After completing her MA in creative writing at the University of York St. John Helen found work writing for a range of magazines, websites and blogs as well as writing news and features for TV and radio. She has written three non-fiction books and founded independent film publication: New Empress Magazine. She currently lives in York and writes novels.
More information about Helen can be found on her website: helencoxauthor.wordpress.com. She can be also be found on Twitter: @Helenography or Facebook Helen Cox author.
Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner?
Milkshakes is set in New York in 1990. The story revolves around a diner waitress called Esther who’s fled London to start a new life in America. She’s desperate to keep her past a secret and to forget some of the unspeakable things that happened back in England. She manages well enough until Jack Faber walks into the diner, and into her life. The well-meaning but meddling staff at The Starlight Diner can’t understand why Esther rejects the advances of this charismatic, blossoming actor, and have no idea about the deep-seated fears holding her back. This book charts Esther’s journey as she faces those fears and tries to come to terms with what happened to her in the life she left behind.
What is it that attracted you to set the book in New York and not just a different city in England?
I grew up in the eighties and to a lot of eighties kids America was just the coolest place on the planet. I’m not saying it’s true of everyone but certainly a lot of people I talk to who grew up in the same era agree. It’s something that kids TV producers pandered to at the time, inserting an American character into the storyline, or a Brit with a dubious fake accent, wherever possible. So in short, I’ve always thought America was cool.
When it comes to New York specifically, I’ve been in love with the city for a long time. It featured in many a movie I saw growing up and during my teen years the latest episode of Friends was statutory viewing, lest you wanted to be shunned on the schoolyard.
My infatuation with New York was at last consummated when I visited for the first time back in 2007. I can count the places where I feel at home on one hand but New York is one of them and was from the moment I first laid my head down to rest in a hostel on 106th Street.
I’m not saying the place is perfect or that it’s always easy to get along there. It isn’t. But for better or worse, it’s a city I’m in love with and that’s why I chose to set my novel there.
Did you have to do much research about New York to enable you to write the book?
New York is part of the intricate web that is America, and is populated by people whose roots are dug all over the country, and indeed the world. When I studied for my MA in Creative Writing and Literature about a decade ago, I specialised in 20th Century American authors and, though I didn’t know it at the time, that was the foundation stone of the research I did for this book.
Whilst writing these books I’ve read both fiction and non-fiction works by other authors to better understand the different facets of the city. I’ve also spent a lot of time looking at old maps of Manhattan and conducting interviews with people who live in New York to try and get under its skin. At the back end of last year, I took a month-long, life on a shoe-string, research trip to the States where I hung out in New York for a couple of weeks and then bus and trained it across to the Mid-West to better understand the background of some of my minor characters and the protagonist of the second book. I honed my manuscript off the back of that research trip and about a month after I came home to Yorkshire, I received an email from HarperCollins saying they wanted to publish my story.
Are there any hidden gems in New York that we should go check out if we ever visit there?
If it’s your first visit and you’re pushed for time the temptation is going to be to do the tourist sights, and I’m certainly not going to deter you. Liberty Island is more breath-taking than you’d expect and the view from the top of the Empire State is just as dizzying as you dream it might be. But if you’re going to stay in Manhattan, rather than go out to the other boroughs, you can still get a glimpse of some things not all tourists think to look for.
Most tourists, for example, have snaps of the Chrysler Building but few realise that if you walk into the lobby there are some ornate, art deco murals painted on the ceiling. Not to mention myriad other original art deco features. You also shouldn’t miss walking the High Line, a walkway built on a disused, elevated rail road that offers some truly unique views of the city. If you’re on a budget and want to get out on the water, the Staten Island Ferry is free, offers postcard perfect views of the downtown skyline and passes close enough to the Statue of Liberty that you can get some good photos if you’ve got a camera with a half-decent zoom. The East River ferry costs about $4 for a single fare and on board you’ll get a dreamy look at the Mid-town cityscape and the iconic East River bridges. Both are much more thrifty options than official tours.
If you’re willing to stray from Manhattan, you should go and walk the boardwalk (and if you’re visiting in summer, ride The Cyclone roller coaster) at Coney Island. It’s a beach you can reach by subway, complete with a quaint museum about the history of the resort. Oh, and if you’re a foodie that’s where the original Nathan’s Hot Dog restaurant is and yes, I can recommend them. When it comes to green space, most tourists head to Central Park but I don’t have a lot of time for it. Much more serene is Corona Park in Queens where you can see the Unisphere, an incredible relic left over from the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.
Is the diner based on one that you've visited yourself?
The Starlight Diner is an amalgamation of features from different diners across New York City with some imaginative details woven in. Though the diner is fictional, I first had the idea for setting a story in a diner on East Houston Street when I was sitting in one: The Remedy Diner. I ate a tasty burger there and it’s just a few blocks away from where my fictional diner would stand if it was real-life bricks and mortar.
What inspired you to set this story in the 90s as opposed to any other decade?
There are a couple of reasons why the novel is set in the 90s. The earliest rough draft was set in the present day and one of the first people who read it noted the distinct lack of technology in the story. None of the characters sent an email or even a text. All interaction was conducted via landline or face-to-face.
It was then that I had to face facts: I’m an analogue sort of girl.
We still own a VHS player (and plentiful VHS tapes). I still hand write letters to penpals, which take weeks to arrive, when I could write an email that’d be with them instantaneously. What I’m saying is, I think my head will forever be stuck in the 1990s. My formative dating experiences took place in a world in which mixtapes and slushies were cool so post-first draft the story was pushed back in time to a pre-digital era.
This shift to 1990 however, worked out to be more than just a preference of the author. It actually strengthened my story. Turns out if your characters are keeping secrets, the internet is annoying. Apparently, we live in age in which people Google each other in order to find out about a person rather than plying them with too much wine and seeing what happens. It’s completely alien to me but I have it on good authority that ‘it’s a thing.’ With this in mind it made much more sense for my characters to live in a decade where you couldn’t find out more about a person than you ever needed to at the touch of a button.
How did your writing journey start?
With my parents putting me to bed too early. A 7:30 bed-time on a summer night is torturous for a child with an overactive imagination. It was light outside so I could never get my brain to sleep. Instead, I’d dig out a notebook and pen, duck under the curtains and rest on the window ledge to write until there was no sunlight left. One of my early works was a shameless rip off of The Wizard of Oz which I think Mam has stowed in a draw somewhere. She certainly seems to find it quick enough when she wants to embarrass me in front of guests.
Do you have designated writing hours or is it a case of fitting it in when you can around family & work?
I tend not to hold myself to an hourly regime as that’s just the kind of thing the rebellious side of my brain would rally against. Instead, I set myself a word count to reach by the end of each week and give myself the freedom to hit that word count any way I please. Sometimes I hit it and sometimes I get very close but life gets in the way. When this happens I alter the parameters to something more realistic and keep going. I have set days in the week when I’m free to write so I try to get most of my novel writing done then. I edit work for other people and teach English part-time, so at the end of a working day I’m not always in the mood to look at a screen. That said, a day doesn’t pass without me handwriting something. Usually a journal entry, writing exercise or letter. Anything to keep my writing muscles spry.
Did you treat yourself to something special to celebrate your publishing deal?
I went out for pie and prosecco with some good friends, because I’m just THAT classy.
Have you anything exciting planned to celebrate publication day?
The 4th of July is a Monday which means I’ll be teaching but given what happened to my Twitter feed when I revealed my front cover I fully expect things to go a bit off the hook online. Also, it’d be wrong not to stop at the Milkshack in York for an Oreo shake on the way home after my classes.
Finally, it would be remiss of me to ask, what are your 3 favourite milkshake flavours?
As a general rule, if it involves chocolate and doesn’t contain mint (that’s mixing genres and weird), I’m easy. Whoever first thought of blending Cadbury’s fudge into a milkshake is an unsung genius. Oreo will always be number one.
if you can't wait until 4th July to start reading about the Starlight Diner then you're in luck as Helen has written three short stories to whet our appetites, the first two Hot and Cold at the Starlight Diner and Off Stage at the Starlight Diner have already been published on Helen's blog and the third will be available to read soon.
Next time you’re in New York, take a turn off Broadway onto East Houston Street.
There, you’ll see it: The Starlight Diner. A retro eatery curious enough to delight tourists and locals alike. Fifties tunes stream out of the jukebox long into the night, and it serves the tastiest milkshakes in the five boroughs.
Esther Knight waitresses at The Starlight Diner. She’s sharp, sarcastic, and she’s hiding something. Nobody at the diner knows why she left London for New York – or why she repeatedly resists the charms of their newest regular,
actor Jack Faber.
Esther is desperate to start a new life in the land of the free, but despite the warm welcome from the close-knit diner crowd, something from her past is holding her back. Can she ever learn to love and live again?