Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Helen Humphreys on dead spiders and undersung poets

The author of The Evening Chorus answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Helen Humphreys is the author of The Evening Chorus. (Ayelet Tsabari)

With her latest novel, The Evening Chorus, Helen Humphreys further cements her unofficial title as Canadian Author Most Likely To Move You To Tears. The Evening Chorus traces the search for beauty, meaning and love — in both the human and natural worlds — amid the most brutal backdrop imaginable: a German POW camp in WWII.

Below, Humphreys answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Shauna Singh Baldwin asks, "What did you learn from writing one book that you have used/can use/will use when writing the next?"

The process of writing each book is always different and I find very little overlap between novels. This was a very disappointing lesson to learn, as I had assumed that some elements of novel writing could be mastered and repeated in the next novel. Alas, this is definitely not the case as each new book is a world unto itself and I have to find my way into it without any help from previous writing experience. But the one thing that does become a bit easier is being able to identify what isn't working sooner, and not being afraid to get rid of it, or start the book over again.

2. Kim Thúy asks, "Have you ever fallen in love with a character from your own book?"

I was fond of Charles Sainte-Beuve from The Reinvention of Love. I loved writing from his snide and witty voice and could have happily continued writing from that voice for much longer than the one novel. 

3. Heather O'Neill asks, "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"

I've done many strange things, hard to pick one, but for The Lost Garden, I would lie on the floor every day under the Ellen Wilmott book, The Genus Rosa, in imitation of my character, Gwen. I did this before beginning to write each morning. In general, I try to physically attach to each novel, where possible, by engaging in the experiences of the characters.

4. Timothy Taylor asks, "What book were you reading when you were first inspired to write? How old were you? Why do you think that book affected you the way it did at that moment in your life?"

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. I was around eight years old and I was devastated that the spider, Charlotte, died. I remember sobbing and sobbing over her death. I was also reading a lot of Enid Blyton adventure books and wanted adventures, and so it occurred to me that if I wrote books, I could both have adventures, and also I wouldn't have to feel so sad about the content of the story, because I would have control over it.

5. Eric McCormack asks, "Honestly, what does your writing tell you — both the good and the bad — about yourself?"

Writing sometimes works as a kind of prophesy for me, in that often when I am writing I find out how I am really feeling about something. It's a truth-teller, for better and for worse. There's no hiding from my feelings when I write, but I can sometimes hide quite successfully from them when I'm not writing.

6. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What are some of your biggest frustrations while you work? In what ways do you continuously fail at what you do?"

It is harder and harder, with our uber-connected world, to find and access the blocks of uninterrupted time that I find necessary for writing a novel. I am bad at safeguarding my time and often fail to give myself enough of it.

7. Helen Humphreys asks, "What is the best piece of advice about writing that you have ever received?" 

A bit weird to answer my own question, but I would say that the best piece of advice on writing I received applies equally to life and writing, and it is to simply pay attention to where you are — emotionally and physically — and work from there.

8. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Name three Canadian writers you believe should be more widely read than they are. Why?"

Poets are notoriously undersung, so I will give a shout-out to three poets whose books I have recently enjoyed: Sara Peters, 1996; Kerry-Lee Powell, Inheritance; Catherine Graham, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects.