When Michael Helm did a reading in a bar at this year’s AWP Conference in Boston, things did not quite go as planned. Each time Helm spoke into the mic, squeals of feedback and a low droning wail erupted into the cramped, dark space, forcing people to alternate between listening attentively and plugging their ears.
Helm soldiered on, gripping the mic by the base and at an odd angle to minimize the feedback and spare the audience. His voice, already measured and smooth, turned quieter and quieter as he tried to get through the prologue of his new novel Cities of Refuge. Soon he was almost whispering, as if he could trick the mic into thinking he wasn’t there. The audience curled toward the stage and the odd, dissonant sounds provided an eerie background to Helm’s work. The novel opens on a woman named Kim being followed through Toronto, observed from a distance, about to suffer a grave attack that will change her life.
Published in Canada in 2010, but just released in the U.S. from Tin House Books, Cities of Refuge covers a broad canvas of ideas. The first half of the novel is concerned with the hunt for Kim’s attacker, but the novel slowly expands its focus to include her father, Harold, and questions of xenophobia, immigration, and forgotten atrocities.
One of the key themes of Helm’s novels is whether or not imagination can help humanity deal with a troubled past. Can the stories we tell about each other—whether it’s Kim imagining her attacker’s troubled life, or the protagonist of Helm’s previous novel, In the Place of Last Things, confronting his parents’ secrets—help us reach some sort of peace? Cities of Refugeexplores these ideas with intelligence and grace.
Back in Boston, that mic fought Helm throughout his reading, but even though the feedback never quieted, the room did. Despite his whispering, it was obvious that Michael Helm is here, he has been here, and he has something to say.
I spoke with Michael Helm over the phone, over e-mail, and in Boston. This interview is put together from our conversation.
My fellow Bobcat, Richard “Black Beard” Santos, getting his interview on.