The Rumpus Book Club chats with Michael Helm about his new novel After James, the line between paranoia and caution, and the use of poetry as a plot device.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: About the structure—it read to me like it could almost have been three novellas as well as a novel. How did you conceive of it when you were writing it?
Michael Helm: I was working on three stories I knew were related but I had to write a way into them before I saw how I wanted them to work. At some point I had to make the wormholes, and to decide how the parts would stand in relation to one another. I wanted each to work on its own, and for some degree of resolution to have effect, but also for mystery to remain, and for larger questions to form over the book.
Brian S: Yeah, one of those wormholes snagged me this afternoon when I was finishing the book up—am I right in thinking that Celia in the last section sees Ali in one of the boxes in Germany at the art show?
Jordan K: That was a chilling moment.
Michael Helm: She sees a version of herself whom she doesn’t recognize, but we do. You’re right to think of Ali.
Brian S: Did you ever fiddle with the order that the sections appear in, or was Ali’s story always going to come first?
Michael Helm: Ali’s section was first. I sort of followed a dog into a story and it became interesting to me partly for how it set up other possibilities, other stories. The three pieces can stand on their own but the effect is much different if they’re read in sequence. They’re written to be read in order.
Jordan K: At one point in the book you talk about cross-generational trauma. I got the sense of an unconscious global trauma that runs throughout the whole thing.
Michael Helm: There’s some evidence that before events of mass trauma, even unpredictable ones, people begin to feel higher anxiety, often expressed in terms specific to the event. In other words, the real past can traumatize us, but so can the real future. Maybe that accounts for that feeling in the novel, in its apocalyptic notes. And we now know that trauma, and certain important experiences, can imprint on us at a genetic level. Many of the concepts we once thought belonged to speculation or science fiction are now part of our understood reality.
Science is claiming ever more ground from popular stories of the kind we thought we weren’t to believe in. But on the matter of felt trauma, all the main characters are in the aftermath of crisis as we meet them. That their condition can at times seem like that of the larger world is both terrifying and consoling. We want to know that we’re not alone with our loneliness or loss.
Jordan K: Sort of a societal trauma then on a microscopic level. In the book at least.
Michael Helm: Really, I think the novel moves toward bigger questions, and I’m happy you felt that register, Jordan. But in some ways the movement in each of the three parts was intended to be from the safer (for the reader) territory of genre fiction, to one a little stranger, more real, productive of meaning.
Brian S: Did you find yourself outlining parts of the book as you went along, looking for places to work in crossovers? Or did you just let them happen?
Michael Helm: I let the connections happen. Sometimes I had to remove them. The writing was highly intuitive but it also required a lot of conscious measurement on revision. In providing some of the satisfactions of resolution, but also withholding other satisfactions, I hoped to make something more than a puzzle to be solved and put away. I like inexhaustible novels (not claiming I managed one).
Brian S: Why use poetry as the driving force in James’s section? Not that I minded—I’m a poet and I loved the commentary on the online groups (that I never joined in on personally)—it just seemed like an odd choice. One of the characters remarked on it too, I believe.
Michael Helm: I love poetry, read it a lot, but make no claim to being able to write it. In the novel, the poems and fragments brought forward at the level of language some of the ideas and tensions that occur dramatically. Part two especially seems to be concerned with codes and shuffled codes, and the idea that language can be recombined to create new forms, new things, is of course very old in poetry. I thought of it as fiction by other means.
Brian S: This is the second novel this year we’ve done that uses poetry in that way—we also read Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief. It’s not a conspiracy, I swear!
Do you have a whole book of those poems stored away somewhere on your computer, or just the ones that showed up in the novel?
Michael Helm: And James, in part two, is in the so-called precariat class of young people whose futures aren’t certain. He’s not suited to the jobs he’s had. His only talent is reading, and where does that leave you these days?
I’d have to add, too, that the thought that an obscure Internet poetry site might be connected to global political violence was inviting. Absurdity isn’t quite so absurd as it once was.
Jordan K: It’s not! Like you said about broadly ironic and clearly imaginary characters becoming part of the given. We’ve got some of that in US politics right now.
Michael Helm: I don’t have a book of poems but I’m flattered that you asked. Or no, I see now you’re afraid I have such a book. Poets know to be afraid.
Brian S: I have a cousin who’s a pretty hardcore conspiracy theorist. It was interesting to see that work itself out in a way that wasn’t completely ludicrous. Ha! Not afraid.I figure if James Franco is publishing poetry…
Michael Helm: We’re getting used to reality and fantasy passing into each other. Much of the border between them has been erased. See Trump, see El Chapo. It’s fiction’s job to express how it feels to be living now, and it’s a complex feeling, full of contradiction. To me it often feels like a brutal trivialization of reality. That old saying, If you’re not paranoid, you’re not paying attention. Paranoia can be a sign of a sanity in some circumstances, in some places and times. This one, for instance. We watch the screen, it watches us back.
Brian S: Yeah, I know a lot of people who keep the camera on their laptops covered unless they’re using it for something, just because it’s apparently easy to hack.
How long did this novel take for you to write? I mean, some of the references are fairly recent, especially in James’s section with Turkey and Syria. You can’t have finished it that long ago.
Michael Helm: I was around the Turkey-Syria border in the fall of 2013. I didn’t know it but at that time jihadists were already paying drivers to kidnap and deliver westerners to the border. Steven Sotloff had just been kidnapped. Even not knowing everything at the time, it wasn’t hard to see where things were going.
Mine is covered right now.
Brian S: Have you moved on to a new project yet? And who are you reading these days? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Michael Helm: I seem always to have two or three novels going at once. It takes me a long time to finish one. This book, like my last two, took a long time to write. I’d love to write one in two or three years, but I seem bound to the idea of making them more involved as I go. I just write what I want to read, and sometimes keeping it interesting means adding one more element that ends up adding another year to the work.
I don’t know about new. Just at this moments I’m reading the Selected Essays of John Berger, Nancy Princenthal’s biography of the painter Agnew Martin. And a friend just told me to read Gerald Murnane’s novel The Plains. And I just finished my annual rereading of one or another section of Underworld. This one was the scene where Brian Glassic visits Marvin Lundy to see his baseball memorabilia, one of the great comic scenes in a novel with many of them.
Brian S: Thanks for such a marvelous book and for joining us tonight. Best of luck with the book.
Jordan K: Thanks, Michael. Great talking to you.
Michael Helm: Thanks for having me, and for having After James.