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Books Author Helen Humphreys on why she wrote her new book, the best advice she’s received and more

Helen Humphreys

Photo by Ayelet Tsabari/Photo illustration by the Globe and Mail.

Helen Humphreys is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Reinvention of Love, Afterimage, Coventry, and Nocturne, a memoir about her brother's death, which was a finalist for both the Trillium Book Award and the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. A resident of Kingston, she's also won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Toronto Book Award and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. Her latest novel, The Evening Chorus, explores the lives of three people affected by the Second World War.

Why did you write your new book?

I wanted to show how intimately connected the natural world is to the human world. How we are a part of Earth and all its creatures and cannot afford to think of ourselves as separate from nature. Setting the story during the Second World War allowed me to write a sort of natural history of the war, and having the story take place during wartime also meant that the dramatic stakes were high. The extreme conditions of war allowed me to explore a range of emotions and situations within my characters' lives.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

William Faulkner. Because who is better? Who could write a sentence about a river that would equal this one: "It clucks and murmurs among the spokes and about the mules' knees, yellow, scummed with flotsam and thick soiled gouts of foam as though it had sweat, lathering, like a driven horse." His language is musical and it moves. It also holds its meaning. No matter how often I read that sentence, it still seems fresh.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel, and why?

Being invisible would largely be awful because you would find out things you didn't want to know, including how people really feel about you. I would definitely choose time travel, because I would love to see my brother just one more time.

Which books have you reread most in your life?

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. They are both superb books in their own right, and also excellent stories about grief and grieving. I am a fan of multiple voices and As I Lay Dying is one of the best multiple-voice books out there. And the Shelley story is stark and clean and beautiful, and so full of emotion that I never tire of it. Amazing to think that she was only 19 when she wrote it.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

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Notice where you are and what it has to offer. Don't force an agenda on people or places, but rather let yourself be open and receptive to what is already there. Also, to always do the important tasks of the day first thing in the morning, because a day will always get away from you. Both of these tips are good advice for life and writing equally.

If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?

Quite frankly, I wouldn't want to teach them much about humanity because we're mostly a greedy, brutal species and are horrible to one another and the world at large. I'd give the aliens field guides to the birds and animals. A better place to start if it was your first day on this planet.

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