Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down named 2012 One Book: Toronto [author interview]

Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig (Coach House Books)

Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down—the acclaimed novel of fear and love set in a Toronto in crisis—has been named the 2012 One Book: Toronto title. The Toronto Public Library's city-wide book club runs throughout April.

The Toronto Public Library runs the One Book: Toronto program as part of April's "Keep Toronto Reading" festivities. Torontonians are encouraged to read one book together en masse and join in a city-wide conversation. Throughout April, the Toronto Public Library will host dozens of events concerning Girls Fall Down and its themes.

Past One Book: Toronto titles include Midnight at the Dragon Cafe (Judy Fong Bates), More (Austin Clarke) and Consolation (Michael Redhill).

About Girls Fall Down:

Girls Fall Down opens with a girl fainting in the Toronto subway. Her friends are taken to the hospital with unexplained rashes. Swarms of police arrive, and then the hazmat team. Panic ripples through the city, and words like poisoning and terrorism become airborne. Alex, a medical photographer who is hoping to chronicle the Toronto he knows on film before his sight fails completely, is a witness to this first episode. During the hysteria, he encounters an old girlfriend–the one who shattered his heart in the eighties, while she was fighting for social justice and he was battling his body’s chemical demons. But now Susie-Paul is in the midst of her own crisis: her schizophrenic brother is missing, and the streets of Toronto are more hostile than ever.

Maggie Helwig has published six books of poetry (most recently, One Building in the Earth), two books of essays, a collection of short stories and two previous novels, Where She Was Standing and Between Mountains. Her latest novel is Girls Fall Down. Helwig is currently the assistant curate at the Church of St. Timothy, North Toronto. Visit her online. Visit Coach House Books.

Julie Wilson: I'm thrilled Girls Fall Down has been selected as this year's One Book: Toronto title. At the time of its release, it was the one title that continued to come up in conversation. "Have you read it?" "Why didn't I read it sooner?" It was this city's best kept secret, yet it seemed almost everyone I knew had not only read it but loved it. To see it get this kind of extra push is going to make a lot of readers already familiar with your novel very happy.

To the book then, is there anything particularly emblematic about Toronto as a unique character of chaos? Or do you think any urban city centre could step into this story?

Maggie Helwig: Well, on the one hand, I think you could tell a story about fear and disease and gender and how a city operates, and set that story anywhere, but it would play out differently. This novel is how I imagine those things playing out in Toronto as its own particular self, with its slightly chill restraint and careful politeness, its specific negotiations around race and class and culture, its specific ways of half-acknowledging and half-erasing extreme poverty and homelessness, its specific relationship with mental illness and marginalization. I think we've got very complicated things going on in all these areas, and the more complicated because our issues tend to be worked out very quietly, in a partly suppressed way; there are reasons that Toronto writers tend to travel underground and into valleys; things happen way down there, both literally and figuratively.

JW: Talk about the title. What is the fall and how is it specific to girls? Is the fall a consequence? Are we still falling?

MH: The Christian myth of the fall is still a powerful one, and a lot of people who aren't Christians have still got that story operating in the back of their minds, I think. You see all kinds of secular versions of it emerging spontaneously. And according to the standard reading of that story, the “fall” from a primal state of innocence or goodness is, in fact, about girls; frequently it's seen as rooted in female sexuality specifically; which is interesting, because on the one hand it stigmatizes women, but on the other hand it does pose them as terribly powerful, able to reshape reality in fact.

Author Maggie Helwig.

The story retains power partly because that fall from innocence or grace, that sense that we've fallen and are still falling, is a real part of how we experience ourselves, as broken, as not what we want to be. And where we locate the responsibility for that and how we imagine it being “fixed” are very important questions.

One of the things I wanted to suggest in the novel is that, in fact, we must fall. It's only because of that loss of innocence, that “knowledge of good and evil” in the words of the Biblical text, that we can be moral actors at all. It's only because we have the ability to choose to do wrong that we can knowingly choose to do good. So the fall–and there are very ancient Christian theologians who say this, too – is essential to our becoming moral adults.

And in this novel–as, in fact, in the traditional “fall” narrative–the conscious moral actors, for good or ill, are the women and girls. They're the ones who make choices. Not always the right choices, but they're trying, they're out there acting and choosing, while the men tend to be passively pulled along by circumstance, or at least to imagine that they're passively pulled along.

There's a very important moment near the end of the book where we learn why the first girl fell down in the subway. And we learn that it's the result of her making a moral choice, a rudimentary one maybe but probably the first moral choice of her life. She had her confrontation with good and evil, and understood them both, and chose to walk away from hurting someone. She chose, in a very elementary way, good over evil. And that's when all this falling started. So it's rooted in that knowledge, and the difficulty of that knowledge, and women in particular trying to work that knowledge out through their lives.

JW: Girls Fall Down introduces Toronto anew to some who might have thought themselves well-mapped Torontonians, yet I suspect it would be fair to say it's a rare person who knows this city beyond his or her own immediate experience of it. Until, I'd think, chaos ensues. A subway shuts down, for instance, and we reassess our relationships to everyone and everything. How important was it to you in writing this story to include real locales: The Cloud Gardens. Bloor Supersave. And so on.

MH: It was tremendously important. And I spent a long time, when I was working on this book, just walking around. It was this odd process of trying to estrange myself from my own city enough that I could see it as if I had just arrived here. Every step my characters walk in that book, I walked while I was writing it. The bit of hill where Derek has his tent is a precisely real bit of hill, and I don't know how many times I walked through the ravine to get those scenes to be right.

Now, I did use mostly locations which were already part of my history and important to me. Alex's basement apartment in Kensington Market is a basement I lived in. I spent many hours of my life in Sneaky Dee's. St Stephen's in the Fields, the church where several crucial scenes are set, is a church I worked in for years. On the other hand, I hadn't spent a lot of time in the PATH system until I decided to set part of the book there, and the WE NOW SELL BEER donut store was an accidental discovery for me as it is for Alex and Susie. So I did find some new things in the city, and that was fun.

JW: Would you consider yourself a political writer? A writer who visits political themes? Is there an obvious divide? I've asked this question many times before, less to ask it than to hear how each writer responds. I'm curious to hear your take.

MH: I wish this was a question that didn't have to be asked. People live in a political context, and it seems to me that if writers want to deal with human lives in a real and comprehensive way, that political context has to be part of it. And I think you can see in most of the world's literature that this is quite normal, that some political content is taken for granted because it is just part of how people live. It's maybe only in North America that we think we can isolate our personal lives from the political, and write only about “personal” things, and those writers (and there are quite a few) who do incorporate the political context invariably get asked if we are “political writers” or if we're trying to achieve specific political aims.

If I want to achieve specific political aims, I'm not going to do it by writing a book. I'm going to lobby politicians, or write policy documents, or get arrested in the street, or any one of a number of other possible political actions, all of which I've done at various times. Writing a novel is just a terrible way of trying to influence public policy.

But I am going to think about politics, and write about politics, because people's lives are shaped by politics. The fact that my character Derek lives in the ravine has partly to do with his personal situation and choices, but it's mostly a political fact, it's mostly about how we as a society handle disability and difference, how we structure policy around housing and social assistance, how we think about the value of the human person. The police single out a man in a turban as “suspicious” because of a whole complex of political and social forces which drive their thinking and their imagining. Will reading this book make people think differently about any of these things? I don't know. Will it, maybe, enlarge the capacity of their imaginations? I hope that might be true. That, I think, is the “political” impact a novel might have.

Maybe the distinction we need to draw, actually, is between being a political writer and being a topical writer. Girls Fall Down is set in a particular time and place, and deals in the concerns of that time and place, but it's very much not meant to be “about” 9/11 or housing policy in Toronto in the late 20th century or access to abortion in 1989. If it was about any of those things, it would have a very short life as a meaningful work. It's trying to be about fear and intimacy and exclusion and the complex events of the body, things which are enacted in many different, though often very political, ways.

JW: What does it mean then to have Girls Fall Down chosen as Toronto Public Library's 2012 One Book Selection? How do you feel about the idea of "one book"?

MH: Well, as the author I'm hesitant to comment, because I don't want to sound like I think my book is inherently better or more deserving than many others. There's an awful lot of good books out there. But I do think it was an interesting, maybe a risky, choice. It's a strange dark book, and difficult in some ways, and it presents some aspects of Toronto which maybe a lot of people would rather not think about. While I was writing it I was worried that it would be something no one really wanted to read at all, so it's  nice to have this endorsement. And of course it's a book that's very embedded in the city of Toronto, and I do have a deep and abiding relationship with this city which is very important to me, so being identified as a part of the civic fabric is a meaningful thing.

JW: Finally, would you consider libraries and librarians an "essential" service?

MH: Well, if I said yes, I'd technically be saying that I want to deprive them of their right to strike for better labour conditions, and I couldn't do that. But are they essential to a decent society? Without any question, yes. Libraries are one of the very few genuinely public spaces left, somewhere anyone is allowed to be. You don't have to have a dollar in your pocket, you don't have to dress in any particular way, you don't have to be a “consumer” or a “member” or anything else. If I'm lost or cold or far from home, my first impulse is to look for a library, because I know that will be safe space.

And this is all before we even get to the wonderful fact that libraries are full of books, and anyone can read the books. I was, like most writers, one of those children for whom the public library was the ultimate Great Good Place. A whole building just for books? Books anyone can read, for free? You don't get much better than that.

I love the Toronto public library system, I love that there are collections in a huge number of languages, and each of the branches seems genuinely to know and connect with their community in a way few other institutions do; I love the commitment to providing access to books and media for children; I love that homeless and marginally house people can use the internet and no one gives them a hard time or makes them feel unwelcome; I love the dedication I see in the staff, and the breadth of vision. It's really a wonderful thing, and if my participation in the One Book campaign can help at all to support and raise the profile of the system, then that's more than enough for me.

February 21, 2012
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