The Rumpus Interview with Michael Helm

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When Michael Helm did a reading in a bar at this year’s AWP Conference in Boston, things did not quite go as planned. Each time Helm spoke into the mic, squeals of feedback and a low droning wail erupted into the cramped, dark space, forcing people to alternate between listening attentively and plugging their ears.

Helm soldiered on, gripping the mic by the base and at an odd angle to minimize the feedback and spare the audience. His voice, already measured and smooth, turned quieter and quieter as he tried to get through the prologue of his new novel Cities of Refuge. Soon he was almost whispering, as if he could trick the mic into thinking he wasn’t there. The audience curled toward the stage and the odd, dissonant sounds provided an eerie background to Helm’s work. The novel opens on a woman named Kim being followed through Toronto, observed from a distance, about to suffer a grave attack that will change her life.

Published in Canada in 2010, but just released in the U.S. from Tin House Books, Cities of Refuge covers a broad canvas of ideas. The first half of the novel is concerned with the hunt for Kim’s attacker, but the novel slowly expands its focus to include her father, Harold, and questions of xenophobia, immigration, and forgotten atrocities.

One of the key themes of Helm’s novels is whether or not imagination can help humanity deal with a troubled past. Can the stories we tell about each other—whether it’s Kim imagining her attacker’s troubled life, or the protagonist of Helm’s previous novel, In the Place of Last Things, confronting his parents’ secrets—help us reach some sort of peace? Cities of Refuge explores these ideas with intelligence and grace.

Back in Boston, that mic fought Helm throughout his reading, but even though the feedback never quieted, the room did. Despite his whispering, it was obvious that Michael Helm is here, he has been here, and he has something to say.

I spoke with Michael Helm over the phone, over e-mail, and in Boston. This interview is put together from our conversation.

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The Rumpus: This is a big, thoughtful, even global book. Can you tell me where the germ for this idea started?

Michael Helm: It took me a long time to write the book. I was living down in the States working on my second novel, which came out in 2004, and I’d had the beginnings of what turned out to be Cities of Refuge lying around. I kept taking a run at it, and, as often happens, you rewrite the opening several times. I kept trying to find the most elegant opening arrangement.

Eventually, things came together. When a novel’s forming in the imagination the characters are like invisible planets. They’re in the book because there’s some gravity at work, drawing a kind of language to them. At some point it’s just about making those characters come clear. For me, it all happens at once. The language, the story, the characters, something seems to be gathering force. You let yourself be drawn. It took me a bit of time to figure this one out and to realize it needed to be ambitious, and to let the prose register the ways a big city plays inside so many different perspectives.

Rumpus: So, you knew you wanted to explore the urban experience in a novel?

cities of refuge coverHelm: As I recall, I wanted to write a novel set in Toronto, a city which I find not only interesting, but interesting in its current moment in global terms. It’s one of the cities where an open society more or less works by whatever standard we apply. And though, like all places, it’s founded upon and partly propelled by myths, it isn’t inhibited by them. Bigger, grander cities often seem to have let their mythologies rule them. Countries, too, of course. Toronto is hard to capture in a few strokes. I hope to write full characters, who are like people, and I suppose the city is one of the characters.

I’m interested, too, in the ways the randomness of urban life opens up prose. In the feelings of chance meetings, the history, the hundreds of languages. The discontinued moments of experience we have in big cities suited the kind of impressionistic interiors I like to write. After so much noodling around, it felt verifying to finally meet my characters and set them loose knocking around together in a place with so many worlds inside it.

Rumpus: Cities of Refuge asks a lot of questions about the act of writing. Kim believes she can reconstruct her life and her psyche through her imagination, but her father, Harold, resists attempts to apply imagination to history. Could you explain the impulse to talk about narrative and writing itself?

Helm: The book is partly about story and belief. These things extend into all kinds of narratives: history, fiction, personal beliefs, religious narrative. I wanted this novel to act out, on some level, the things it’s about. We can’t write a serious novel in the 21st century without acknowledging the inescapable self-awareness we’re stuck with. The idea we’re surrounded by falsehoods and lies. It’s hard for the thinking person to believe in narratives. And yet we want some place to invest our belief.

In the novel, I wanted a balance between realism and a self-referring narrative. I wanted to have it both ways. And I wanted the characters to have trouble finding what they believe. This is the case for Kim and Harold, and for others, including those living underground, the “undocumented” people illegally in the country. The consequences of belief in story are real for refugee claimants. They have a story to tell to win their legal status. Even though their story might be authoritative enough to gain them entry, their chances might be better if they change it. And yet if the story’s discovered to be a fiction, all is lost, no matter what the real story is.

Rumpus: So, as people, we can’t avoid narrative and imagination, right?

Helm: No, we can’t, but we mustn’t confuse one kind of narrative with another. The questions of story and history have grown more nuanced over time. As has the question of the responsibility of the imaginative writer. What responsibility do writers, creative or documentary, have to the lone humans? For example, does fiction about atrocity add anything to the world? Can informed, thoughtful people embrace old beliefs about story?

Rumpus: One of the tensions in the book is between Kim and Harold’s view of humanity and how the world works. Kim says she works with people, but Harold says people don’t matter, or they don’t matter as much as the historical forces that shape them. How does one answer this question? Is an answer possible?

Helm: From Harold’s point of view it isn’t that people matter less, but that we can’t presume to know them on the scale of one to one. In his argument to Kim he says imagination will always fail history. But her judgment is clouded by hope. Harold has a faith in the rigor of the practice of history. To cross into the realm of speculation, that’s where he sees the danger. Of course, he wouldn’t want people speculating about his own history, something he himself won’t turn and face.

After the attack, Kim’s imagination has been radicalized. By writing about the attack, imagining her attacker, she gains some control and understanding of how her mind works. And in thinking imaginatively about her father, she feels closer to him, even in some ways inside of him. Can both of their positions be true? No and yes. It’s undecidable.

Maybe that’s why Harold is fascinated with Rosemary [a devoutly religious character]. He could never adopt the metaphysical position she does. But he’s fascinated that a woman who’s an intelligent, thinking, feeling person could organize her life and psyche upon what he sees as a fiction.

Yet his own psyche is organized the same way. He’s successfully compartmentalized his past for many years. He’s as prone to magical thinking as the next person is. In the end he believes that the dark angel of human event has come back to claim him.

Rumpus: I feel like these themes influence the novel’s structure. Were you hoping the shifting point-of-view would reflect these questions?

Helm: A novel this long required many points of view, many voices, but some are a little doubtful and so the themes are somewhat played out in the telling. To extract these themes is tricky but maybe we ask whether empathy, which requires imagination, is necessary to the project of reconciliation and understanding. Although it’s hard to make sweeping claims. I’m not even sure if empathy is an act, it could be a disposition. But each new perspective we have in the novel deepens the understanding and thickens the irony.

Rumpus: There’s a weight to the material, a philosophic tinge to the discussions, but the book is super-readable and genuinely suspenseful. In terms of style, how did you hit this balance?

Michael Helm Stefania YarhiHelm: I have a few articles of faith about writing, nothing very surprising. I like a great degree of compression. I like to mix lateral steps with forward ones. I don’t want the prose ever to feel simply functional—at least not for any stretch. I want it to feel constantly alive and engaging in more than one way at a time. I want the stakes to feel real, and usually with a degree of “what happens next-ness.”

In some ways, Cities of Refuge is a kind of psychological novel, and a kind of political one, but I don’t think of it in those terms. I think of it as a story- and character-driven book of the kind I like to read, not what I’d call a novel of ideas. Yes, some of the characters have of ideas about theology or history, that’s just part of the way they think. I tried to do right by different ways of thinking and make them interesting to any reader of good will.

Rumpus: It seems like you don’t have any doubts about the power of storytelling.

Helm: The novel’s not the best form for disposing ideas, though that’s one thing it can do. It likely is the best form, though, for conveying the experience of us each being alone, trapped in our skulls with only these bodies and this imperfect instrument of language to convey our state and to find meaning and connection. Novels seem to exist because of this need to know and connect, and so story becomes charged with necessity.

Rumpus: Your novel is set in Canada, but how did the debate over American immigration strike you? Was that in the back of your head when writing?

Helm: There’s a degree of fascination and incredulity that Canadians have when we look upon what goes on in the States; also a degree of quiet self-righteousness which I wish we could take down at the knees. I guess I wasn’t thinking so much about the U.S. circumstance as the global one of so-called open countries, open cities.

The novel asks, how do we claim our place in the world, and what if that place won’t claim us?

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Featured image of Michael Helm © by Alexandra Rockingham.

Second image of Michael Helm © by Stefania Yahri.


Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Nimrod, The San Antonio Express News, HTML Giant, Kill Author, Kirkus Reviews, and many others. He’s finally close to completing his first novel and is working on a series of noir novellas. More from this author →