Q&A: Michael Helm

by Anna Bowen, September 2017

Michael Helm is the author of Giller Prize-finalist The Projectionist, as well as In the Place of Last Things and Cities of Refuge. An editor at Brick magazine, he teaches at York University. Helm’s new novel, After James (McClelland & Stewart), is a mesmerizing book – it’s impossible not to be pulled completely under by it. In three distinct but interconnected parts, After James takes the reader down a rabbit hole of apocalypse, mystery and technology, and leads them into a skillfully woven narrative. Here, Michael Helm answers some of our questions about After James:

MW: You’ve said that the book “registers in fiction what it feels like to be living in this moment in this kind of disquiet.” Can you talk about the disquiet that you are referring to?
MH: Globally we’ve been through a transition in recent years that’s caused us to accelerate away from anything like the illusion of a stable reality, a stable self, sure ground… it turned out I felt a lot of anxiety about very large forces currently at play. These forces — climate change, extinction, cyber surveillance, and so on — connected to political forces.

MW: The novel is composed with a nod to three distinct genres – gothic horror, apocalypse, and mystery. Why did you pursue these genres?
MH: In a sense, these kinds of unreality are a large part of our reality. At the same time, reality as constructed by history, nature, and science, is becoming ever less plausible, sort of shading toward cheap entertainment except that it’s frightening and true… After James is trying to think about these matters by [registering] reality in ways that aren’t otherwise made available to us.

MW: What is the role of the fiction writer in a time of climate change, transformative technologies, and surveillance? If spending time on social media, reading the news on a lit screen “flattens our experience of reality,” can reading fiction be a kind of antidote to this?
MH: No one was really surprised when that study came out recently from the New School showing that reading literary fiction (and not commercial fiction or nonfiction) caused a measurable increase in readers’ empathy…novels, maybe because they’re an old technology, can go deeper than most attention-immersive forms. The best ones are like mountains that make their own weather. They’re places to be. And when you come off the mountain, put down the book, things and people around you are even more fully present.

MW: I read that you wrote these three sections concurrently – what was that like? Do you form a detailed outline and go from there, filling it in, or did you let the characters guide you?
MH: I don’t use outlines. I need not to know where the novels are going. At some point I see what’s taking shape and try to think ahead but usually I find something better in the actual writing. It was hard to work this way with After James because I had to keep three stories in mind at the same time… in this novel I had to sense where [readers] heard echoes or started to see patterns forming…