, The Times, Grazia, The Telegraph and The Guardian.
She lives in Denmark with her husband, their four-year-old son and 11-month-old twins.
It’s a pleasure to welcome the brilliant Helen to the blog:
Describe a typical day for you?
I wake up to the hollering or one or more child, usually demanding food, usually the wrong side of 6am. Breakfast is coffee, eggs, and a series of deep breaths to face the day ahead then a scramble to get everyone dressed, semi-clean and out of the door by 7.45am. After drop offs at kindergarten and nursery, I’ll either slink back to my desk to work from home or flee to my favourite coffee shop to write. I might have an interview somewhere nearby or over the phone, but whatever happens, I’ll usually try to see another human being over the age of four to remind myself what adult conversation is like. At the moment, I’m writing features and giving talks on my new favourite topic – what modern day women can learn from the Vikings (spoiler alert: it’s A Lot). Danish daycare ends at 4pm so work stops then and it’s home to cook a vat of something for supper. We all eat together before bathtime/stories/crazy hour(s) begin and we race to get the kids down by 7pm. On a good night, I might go for a run or to a Nia dance class but otherwise it’s a glass of wine and a bath before bed.
What do you feel are your biggest achievements?
Staying semi sane in the face of three children and three books in three years (often on three hours’ sleep) is definitely up there!Carving out a career from scratch in Denmark after I left my glossy magazine job and 12 years in London was tough, but I feel proud that I’ve made it work. I love what I do now –work is more fun than fun for me (and I REALLY like fun…). For years I was stressed, tired all the time and struggling to start a family – trying every fertility treatment under the sun. Something had to give, and it was scary to make such a big change – but it paid off. Now I have the family and career I wanted.
What’s in your handbag/ satchel?
Wet wipes. Always. Snacks. Usually (for me and for the children). My phone tends to live in my jacket pocket along with headphones and my debit card…and that’s it. I used to sashay around with make-up, spare shoes and monogrammed Smythson notebooks in tow, but those days are long gone! If I’m travelling for work or going for a meeting, I might make an effort to dig out a nice bag and scrub up a bit. But the last time I got out my treasured Mulberry, I found my son had stashed segments of Satsuma in it along with some scrunched up loo roll (possibly used…). So generally these days, it’s my laptop rucksack or a front pocket of the twins’ nappy bag.
What are your ambitions in life?
I’d like a shelf of books I’m really proud of andto raise my three children to be as kind, funny and brave as they are now. I want to look after my family, my relationship and my friends. And I want to push for women to turn up the volume a bit – take what they need, and be able to have a career and a family if that’s what they want, without being seen as ‘greedy’.
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career you now know?
I wish I’d known that it was all going to be okay. I was riddled with self-doubt in my 20s, working two jobs to fund my journalism postgrad, exhausted and permanently skint. I almost broke myself. Then when I finally started getting the journalism roles I wanted – roles I’d worked hard for and deserved – I was crippled by imposter syndrome. It’s hard to be creative when you’re scared and tired all the time. But since leaving London, working less and letting go, I’ve been able to achieve more. There’s a great study from Warwick University that found we’re 12% more productive when we’re in a positive frame of mind, and that’s certainly been my experience. I’m more confident now and a better writer as a result. Having kids is also a giant dollop of perspective: if I can’t find just the right adjective, no one dies. If someone is projectile vomiting on my new yellow sofa that becomes my priority. Plus children are wonderfully humbling – you can’t take yourself too seriously when you have a four year old who thinks tractors are far cooler than you’ll ever be.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
I *hope* I’ll be looking at a slightly bigger shelf; doing work that still gets me fired up; seeing a few of the exciting projects currently in the pipeline come to fruition; and being made breakfast by at least one of my children…
What advice would you give a budding author?
Start today. Don’t just think about it: do it. Because if you don’t like the doing part, you’re not going to get anywhere. The Writers and Artists Handbook is great for the kind of agents and publishers you should be aiming for, and reading all you can is invaluable.
But 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.
What do you wish you’d known about motherhood before having kids?
I knew all about motherhood before I became a mum myself…! I felt sure I wasn’t going to let children turn me into an early night party bore and I was certain that toddler tantrums could be avoided entirely with just the right Mary Poppins-esque tone. I was a fool.
I wish I’d had more empathy for mothers before becoming one, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the trenches of parenting. For how far your standards slip (the ‘five second rule’ became the ‘five minute rule’); for how tired you become; or for how your world can shrink at the same time as your heart is expanding.
Old ‘me’ wouldn’t have believed what new ‘me’ can handle now. Like labour. Or sleep deprivation. Or the day my newborn son, the dog and I all defecated simultaneously. Or the time each twin took fistfuls of my hair and wouldn’t let go and I was trapped for 20 minutes before being rescued by the postman (true story).
Finally, happiness is…
If you asked my four year old, he’d say ‘A really big tractor’, but for me, it’s spending time with friends, writing, reading, the sun on my face, laughing (a lot) and my family. And I suppose tractors are pretty cool, too…
Helen’s new novel, https://www.waterstones.com/book/gone-viking/helen-russell/9781785036491 Gone Viking, is out 19th April (Ebury).