Monday, October 3, 2011

Author Q&A: Steve Himmer

Steve Himmer is the author of The Bee-Loud Glade (Atticus Books, 2011), editor of the literary magazine Necessary Fiction, and a professor at Emerson College. I was delighted to read and review The Bee-Loud Glade earlier this summer for LitStack - it's a very smart, funny, thoughtful and thought-provoking novel about Finch, a corporate drone who gets fired and subsequently takes a job as a decorative hermit in a millionaire's garden. Steve generously agreed to subject himself to relentless and rigorous interrogation here on Books, Personally. Steve, welcome and thank you!

One of the things that first piqued my interest in reading The Bee-Loud Glade was the notion of Finch-the-office-drone inventing entire worlds online, complete with invented friends and conversations. Like a lot of other people, I spend a lot of time online, and this idea struck me as hilarious – but it also hit a little close to home. How bizarre we must all seem, sitting at our little screens and pouring out our thoughts in bits and bytes in blogs and tweets that may or may not be read by people we may or may not ever meet. I loved this quote of yours in your interview in 3:AM magazine ….
…it makes sense to me now: being online makes literal, if not tangible, something that was probably already true, that so many of us are hermits in our heads, a secret part of ourselves tucked away as we go about being workers and spouses and everything we are in the course of a day. Being online can be a kind of meditation that way, a means of disembodying ourselves and drifting half-minded as we connect to something much larger than ourselves.
…What do you think the “something much larger than ourselves” is? Are we all a bit like Finch, or at risk of becoming like him?

The web is larger than us, both in a physical sense of blanketing much of the world with wires and signals, and also in how many people it includes. Not as a replacement for face-to-face contact and friendships, but as a complement to them. To find people who share your interests all over the world, and to talk to them daily, is a powerful thing we can’t easily accomplish offline. I can’t overstate how important that connection has been for me in the past decade. And just think about the lives it’s changed, even saved. To a person who feels alienated from the community they live in, someone who feels alone, the connections you might make online, to know there’s someone else out there like you... that’s vital. So are we at risk of becoming Finch? Probably. Though I think we’re also all already Finch in some way, isolated and alienated and looking for a way of becoming less so whether it’s online or off, indoors or out. I think that’s part of why we read, and I know for certain it’s a big part of why I write.

When Emma Donoghue’s Room came out, everyone marveled that the entire novel that took place within a single, enclosed space. The Bee-Loud Glade also takes place largely within the walls of millionaire Mr. Crane’s garden. I haven’t yet read Room but I imagine you and Donoghue must have faced some similar issues when writing your books. What were some of the challenges your setting presented to you as a writer, and how did you address them?

In some ways it probably made the story easier to write. I had a firm map in my head because it was so constrained. Finch only had so much range available to him, and I only had so much ground to cover following him. But it was a challenge for building tension at times. I made a deliberate decision to keep some of the action of the story off the page, beyond the bounds of the garden. Those are probably the most exciting parts of the story in some ways, or the highest stakes. Yet what Finch was able to know about what went on around him was limited by his constrained landscape. So while part of me wanted to do more with those characters who come in and out of his garden, and the larger machinations they’re part of, I couldn’t because I was more committed to the isolation of Finch’s perspective and voice.

I loved the way Finch learns to turn his attention to very small happenings in the garden - the rituals he adopted (meditation, floating in the river) allowed him to deeply observe then understand the importance of these small happenings and to be moved by them, it became a spiritual experience. In real life, many people might dismiss or overlook such things as insignificant. What importance does nature have in your own life? How would you describe our (modern human) relationship to nature compared the one Finch develops?

I get very, very claustrophobic if I don’t get outside fairly often — at least for a walk on a not too crowded street, somewhere with trees. Or near water. I’d like to get out into farther, wild places more often than I’m able these days, but for practical reasons I spend more time thinking and reading about nature than getting dirty in it, unfortunately. I’m fascinated by how we’ve made nature mean different things at different times in history. Especially the way we make animals bear the weight of so many metaphors it’s a wonder they can still move around. I’m certainly guilty of piling more on.

I’m fascinated by how nature is mediated by technology, and always has been — as far as back as building a fire rather than accept being cold in the dark. Finch’s “nature” may be more overtly mediated than what most of us encounter, but I’m not sure it’s so different. My daughter and I look up the birds we see on my laptop as often as in my bird book, so we can hear their calls and watch videos of them. That’s bringing us closer to nature, not further away. But those same tools become toxic pollutants when they’re obsolete — they’re a far cry from logs decomposing in the woods. And we carry our awareness of technology into the woods with us, so we’re always looking at the world through the lens of being online however far we are from our screens. I don’t know that this moment is any more or less contradictory and confusing than any other, in terms of how complicated our relationship to the natural world is, but the stakes seem to be higher so it seems worth writing about. Particularly in fiction, because I don’t think outdoor fiction has kept pace very well with either the philosophical changes to environmental thinking in recent decades, or with the innovations that have happened elsewhere in literature. So maybe there’s fertile ground.

Recently you tweeted that you are designing the ideal class for … yourself. I know you were joking (a little, anyway) but it made me wonder, what would the course description be for your ideal class? What is the most important thing about writing you never learned in school? What have you learned about writing by teaching others? What is the most important thing you hope your students learn from you?

Oh, I have any number of ideas for courses. The one I was thinking about the other day was a course on everyday life and making it exciting through art. “The Hum of the Humdrum” or something like that. Boredom, solitude, quiet... these different types of social withdrawal or reclamation of our daily time are coming up over and over right now, and I’d love to explore that with students. We’d read novels, watch films — Monsieur Hulot, of course! — take walks, sit quietly in our classroom each doing our own thing.

As for what I never learned about writing in school, it’s not so much that I wasn’t taught something as it took me awhile to figure it out. And that’s to write for your own reasons and trust them, which seems obvious. Working on my MFA I felt very self-conscious about never having studied literature properly. I think I still feel that way. Apart from a few seminars in grad school, my reading has been esoteric and auto-didactic, at best, and haphazard and full of holes at worst. The same is true about what I write: I don’t think I’d be capable of approaching fiction as purely style, or purely aesthetics, in the way much of the online and indie lit worlds seem to favor. I am always, always writing in response to some question beyond myself, something political or historical or theoretical or something. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m putting down other approaches, because I’m not. It’s just taken me a while to be comfortable with what I’m doing, because sometimes I feel like I’m going at writing backwards compared to what other people are doing. Maybe everyone feels that way.

But I’d like to pass that along to my students. That, and the idea that writing — any writing — is creative, but it’s also inquiry. And research. Whether you’re writing fiction or an essay or a lab report or whatever, you’re asking and answering questions about the world. No writing comes out of a void.

It’s so wonderful when authors and writers participate in #fridayreads on twitter - your reads are often new to me - they always sound interesting, and inevitably send me running to look up the titles on Goodreads. What’s a recent very favorite read and why? Who are some of the best writers and authors most readers haven’t heard of yet?

There are so many good books! It’s panic inducing just to worry about all the great books you’ll miss, isn’t it? I thought Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits was terrific. It’s a novel about fatherhood, a subject close to my heart, and it’s honest without becoming sentimental and without sacrificing complexities of style as it considers some pretty big questions about identity and masculinity through a domestic lens. Another great read was Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie, about a pretty terrible woman who is terribly likable, and her almost (but not quite) accidental kidnapping of a friend’s daughter. Bad Marie has gotten some well-earned recognition, but Abbott Awaits is a book that deserves far more. I’d also like to give a nod to Robert Kloss, who just published his chapbook How The Days of Love & Diphtheria and has a novel coming out in a few months. Full disclosure, he’s a good friend of mine, but I think he’s an incredible writer, someone with a voice and a view of the world that’s entirely his own and if he wasn’t such nice person I’d be intensely jealous. His prose is what mine wants to be when it grows up.

Finally, you are doing a reading event for The Bee-Loud Glade with TNBBC on Goodreads in October - can you tell us a little more about what that is, and how someone could join in?

That’s right, I’ll be discussing my book with TNBBC throughout the month on their Goodreads group page. I’m excited about it, because I’ve enjoyed talking with a couple of book groups in the last couple of months. The truth is, one of the anxieties I had before The Bee-Loud Glade was published — probably because so many literary agents told me I should — was that the story would only appeal to people of particular interests or reading habits. Clones of me, more or less. So it has been deeply gratifying over the last few months to get the book in front of those mythic “general readers” agents told me wouldn’t be interested and to have them engage the story in thoughtful, wonderful ways. That’s what I hope will happen this month at TNBBC.

A special note from Lori from TNBBC - everyone is welcome to come join in the The Bee-Loud Glade discussion on Goodreads. In support of the read-along and discussion, Atticus Books is offering The Bee Loud Glade at a special price for the month - you can buy it online here

You can also find Steve at his website, on twitter, and at the literary journal Necessary Fiction.You might also like to check out his excellent and thought provoking essays On Being Indie at TNBBC's website and Making Room For Readers” at The Millions.


  1. Sign me up the hum of the humdrum - it sounds like Montessori for adults.

  2. Doesn't it sound fun? I'm in. Steve, any chance of a distance learning humdrum class?

  3. Maybe someday. Or perhaps a "destination" seminar? Rent a house somewhere to spent a week as a class living everyday life as we study it.

  4. Books, Personally has become my favorite literary review! Keep the Author interviews coming!

  5. LOL, thank you Anonymous (a.k.a. Mr. Books, Personally :D) More interviews on the way

  6. Great interview, both of you! I read and loved The Bee Loud Glade earlier this year (I don't doubt it will make my best of 2011 lists) and enjoyed getting to know a bit more about the author. Thanks :-)

  7. Thanks so much Erin! you might enjoy the discussion over at TNBBC as well (people are asking some amazing questions)


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