The writer is in

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Writer-in-residence Helen Humphreys read from her work-in-progress last Friday.
Writer-in-residence Helen Humphreys read from her work-in-progress last Friday.

Who: Helen Humphreys, Kingston-based writer and Queen’s English department’s writer-in-residence.

Where you can find her work: Bookstores far and wide.

Selected works: Author of novels such as 2002’s The Lost Garden, 2004’s Lambda Award winning Wild Dogs and 2008’s Coventry, and poetry volumes such as Anthem, winner of the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Award.

Where you can find her: Watson 529 every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. until end of March.

Have you been a writer-in-residence before? If so, what was it like?

I have had a short-term residency at the University of Illinois, and a longer residency at the North York Public Library in Toronto. One residency was student-oriented, and the other was community-oriented. They were very different experiences, but both enjoyable.

What do you feel this kind of role offers the community and students?

It is a great opportunity to have your work read and critiqued, or to find out information about getting it published.

Your focus in recent years has been on fiction. I read that you’ve taken a hiatus from poetry. Why is this?

I find that novels swallow everything, so occasionally, when I do have the impulse to write poetry, I end up folding it into a novel instead. Obviously I’m not capable of working on both at the same time. It’s more that poetry has given me up, I think.

For you, what are the differences between writing fiction and writing poetry?

In poetry you can write out of your own life experience, but novels are about creating another world, another life, and you have to [live] in that imaginary world while you are working on the novel.

Do you feel your experience with poetry informs your fiction writing?

Most definitely. I tend to be an image-driven writer.

The Lost Garden and Coventry both deal with World War II England—what draws you to this era and the stories within it?

This was the world of my parents and grandparents, and I grew up hearing their stories of war-time Britain. It had a big influence on my imagination.

You’ve referred to The Lost Garden as your most autobiographical-inspired work because you were drawing from your parents’ lives. How do you feel about drawing from real life for fiction?

Everything that we remember, or that is told to us, is already disconnected from the “reality” of lived experience. So, real life is already fiction by the time I come upon it. But even though “real life” informs my work in the details, the stories themselves are made up.

What do you think about blurring the lines between genres such as autobiography and fiction?

I’m really not a big fan of categories, or genre itself, for that matter. What is wrong with something just being called a book?

Why do you write?

I’m compelled to write. It’s really not a choice. If it was a choice, I would probably choose not to do it because it never gets any easier.

How did you become a writer?

I started writing when I was young and I just kept going. I read voraciously. I sent my poems (for I was writing exclusively poems then) out to magazines, and eventually I began to get them published. My first book of poetry came out when I was 25.

What inspires you?

The material of any given day. Books and music.

Who inspires you?

Other artists.

Are there any poems or novels you’re in love with at the moment?

I really liked Away by Amy Bloom, which I read this year. Also the fictional biography of Robert Frost by Brian Hall. But the book I’ve read in the last few years that I love above all others is The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. It is brilliant.

What kinds of stories are you interested in telling?

Stories of transformation.

What is your writing process like?

I write by hand for the first draft, as quickly as I can. Then I transfer the draft onto the computer and work from there, although I go back to pen and paper if I am doing substantial rewriting. I work best in the morning, but write as much as possible during the day while I’m working on a first draft.

Why did you choose Kingston as your home base? Does the area influence you or induce you to write?

Kingston is a good place to be a writer. I like the size of the town, and the fact that nature is so easy to access.

What advice do you have for emerging and young writers?

Read as much as you can to learn from other writers. And persevere. The hardest thing about writing is to keep writing, but it’s also the most necessary if you want to improve.

—Adèle Barclay

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