Helen Deines showed up in week 3 of my Bring Your Book to Life Program® with an opening that had the entire class laughing, crying and begging for more. It quickly became clear that what started as memoir wanted to be fiction and I referred her to my terrific colleague, Stuart Horwitz, who helped Helen turn that powerful start into one of the best novels I read in 2015. Funny, heartwarming, beautiful, surprising, brilliant—A Dance with Hummingbirds is all those things and more.
Helen recently enjoyed her first book event—a reading and Q&A at the Willett Free Library in Saunderstown, RI, where a good sized crowd enjoyed her colorful reading, asked questions and stood in line for autographed copies! Here Helen shares about her process of writing a novel, her quirky characters and more.
Lisa: When did you decide (how far along were you) to take a true story and turn it into fiction? Why?
Helen: A Dance with Hummingbirds began simply as a way to deal with my grief over the passing of my husband. I felt if I could put down thoughts and feelings on paper I would move on. There was never a concrete plan to write a book initially, truth or fiction. Only after I started to write did I find that it was flowing so naturally, and then I began to have thoughts about a book. And that book turned into fiction!
Lisa: Were you concerned about any real people seeing themselves in the book?
Helen: I’m always stunned when people come up to me and thank me for putting them in the book. I haven’t figured how to tell the vast majority that they are not in the book at all!
Lisa: At a recent library reading, you mentioned that the boss character, Carol, is actually written true to life to your former boss, now deceased, but that she would have loved the characterization. It did surprise me because she is so over the top. Can you say more about her wicked sense of humor and wackiness?
Helen: Carol, Carol… What can I possibly say about her? Yes she was real: my mentor and my muse. Her antics and language were legendary. Even today I find myself in situations and think: WWCD—What Would Carol Do? I still miss her. I miss the way she would enter a room and it was all about her, but in a split second she could sense where the stress was coming from and exactly what the problem was. Not everyone took to her brand of Social Work but everyone had to agree that Carol got things done.
Lisa: You mentioned also that the client stories are composites of many clients, based on events that actually took place. Do you think social services—and in particular working in Elder Service— provided more colorful stories than in a typical person’s work life? If so, why do you think that is?
Helen: For over twenty five years I labored in the trenches. Much of what was written in the book was a compilation of events; my staff and I saw, heard, and smelt a lot of sad and sorry things. Older folks who had lost all of their dignity in their struggle to remain independent. Our society gives people in that position few options. We prize youth and vitality. When those qualities are gone, we would rather put these people away than help them continue to lead fulfilling lives. I don’t know if my stories are more colorful than anyone else’s, but I do know that they aren’t heard as often.
Lisa: In your book talk, you mentioned a turning point when you shared your writing for the first time. It was in my Bring Your Book to Life Program in Narragansett, RI. Why had you held back? Did you feel self-doubt? What was it like to get such strong affirmation? What exactly did Anne Grant say at the end of class that had a powerful effect on you?
Helen: Don’t all artists experience periods of self doubt? I certainly did. Before I read for the group, Hummingbirds had never been spoken out loud. I was in panic mode during that first reading. If you remember, you told me more than once to slow down [my reading]. The positive reaction from the group seemed instantaneous. I still have the original sheets I read that morning with your comments. I must have reread them a thousand times. In reference to Anne Grant’s comments after the reading, she simply said, “You need to write and keep writing.” Coming from Anne it was almost a religious experience.
Lisa: Back when you began A Dance with Hummingbirds, you told me that you felt your deceased husband was pressuring you to write it. Can you say more about that?
Helen: I was sixty two when I conceived Hummingbirds, working full time with no thoughts of retirement at the time. Once I decided that it would indeed become a book I never felt pressure but I did feel a presence. I really do believe my late husband had a hand in the writing of the book.
I think he somehow directed me to you and also to independent editor Stuart Horwitz. Stuart was a must-have in my life. After reading the start I had made, he told me to go home and write him a book so I went home and wrote him a book. I don’t know who was more surprised.
Lisa: The story, characters and scenes are so creative and laugh-out-loud funny. Where do you feel your inspiration comes from? Does the humor just come naturally or do you work at it?
Helen: I never thought I was particularly funny. It was my husband who recognized that gift in me. He always told me I could have been a great actor or story teller. I think the reason is because my humor stems from a darker place. As I said previously, my staff and I have not always seen the best side of people. As a Protective Service worker in Providence, I was the person the police or rescue personnel called when a ninety year old was found with forty cats—who weren’t all alive. Or if an elder wasn’t seen for days and the mail person had concerns he’d call us. We developed a sense of humor that attempted to deflect the pain… almost like a debriefing session. And not everyone laughed or got our jokes! Many a person upon overhearing us was appalled at our lack of taste and respect. But that’s real life, you know? The best thing anyone has said about A Dance with Hummingbirds, is that it made them laugh.
Lisa: There are some mystical experiences in the book. Are they real experiences that happened to you?
Helen: Some of the experiences that I put in the book I certainly had. They happened; they’re real. And some didn’t quite happen like that but I built on them. I am very attuned to the vibration of what you might consider ‘alternative life’ around me. Sometimes it is separated as if by a veil, and other times, walking down street, I will see somebody for a millisecond whom I know is dead. They may be between lives… sometimes they show up in my dreams, sometimes they disappear for a long time and then come back, sometimes I see them once and then never again. I don’t consider myself to be a medium, but I am a conduit to the spirit world.
Lisa: Wow, that’s fascinating. I bet it makes you a stronger writer—to be that attuned and intuitive. We had quite a crowd at Willett Free Library. At your reading there, I was struck by how fabulous you looked! You were decked out in a beautiful red dress with faux leopard collar. How did you decide to wear that? Was it Regina’s idea?
Helen: Everything I do is Regina’s idea! I go by color which I think is so important in fashion. I think everyone should know what colors they can wear and what they can’t — any time I’ve been complimented on being fabulously dressed tonight, all it amounts to is stacking up my outfit with the basic colors that look good on me in a full length mirror.
Lisa: What was it like to give your first reading?
Helen: I don’t think I slept for three nights before. I started feeling better when I remembered what my husband had said to me: “Well, you are an actor, after all…” But the real thing that helped was when I got into that library. I was comfortable there, like it was a Zen moment. Seeing all those classic books calmed me down, while energizing me at the same time. It was as if those books were saying, “Welcome to our home. A library is our home.”
Lisa: I can see that—Willett is such a homey library—with its overstuffed chairs and fireplace the moment you walk in. I want to know more about your narrator, Regina. I imagine she has a host of adventures awaiting her. I know you are working on book two and have ideas for more. Are these sequels also based on some true events?
Hummingbirds is the first of a trilogy that features Regina Richards, with the second book, A Day in the Life of a Dragonfly coming out in March, 2016. After the third book, I’ll give Regina a break for a little while. To answer your other question here, the events in books two and three are not based on true events as much as book one. I think I have completely broken through into fiction—and that feels so nice.
“Hummingbirds is my story. Much of it happened. Some of it could have happened and the rest of it should have happened.”
Helen has spent 25 years of her life working with the elderly. She lives near Providence, Rhode Island. Read more about Helen’s books on her website here.