Helen Humphreys was born in London, England, in 1961 and emigrated with her parents to Canada when she was three. She has spent most of her life in the Toronto area but recently moved to Kingston, Ontario.
She is the author of three poetry collections, Gods & Other Mortals (Brick, 1986), Nuns Looking Anxious, Listening to Radios (Brick, 1990), and The Perils of Geography (Brick, 1995). She has also written a novella, Ethel on Fire (Black Moss, 1991), and a fine first novel, Leaving Earth (HarperCollins, 1997), about two female aviators on an endurance flight above the Toronto Islands. A new poetry volume, Anthem, is forthcoming from Brick in 1999.
For the past ten years, Humphreys has worked part-time as an editorial staff member for Resources for Feminist Research, a quarterly journal published by OISE: the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, now part of the University of Toronto. It was at her office there (in downtown Toronto) that we met for late-morning coffee and the following conversation.
ET: What first drew you to the subject of female aviators?
HH: I found a book at a garage sale-a book from the '50s, stories about women aviators in the 1920s and '30s. And in there there was this story of an endurance flight that had taken place over Florida in 1933, a flight by two women, Frances Marsalis and Helen Richey. I got stuck on this flight thinking: What would they do up there for so long? Endurance flights are not like distance flights. You don't cover a lot of ground, you just fly in very small circles around and around for days and days. So you'd have to do something up there to keep yourself sane, more than just what was required to keep the plane flying. The novel came out of my thinking about that.
ET: Did you go up in any small planes as part of your research? I've heard you're afraid of flying.
HH: I am, but I did go up. Someone from the Toronto Island Flight School very kindly took me up, and I flew the route that Grace and Willa fly in the novel. I took pictures, I wanted to get the details right.
ET: How did you get over your fear of flying to do this?
HH: It's not really a fear, I guess. It's more a nervousness, especially in large planes. Jets make me feel much more out of control than small planes do. You can't feel that you're flying. You're sealed in. In a small plane you can still feel the wind. I ride a motorcycle, and it's a very similar thing. You can feel the air, the speed.
ET: Did you have any other interesting experiences while writing the novel?
HH: Some weird things did happen. All of the characters in the novel are invented, but the Toronto events, even the weather, are based on fact. The flight, as I said, was modelled on the flight Marsalis and Richey did in 1933. So I spent a lot of time researching their flight, their lives. I'd be working on my fictional flight and I'd think: This has got to happen on this day. And then I would find out that it had actually happened to Marsalis and Richey. I need there to be a storm halfway through my fictional flight, and sure enough, in the middle of August 1933 there had been just the kind of storm I'd wanted. There were quite a few experiences like that. I imagined what actually happened. At one point I got kind of spooked by it, although I think this kind of synchronicity is quite a common experience to writers.
ET: Several reviews have commented that Grace O'Gorman is oddly two-dimensional, especially considering that she is one of the central characters in Leaving Earth. How would you answer this criticism?
HH: Part of what the book is about is notions of heroism, what heroism is, how it plays into people's lives and how they project their own fantasies and desires onto others. So Grace is, in that respect, a blank screen for other people's fantasies. She exists in her own right at the beginning, but for the bulk of the novel, when she and Willa are in the air, she is not present in a fully realized way. This is the way we look at celebrities. We project onto them. They're two-dimensional. They're strangers, but they seem familiar to us because they're invested with so much of our own desires.
ET: Throughout much of your writing, you seem concerned with heroism. How do you define the term "heroic"?
HH: I think it's an act that is above and beyond what you can imagine for yourself, what you can imagine yourself doing.
ET: Are female "heroines" different from male "heroes"?
HH: I think the notion of "hero" is principally male, and traditionally there have been many more heroes than heroines. But the time period of Leaving Earth-the 1930s-was a very different time for women than it is now. It was the beginning of aviation, and the women who were flying then welcomed it as a time of possibility and really believed there would be a day when they would be equal to men.
ET: So what happened?
HH: The Second World War, and then commercial aviation. When the men came back from the war they were given the flying jobs, jobs that had been primarily held by women while the men had been away. And then, as the commercial aviation industry was getting underway, the men in charge of it didn't think that people would feel safe in planes flown by women. It would be bad for business. So they didn't hire the women pilots-although some of them were offered jobs as stewardesses. Some of the stories are quite sad. Helen Richey, for example. She became the first female commercial airline pilot but was never allowed to fly the big planes because there was so much resistance from the male pilots on staff. She lost her job in aviation, even though she was an extremely competent pilot and had trained a lot of male pilots. She ended up killing herself when she was thirty-eight.
But to get back to the subject of heroism: the importance of heroic figures is in providing examples for people so they can see that something is possible. That's their value.
ET: Another thing besides heroism that you seem to keep coming back to is geography.
HH: Place is really important. Place operates in our lives as a very strong presence. And I think a lot of our identity is mediated by place.
ET: Does it play into heroism?
HH: Sure. If you lived in the mountains, at some point you would, I think, either want to go up them or want to know someone who had. Various landscapes have that built into them. The more familiar you are with a terrain, the more you want to know it. It's a kind of intimacy.
ET: Let's talk about Jack, Grace's husband. He's a pilot himself and he seems none too happy about the fact that she's trying to break the very record that he set. He goes so far as to try to sabotage her flight. How would you describe their relationship?
HH: It's competitive, but Grace also feels she owes Jack because when she was becoming a pilot, he's the only one who would take her up. He was her instructor, and he was instrumental in her beginning her flying career. She is fond of him but, more important to her, he is useful.
His sabotage is a passive-aggressive sabotage. He's not actually doing anything detrimental that would make Grace and Willa crash, but he's doing a bunch of things that would precipitate circumstances that would make them come down, not finish the flight.
Grace also recognizes that he's a weaker person than she is.
ET: What about Willa, her unrequited attraction to Grace? Is Grace oblivious to it?
HH: No, she plays on it. Grace uses her own attractiveness to create a motive for making Willa stay up there.
ET: Willa and Grace develop a sign language with which to communicate. Did you invent this yourself?
HH: Not entirely. I did tons of research, looked at different sign languages. I wanted one that was fluid, that was like flying, that had a lot of movement in it. So I chose a blend of Native American sign language and the Cistercian monks' sign language. Then I built other things in, made things up.
ET: How powerful is language nowadays?
HH: I think language has always been powerful, is always powerful. (But then I have to think this, given what I do.) But language is what we all still use. Words have meanings. Even in a situation like Willa's and Grace's, they can't get away from communicating with one another, even if it's not necessarily oral. I think the desire for language is basic and extremely powerful.
ET: While Grace and Willa are circling up above, there is another story unfolding on the ground, that of Maddy, who idolizes Grace, and Maddy's mother, who becomes a victim of rising anti-Semitism. What purpose does this second story serve?
HH: Maddy is twelve years old. She's at that stage in her life where she's going to have to leave childhood behind and enter the adult world. And she's reluctant to do this. She's trying to remain in the world of her heroes and heroines, and so she fanatically, obsessively, throws herself into that world to try to stay there.
ET: A political commentary also comes through whether you intended or not. You captured some of the Canadian mood of the period.
HH: Contrary to the way Canada is often promoted, it doesn't treat its citizens well-the Ukrainian and Japanese internments, Native policies-there's a history of this kind of behaviour. In the 1930s, there was an organization called the Swastika Club which adhered to Nazi principles. There was a lot of visible anti-Semitism in Toronto in 1933, and I wanted to address that.
ET: Grace is pretty cold toward Maddy when they finally meet face to face, and of course Maddy is disillusioned.
HH: When people meet their heroes, it's always disappointing. Basically, Grace is oblivious to Maddy. Ironically for Maddy, the thing that she thought was going to keep her in childhood-her idolizing of Grace-ends up being the thing that propels her into adulthood.
ET: What are you most concerned about as a writer?
HH: How stories are told. How we tell them. What we leave out, what we put in, the order of things. One of the things I wanted to do with Leaving Earth was to write a novel that wasn't naturalistic. I'm not a big fan of naturalistic novels. I don't want to know that somebody walked down the street, then they opened the door. I want to know the moments that are important and how they connect to other moments that are important. And the gaps between things.
ET: It sounds like the process of poetry, at least in structure.
HH: Yes. Not every moment in life is equal.
ET: Some moments are more equal than others. [Laughter]
HH: True! [Laughter]
ET: You jumped from poetry directly into novel-writing. How did you find this?
HH: I found that in some ways writing the novel was easier. You go back to it every day. It's easy to re-enter. A poem, even if you work on it for a month, requires a certain type of energy. And then it's spent. It's over. Then, for the next poem, you have to get yourself up, have that energy again.
ET: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Was there a "moment"?
HH: Yes, actually there was a moment. I've always read a lot. I used to read stories when I was little, adventures. And I remember waiting for adventures to happen, for what happened in books to happen to me. I'd make my brother stand by the window and help me look for suspicious people walking down the street. And mostly nothing would happen, there would be nobody interesting. One day I thought: This isn't working, adventures aren't happening, so I'll write them instead. I remember thinking that I could make them happen in another way.
ET: And so you entered the fictional realm.
HH: Which was really much more satisfying in a way than real life.