Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Character with Gillian Wigmore and Helen Humphreys

Strong female characters and the ordinary lives they lead are at the centre of both Gillian Wigmore and Helen Humphrey’s novels that were discussed at Monday evening’s Character event.  In Gillian Wigmore’s novel Glory, the main character Renee is struggling with isolation in a small northern British Columbia town. Helen Humphrey’s novel, Machine Without Horses, features the life of a woman in a remote Scottish location who becomes famous for creating lures for salmon fishing.


Location and geography play prominently in both novels, and the relationship of the women to the location was integral to both of them. Wigmore discussed how she wanted to write about women of the North and to address the difficulties they face in the small, isolated towns that whittle away at the character and define them in many ways. “There was a match between the [physical] landscape and the emotional landscape,” said Wigmore. 


Humphrey’s latest novel has a different approach. The first half of Machine without Horses is about the writing of the novel, while the second half is a fictionalized account of a woman who learns at a young age to make lures and becomes famous for it. “Women’s lives get boiled down,” said Humphrey.  “If you don’t marry, and have children, you are labelled eccentric.”


Both authors are also known for their poetry, and Humphrey said she is now less restricted by genre and “likes to mix it up more and more.”


Writing strong characters can be challenging. Humphrey observed that when she first starts to develop a story, she thinks about the motivation of the main character, what they want and what they are driven by. Wigmore said that in writing her book, at one point she thought she was getting too far away from the protagonist, and had to introduce new characters to stay true to her original idea for the main character.


Anther common theme of both novels is the walking that the main characters do and that is built into the story. Wigmore said it was a survival tactic for her while living in a small isolated town, and Humphrey admitted that walking is important in both her life and her character’s life.


The idea for Humphrey’s novel came from an obituary that a friend had sent her about a famous fly dresser. She was cleaning up her study to get away from the extreme heat one summer day and came across the obituary.  “The beginning of a life is often the start of the story,” Humphrey declared, reading from her book.


Wigmore said she decided to write her novel since she wanted to explain what a woman in a small northern town faces, especially someone who experiences postpartum depression. She admitted that there were elements of her in the main character, but it wasn’t all based on her.


In both novels, the characters are shaped by where they are living. In Glory, the isolated town creates a character who is both independent and resourceful. In Machine without Horses, the main character is resilient since she lives in a small cottage with no electricity or running water. 


Each author had a different reaction to completing their novels. Humphrey found that she missed her character, and it was hard to let her go. Wigmore, in contrast, claimed that she was happy to say goodbye to some of her characters.