“Ichthyologist” is hard to say and harder to spell, but for fish-expert-turned-novelist Gene Helfman — who claims sharks were his “first love” — it’s meant a rewarding career.
Switching to fiction in the newly published “Beyond the Human Realm,” the Lopez Island author chose orcas as main characters, because, he says, it’s easy for humans to suspend our disbelief about orcas as characters.
“Given their intelligence, there’s no reason why they can’t communicate in as complex manner as we do,” Helfman said. In portraying orcas as “essentially a Pacific Northwest tribe,” Helfman affirms that preservation of the species requires the adoption of a more Indigenous approach — one of kinship.
After growing up in Southern California, Helfman “escaped,” graduating from UC Berkeley in 1967. To avoid the draft, he joined the Peace Corps, which sent him to the Pacific archipelago nation of Palau (like his protagonist, Dr. Rudy Laguna) to work in fish conservation. He also voluntarily taught high school biology, re-upping for a third year to write a textbook featuring local animals to connect students to their environment.
His fish duties provided hours of diving, working with local fishermen and serving as a guide for visiting scientists, who allowed him to participate in their research. He emerged from the Peace Corps with academic publications, including a master’s thesis on the threatened coconut crab. This work springboarded him into the University of Hawai’i, where he acquired not only a degree, but a life partner in Judy Meyer, a fresh-water specialist, who was also studying there.
After living on a sailboat for a “jolly old time,” the couple returned to grad school, earning doctorates at Cornell. Meyer got a teaching job at University of Georgia, where, eventually, “they hired me to keep her,” Helfman said.
Thirty years of fish science ensued, including plenty of writing — mostly academic, but written in a distinctive voice. His ichthyology text — “still the most widely used, globally,” he noted — made one colleague comment, “Gene’s textbook is the only one that ever made me laugh.”
Long drawn to the Pacific Northwest, Helfman and Meyer realized in thinking about retirement. That neither felt a “deep kinship with the [Georgia] coast, the salt marshes,” he said. They attended conferences in the San Juans, and experienced “a strong, magnetic drive” to the rockbound coast: “Somewhere deep inside, it was what we wanted.”
They vacationed on each island and Lopez won, with good biking for Helfman, a Quaker group for Meyer — and a powerful sense of community for both.
Tahlequah as catalyst
“Beyond the Human Realm” is set mostly in the Salish Sea and climaxes around the death of a baby orca, so readers may wonder if Helfman was inspired by the story of Tahlequah. In 2018, the new mother introduced people around the globe to the idea of whale grief, as she carried her dead calf around for 17 days.
The answer is “no,” but also “yes.”
“I really wanted to get into the mystical, spiritual aspects of orcas and people connecting,” he said, “That scene of Rudy waking up, knowing something had happened — I wrote that easily 10 years ago.”
But Tahlequah was a catalyst. After keeping logbooks “for probably 20 years … notebooks full of stories, scenes, conversations,” Helfman said he felt compelled by the tragedy of the real orca parent: “There was no question but that I had to write the book.”
Like Rudy Laguna, Helfman first encountered orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium, immediately feeling, “this is wrong.” He read up on their behavior, sharing his learning with his Georgia undergrads. Helfman, noting his status as “the world’s expert on river eel behavior,” had been the first to demonstrate the importance of culture — generationally taught behavior — in fishes. Now, he wondered, how much more powerful was culture in a complex-brained species like Orcinus orca?
An excerpt from “Beyond the Human Realm” illustrates Helfman’s thinking:
Nan performed one trick that Sam never even attempted. In fact, it frightened him. She would jump out of the pool onto the smooth land, to excited shouts of the log riders. Then they would push her back into the pool. Just the thought of beaching himself made him shudder, imagining his weight pushing down, crushing him, without the water to hold him up. He asked her why she did this.
‘I imagine I’m escaping,’ she said, matter-of-factly. ‘I know it’s a fantasy, but, for a brief moment, I’m away from here.’
Her response hurt his feelings, knowing that she would rather be somewhere else than with him. But she had known freedom, while he had been a captive essentially all his life.
While new to fiction, Helfman enjoys writing; his byline in the Islands Weekly is familiar to Lopezians who follow local high school sports. (“Getting to know the kids is my opportunity for being involved,” he said.) The only thing he feels a little nervous about, in debuting his novel, is the reaction to his portrayal of Coast Salish characters and culture, which he clearly admires.
“The more I read about the relationship between orcas and the human societies of this coast,” Helfman said, “the more impossible it seemed not to bring that into the book.” He clarifies that the novel’s Indigenous names and language, as well as a pivotal origin story, are “entirely made up,” and trusts that his depictions are “respectful and careful enough” to avoid offense.
Helfman feels another novel inside, pulling him back to his first love: sharks. Long ago he wrote a screenplay portraying these little-understood creatures sympathetically, and many of its themes appear in “Beyond the Human Realm.” But sharks, he thinks, deserve their own spotlight: “After all, they’re the underdogs.”
Editor’s note: Lopez Library hosted a book launch for “Beyond the Human Realm” on Thursday, Oct. 21, at 5:30 p.m.
— Reported by Gretchen K. Wing
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