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Author Anne Michaels sits on the stairs at Berkeley Church on Queen St., E. in Toronto, on April 22, 2011.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Anne Michaels has never shied away from Big Questions in her writing, and so when she describes her new novel, Held, as “looking at everything from science to history to how we understand the ways in which we are connected and the ways in which love continues past the span of a single life,” you know she means exactly that.

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Like its predecessors, Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault – and indeed like Michaels herself – Held brims with questions. Spanning the turn of the previous century to the near future (2025), its narrative hopscotches through 20th-century time and space – England, France and Estonia among the latter – as it weaves in elements such as particle physics and spirit photography, and, as ever in Michaels’s work, war and its effects. Though it involves multiple generations of a family, starting with John, a photographer who survives the Great War, Held is not your conventional generational epic, the connections between its ideas and large cast of characters being at times clear, at others purposefully ambiguous.

Michaels spoke to The Globe from her home in Toronto.

Your novelistic output – three books in almost 30 years – isn’t prolific. Recognizing that in the 13 years since The Winter Vault you’ve published multiple poetry collections and children’s books, what does it take for you to produce a novel specifically?

Putting books out for the sake of it is meaningless to me. I set myself a task that I know is going to take a long time, but also a task that will mean something like, how to live and think about one’s life. Hope is hard-won in these books. They’re facing very difficult questions, so it has to be something I can trust in in order to offer it to readers.

Are the questions we find throughout Held the same ones you were asking yourself while writing it?

I was consistently asking myself, every day: What do we need in these urgent times? What voice is small enough to be heard? I was also looking at the relationship between science and technology – which we’ve conflated, but they’re not the same – and this moment around the turn of the last century where science began to take control of the invisible world. It could penetrate that invisibility in a way that we never could before.

It’s inextricable from the First World War and the spiritualism that arose around the same time. When the war came, the scale of it allowed this spiritualism to take hold because everyone now had ghosts that they didn’t have before. Spirit photography was a huge thing.

There was also in warfare, perhaps for the first time at this scale, the notion of the unknown soldier, where the body was literally gone, dismembered, disappeared. What to do in cases where the body can’t be brought home was an enormous question that had to be grappled with. All these things – the invisible ways we’re brought to a present moment – were eating into this book.

The story here isn’t linear so much as a kind of amalgam of images and ideas. Was there a single one – image or idea – that served as your starting point?

So much research went into it, and it was important to me that the research was not obvious; that it sort of glints under the surface, because I wanted the human moment to be of paramount significance. We’re used to defining history as events or actions, but it’s also the work of our inner lives: what we believe, what we aspire to, what our values and ideals are.

There were so many moments that I knew belonged in this book, but I didn’t know how they fit. You can’t force true connections. They have to reveal themselves, so you just have to be receptive and wait in a very attentive way until they emerge. I followed my instinct for where I wanted to be geographically, for what historical moments seemed to be the entry places for what I was trying to get at, and very quickly the character of John, the photographer, whose own trauma is preyed upon by Mr. Stanley, became a starting point.

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Those lines and moments include selective parts of the 20th century, but noticeably not the Second World War. Why that omission?

I wanted the sections and the connections to work with each other in a certain way. I knew there wasn’t room for everything, and I’d gone to the Second World War very deeply in my other books.

Each novel always leads me to the next. When you know there’s something that can’t fit, that literally will explode the whole weave of what you’ve done, you know then that the book is finished.

I’m not saying that’s my relationship to the Second World War in this book. I’m saying that every book has a whole soul, and its own integrity, and I already felt that I had a relationship to that part of the century.

Photography is important in this book in concrete and metaphorical ways, as with the spirit photography, or when you allude to the idea of history as a kind of long exposure. Has it always been an interest?

It has. And how can it not be? It’s so prevalent. But what we feel its relationship to reality is is very different from everything that goes on in a photograph.

I love this idea of the long exposure and how everything moving becomes unseen because there we are, the ghosts of the world. All that life that disappears but in some way is still around us. In what we remember, in what we love, in our environment, what we’ve built, what people have made. It’s just a very resonant metaphor for me.

This novel deals with less detailed historical events than, say, The Winter Vault, but you say you still did copious amounts of research. What were you reading?

I read a lot of physics, read a lot about consciousness, a lot about how science sees itself, and how scientists talk about what they do. And the history and philosophy of science.

I’ve always read a lot of history, 20th-century history anyway. But I’m also very interested in the relationship between the state and the citizen, which was also part of the research.

I come back all the time to this notion of how our private life is connected to and affected by the political world and historical events around us. It’s an endlessly complicated relationship. There are people who say, well, it doesn’t enter into my life much, but as you peel back a single layer …Because it’s family, it’s generations, it’s how you feed your children, how you write your music, how you think, what you’re allowed to think, what you’re not allowed to think, what you’re allowed to say, what you’re not allowed to say in Soviet Estonia. No one is immune to it.

War is perennial, and yet this novel is resonant with current events in ways you obviously couldn’t have anticipated. How does it feel to be releasing it into this very fraught moment?

It’s extremely moving. And devastating. With the scale of change, every day writing this book felt urgent. We’re talking about the poles melting, a global scale almost beyond imagining. Against this futility, what can a book offer? What am I doing? But one is driven, right? You’re alive and you’re given the grace to ask these questions. It’s not a grace to be wasted.

It’s difficult to take in everything that’s happening. Thinking about the wildfires here in our city, you walk out your door, can you really see it? You can’t. But you can smell it. It’s in the air. How close does it have to be for us to take it on across the world, across the country, across the city? Human nature seems to say it has to be in our own house.

I want this book to address this issue of our inner lives having an effect, our inner lives carrying on beyond a lifespan, and the way we aspire to making a difference. We have our work cut out for us, but there are many wonderful people doing many wonderful things. Choosing to write this book in this way, and choosing an intensity of beauty – which hopefully will be felt – is crucially important, because that’s a way to keep going.

I’ve heard from early readers who really understood what this book is trying to do. That was remarkably heartening to me. To get a response from a reader like that always feels miraculous.

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