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Asking the Right Question: An Interview with Helena Sorensen (Part 1)

I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with Helena Sorensen ever since I had the pleasure of reading her last draft of The Door on Half-Bald Hill over the holidays. In this interview, we discuss the choice of partnering with life or with death, the apocalypse, thematic overlap between her story and the drama of Holy Week, the wonders of Celtic mythology, and much more. It was a long conversation, so I’ve broken it down into two parts.

You’ll see the rest of our conversation on the blog on Maundy Thursday.

Drew: To begin, I must acknowledge the timing of this book. It’s exceptional. This book is entering readers’ hands during a global pandemic. How are you feeling about that as the person who brought it into the world?

Helena: Well, it’s very strange! I always thought of it as a book that no one would read. Even Pete and Andrew—they joke about all the books they publish that people will never read, and this one felt like an addition to that list since its inception. So we’ve laughed about it from the beginning.

D: How many years ago did it begin?

H: 2016 is when I sent it to Pete and I started writing it in 2015.

The journey has been frustrating and long. My thinking was that it would finally come out, I’d be so excited, and then I’d move on to the next thing, and that would be it. And it may still be exactly like that. But the timing of the pandemic and the story is—I don’t know if I have words for it. Maybe it will make it more accessible, or make it feel like a more valuable story to people. But nothing has happened yet that would make me know how this story will impact people.

D: So let’s bring Holy Week into this: every year, we walk through the story of Holy Week in our imaginations, letting it tell us about the reality we’re in. And now, we’re adding to the mix this story you’re bringing into the world—do you see any gut-level connections between the posture of Holy Week and The Door on Half-Bald Hill? What can we bring as readers and participants into the experience of both?

H: One especially potent connection is the theme of waiting. When I think of the kind of waiting we do in the liturgical year, it feels like an extremely active waiting. Hope is an action verb. It’s something we see in the activity of the disciples in the story of the gospels—they’re so confused about who the Messiah is, what they need, and what the end of the story will look like.

Just getting up in the morning becomes this statement of faith: there's more here than I can see, and it just might be good. Helena Sorensen

That’s true in Half-Bald Hill, too. They run up against the end of a story and they have no idea what it could be, other than death and darkness. But they continue. Their waiting is beautiful because they partner with life instead of partnering with death: they harvest food, plant seeds, continue to see and care for each other, and generally operate as a community. Just getting up in the morning becomes this statement of faith: there’s more here than I can see, and it just might be good.

D: You mentioned bumping up against the end of a story. That’s such a provocative phrase. It really rings true to me, even as a fitting descriptor of what we’re experiencing in our world today. How are characters in Half-Bald Hill bumping up against the end of their own story?

H: For one thing, their land is sick. It’s giving out, not able to produce the kind of food that will nourish them. In the beginning of the story, a character who’s a kind of leader of the people comes and says, “I have a message from the ancestors! They say it’s time to embrace death. That’s the end of our story.”

A lot of characters receive that and say, “Oh. Okay. We didn’t want that to be the end, but if it is, we’ll comply.” So they rush along towards it and call it courage. But the characters you love most in the story are the ones who refuse to receive that and say instead, “No, there’s the possibility of a different ending here and I’m not going to give up.”

There are so many ways to partner with death. Cynicism partners with death; it says there’s no good that can surprise me. Unforgiveness partners with death; it says there’s no possibility of life in a relationship that’s broken. Despair partners with death; it says I can see the end and it’s all decided and settled.

Free will, then, becomes very important. If you believe we’re operating in a world that is controlled, then this might be a moment when you say, “Well, all the signs are here. Looks like it’s time to give up.” But if you’re operating in a framework of free will, which is how love must operate, all our choices really do matter. Our choice to get up in the morning and plant seeds is a way of partnering with life, believing this isn’t the end.

I talked a little bit in my recent Rabbit Room piece about the Celtic knot: where’s the end and where’s the beginning? It’s all wrapped up together and you can’t distinguish one from the other. It makes me think of that verse that says righteousness and peace have kissed each other. There’s this human demand that we must make things right. And there’s this peace of God that says, “I’ve already made it right.” Which is the beginning and which is the end? They’re woven together so beautifully.

D: That’s gorgeous. One of the most spine-tingling, spooky parts of the book for me was the refrain—and Pete clarified for me that this is a Yeats reference—“Come away, come away, leave the weeping world behind.” That entered the story repeatedly through the puka. Are pukas real things in Celtic mythology?

H: Yes, Irish and Celtic mythology. And the puka tended to be more of a trickster, like playing tricks on people at night. But one of the things pukas did was lure people away.

D: I think it could be helpful to go further into all the many ways of partnering with death. Because as you were enumerating them, I had characters from your story flash through my head. And all of them were grandiose. Certainly Zinerva, and the druid who lights himself on fire. That seems to be the climax of this partnership with death. That scene is so potent in my memory.

H: I was thinking a lot about how communities as a whole respond to harmful messages like that from leaders they revere, and who speak apparently with the authority of their entire history and folklore—people they ought to be able to trust.

That particular Celtic ceremony happened in the autumn each year. At that point it’s starting to get cold, harvest has passed, and the year is moving into darkness. They would make a wheel and roll it down a hill to symbolize the year rolling on past them, onward and onward without ceasing.

So in Half-Bald Hill, it’s in a moment like that when the druid takes that wheel away, out of the ceremony and all its attached significance, and uses it for destruction. It’s like he’s saying, “I don’t see where this reality is going and I can’t control where it’s going, so I have to make an end of it right now on my own terms.”

Only fear, profound fear, can drive someone to do that.

D: When you talk about hitting the end of a story, where it can’t explain what happens next or account for reality anymore, I think of Corann and his endless search. That is something that has huge overlap with Holy Week: that tension between the old and new. How does that theme play itself out in Half-Bald Hill?

H: Corann was always a picture of the old ways, but I say that with love for Corann. He’s not just stubborn or stupid. He only knows one way, and he is quite faithful and dogged and relentless in his attempts to wring any ounce of life or hope out of that old way.

Everything Idris has ever learned has come from Corann. He’s become who he is because of the work Corann has invested in him. But Corann just believes in the old ways, which have worked for many, many, many generations. I think that was true of the Jewish people when Jesus came.

D: In their eyes, it worked! Their systems worked.

H: Yes, they had a plan. So for someone to step into that and say, “No, this isn’t ultimate. There’s more here to discover” can be a bit insulting. It feels like, “Hey, you young whipper-snapper, how do you know? You can’t just change this thing willy-nilly!”

One gift of the pause we’re in right now is the chance to stop and re-evaluate the old ways, and say, “We’ve been running 90 miles per hour in this direction. Is that the direction we want to be going in?” Likewise in Half-Bald Hill, the characters are forced to a stop. And at the end of the story, it’s the willingness of Idris to venture into something new that sets Corann free. He’s finally able to acknowledge that he was wrong and to laugh. In fact, one of the last things we see in the story is Corann’s laughter: a partnering with life.

To listen and collaborate with the Spirit in spite of oneself—that is life, and our last picture of Corann is someone swept away in the beauty of that life.

D: What would you say about the connection between openness to the new and the maddening silence that is often there to greet you? The work of hearing this new word is so arduous for Idris. What is the silence for? Why does it take so long?

H: Well, I don’t know if you were raised in a tradition that said changing your mind was a moral failing. That was the message I got growing up: the faithful are the ones who get their theology figured out early and stand by it forever. And if that’s where you come from, and then you find yourself in life circumstances that don’t play out the way you were taught they would play out—if you do X, Y, or Z, then God will be obligated to bless you—a lot of us can find ourselves stuck in those times because we were never given the freedom to call those assumptions into question.

And that’s the thing: you must feel freedom in order to ask those questions. Often that process begins with trying all the ways you’ve been taught, then encountering the failure of those old ways, then admitting that those ways have failed you, and then finally finding the freedom to share that frustration with yourself.

Idris is slow in the beginning because he feels like he’s on his own, like he’s inadequate. He feels ill-equipped to take on this new role. People are looking to him for answers and he doesn’t even know what questions to ask yet.

D: I think of the terminology of deconstruction and reconstruction. Perhaps the reason Idris has so much work before him is that he not only has to provide the right answers, but he has to dig himself out of the hole of misconceptions and wrong questions first.

H: And as he nears the right question, the last question, the one that must be asked and answered, he becomes quieter and slower and far more grounded. He spends long periods of time doing ordinary things: waiting, watching, listening. You’d think that as the deadline nears, the opposite would happen. But instead, he’s settling down into the things that actually matter most.

D: That mirrors the walk of Jesus towards the cross. There’s a resolve that sweeps over the story toward the end. That’s one reason that as a narrative it’s so brilliant: this huge, cosmic event is immanent, but there’s a peace and assurance that undergirds the entire thing. It ensures the reader of what to hope and look for.

H: And with all the significance we find in the Last Supper—the body and blood, the Eucharist—the fact that Jesus even stopped at that moment to sit down and have a meal with his disciples is remarkable. How many other things could he have chosen to do?


This concludes Part 1 of our conversation. Check back again on Thursday for the rest.

In the meantime, check out The Door on Half-Bald Hill in the Rabbit Room Store.


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