By Phil McLachlan
Critically acclaimed Canadian novelist, Michael Helm, paid Fernie a visit at the Fernie Heritage Library last Friday as a part of the Booked: Fernie Writers’ Series.
A culturally expansive evening filled with music, good food, beverages and captivating literature, gave those attending a new understanding of the possibilities of creative writing.
Booked: Fernie Writers Series was inspired by the popularity surrounding the visit of CBC Radio 3 host, Grant Lawrence. Seeing the success of this event, the library board couldn’t help but keep this trend going.
“It was just such a big hit, we starting talking and thought we would do more of these,” said library director, Emma Dressler. “So we started planning the book series. It’s just worked out really well.”
“People come, they get inspired; they get to listen to a new author that maybe they wouldn’t hear, or they might not have read before, or to just talk about something new,” added Dressler. “We make it a lovely night; that’s what we try to do,” she added with a smile.
Taking centre stage in front of a crowd of approximately 60 attentive listeners, Author Michael Helm was interviewed by Canadian fiction writer and Fernie local, Angie Abdou. A member of the library board, Abdou had a large part in bringing Helm to Fernie, as they had met previously as Keynote speakers at a Writers’ Guild meeting in Regina, Saskatchewan two years ago.
“I was very interested in the way he talked about writing and liked what he had to say. I had not yet read his books, so then I read his books and I was won over,” said Abdou. “Since then I’ve been trying to think of a way to get him here.”
Helm grew up in the small Ontario town of Brampton. Helm considers it very similar to Fernie, with the main difference being the, “Sublime landscape.”
Starting out as a writer, Helm never dreamed that he would be traveling the country talking to enthusiasts about his work.
“I like writing, but I didn’t think about what the writing life is,” said Helm. “I don’t think I’d even met an author, because I grew up in a small town. I didn’t even physically see an author ‘til I was probably 20 years old. They were just a mythical species to me.”
Helm’s first book was published in 1997. He found that the publishing of a competed book is the most difficult part that comes along with starting out as an author.
“It took me four years to get published once the book was done,” said Helm. “I didn’t know anything about the publishing world, so I let that happen. But it isn’t like that now. If you write a book, and you’re a new writer and you’re excited about it, they want to bring the book out.
“If you finally get a writing life, it’s a good life to have. And I’m happy about it.”
Helm has produced four novels, but considers each to be very different pieces of work. Typically, Helm takes six years to produce a new novel, which brings with it a plethora of knowledge, wisdom and insight, communicated in a delightfully colorful way. Abdou considers similarities come in the language, rather than the theme.
“My first book was set in a small town, my next book was a road novel, my third book was set mostly in Toronto and this book is set all over the world,” said Helm.
Helm discussed his fourth novel with Fernie locals, explaining different aspects of himself, his life, his history in writing as well as his writing technique and how this comes into play in After James, which was released in September.
This latest work of art by Helm, encompasses themes of horror, mystery and apocalyptic times dominated by war, and natural disasters. It is a work of art that takes you through three different journeys from the perspective of a neuroscientist investigating a creativity drug gone wrong, a failed-poet turned detective in Rome tasked with decrypting online murder reports, and a virologist whose identity is stolen by a conceptual artist with a tie to missing individuals.
“After James is a novel about everything – neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, poetry, Neanderthals, the end of time, the beginning of time, chiasmus, sex, spelunking, computer hacks, the sublime, the stoned, bear spray, Syria, Turkey, translation, urban life, rural life, genetics, ghosting… and the list gallops on,” acclaimed Abdou, in a review of After James for The Winnipeg Review.
Finding an appropriate place to write isn’t as important to Helm as his thought process or mood. Sometimes it takes what he considers, a bit of searching, before he can sit down and write. Often times he finds that writing flows the easiest, right after leaving his bed in the morning.
The best part about writing for Helm, is the actual act of writing, as well as the act of discovery and the ability to ponder in your imagination.
“It (writing) isn’t just making up stories, it’s about accessing the world in a way that you couldn’t otherwise,” said Helm. “But it’s hard to say how that works, but I think readers know it when they read a book they connect to and writers feel it when they’re writing.”
Before arriving at the library, Helm and Abdou visited many of the numerous Fernie hot spots, including Island Lake Lodge where they spent most of the day.
“It’s amazing to be able to come here, and meet readers, townspeople and book enthusiasts. Even if people haven’t read the book, the fact that people can come together in a communal way, it’s a very good vibe,” said Helm. “This kind of event keeps literature going in this country.”
Helm is currently working on another book, but is holding any information as secret until the time is right to announce it.