Friday was the final evening of the 2015-16 Grimsby Author Series. It was the culmination of an amazing season filled with engaging authors, insightful introductions, thoughtful questions and book signings. This evening’s guest was Helen Humphreys who traveled from Kingston to speak about her two latest books, The Evening Chorus and The River.
Helen Humphreys was described as an “elegant story teller” with “prose that is quiet and simple yet laden with impact”. Her novel, The Evening Chorus noted to be a “textured story that explores what it means to live a meaningful life”. The author began with a reading which highlighted her beautiful text and then answered questions from the audience. She was asked about the scene when the Kommandant takes the prisoner into the woods to stop the war for a moment and enjoy he birds together. She shared the humanity of the war, how the war had touched so many families and how it was fought by civilians including artists, teachers and alumni of universities such as Oxford. The war impacted all kinds of professions unlike wars of today which tend to be fought by professional soldiers. She shared that her own grandfather had been a watercolorist one day and was fighting in the war the next day.
Humphrey’s also read from her book The River which was published last year after she had been “picking away at it slowly” for 13 years. Although she notes that it is “unclassifiable” , it has been classifed as a work of creative non-fiction and describes the 170 million year old Napanee River on its’ own terms through fiction, non-fiction, photography and lists. She had the audience chuckling as she read an example of a list which defined the articles that the river had brought to her including chairs, pipes, a marble and even a goat’s head in a burlap sack. Although the books are totally different styles and genres they are both connected by nature.
Humphrey’s writing process is very unique. She tries to work on her novel as much as she can, working towards writing a first draft within 30 days, writing 10 pages each day in a month. For The Evening Chorus, she admitted that she hated her first draft, rewrote it twice and then reverted to the original draft. She tends to write the first draft quickly since she has to immerse herself in the world of the book and then goes back, taking her time with the editing process.
“A novel is a world to enter, to enter that world you have to leave the world you actually live in and that is difficulty”
Writing has been her full-time vocation for 15 years and she was open to sharing her struggle to make enough to live on, sometimes subsidizing her income with teaching or spending time as a writer in residence. She feels positive when she is paid enough to last a couple of months ahead but admitted that she worries about money, has no savings, no pension and no insurance plan which is a precarious existence that influences her speed of writing and publishing. She can’t take years to write a novel and needs to publish a book every 2-3 years.
Humphrey’s writes with an outline, at least knowing the beginning and end. The outlines are vague and lack detail. She revealed that The Evening Chorus ended up with a different ending than she had originally planned. She decided that her original ending was too depressing, that she did not want to fixate on tragedy and that she wanted her characters to have a “happiesh” ending.
A question was asked about whether she would write about WWI and Humphreys answered that she is done writing about war. She had not intended to write three novels about WWII and although she likes writing about history, after losing her brother, she want to focus on celebrating life. She is currently working on a contemporary novel and a non-fiction book which will be published in 2017.
Humphrey’s provided some insight into the challenges of being an author. She was open, honest and the audience had time to ask number of questions. Following the event, she signed her books and I am pleased to have signed copies of The Evening Chorus, Coventry and The Lost Garden.