Coach House Books asks Maggie Helwig a few things about Girls Fall Down
CH: The title, Girls Fall Down, has a nursery rhyme quality to it, and it describes the opening scene of the novel. Can you tell us how you came up with it?
MH: I didn’t exactly come up with it; it was one of those titles that just arrived. While I was writing the first draft, I started to realize that I was using the word ‘fall’ an awful lot, and that there seemed to be a whole dynamic with girls and falling, and the phrase just jumped into my head as the title, and it stuck. The nursery rhyme sound is one of the things I like about it a lot; it’s not actually a direct borrowing from any specific nursery rhyme, but it has echoes of ‘Ring Around the Rosy’ (and some people think that was a plague song, so it ties in with the whole pattern of fear of disease and disease imagery, and the chapter of the book that’s called ‘Plague Days’); and there’s another one that has ‘Boys and girls together/London Bridge is falling down’, which seemed vaguely related to the urban things I was doing –how cities work or fall apart.The title’s also meant to be a bit of a pointer to ways that I’m playing with the story of the fall as it’s told in the Bible, with girls and gardens and the knowledge of good and evil, with girls and choices and long consequences, and the way that maybe we need to fall into that knowledge of good and evil, and all the problems associated with it, if we’re ever going to be really morally grown-up beings. At the same time, a lot of thinking about moral responsibility and the fall and ‘original sin’ has been based on particular ideas about personal identity and personal choice, which are not necessarily entirely stable ideas, and another of the things I’m doing in the book is exploring some of the interplay of bio-chemistry, brain chemistry, and what we think of as identity and choice. We tend to think that there are things that are ‘real’ emotions, ‘real’ choices, and then those that are somehow less real, coming out of mental illness or drugs or temporary chemical imbalances, but strictly speaking every feeling, every thought that we have is a chemical process, and it’s not clear why some chemical processes are more‘real’ than others. And what does this mean for how we think about identity and choice? And is neuro-chemistry and its control over our behaviour absolutely different from very old ideas about original sin, about something that has us under control, that compels us to behave in ways that we may not even want? Is there some common ground there? Alex and Derek are both at the mercy of the chemical balances of their blood, in ways that are partly but not entirely different, so this question is in the foreground for them in a way that it isn’t always for other people. So that’s a pretty long answer for a three-word title …
CH: The book is dedicated to David Barker Maltby, a photographer. Who was he, and was he an inspiration in creating Alex?
MH: David was someone I’d known since the late 80s – he was a photographer, a really exceptionally talented photographer, and also very involved in social justice issues, especially homelessness. He died very suddenly of meningitis in the spring of 2001, just a couple of weeks after we’d picked out one of his photos for the cover of my first novel. He’s all over this book; it’s not so much that the photographer character is meant to be like David, because Alex is really a quite different (and probably much less lovable) person –it’s more that there are issues and themes and motifs, and even little details, woven all through the novel, that all have some kind of connection with David. He was really an exceptional person, and his death was such a shock, and such a loss; it took me a long time to find a way to somehow transform some of that into fiction.
CH: Toronto is a prominent character in Girls Fall Down. Your last novel, Between Mountains, was set in Europe (mainly Bosnia and the Hague) – why did you want to write about Toronto?
MH: I love Toronto, but it’s a strangely difficult city to write about. That may be partly just because I know it too well, and I had to go through a process of trying to estrange myself, to see the city as if I hadn’t seen it before, which wasn’t easy when I’ve lived here for nearly my whole adult life. But it’s also because there’s a kind of suppression, a kind of muffling, to the way we live here and the way the city works, and that’s not even an entirely bad thing. I think it’s one of the ways that we manage to get along reasonably well. But it made writing about mass hysteria in Toronto an almost impossible task because, well, we don’t do those things. Other cities have mass hysteria and dramatic events. We have politeness. And it ended up as a kind of subdued and understated mass hysteria, which I think is quite strange to people from other places. They can’t understand why I didn’t make it more dramatic,but I was trying to be true to what this city does. People think of England as the home of restraint, but London is a hotbed of wild expressive extroversion compared to Toronto. We play out our problems underground, in deep cover, through indirection, and that’s actually kind of fascinating, but you have to be subtle about how you handle it. Once you get to that hidden level, there are all kinds of rifts and troubles, and also beauty and creativity and strangeness, but you have to work to get there.
CH: Alex first met Susie in 1989, when she was a pro-choice activist. And in 2002, the present of the book, she’s trying to map connections between homeless people in Toronto. Do you have some experience with political activism?
MH: I think a lot of people know that I do, that as well as being a writer I’ve worked as a human rights and social justice advocate for a long time. But there’s a risk of people trying to read the fiction through the lens of biography, which is really a mistake. Obviously my political work bleeds into my fiction in the sense that I know about that aspect of the world, and I find it interesting, but they’re quite separate, actually. I mean, if I want to do politics, I’ll do politics. That’s a lot more effective than trying to do politics through fiction, which is pretty much a fool’s errand. Fiction just operates on different levels. As for Susie, she’s certainly someone who’s got political engagements –she may be the only character in the book who really is a political thinker in some serious way –but that doesn’t play a very large part in the book. We’re mostly seeing her through Alex’s eyes, and he’s quite profoundly apolitical, so Susie’s politics tend to fly past him a bit. Now, it’s true that on another level part of what I’m looking at is how cities function as social bodies,and there’s a large sense in which that is a political question, and how people end up marginalized and homeless is part of that. And the issues that come up around the pro-choice movement obviously relate to how I’m trying to talk about women as moral actors, as moral decisionmakers; so it’s not that the political elements have nothing to do with the themes of the book. But it’s very much not a book about politics.
CH: There are interesting parallel trajectories of love and paranoia here. Do you see some connection or contrast between the two?
MH: You know the Homer Simpson line, ‘Ah, alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems’? Love’s kind of like that, too. I mean, love makes us vulnerable, it hurts us, it makes us afraid; basically, fear, paranoia, is all about losing love, or losing things or people that we love. If we didn’t love, we’d be so much safer. We need it, we’re no good without it, love saves us, but it also ruins us, and you can’t dismiss that. Look at Derek, in the novel, where vulnerability and paranoia and love are all at their most intense,and look where it leaves him, under a bridge in the Don Valley Ravine, destroyed by fear. But he really is also the most unconditionally loving character in the book, in his very peculiar way; he’s right at the heart of everything, Derek is. Then on the other hand there’s Alex, who’s built up this kind of neutral safe space for himself where he’s not too much engaged or threatened by anyone, and this gets smashed over the course of the book, and he’s back in the world of love and paranoia, and in a way you can’t entirely say it’s for the better. But it’s the only thing he can do.
CH: There are a lot of cameo appearances by odd characters, the kind of people you overhear on the bus. Do you eavesdrop on the bus?
MH: I eavesdrop ALL THE TIME. This really should be taken as a warning by anyone who might be around me. It’s all fair game. I actually do go around writing down whatever you say. So you might want to be careful.
CH: Why did you choose a teenage girl as the first ‘victim’ of the first subway incident?
MH: Like one of the chapter titles says – these are things that girls do. There really is a sort of global phenomenon of young women expressing social and political tension through their bodies, mass collapses and fainting spells. It’s happened in Kosovo, Palestine, all over the place, and on a more individual scale I think it’s the same sort of dynamic that plays out in things like eating disorders. Young women are sponges for tension, and they tend not to have a lot of power or resources for dealing with it, so they somatize, and they collapse. So that’s the obvious reason. It’s also because, as I said above, I’m playing with the Eve story, the fall story, and I’m trying to look at the story with Eve as the central character, which oddly she tends not to be in most retellings. But she’s really the moral actor there, and the girls are really the moral actors in this book. They’re not very conscious moral actors, but they do make some crucial, if only half-articulated, decisions, and really push the whole narrative throughout. One of the particular tricks in writing this book was that I was telling the story almost exclusively from the perspective of a male character; it’s nearly all Alex’s point of view, with a little bit of omniscient narrator. And Alex rather comprehensively doesn’t get it, until maybe right near the end, where he’s at least starting to grasp some of the things that have been going on all along. So telling a story about women’s actions and women’s choices in the world, from the point of view of a man who is, I think, well-meaning but kind of impervious … well, it created some interesting dilemmas.
CH: Girls is an ultimately compassionate and hopeful book. Do you think there’s compassion in this city? Do you feel hopeful?
MH: People tell me that my books are depressing. This always surprises me, because to me they’re really quite cheerful. I mean, ultimately they’re about people finding ways to be in the world, to just live in the reality of their lives and make something out of that, to make mistakes and try to recover from them, and to love each other as best they can, even if that’s quite flawed. And my characters never entirely fail in that. There’s a whole lot in this book that’s left deliberately unresolved, questions that are deliberately never answered; I was quite stringently avoiding anything like ‘catharsis’ or ‘closure,’ because, to be honest, those are concepts I have some real problems with. And it’s a challenge to do that and still make the book come together in a way that will be emotionally and artistically satisfying for the readers. But I think it comes down to how the characters do find their ways, and do keep trying to do something kind or good despite all their failures, and they make these real, difficult, imperfect connections with each other and hang on to them, and I think that’s a very hopeful thing. You can just keep trying to love, and accept-ing the damage. And you never get it right. But you can keep on trying. And we do.