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Third novel by English prof wrestles with what people believe

Third novel by English prof wrestles with what people believe

York English Professor Michael Helm likens writing novels to driving bumper to bumper at 120 kilometres an hour for half a day, and being emotionally and physically spent by the end. That’s on good days.

“You have to concentrate so hard, but when you get out of the car, you’re just so exhausted. I always find it physically draining,” says Helm, author of the recently published Cities of Refuge, already number eight on the Maclean's magazine bestsellers list. Helm will read from his new book at Toronto’s Festival of Arts & Creativity Luminato June 12.

Left: Michael Helm. Photo by Alexandra Rockingham.

On bad days, Helm says, he might suddenly think the manuscript he just spent the last seven months working on is boring, “like I was just plodding along”. He has to go back and figure out where he took a wrong turn, made a wrong choice. In the end, it usually works out, but it’s a process punctuated by crises.

Take his new book. After rewriting the first 80 or so single-spaced pages five times, he realized it was becoming a very different story, faster paced, than what he wanted, “the kind of novel I might have written 12 years ago. It wasn't a novel I’d even necessarily want to read anymore,” says Helm, an editor at the literary journal Descant from 1991 to 1998 and co-editor for Brick magazine since 2003. The main character had to go, that much was clear – he was taking over the story. “The draft that wasn't working had a lot of frenetic energy and I needed a book that was slower, but still had dramatic tension – sort of a slower drawing of the story.”

After all, Helm is not the same man he was when his first novel, the Giller Prize-nominated The Projectionist made its surprising debut. Until that point, Helm hadn't published a short story or a poem.

Now, Helm has written his third novel, Cities of Refuge, which takes place in Toronto, a multicultural, cosmopolitan city Helm no longer lives in, but still enjoys for its energy. The problem with trying to write a particular kind of book is the intuitive part of the process doesn’t always cooperate, at least initially, and certainly not the way Helm approaches it. “I usually don’t know where the story is going,” he says. It evolves as he goes. He gets in for the ride and hangs on, never knowing where it's going to stop.

“If you’re doing a good job, it starts to form into recognizable shapes and wholenesses with understructures as you recognize things there you hadn’t realized were there. And that’s a sign you’re doing something right.”

It can't be rushed, though. It requires taking the elements of the novel "as far out as you can until it starts to break apart and you go through a crisis and if you come through that crisis then you’ll see a different thing and you’ll see it better,” he says. “One of the tasks of writers, whether we’re talking about narrative or character, is to take seeming certainties and to drive them into doubt, to the farthest reaches that you can and make them start to break apart. Though it’s no fun when the book does come to a big crisis and you think ‘Oh no, I got this dead wrong’.”

But to create great fiction, risk is part of the process, as is doubt. And so to get to the story he wanted, he had to elevate his two secondary characters to main billing and give them space to develop without really knowing where they would take him. As it turned out, Kim Lystrander, a 28-year-old PhD dropout volunteering at a local agency that helps refugee claimants who have been rejected, and her father Harold, a professor of Latin American history with an undetermined past, wanted to further explore a familiar theme – belief. Helm hadn’t realized at the time that the theme was also present in his last novel and to a lesser extent in his first.

It's about "the investment we make in different kinds of stories, and those can be personal stories, national stories, religious mythic narratives, the things we find meaningful and why do we find them meaningful, and what happens when those stories turn out not to be worthy of our investment," he says. "One question that I think the new book asks is, ‘can a thinking, thoughtful person, embrace old beliefs about story’, which is to say our seemingly fundamental shared instinct, a need to believe, a need to believe things that we can’t always know with certainty have validity."

In Cities of Refuge, Harold, who divorced his wife and abandoned Kim, is forced to confront his dark, unknown past, his beliefs, after the violent attempted rape of his daughter, and becomes obsessed with finding her assailant. Similarly, Kim suddenly doubts those things she once cleaved to as truths; all that has been stripped away. But as Kim gains strength and clarity, Harold falters.

“He’s a guy who’s perpetually contorted so as not to see what’s right in front of him. He doesn’t want to stare at the truth of his life, who he is and how he has behaved in the face of brute power in the past,” says Helm. Whereas Kim contains a "perceptive imagination and she understands him to a degree that he would never understand himself." And their relationship takes on different hues and rhythms in the aftermath.

As Helm says, most people’s characters are fully formed by the time they're adults and they have a good sense of themselves. The trick then is to discover “what we believe and why we’re messed up the way we’re messed up”.

Acting director of York’s Creative Writing Program, Helm is also the author of In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Currently, Helm is working on a short novel, under 150 pages, that he is trying his best not to complicate, as he says, crazily.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.