IN CONVERSATION: Helen Humphreys

Interview by Jill Downie

On a recent wintry evening, readers crowded the main floor of Burlington’s A Different Drummer Books to watch mystery writer Jill Downie, interview her long-time friend Helen Humphreys. Humphreys is the award-winning author of four books of poetry, six novels, and two works of creative non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Evening Chorus, is about three characters trying to survive the Second World War. Over the course of an hour, Jill and Helen chatted, reminisced, laughed, and engaged with the audience on a number of personal and literary subjects. Here is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

JD: After your novel Coventry, you said, “I think I have now said what I wanted to say about the Second World War.” And yet, here we are to talk about The Evening Chorus.

HH: I’m always doing things like that: making these definitive statements, and then…

JD: …backtracking. But I wanted to say I’m so glad you put your characters back in that particular cauldron. Do you remember how it happened?

HH: Tim Dee wrote a book about birds called The Running Sky that mentioned a group of men who spent the war in a prison camp in Germany watching birds, and I liked the idea of the men in the cage and the birds free outside. That image started the whole thing off, even though I thought, No! No more World War II!

JD: The book is set in Germany, London, and Wales in 1940 and then again in 1950. That period has the reverberations of your family, because didn’t your parents live through the Blitz?

HH: Well, my grandfather died in 1941, around that time, so it has a lot of family significance, and my parents were both children during the war. 

JD: Thinking about the first sentence, “James Hunter falls through morning” — flying is a recurring theme in your work. Leaving Earth was the story of two women who went to break the endurance record flying around and over Toronto in 1933, and it comes up again and again in your books.

HH: Even though I myself hate flying. I think it’s because of my father’s father: he was in both wars — in the first he was in the trenches, and then he became a pilot because he didn’t like being in the trenches. In the second war, he was a squadron leader, and in the 1941 battle for Malta, he was sent there to take control of the airbase. His plane was shot down. It was a Wellington and there were six or seven people on it, and there was never any wreckage found. So my father grew up knowing that his father had just disappeared. My grandmother always thought that although he’d crashed a lot times, he wouldn’t have died in a crash, which it turns out was probably true. A few years ago, because of the way the war is documented now, I was able to access the log of the German pilot who shot the plane down to find out what had happened. He shot the plane and then circled back, and he saw them all getting into a dingy. My grandmother, in the end, had been right. My grandfather probably didn’t die in the plane. He died in the water. The Malta air-sea rescue I contacted said they wouldn’t have gone out if there were German planes in the area, so that boat could have drifted around for a while, and he might have been injured.

JD: One of my favourite characters in the book is the Kommandant. One of the reasons he fascinated me is he was originally a professor of classics at the University of Berlin, and he’d also been to Oxford. Everybody in the camp has their specific role. There’s a bird man, an artist, and they all have appointed roles within their society in the camp.

HH: Yes, they become something else in the camp because they can no longer be the person they used to be. These camps, I have to say, were POW camps, not death camps. The officers didn’t do any labour, and they had leisure time, in a sense. A lot of them tried to escape, but a lot of them took up things like birdwatching. Sports, too. In one of the camps they made a 9-hole golf course and used a golf ball out of a rock with elastics wound around it. When the man who made it got home, he took it to St. Andrews golf course in Scotland to have it weighed. It was the exact weight of a golf ball. It was a very industrious war for many, mostly to keep themselves sane.

JD: Was the Kommandant based on someone?

HH: Yes, he was based on a real person. So often, the Kommandants in these camps were men who weren’t career soldiers. They were men who had distinguished themselves in the first war, often older, in their 40s or 50s, but they weren’t soldiers, and some of them were not necessarily happy about being in charge of prisoners or being in the war at all. This particular Kommandant was a prisoner of war in England in the first war. He stayed in England after the war and went to Oxford and become a classics professor but ended up being back in Italy in charge of a camp in the second war. He did a thing in his camp, which is crazy when you think about it. He took all two thousand men on a walk every day in the countryside, and he told them that if somebody escaped, he’d stop the walks. Nobody ever escaped. They went out every day for three hours, and they’d look at flowers and paint things.

JD: Your writing style is as beautiful as embroidery. I wonder about your writing process. 

HH: I write on the computer now because it’s faster. But every book is different. In the past I liked to do a fast first draft because I thought if you get something down quickly, you can spend a long time rewriting it. As you get older, though, life gets busier, and everything gets shorter. Even though I’m mostly just writing, I seem to have no time to write. I teach; I’m doing various things. So I thought, I’m going to take one month, I can clear space for one month, and I wrote ten pages a day for thirty days, and I had three hundred pages for my first draft. Even when I had nothing to say, I made myself write. At the end, I let it sit for a bit and then I read it, and I thought this is terrible, it’s awful, it’s garbage, so I’ll start again, and then I did two more drafts, structuring things differently and taking a different approach.

I rewrote this book so many times. One of the early problems I had was setting it in a prison camp. Every day in that prison camp is the same. The men get up, they have morning roll call, they have twelve hours where they’re gardening or playing golf, or they lie around reading, and then they have evening roll call and get locked in for the night. You can only describe that a few times or it’s completely boring. In the end, I went back to that first thirty-day draft I did, and a lot of it actually became the heart of the book. I sort of put all the drafts together.

JD: What’s next? What plans do you have?

HH: I actually have another little book coming out, maybe at the end of this year or next year, but it’s a completely different thing. It’s a book about a river, and it has photographs — not my photographs — but I wrote the text for it. I’ve also started thinking about a new novel. I’m in the beginning stage, which is always the nice stage, because everything is possible and fantastic, before you actually start writing it down and it becomes horribly limited and then you spend years trying to break yourself out of the prison you’ve created by your idea. 

Helen Humphreys’ novel The Reinvention of Love was a national bestseller; Coventry was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year, and a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. She won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for Afterimage and the Toronto Book Award for Leaving Earth, and The Lost Garden was a Canada Reads selection. She has received the Harbourfront Festival Prize for literary excellence, and lives in Kingston, Ontario.

Jill Downie was born in Guyana, lived in England, and studied in Paris before settling in Canada. She is the author of plays, short stories, historical fiction, biographies, and currently writes a mystery series, published by Dundurn, starring Detective Inspector Ed Moretti and his partner, Detective Sergeant Liz Falla. The third in the series, Blood Will Out, was published in September, 2014. She lives in Ancaster, with her actor husband Ian.