Local Author Spotlight: Helen Walsh
Helen Walsh is the founder and president of Diaspora Dialogues, Canada's premier literary mentoring organization. Formerly the publisher of the Literary Review of Canada and a founding director of Spur, a national festival of politics, arts, and ideas, Walsh spent five years working as a film/digital media producer in L.A. and New York. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Introduce us to Pull Focus. What was the inspiration for this book?
Pull Focus is set behind the scenes of the international film festival world. The inspiration came in part from my experience working as a film producer in Toronto, NYC and LA, as well as running a festival and attending many book and film festivals around the world. At its heart, the novel explores the intersection of power and gender (including sexual harassment and sexual violence), and power and wealth. That’s partly inspired by my own lived experience of being a woman working in the entertainment industry, as well as the experiences of women I know, and stories we’ve read in the media.
I also have a strong interest in geopolitics and current affairs. For several years, I belonged to a G7/G20 research group at the University of Toronto, and attended G7/G20 summits and global governance meetings (World Bank, IMF, etc) as well as civil society protests around the world, including in Russia. So the global plot elements of the book – Russian oligarchs, Kazakhstan oil leases, Chinese government censorship, money laundering – all come from that interest and background, including meeting Vladimir Putin. And because I’ve worked in the arts, including raising money (for films, to publish a magazine, to launch/run arts orgs), the trade-offs on censorship, sponsorship and funding are of keen interest.
How do you maintain the tension and suspense while you’re writing a thriller?
I didn’t start out to write a thriller per se. Pull Focus is a crossover novel (stocked by booksellers as general fiction), but it is definitely full of tension and suspense. The novel was always set in the intensity of the film industry with its combination of money, celebrity and power. Where there’s lots of drama, and lots of money at stake, shady characters are sure to be present. The novel also uses the narrative structure of a condensed timeframe (10 days, 2 chapters per day) combined with many intersecting subplots, that ramp up suspense.
The other choice I made was to use first-personal narration, and to have the POV tight, so the reader experiences the threats, challenges and surprises when and as viscerally as Jane herself does. Because Jane is a private and guarded character (due to her complicated background), I needed the reader that close in order to have them identify and root for her. I wanted everything to be on the line for Jane. The professional opportunity of a lifetime unexpectedly arrives, but the knives are out because of her role in a sexual harassment scandal that’s split the organization. At the same time, the world as she knows it shifts, when her partner mysteriously disappears amidst allegations of fraud. It’s those moments when either an external event or an internal epiphany change the way we look at everything that interests me.
Do you know what’s going to happen, or are you also in suspense while writing?
I wrote seven drafts of the novel over many years, mostly because I was running two arts organizations for much of that time. With each draft, I added more layers but even from the beginning I storyboarded it like I would a screenplay. I put up a big chart on the wall, broken out into the 10 days, and I’d use different colour sticky pads to write story or character beats. I’d add, delete or move them around the days during revisions. Additionally, I used pads of lined paper to write long-hand thoughts about the novel as I was writing and kept a file for media clippings about relevant geopolitical events.
Can you tell readers what to look forward to/what’s next after this book?
I’m currently second draft on a follow-up book that opens four months later. Although Pull Focus is a stand-alone book, I felt when I finished there was more I wanted to explore with these characters and some of the storylines. I think it’s probably a trilogy – I have rough ideas on a third book. And I’m also revising an unrelated screenplay.