Originally from Saskatchewan, Michael Helm, now a teacher at York University, is the author of The Projectionist, which was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, and In the Place of Last Things, a regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book. With Cities of Refuge, he breaks away from the Prairie-fuelled earlier novels. Helm sat down with The Globe and Mail's Alison Gzowski to talk about his latest venture.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I know exactly where the last two books started, the sentence or image they stared with, but this one has been torn down and built back up again so many times I don't think there's any original lumber left in it. For a long time, I wanted to write about Toronto because it's the place I've lived the longest and I am interested in cities of this size ... open cities in this moment.
What is this moment?
Well, the start of the 21st century, the open city, for the usual reasons people find a city interesting, the mix of histories and stories and languages, the surfaces of the place, the so-called erotics of public spaces. But also because I also think it's true that almost anything can count as character in fiction, in the way that landscape can be character in Thomas Hardy. And I think cities sort of work in fiction the way people do, that they have an outward part of themselves that is a promotion of a mythology and a much more interesting and richer interior. And I know the city, I think I know it pretty well and have enough intuitions about it as well. It's full of dramatic possibilities, I think.
The city is a character here, because at one point you say it's giving and taking, or at least a character does.
Yeah, Kim [the protagonist]thinks about it. This book seems to be promoting the idea that the city is plural, that the experience of a 28-year-old grad school dropout is different than that of a young Colombian man here illegally or an Anglican priest, except in this GPS sense - they don't live in the same place, they live in different places. And she comes to wonder, after she's attacked by an unknown assailant while working at what she calls the nexus of many bad histories, I think she wonders if she's breathed in some essence of dire luck. So she comes to be somewhat superstitious about it. Her task in this book is to square the reality that she used to know with the reality that she now knows. And she's wondering how they can be of the same substance really.
There's the reality of her sense of the city and the reality of who she thinks her father is.
Yes, and there's also the reality of who she was before the attack and who she was after the attack. The hardest part for her in that part of the book is to imagine her attacker, which will take a great deal of courage, and in the end she thinks she might be doing that in a character she designates just with the letter R. He becomes a kind of a guide for her in these months after the attack, and she decides that she's going to trust her intuitions as a writer when she didn't trust her intuitions on the night of the attack, when she might have walked north to the busier streets and instead walked down a dark one.
Harold, the father, is fact-driven and he says to her that fiction fails history. And he's a liar.
Yes. I think of him as a kind of high-functioning coward. He's made a lot of mistakes in his life, the biggest of which, he thinks, is his failure in a vital moment, in the face of sheer brute power, back in the 1970s.
How did you get inside somebody who has been attacked?
Are you rolling your eyes at me?
That's a huge leap of imagination isn't it?
Yeah. I think as a novelist you have to risk a lot of things. I think it's important, especially with novels that have a degree of violence that the characters don't thin into just dramatic gaming pieces. So I had to let things slow down a little bit here and there and let the character brave her own interiors at her own pace.
I read a description that said the violent act was about the ripples after, but here it's the catalyst ...
What do you think it's really about?
I think it's about what you believe and how you come to peace with yourself.
Yeah or fail to, yeah.
It's about a lot of things. I was asked to put it in a nutshell today and it's not easy.
Well I think it's easier to put in a nutshell than my last one which was more intentionally perverse that way. I really do think it is mainly about belief and the consequences of belief. I guess my feeling is it's probably not possible or it shouldn't be an enterprise for novelists these days? Maybe ill-advised for novelists these days to write just straight realist fiction, but I like realist fiction. So what I'm interested in is the borderlands between realism and something that is a little more self aware, because I think literature should register the fact that that self awareness is our lot these days and part of that involves being aware that we're constantly being deceived by narratives all the time. And it gets harder and harder to trust a narratives. It's extremely complex and in fact, that old thing about those whom the devil would deceive he tells not lies but lesser truths, So how do we swim through all of this? I think we're suspicious of narrative and yet we're fundamentally creatures who want to believe, and I think novels are an interesting place to test the reader's seemingly contradictory instincts.
I think we get to the end and not know if one character's story was true or not.
Yeah, I didn't want to tie it up mathematically. I wanted it to be coherent but not neatly tied at the end.
Harold is pretty messed up … is that because he has nothing to believe in?
One thing that he's baffled by are people who are devout. It's one reason he becomes implausibly attracted to Rosemary, who's the social outreach worker whose faith-based belief is that it's her mission to give asylum to anyone who seeks it regardless of history. But she also has literal interpretations of scripture, which he finds lunatic (ludicrous?) And yet there's a part of him that wants metaphor not to be metaphor, that wants to believe things literally.
Do you see people like him?
Do I know people like him?
Yeah, I'm not talking about your friends.
Yeah, I know people who are messed up in the ways similar to the ways Harold is messed up and people who are scrambling. Part of it I think is as people in the educated or chattering classes get older and become more naturally reflective there's probably a turning inward in some of these people and they're not used to examining certain questions and they don't trust the terms in which other people examine those questions, like questions about faith for instance and so they're sort of without a language even to approach the questions.
Odd, that in the years you've been writing this, it's as if there's less to believe in in the world...
Yeah, I think it's all one long unfolding crisis of faith. There have been worse times certainly in human history where there have been big crises that way and yet somehow we're putting it together.
Is it intuition when you're writing a story, to move it along, to create a character?
Yeah, it is for me. I think it is for a lot of writers. I think to the degree that Kim writes speculatively, we realize she's drawing from the things fiction writers draw from, historical research, people she knows, sometimes her knowledge of the city. She understands that stories are mediated and that they're mediated often through a single person's point of view, that person's experience comes into play, that person's memory, habits of mind, blindnesses.