This readers group guide for The Helpline includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Katherine Collette. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Germaine Johnson doesn’t need friends. She has her work and her sudoku puzzles. Until, that is, an incident at her insurance company leaves her jobless—and it turns out that there are very few openings these days for senior mathematicians with zero people skills.
Soon enough though, Germaine manages to secure a position at city hall answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline. But it turns out that the mayor has something else in mind for Germaine: a secret project involving the troublemakers at the senior citizens center and their feud with the neighboring golf club—which happens to be run by the dashing yet disgraced national sudoku champion, Don Thomas, a celebrity of the highest order to Germaine.
Don and the mayor want the senior center closed down. At first, Germaine is dedicated to helping them out—it makes sense mathematically, after all. But when Germaine actually gets to know the group of elderly rebels there, they open her eyes to a life outside of boxes and numbers and for the first time ever, Germaine realizes she may have miscalculated.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. As Germaine is let go from her job as a senior mathematician, there is “some conjecture about what happened next” (p. 4) during a conversation called “the incident.” How do these opening pages establish Germaine’s personality?
2. A number of graphs and figures are used to illustrate Germaine’s points. How do they add to the storytelling?
3. Why do you think that competitive sudoku resonates so much with Germaine?
4. Germaine fixates on a number of routines and relationships. She was Alan Cosgrove’s number one fan and traveled to major events to see him, saying, “He was hardly ever there, and we spoke only one time, but we had an unspoken connection: It didn’t require acknowledgment on his behalf.” (p. 46) How does this mirror her relationship with Peter?
5. When Germaine learns that the mayor intends to shut down the senior center, not just remove Celia from her position, Germaine thinks about those who rely on the center, wondering “what were they doing, invading my private thoughts?” (p. 108). How does this differ from her early impressions of them?
6. When Jack warns Germaine that Mayor Bainbridge may be self-interested, Germaine notes that “Jack’s misgivings didn’t deter me. The opposite: They reminded me that it’s important to have vision in life” (p. 135). What kind of vision do you think Germaine is talking about here?
7. Germaine is thrilled to have a secret project, in addition to her early attempts to get call time down at the senior center. What does the focus on the secret project mean for Germaine?
8. When Germaine learns that the senior center will be sold, the mayor “said his name. Don
. And that one word seemed to change everything. It brought clarity: Don
. I was helping Don” (p. 165). How does the mayor exploit Germaine’s affection for Don/Alan?
9. Although her relationship with Sharon can be strained, Germaine clings to the idea of John Douglas as her father, noting that “if there was a degree of uncertainty about something, I’d say to myself: What would Professor John Douglas do in this situation?
” (p. 181). What happens to Germaine’s sense of self when she learns that John Douglas isn’t her father?
10. How does Germaine’s relationship with her mother improve as she gets to know the members of the senior citizen’s center?
11. The book ends with Germaine’s plan to move in with Jack and the line: “He was going to be so excited when he found out” (p. 292). What do you think happens when Jack finds out? Will he interpret this as a romantic gesture?
12. Why do you think Germaine misinterprets the relationship between Marie and Jack?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bring sudoku puzzles to your book group and see who can complete one the fastest to feel the thrill like Germaine.
2. In honor of Biscuit Tuesday, bring cookies to your book group.
3. The Helpline
was originally published in Australia, where it is set. Bring some Australian wine to share with your book club friends.A Conversation with Katherine ColletteWhere did the character of Germaine come from?
I’m an engineer, which probably explains everything. Germaine would make a great engineer.
My job involves planning and designing sewers. In my work we often say the engineering is the easy part—you can come up with a technical solution to anything—the hard part is people. They always make things so difficult.
I like when the point of something gets lost. Working on sewers, it’s easy to get stuck on what will make the sewer
great, how to make it perfect operationally, forgetting that it’s in a terrible location or the manholes are ugly or inconvenient or that people will hate it.
Germaine is that compulsion, taken to an extreme. Hitting the target but missing the point. With Germaine there is no bigger picture.You also worked at a helpline. What was your experience there like?
I’ve worked on a helpline but not for senior citizens. It was a government-run phone line, advising people on the terms and conditions of their employment. So, a truck driver would call up and say, ‘I drive a double tractor trailer. How much should I get paid on Sundays?’ Or a waiter might call wanting to know what breaks they should get—that sort of thing.
You had to be very meticulous and check different awards to make sure what you were saying was accurate. I cut a few corners. So many corners that my first week I distinguished myself by answering the most number of calls. Quite a to-do was made of this and I thought, Wow, I’ve really impressed people. It was only when my manager came and said, “We think you need more training” that I realized they weren’t impressed, they were worried.
It was a hard job, talking on the phone all the time. I didn’t love it.Germaine has a singular view of the world. What was it like to get inside her head and write from her perspective?
Germaine was great fun to write. What I like about her is she’s not a do-gooder. She’s not there to change the world—she just happens to. To me, that’s the best kind of hero.
One of things that helped in writing her was she always had very clear motivations. Like, she desperately wants accolades, even for things that are not at all important. That’s funny to me. Germaine wants to be a big fish in a small pond. Only problem is she’s a medium-size- fish, so she just needs to find the right-size puddle.This novel also says a lot about the working of local government and the relationship between bureaucracy and small businesses. Do you think the two can work in tandem?
I’ve always worked in government. I like it. I think it’s challenging and meaningful, especially working in sewerage. I can sit in a room and write and wonder if something should be red or scarlet or the perfect shade of pink, but then I’ll go into the office and someone will have raw sewage spilling in their yard and suddenly you realize what a real
problem looks like.
Government/the bureaucracy can have a sense of ridiculousness about it. Like, at my work they recently removed all the Band-Aids from the first aid kits. This was because they didn’t want to people to administer their own first aid, not even for a paper cut. (It is
a paperless office, though. . . .) I don’t think you’d get that in the business world.
The ideal is bureaucracy and small businesses working together. In practice . . . Maybe they have different agendas.There are a number of great intergenerational friendships in this novel. Did you initially plan to include these, or did they come about organically?
Actually, even before Germaine, the concept for the book started with a senior citizens center. I met a very unusual, almost tyrannical senior citizens club president and was mesmerized by her. My original thought was she’d make a great documentary film subject but I didn’t know anything about film, so I wrote a short story about her and the short story evolved to become a novel and the novel is The Helpline
So the intergeneration aspect was always there.
I think I was very conscious of wanting to write a book in which most of the characters were female, but they weren’t necessarily seeking “female” things. Germaine is a woman in her late thirties, she’s single, she doesn’t have children. Generally, a story about her would center on her wanting a romantic relationship. But that’s not what Germaine’s after. She’s after friendship. Friendship and loneliness are two things I gravitate toward writing about.Although The Helpline was originally published in Australia, it’s also being released now in the United States, Canada, and the UK. What has the publication process been like as the book has traveled?
It’s an amazing experience. Writing a novel takes a long time and you do it thinking no one will ever read what you write, except my husband and my parents (and even then, probably under duress). So to have it published at all is pretty special. A lot of great writers don’t get that privilege. Seeing it come out in Australian was mind-blowing, the fact it’s now traveled to places I haven’t is even more exciting.
The best bit is seeing the different covers for the book. Funny how the same story can be encapsulated by completely different images. I love the American cover, the sense that’s Germaine is lurking behind a plant. It’s something she would do.You don’t hear about competitive sudoku often. What inspired Alan’s and Germaine’s love of sudoku?
I am terrible at sudoku! I wish I were better at it. Germaine needed an antisocial hobby and it was sudoku or crosswords. I like that it involves numbers, you do it alone, and sudoku has levels (easy, hard, etc.), so she could claim to be better at it than she was.
In terms of Alan, I was very inspired by the King of Kong
documentary, which is about people who are obsessed with playing Donkey Kong. The King of Kong
features a Donkey Kong world champion who is exactly the sort of obscure, faded star Germaine would find appealing.Who was your favorite character to write?
Germaine, definitely. But Eva was also fun. There’s an ironic subplot in the novel about the communal biscuits in the office kitchen. Eva’s very involved in it. It was one of the first things I ever wrote and it’s probably resonated the most with people.
In some ways Germaine and Eva seem to be opposites. Germaine’s very critical of Eva for being incompetent, but in fact Eva turns out to be surprisingly competent in her own way. And Germaine, the one most obsessed with competence, is the least competent of all.There’s been an increase of what we call “uplit,” books with hopeful messages that promote kindness and community, a category this book falls in. Why do you think people are responding to these kinds of stories?
I think there are two reasons it’s gaining popularity. One is in response to the climate of the day, there’s a lot that doesn’t feel uplifting in the world right now. The other is maybe that what has been published, in terms of literary trends, has been dark too. When I think about the big books of the last few years it’s Gone Girl
and Jane Harper and Girl on the Train
—and those are great, compelling books to read—but I don’t know how hopeful they are. . . .
Having said that, I do think that even writing that is “entertainment” or escapism still responds to social issues. There’s power and corruption in The Helpline
; it’s just because it’s at the local government level that it’s less troubling. The stakes seem lower.What has been the most rewarding experience of publishing a debut novel?
I talk a lot about the behind the scenes of writing and publishing on the podcast, the First Time
, that I do with another Australian author Kate Mildenhall. The podcast is supported by a few of the writers centers over here. It tracks my journey in the lead-up to the book’s coming out, what it was like seeing the cover for the first time, planning the book launch—that kind of thing. It’s a cool thing to have, a kind of audio diary.
Because I work as an engineer I’m not around people who love books and writing. In fact, when I used to say I was writing on the weekend or before work, people would generally mishear and think I was riding (a bike). . . . It’s way more normal as engineer to be into bike riding than writing or reading. That’s been wonderful, being around people who like to talk about books and ideas and what you love or hate.What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
To my mind it’s novel about people who are invested in things that to an outsider seem small. Which on the one hand is funny, that sense of disproportionateness. But at the same time, we make things meaningful. They’re not inherently meaningful. Just because something seems
small or unworthy, doesn’t mean it is.Are you working on anything new?
I’m working on a novel set in the very weird world of competitive public speaking. It follows four characters as they compete to win the national impromptu speaking championship. It’s sort of has a documentary/mockumentary element to it. I’m actually competing in speaking competitions as part of my research, which is odd and fun and terrifying and thrilling all at once.