Helen Humphreys: On Her New Novel ‘The Evening Chorus,’ Her Creative Process, and the Solitary Act of Writing
Author: Julie R. Enszer
March 2, 2015
“I struggle with writing because to write well you have to remove yourself somewhat from the life around you. It is a lonely business.”
Helen Humphreys is the author most recently of The Evening Chorus, published in February 2015. Prior to this recent novel, she has written four books of poetry, five novels, and two works of creative non-fiction. She was born in Kingston-on-Thames, England, and now lives in Kingston, Ontario.
Her first novel, Leaving Earth (1997), won the City of Toronto Book Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her second novel, Afterimage (2000), won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her third novel, The Lost Garden (2002), was a 2003 Canada Reads selection, a national bestseller, and was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Wild Dogs (2004) was a finalist the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction; it was produced as a stage play at CanStage in Toronto in the fall of 2008 and has been optioned for a film. Coventry (2008) was a national bestseller and shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award and the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction; it was also a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The Reinvention of Love (2011) was longlisted for the Dublin Impac Literary Award and shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction.
Humphreys’ work of creative non-fiction, The Frozen Thames (2007), was a #1 national bestseller. Her most recent work of non-fiction is Nocturne (2013), a memoir about the life and death of her brother, Martin.
Her collections of poetry include Gods and Other Mortals (1986); Nuns Looking Anxious, Listening to Radios (1990); and, The Perils of Geography (1995). Her most recent collection, Anthem (1999), won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry.
On behalf of Lambda Literary, Julie R. Enszer spoke with Humphreys via email about her new novel, The Evening Chorus, and her work as a writer.
Let’s begin with your beautiful new novel, The Evening Chorus. The novel opens in a German war camp at the beginning of World War II. How did the story for The Evening Chorus come to you?
I came across a reference to the fact that bird-watching was a pastime in the German POW camps during the Second World War, and it intrigued me. I am interested in the natural world, and have been toying for years with the idea of writing a natural history of sorts, and so these two notions came together and I decided to write a story that served as a natural history for a particular moment in WWII.
The novel unfolds in two parts that cover two years a decade apart–1940 and 1950. Why these time periods? Is there something in particular that drew you to write about this moment in history?
I wanted to show my characters during the war and afterwards, and to make the point that they experienced a kind of freedom during the war that wasn’t possible post-war. Choices made during the emotional chaos of wartime had much greater repercussions when war was over.
At one point in the novel, you draw a beautiful parallel between the silence that surrounded the lives of gay and lesbian people during this period and the silence that surrounded the lives of people having extramarital affairs. Did that parallel emerge for you while writing or is it something you had been mulling prior to the novel?
I was working with the idea of freedom and imprisonment. From the initial image of the POW camp, where the men are in the cage, and the birds are free; I wanted to show that there was a certain freedom during wartime, because it was anarchic. The characters are much more imprisoned post-war, and having one of the characters experience this through the very closeted gay experience of those years, was one way to illustrate this point.
All three of the characters in the novel are engaged in their own silent reveries. Did the silence of the characters create more space for you to imagine a lesbian character? How do you think about gay and lesbian characters entering your work?
When I write a novel, I am trying to make a watertight story, and so everything in the story is there because it serves the story. The Evening Chorus follows the lives of three main characters, and one of these characters has a story arc that includes a lesbian relationship. I do think about opportunities in my work to have gay and lesbian characters, but everything ultimately has to serve the story, or else nothing works. I start my work on a novel by falling in love with a story–usually through some very small detail; in this case the birdwatchers in the prison camp–and then I devote myself to telling that story the best way I can. Some stories are more conducive to having gay and lesbian characters in them than others.
Interesting! Could you tell me about what stories are for you more conducive to having gay and lesbian characters?
Well, in The Evening Chorus, a book about the ways in which people are imprisoned and free–both figuratively and literally – it made sense to include a character who was lesbian because it highlighted the deeply closeted 1950s, where the second part of the novel is set. But in my novel, Coventry, also set during the Second World War, the story is of three people who are fleeing a burning city. The story essentially takes place on one night and is based on the real events of that night. Two of the characters need to have a sort of romantic dalliance, to keep the story moving, and the likelihood that both of those characters, who are strangers to one another when they meet, would be gay just didn’t seem plausible to me, so there are no gay characters in that book. I should make the point here that I don’t write to an agenda, but rather to what interests me in terms of story. That really is my prime concern as a novelist.
The Evening Chorus was for me fundamentally about loneliness and how the world creates the conditions for loneliness in people’s lives in ways that they cannot control. Of course, for you as the writer—as the storyteller—you have the ability to shape and control the world that you create. I wonder if you might talk about the choices that you made in this novel around loneliness and actions and conditions that shape people’s lives outside of their own control?
Interesting that you felt the story was about loneliness. While each of the characters grapples with loneliness in their particular story arc, I felt the story was much more about their relationship with the natural world. It just shows that there are a myriad of ways to interpret a narrative. But I purposefully wrote the book as a sort of natural history, so the natural world is there in every scene, and while the characters might be isolated from other human beings; they are never isolated from the nature that surrounds them.
Nature also plays an important role in your novel, Wild Dogs. While in The Evening Chorus, nature seems to be more restorative, even nurturing, in Wild Dogs, nature is a force that reckons with humans—and with which humans must reckon. In Wild Dogs, you seem to invite readers to consider their own wildness.
Yes, Wild Dogs is very much about what is wild and tame within human beings, and how much of us is still wild, and how that wildness is activated in love. The book was an examination, for me, of wildness and domesticity.
In both The Evening Chorus and Wild Dogs, chapters bring us different characters’ perspectives. Often each chapter reveals new information that only one character knows. I wonder if you would talk a bit about how characters come to you and how you experience the revelations that unfold in the book as a writer. Do characters and actions surprise you? Or do you feel like a maker in control of all of the action?
I tend to think of story first and then character, but one quickly follows on the heels of the other. So, first I think, “what is the story” and then I think, “whose story is it?” That is how I get to character, and usually it is one person’s story more than another’s, but sometimes, as in both Wild Dogs and The Evening Chorus, it is more of an ensemble piece. The thing to consider with character is always motivation–what does a particular character want within the context of the story, and how are they going to set about trying to get it? So, I figure this out at the start, but the characters then take on lives of their own and grow in unexpected ways. My job is to keep them aligned with their motivation, but there is a lot of room there for them to develop naturally.
Recently, I read your gorgeous memoir Nocturne, and I could not help wondering while reading it, is The Evening Chorus the book you were working on before your brother’s death? Did it get interrupted by your brother’s death? Or did you conceive and write the book after your brother died?
The Evening Chorus was written after Martin’s death. I had conceived of the idea before his death, but I didn’t work on it until after he had died, and after I had written Nocturne. It was very hard to write because I had a hard time finding the peace of mind that is necessary when one is writing a novel. I struggled a lot with the book as a result and went through many drafts. While I was always in love with the idea of it, the actual writing proved difficult as I felt that my brother’s death had changed me, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to write fiction again.
In Nocturne you wrote:
For me to write well, to write fully, to really get inside a novel, I have to leave the world I actually live in. I can’t have distractions from the story, which means living alone, and creating an environment of calm and routine–wearing the same clothes day after day, eating the same food–so that nothing from the real world interferes with the creation of the fictional one.
I wonder if you would tell us a little bit more about what your routine looks like when you are deep in your creative work.
I have always written my novels using this immersion technique, and it has always worked just fine. But after Martin died, I found it hard to leave the real world for long stretches of time, the way I used to be able to do when working on a novel. So, for The Evening Chorus, I shortened the immersion period and essentially wrote a first draft in a month–ten pages a day for 30 days. Initially I dismissed this draft and went on to write a different second draft, and then another different third draft. But in the end, I went back to the first draft I wrote in a month, because there was more of what I wanted in that draft. And, because it had been written quickly, it had a good flow.
At the same time, in Nocturne, you write, “My lifetime of doing it [writing] has always held ambivalence and struggle.” Would you talk a little bit about the ambivalence and struggle?
Writing is my longest relationship. I began writing seriously (in my mind, anyway) when I was six, and so, as with any long relationship, it periodically has to be renegotiated. I struggle with writing because to write well you have to remove yourself somewhat from the life around you. It is a lonely business. Every so often I have to wrestle with this and find my way back to believing that writing is a good thing to do with my entire life. Right now I’ve made peace with it again, but I’m sure that there will be more struggle to come. That said, I am also so entwined with writing, that I don’t know where I begin and it ends. It has become my essential self.
You started your literary work with poetry. In The Evening Chorus, the attention to language, compressed meaningful, beautiful is still present. Are you still writing poetry? How do you see your poetry informing your prose?
Even though I no longer really write poetry, I am still charged by the poetic impulse and the poetic phrase; so I try and put poetry into my prose. I think there are a lot of elements from my poetry still alive in my fiction; in particular my focus on images.
Yes, the images of the milkweed holding the heat as Alice’s lover walks through the meadow from Wild Dogs, seems like a particularly poetic passage in your work. Some characters also seem to lend themselves to poetry. I think of Lily in Wild Dogs and the deeply poetic chapter that explores her mind. What poetry and fiction nurtures you as a writer?
Faulkner is the writer whom I most admire, and whose sentences I return to again and again, because they are so alive and full of music. I like musical language. When I was young, I was very influenced by Dylan Thomas, and by Auden. I still read a lot of poetry. I like many American poets, in particular, Jane Hirshfield and Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Henri Cole. As for fiction writers, I tend towards individual books these days, rather than an author’s entire work. The last novel that I really loved was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
What are you working on now?
I have a little book coming out in the next year or so that is a meditation on a river and includes both fiction and non-fiction, also photographs and maps and sketches. And I have begun thinking about my next novel, which I can’t really say anything about yet, but I’m hoping it will also blend fiction and non-fiction in a new and interesting way.
I was introduced to your work through The Evening Chorus and I am now reading through your oeuvre. Where would you like readers to start with your work? How do you imagine your body of work unfolding for readers?
Someone recently described my novels as being divided into books on WWII (of which, The Evening Chorus is the third) and “other” subjects. So, I’m not sure my body of work would so much unfold as return. Certain subject matter and themes are evident in all the novels–love and loss–and I have written about war and nature before. But looking back, I would say that I am proudest of The Lost Garden, Wild Dogs, Nocturne, and this most recent novel, The Evening Chorus. These are the books that got close to saying what I want to say with my life’s work.