Michelle Butler Hallet shows great empathy for her characters in her short stories and in her new novel, Double-blind, which she'll read from at Word on the Street this weekend.
Psychiatrist Josh Bozeman narrates the story of his own work with a secretive research group, the losses that plague him, the damage he's done in the name of progress and the precarious path to redemption, which comes in the form of a patient with extraordinary powers who appears in his life.
The book, Butler Hallett says, "is about empathy and complicity. It's set against some whacked-out Cold War stuff, unethical medical research, questions of justice, love and state."
The author's not yet sure how she feels about Bozeman as a person, but she "knows him intimately." She doesn't hesitate to express her love for characters elsewhere in her body of work.
There's the Salvation Army Major Geoffrey Feltham—the main character in Pardon-Speaking Blood, the author's contribution to this past spring's Vagrant Revue of New Fiction. And the young orderly in the title story from her 2006 collection The Shadow Side of Grace (Killick Press). Both men care deeply about and for the people ailing physically, emotionally and spiritually around them. Partly because it's their job and partly because they know they should.
In short, Michelle Butler Hallet bestows mercy on her characters because they do the same for others in their world—as if they were independent people existing apart from the author's imagination.
"I think the attempt to understand one another is part of the responsibility of being human," she explains by email. "Am I naturally empathetic? I don't know," she continues. "I find people fascinating. I'm always studying people. And people confide in me. I'm nosy as hell, always trying to figure out what the ins of this or that are."
Butler Hallet waits for people to drop their "masks" or reveal "layers." Not so she can exploit pain, but so she can better understand all the complexity of people. What's impressive with her writing is how she distills that complexity into simple language and storytelling.
The entire story The Shadow Side of Grace pivots on a single exchange between John, a very ill patient, and Keefer, an orderly. It has clarity and a lack of pretense: not how you might want the exchange go, but how it would go. Physically weaker, John ends up better able to deal with reality than Keefer.
"My heart broke for Keefer," Butler Hallet admits. He's also the protagonist in the first story of the collection, The Mercy of His Means. "Those stories had to play out that way, and there's more in the works for him yet. I love him. I love my characters."
Keefer started his gradual emergence in Butler Hallet's imagination on a visit to the ER. A real personal care attendant, (AKA orderly) showed her great kindness in the smallest gestures. "Big muscular guy, gentle voice, very caring, wheeled me quite carefully to a CT scan, because any jostle would make my pain worse," the author recalls.
Along with her upbringing in St. John's and her education (English undergrad and graduate degrees from Carleton University in Ottawa) Butler Hallet's faith bears great weight on her work. "I don't know if any of my stories are a plea. Alistair MacLeod says we write about what worries us. I worry about evil. In some ways I want my work to be part of a long prayer. There's pleading in prayer."
Butler Hallett doesn't sermonize, but her faith (Bahá'í) does affect her writing. "While there is really no such thing yet as "Bahá'í art,' my faith, and my struggles with it are a major influence on my work."
"Bahá'í's believe that grace exists, but that the progress of the soul depends on the individual, on his efforts to understand and grow. None of this comes without pain."