Ottawa Writers festival: Helen Humphreys ties up a life in her latest novel

Helen Humphreys will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

The Kingston, Ontario writer Helen Humphreys has earned a well-deserved reputation for the fascinating subjects she chooses to write about and the words she employs to tell those stories. She has tackled apples in The Ghost Orchard, the Napanee River in The River, and, in Nocturne, the death of her concert pianist brother Martin to great effect. Now, in the novel Machine Without Horses, she explores the life of Megan Boyd, a brilliant “dresser” of the handmade flies used to catch fish and a talented country dancer to boot.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?

A. From an obituary of Megan Boyd in the New York Times: I was intrigued by the discrepancies in her character — how she was one of the best fly dressers in the world, but had never fished herself — how she was famous and yet lived in a barebones cottage without electricity or running water.

Q. You seem to have a fascination with things like apples, Scottish country dancing and tieing flies and the people who are doing things that seem prosaic or somewhat forgotten in our urbanized world but are actually very absorbing. Why is that?

A. I live in a small town where there is countryside all around me, and so things like apples and fly-fishing aren’t actually that removed from where or how I live. Also, I am attracted to the past and how we can learn from what came before.

Q. Are you a fisher? A country dancer? 

A. I am neither a fisher nor a country dancer. I did take fly-tying lessons while I was writing the novel, so that I would have some idea of what Megan Boyd did. And I have watched country dancing. So, it wasn’t too hard to imagine my way into a character who was involved in both of those worlds.

Q. The book seems to be an evolution of your approach to non-fiction? 

A. Increasingly, I am uninterested in being bound by genre, and I feel that a lot of fiction has become rote and a little bit dull as a result. I want to explore the edgelands of fiction, where it can bump up against non-fiction, where what is “true” is being challenged.

Q. Many writers are playing with the convention. Where are we headed?

A. I have no idea where we are headed, but I’m excited to find out. The writing I am interested in writing, and in reading, is part of that exploration.

Q. The first chunk of the book is the narrator talking about the journey to the novel. Why?

A. The first part of the book is largely based on me and my process (although there are some parts that are made up) and I did this because I wanted to show how a novel is made, wanted this book to be a sort of primer about writing a novel. It is my eighth novel and so I know a few things about writing a novel by now, and I want — at this age and stage of my career — to share what I know, to pass it on, rather than to keep it to myself. I want to demystify the process, my process, for anyone who is interested in finding out how I write a novel.

Q. Megan/Ruth is an absolutely unique character … strongly independent, determined to be true to her nature. What kind of person do you think she is?

A. I think she is a person who is relatively happy in her life and in herself, who doesn’t apologize for who she is and who has learned to work from her strengths. She is admirable because of that.

Q. How did she appear to you?

A. I imagined her out of the points of fact that I had of Megan Boyd. The book is an exploration of character, of how character is constructed.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I’m at work on another novel, this one is based on the true story of a murder on the prairies in 1947.

Machine Without Horses
Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins)

In Town: On Oct. 29, Helen Humphreys is on an Ottawa International Writers Festival panel called Character with Gillian Wigmore. For more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.