Girls Fall Down
Poet, novelist, essayist and human rights activist Maggie Helwig delves into the underground worlds—both literal and figurative—of Toronto in her new novel Girls Fall Down, published by Coach House Books. Below, poet Dani Couture talks to Helwig about schizophrenia, voice, burried ravines, homelessness, love and more.
DANI COUTURE: In your novel, Girls Fall Down, you wrote intense dialogue for Derek, Susie’s schizophrenic brother who had disappeared off the grid. What was your process for fleshing out Derek as a character and finding his voice?
MAGGIE HELWIG: Derek's a character I have a lot of emotional investment in; he's the heart of the story in many ways. But there are a lot of risks in writing about a character whose mind works in some ways radically differently; the risk of being exploitative, of caricature, of how you represent someone else's reality when you can't really experience it yourself—we don't really talk about appropriation of voice as an issue with writing about mental illness, but I think it's a real one. There's also the risk, and this has happened with some readers, that Derek will be dismissed as just this crazy guy, that they won't see his dialogue or his writing as something to be read as seriously as anyone else's but as some kind of crazy stuff that you can skim over. And if you read it that way, you're losing a huge part of the meaning of the story.
As far as process goes, most of my direct experience with people who have schizophrenia is through my work at my church's meal program for the homeless and marginally housed. So that's a particular group, which doesn't represent everyone with major mental health issues by any means; it's a group of people who have minimal supports, and poorly-controlled conditions, which is also the situation that Derek is in. I do worry that I'm reinforcing the idea that all homeless people are schizophrenic and all schizophrenic people are homeless, and neither of those things is true, but there is a significant group of people who are both, and those tend to be the people I know, and I do spend a fair bit of time talking to them, so I have some familiarity with the way the voice operates, the way language operates, because schizophrenia is a condition that has a strong effect on how a person relates to language.
But the other thing I did was just turn on my hyperassociativity. There's been a certain amount of research coming out of England that's suggesting (and this could be just a red herring, but it's intriguing) that there are some genetic connections between poetry and schizophrenia, and that the common point is hyperassociativity, the tendency to hyper-perceive connections between words and ideas, to join up concepts based on small linguistic links, to segue very easily between thoughts that seem disconnected to an external listener, to see patterns and connections in events in a way that, at an extreme, becomes the construction of paranoid systems. It's a wild generalization and a half-truth at best, but basically what they're suggesting is that if you have these tendencies but you can control them, you become a writer; if they control you, you become schizophrenic. So to some extent, to write Derek I just had to take the filters off my own hyperassociativity and let it run.
And in a way the whole book is about hyperassociativity; there are all these events that happen, and to an extent I'm leaving it up to the reader to sort out how far they're connected, whether they're connected at all, whether it's just that we have this compulsion to read connections and order onto things, to create our own quasi-paranoid systems of thought. How far do we all operate by constructing ideas about causality and intention and projecting them onto the flow of the world? Derek's systems seem quite far from consensus reality, and they definitely aren't serving him very well in his life, but is the basic mechanism really all that foreign to us?
The other thing I probably need to mention in regard to Derek is that I have an autistic daughter. Now, autism and schizophrenia are radically different conditions, polar opposites in some ways, but some of the emotion of being close to a person whose mind operates very, very differently, someone who's profoundly alienated in some ways from our social and emotional world—my relationship with my daughter certainly fed into that. But that maybe has more to do with Susie as a character than with Derek.
DC: What is your relationship with underground Toronto—the subways, P.A.T.H system, and even the ravines—the underworlds where much of your novel takes place?
MH: I'm interested by how much goes on in Toronto that's underground or at least below ground level. I mean, subways are nothing unusual, and our subway is probably less mythologized than many, but not many cities have anything like the PATH, and very few cities have several large ravines cutting right through the downtown. There's something about Toronto that's drawn to subsurface spaces, and a lot of our fears get played out in the context of underground spaces, too—the occasional panics about people being pushed onto subway tracks, for instance. And I think that SARS, although it was mostly transmitted in hospitals really, was somehow felt to be related to subways, people tended to talk about the subway as an infective environment, you could more or less track the progress of the general public anxiety by how full or empty the subways were and how many people on them were wearing masks, when it wasn't so apparent above-ground.
I tend to think of this as having a relationship to Toronto's way of handling tension and conflict, of playing it out in very indirect and muffled ways. We're not New York, where everything is big and bright and up on the surface, thrusting up to the sky, plunging down. We're building strange connected pathways underground, we're following riverbeds, we're tracking the subtle movements of subterranean things. And when you fall, you fall from an underground point to a further point, while the people up on the surface imagine that nothing's going on.
DC: At one point in the novel, Susie refers to her research, which involves interviewing homeless people and mapping out their contacts, all in a desperate attempt to locate her missing brother. Do you think that the underprivileged in this city have a greater network of contacts and community than the casual observer would ever guess?
MH: Susie says at one point that people assume that the homeless are "somehow outside the social world", and I think she's probably right, that we have a tendency to imagine the homeless as all completely isolated, completely on their own. But it's really a complex social world out there on the street, there's all sorts of relationships and structures, lots of mutual support and dependency, information-sharing that's remarkably efficient, people with complicated friendships and romances and surrogate families. I mean, humans are social, we're beings in community, and whatever our conditions, we're going to create community, we need to, we can't not.
And again, that's part of what the whole book is about. Derek and Alex both, in their different ways, have this will to isolation, they want to think of themselves as separate from the social world—Derek talks about being self-sufficient through subsistence farming under a railway track—but in fact they're both deeply entangled in social networks of relationships and responsibility, of need and fear and love, whether they like it or not, whether they're prepared to admit it or not. We're bodies which are part of a larger social body, and that's just our doom and salvation. You can't get away from it.
Girls Fall Down, by Maggie Helwig
DC: There is a housing crisis in this country that goes unnoticed by many, but not all. The issue is touched upon in your novel in moments like when Alex visits the ageing woman in the basement "apartment". How can social and political issues be addressed through the novel format and should they be?
MH: I don't really have a general opinion on whether novels *should* deal with issues or what it even means for a novel to deal with issues, but all I can say about this novel of mine is that it's not something I was trying to do. I think the fact that I'm known to be politically active in my non-writing life tends to make people read my novels as if I were making a political statement. And I'm not. I'm just writing about a city, and about what I see in that city, and it's a web of interlocking relationships that includes Mrs Nakamura in the rooming house just because she's one of these particular lives. Her life isn't there to make a political point any more than Alex's life or Susie's. There are just a lot of particular people, and they don't all live in the same way.
To me, Mrs Nakamura isn't about housing, she's about loneliness. We don't ever really quite understand what's going on with her and her son, but it's obviously another complicated broken relationship, and she's plugged into this free-floating anxiety about anthrax and power failures, and she's so alone that she's just grabbing at a stranger at the door. And she just wants someone to get her some Ritz Crackers because why not, why shouldn't Ritz Crackers stand in for love and comfort and human connection? There are lots of different ways to be lonely and to lose relationship, lots of different ways to express it and try to find rescue. Writing to your city councillor about Ritz Crackers, why not?
There's probably room for outrage about the situation of substandard rooming houses and inadequate social security and all those things, and that's exactly what one of my day jobs is about. But Girls Fall Down, really, it's about people in a city, it's about how we depend on each other, it's about how we can be so interconnected and so alone.
DC: Alex's eyesight is failing due to a degenerative disease. He is a photographer who makes a living through his medical photography. It's almost as if Alex is going blind from all he sees, that for one person, he sees far too much and is being, against his will, relieved of his sight. How was it for you to slowly pen an illness for Alex? In a world where we always want to know what happens next, what happens next for Alex?
MH: The initial decision was to make Alex diabetic, and there were several reasons for that. Partly I just wanted that sense of physical fragility, contingency; and I wanted something that would tie in with all the imagery around the bloodstream and what moves through the body, chemical balances and imbalances, and how they affect our lives and our actions. There are several people in my family and my circle of friends who have Type 1 diabetes, so it was a natural choice in that it's a condition I already know pretty well. It also creates an interesting set of associations between Alex and Derek—they're both permanently dependent on medication, Alex for his physical survival and Derek for his mental stability, and they both have very conflicted feelings about that dependence; they both have conditions where, in different ways and to very different degrees, you see their neurochemistry shaping behaviour and personality. And with both of them, their medical conditions play into a kind of willed isolation, a tendency to cut people off, though again Alex is doing this within the range of what we consider "normal", and Derek is way outside that range.
And I guess it's just one of those sadistic writer things that when you have a character who's a photographer and diabetic, the next thing you think of is that diabetes can affect vision. So of course you have to go ahead and do that. Because part of what's interesting about characters is how they deal with things being taken away. Alex talks about his life as being a training in how things go away, but he's maybe just particularly aware of something that's true of all of us, in the long term. Eventually, everything does go away; eventually, we all lose everything in this world. And part of life is how you live in the face of losing it. So I play with that on different levels through the characters, but Alex in particular.
What happens next—I don't know. I honestly don't know unless I write it, because I may think I know what a character's going to do or what's going to happen, but it can change in the writing down. So I can't tell you for sure. Alex is right that diabetic retinopathy is unpredictable. He could be completely blind within the next five to ten years. Or it actually could arrest pretty much where it is, or just deteriorate very slowly, so he has a reasonable amount of vision for a while yet. He doesn't know, and I don't know.
And if you want to know what happens between Alex and Susie, I don't know that either, but it's clear that she's still a huge preoccupation for him years into the future, whatever that means. And that he's stayed somehow connected to Evvy and Adrian as well, which I find reassuring for him. That's probably a bit of a good sign.
DC: For weeks after reading Girls Fall Down, I had a difficult time taking the subway. While I know that incidents have happened on other transit systems around the world, I think, in Toronto, we take for granted that our subway system is "safe" and impenetrable. In a way, I see my wariness to take the subway after reading a fictional account of a possible poisoning as a mild form of hysteria. How easily are we as a people given to hysteria? How does hysteria play a role in the lives of your characters?
MH: I don't think I've ever seen the subway as particularly safe. I'm very interested in the subway, but it's always seemed to me to be a bit of a site of insecurity. Just my sensibility, maybe.
As for the whole issue of hysteria—and like the doctor in the novel, I'm not crazy about the word hysteria, though I use it sometimes—it's maybe all just part of the larger picture of how interdependent people are. Our minds and our bodies are just so constantly shaped, created really, by other people around us. Emotion moves between bodies, fear is a medium of exchange between people just like anything else. We're so dependent on each other for the very shape of the reality around us. And that's also kind of frightening. Love and paranoia have this intimate connection; we fear because we love, and maybe in some part we love because we fear. Love, connection, makes us so drastically vulnerable, and there's terror in that, but it's also the only thing we have to mediate the fear.
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. She is the associate director of the Scream Literary Festival. She also works for the Social Justice and Advocacy Board of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Dani Couture is the author of Good Meat (Pedlar Press) and the creator and photographer behind Animal Effigy. She has a second collection of poetry, The Handbook, forthcoming from Pedlar Press.
(Photos courtesy of Maggie Helwig, Dani Couture and Coach House Books.)