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Michael Helm: ‘All great endings have death in them, whether or not someone expires’

Alexandra Rockingham

Michael Helm is the author of the novels Cities of Refuge, In the Place of Last Things and The Projectionist, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Helm, who lives near Dundas, Ont., and teaches at York University, recently published his fourth novel, After James, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Which book do you think is underappreciated?

If someone appreciates a book to tears, if they reread it and feel it in their lives or return to it when things are closing in on them so that it actually sustains them, even maybe saves them, does it make up for all those who never read the novel, or worse, who start it and fail it? There are obscure books I'd like more people to read – Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness, Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt, Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red – but even well-known masterpieces are underappreciated. Under the Volcano, for instance, and Underworld. Why can't I just answer the question?

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If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?

If they landed? You've not been paying attention. There's no one book to teach anyone about humanity but if I pretend to misunderstand a straightforward question I might get away with saying I'd hand them an e-reader. I'd load onto this otherwise not very useful to me object King Lear, Crime and Punishment, The Collected Stories of Chekhov, To the Lighthouse, some Beckett. Either they'd surrender their credit card information or they'd the blow up the planet (maybe I'd leave Beckett off).

What's the best death scene in literature?

Does everyone say the scenes in Romeo and Juliet or Anna Karenina? I'm partial to the death of the wolf in Part 1 of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. Okay, it's just so sad, and sadness can be a thin feeling and easily produced, and it's true that I sometimes lapse into sentimentality about fur-bearing animals, but it's also amazing, and as my partner says, it seems to serve McCarthy's intention to write a novel with a hole in it. But all great endings have death in them, whether or not someone expires. The end gives meaning to all that came before. The absence sharpens what once was the presence. At the end of Mavis Gallant's story The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street, no one dies, but it's about the loss of a life just the same.

Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?

I don't feel guilty but people are sometimes surprised when literary novelists say they like popular fiction. If it's well written, I like certain crime writing – Donald Westlake, Richard Price, Pete Dexter – and a particular strain of Scandinavian mystery novel. Not Larsson but Henning Mankell. Not Nesbo but that couple from the seventies, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. But I confess I often don't finish crime and mystery novels. The setup is what matters to me. The solving of mysteries and catching of bad guys, tedious.

What's the best sentence you've ever written?

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Maybe it's not the best but I remember one that meant a lot because I got to have a great conversation (argument) about it with my editor, Ellen Seligman. It's from In the Place of Last Things. Russ Littlebury is falling asleep in his aunt's trailer home in Arizona, thinking of Saskatchewan. He sees on the ceiling above him shadow lines cast by the louvred window shade, and he imagines all sorts of things in the lines, parade grounds, canalscapes, barrel staves, and the tines of a pitch fork his father once straightened by hand. "It stood in the earth one summer day behind the barn when he was naked with a girl he pressed his fingers to her mouth when she cried out and the horses' legs shifting through the slats." Ellen pointed out at length that it didn't make sense. I said at length that it was good to fall out of the usual sense every so often. All the other sentences on the page made sense in the usual way, and this one made sense in its own way. She said, "Read it aloud to me." I did, and said, "Pure jazz," and she laughed and we kept it.

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