Dive into the world of film with Helen Walsh’s ‘Pull Focus’
Helen Walsh is the founder and president of Canada’s top literary mentoring organization, Diaspora Dialogues. Now, she’s gone a step beyond mentoring to write her own novel. Pull Focus is a tense thriller set in the international film festival circuit. The novel dives headfirst into issues foregrounded by the #MeToo movement and crafts delightful characters who illuminate struggles in the film world.
Whether you love exploring big ideas or just want to be swept up in an exciting thriller, Pull Focus is a read you won’t want to miss. We were lucky enough to talk to Helen Walsh about her work, the novel, and what’s next for her.
You’ve spent years working in creative spaces, both in literature and film. What was the moment that made you decide to finally sit down and write a novel?
When I was ten, my teacher called my mother in for a parent interview. “Helen’s always got her head down, writing stories. They’re excellent, but everyone dies in them. You might think about therapy.” Confronted by my mother about this fact, I complained, “What’s with the critics?”
I sidelined myself from fiction for a couple decades, although was continuously writing something – screenplays, pitch decks, grant applications, you name it. Finally, the late poet/novelist Priscila Uppal, said: “Look, Helen, you’re always going to be busy producing things or organizations. If you want to write a novel, write it, and I’ll be your coach.”
And so, I did. Other writers stepped in to help after Priscila became too ill to continue. Very sadly, she passed away just before I sold the novel, but Priscila’s belief in it was so rock solid, she always knew it would happen.
Where did the story concept for Pull Focus come from?
I’d been thinking of a story about a woman whose life as she knows it dissolves in an instant, and suddenly she sees everything through different eyes.
I think my fascination with that moment when the ground shifts beneath us – because of an external event or internal epiphany – came from reading Alice Munro as I grew up.
But I wanted to add a Hitchcockian sense of looming violence and imminent threat, since to me that reflects the lived experience of so many women, particularly those who’ve suffered sexual harassment and/or assault.
The setting and characters came naturally from my work in the arts – film, publishing, being a festival director and attending many festivals around the world.
I’m also keenly aware of power dynamics, in particular how it relates to gender and wealth, and wanted to explore that through different characters and plot points.
How much of your own experience from the film world shows up in the novel?
Powerful men behaving badly? Clash of the titanic egos? Sexual violence? Fraught financial stakes?
In all seriousness, though, quite a bit. My own experience of sexual harassment as well as those of women I know and of course the stories we’ve all read in the media, certainly informs the #metoo theme.
But also, the strange beast that is celebrity, the juggernaut of production (film or festival) that cannot be stopped, the sublimation of personal life, the comradery and the backstabbing, the appeasement of funders. . .and yet, despite all, a profound and sustaining love of film. This novel wouldn’t have been possible – or at least recognizable in its current form – if I’d never worked in film.
Obviously Pull Focus is informed by feminism and the #MeToo movement, but it also explores issues of classism. What did you want to show people about the intersection of those two “isms”?
In North America, we like to tell ourselves the bedtime story that we live in a meritocracy. Leadership psychology is a billion-dollar business. If we just lean in, slay the dragons that undermine self-confidence, work like a trojan and believe in freedom, we’ll be successful.
But the idea of a level playing field is demonstrably untrue. Society is finally grappling with the role that systemic sexism and racism has had in creating winners and losers. What we don’t talk about is socio-economic advantage.
If you’re born poor, you’re statistically far more likely to drop out of school and work in the lower-end jobs that globalization made redundant. Your daily struggle with the basics – food, shelter, and clothing – wear you and your children out. Your focus is on survival, not living the best you.
Are there exceptions? Of course, people climb their way out of the worst circumstances. For my protagonist, Jane, growing up in a poor household with close kept secrets is the key to her drive (and her ultimate success), her intense privacy, her wariness, and her dark humor.
But exceptions don’t make the rule. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, and a quarter of all poor people in America are single parent families led by women. The impact on life outcomes, and on psychology, is profound and long-lasting.
In the wake of #MeToo, what, if any, changes have you seen coming to the industry?
We’re talking about it, and there is much greater scrutiny about behavior. Increasingly, female actors are forming production companies and/or producing movies, often with a focus on telling women’s stories and hiring women talent/crew. Look at the success of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine (and its $900 million dollar sale). With money comes power, and it’s great to see women occupying that space. It also feels like there are more women being nominated for awards.
What changes do you still hope to see?
Greater recognition of the impact of racism on outcomes for racialized women, and that equity for women has too often meant equity for white women.
More male producers upping their game on hiring female talent/crew. More investment opportunity for women-owned production companies. Pay equity.
Do you think that most people getting into film, or any creative industry, don’t understand the role that money plays in art and entertainment?
Remarkably, yes! On the one hand, it’s understandable. People are drawn to creative industries because they want to express themselves and/or have fallen in love with the product, whether that is a book or a film or a painting. It’s mom and apple pie.
But I feel at some level willful blindness is involved. Everyone knows things cost money to produce. And that whoever is providing the film financing or paying the productions costs of a book, is going to have their own agenda. He who pays the piper, calls the tune; the more money needed, the greater the quid pro quo.
Is there any way to separate art from business?
Depends on how you define art. If you mean art that needs more than one person to produce it and that is shared with an audience of two or more, no, I don’t think so.
At the end of the day, ‘business’ is just people either as sole proprietors or acting together in a group. I doubt outlawing the corporation would save the world from the foibles of humankind.
In your opinion what role does literature play in the promotion of social justice?
I think it’s essential to developing empathy, and empathy is the foundation stone of social justice. It combats the instinct of othering; from turning our eyes away from injustice or actively participating in it – which in the end, is almost the same thing.
Do you think a fictional narrative has a different impact than, say, a memoir or a researched article?
I think most people hear emotional truth more easily through fiction. It’s less threatening than the blunt truth involved in documentary film or memoir, and less distancing than a researched article.
Plus, we all consume so much creative product these days – books, films, long-form television, gaming/interactive media – and spend so much time on social media with its crazy conspiracy theories, I wonder how many people believe there is an objective truth in memoir/journalism/documentary anymore?
Can you walk us through a day in the life of a working novelist?
I normally wake around 6am, give or take a half hour. I write first thing when the brain is malleable and not yet presented with tantalizing distractions. I write for about 4-5 hours, often mixed up with a walk or a dance class (via zoom these days) or some gardening to get up from the chair.
Because I run an arts organization, I normally move on to that work by 11ish, mixed up with answering emails, book promotions, etc, until around 6 or 630pm.
If the writing is going super well, and there is no pressing deadline, or if it’s a weekend, then I might continue writing in the afternoon.
All that’s at jeopardy if I look at my iPhone before I start writing, because the dopamine hit of answering an email or completing a task on the to-do list is more immediate than writing, unless one’s back is against the wall on deadline.
Sometimes life has its own plan, and then there’s travelling. Or least there was until Covid, but I’m off on book tour to the UK, so it feels like things are cracking open a bit. If four hours just aren’t feasible, I try to get an hour anyhow, and possibly an hour before bed, to keep the project fresh in my mind. Nothing worse than having to spend days getting your head back in.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on the book?
For a long time, I ran simultaneously two organizations. Diaspora Dialogues, the literary mentoring organization I still run, as well as a national book review magazine. Part of the latter job was producing a national festival. It was a crazy schedule of twelve-hour days and lots of travel.
The first few drafts of Pull Focus were written in two-week writing retreat spurts, followed by months of minimal writing. There’s no way you can properly keep any novel in your head with that kind of schedule, never mind one like Pull Focus with its many story beats, characters, and immersive world.
So, I gave up the magazine and that created the space I needed to finish and publish the novel.
If you could go back in time to just before you started writing Pull Focus, what would you tell that version of yourself about the work ahead?
Be bold. Be confident, your voice matters, critics don’t.
Have you imagined what a film adaptation of Pull Focus would look like?
From the very first draft! The content, structure and pacing are ideally suited for an adaptation and in some ways, I wrote the novel with that in mind. There was always a heavy focus on characters, on the relationships between characters and on the world of the novel. I started with that (versus with plot) and storyboarded the original draft and every revision.
The most common question I get from readers and reviewers is about casting. People want to see this as a film or tv series.
As the founder of Diaspora Dialogues, can you talk about the importance of mentorship in literature?
I think it’s critical for writers at any stage, but particularly for new writers. You need honest feedback, and you need emotional and practical support, including industry introductions. But all writers I know have a circle of first readers, who read and comment on the script in the early development stages before it’s shown to an agent or editor. Writing literature is lonely; mentorship alleviates that.
Having worked in mentorship, and now having written a novel, what advice do you have for new writers?
Write with passion, commitment, and a sense of pleasure.
Make sure you’ve taken the book as far as possible with revisions before you submit to a publisher or agent. It’s rare that someone would read your work again if they rejected it.
It’s critical to get creative feedback during the writing/revision process. Seek out mentoring opportunities; these can be writing courses, writers’ groups, community-based mentoring programs, writers-in-residence at libraries and other public institutions. Hire sensitivity readers if you’re writing primary characters from cultural backgrounds significantly different than your own.
Read your contract and take the time to understand all the clauses, even if you have an agent. Your book took years to write, and it’ll be governed for years afterward by the contract. In publishing like in relationships, a solid pre-nup is better than a messy divorce.
Remember that all buzz is created. Buzz doesn’t mean a book is good; but it does mean that someone (publisher, publicist, agent, author – or all the above) has invested considerable time and money promoting it. Writers, especially those without a track record, need to start working on marketing at least six months in advance of publication date (preferably longer) and remember they are the primary driver of that process.
Also, have some fun! Celebrate your success in finishing and publishing your book. Take time to build community – read other writers, review books, blog, host book discussions or author talks. That community will support you back. Let your measures of success be wider than just book sales or media hits.
Can you tell us anything about what projects you’ve got coming next?
Although Pull Focus is a stand-alone novel, when I finished it, I realized I wasn’t done with these characters or themes.
So, I’m on the second draft of a follow-up novel that opens four months later and is set in the Bahamas. I have a rough sketch of a third related novel, set in London, although I have yet to start writing that. I think overall it’s a trilogy not a series, but who knows!
I’m also revising a romantic comedy screenplay (unrelated to the novels).