Michael Helm looks for answers In the Place of Last Things

On Feb. 2, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented York English Professor Michael Helm, a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist for his 1997 novel The Projectionist, reading from his novel In the Place of Last Things (2004) and his forthcoming book Cities of Refuge (2010). York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile. 

Outside, night sky on the snow. A lone highway sound came miles along crystals of ice hung dimeshining in the quarter moon…

from In the Place of Last Things
by Michael Helm

York English Professor Michael Helm is the first to admit that his main character is smarter than he is. In the author’s second novel, In the Place of Last Things, Russ Littlebury is as quick with a quote as he is with his anger, carrying with him the voices of his recently dead father and a host of Western thinkers. His creator recently shared thoughts about his novel and his writing process with the Canadian Writers in Person series.

Left: Michael Helm

Like Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno, Russ sets out for the world beyond the sun, travelling southwest from Saskatchewan to Mexico. As he drives further into the continent’s interior and deeper into his own pysche, he begins to unravel Western traditions of thought. Helm also experiments with Western genre by blending elements of the noir detective story, road tale, rural narrative and campus novel, “to bring these together with the execution of a single brushstroke, to create an organism that might not have been seen before but is nonetheless cohesive.”

As he pursues an elusive character in the present, Russ also chases shadows of his father and his past: “We learn to revise our understanding of past worlds. We think we move on but the past keeps on changing even after it’s gone.” Also at odds and under constant revision are different models of understanding, such as Russ’s belief in reason and his father’s in faith. Noting that we continually replace established models with “better” ones, Helm poses the problem: What is at the end of all this learning, a final presence or nothing? While writing his way through that question, the author discovered that “whatever the destination, love and devotion get us through, and duty and goodness exist outside ourselves.”

Helm’s novel began with just one sentence about a cold house. He didn’t know where that was going, but from that sentence came the first paragraph, then the main character and eventually the story. Just as his character slides between instinctive action and intense thought, so did the writer during the creative process. “Sometimes things fall into place,” said Helm, “and other times, a lot of conscious revision is needed.” Also a creative writing teacher at York, Helm believes that younger writers sometimes struggle because they lack the experience and preparation to access their natural intuition. He often tells his students to look away from the conscious activity of writing, perhaps while taking a break to do the dishes, the subconscious mind is free to work at finding just the right line to carry the story forward. 

When asked about the importance of landscape in his writing, specifically Saskatchewan, Helm reflected that his home province is “a pretty extreme place, so it’s a good place to have extreme states of mind.” This landscape is reflected in Russ who explores the broad horizons, both the inner and outer limits, of his identity. Perhaps he might have identified with Wolf Willow, where Wallace Stegner describes that world as “flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.” 

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Tonight at 7pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Elizabeth Hay will read from her Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights on Air.