Back in November, we had the chance to sit down (in a metaphorical sort of way) with Steve Himmer, author of the debut novel, The Bee Loud Glade. In his first interview, Steve let us in on the source of his inspiration and the long, winding road that led to the birth of this refreshing novel about a modern man living as a decorative hermit. As the book’s April release date inches closer, we’re getting more wrapped up in the little ways this book manages to ask some seriously big questions. In Part 2, we’re covering everything from Yeats to Dick Cheney to the LL Bean catalogue–and realizing that the novel’s message about the discourse between nature and the modern world rings true everywhere we look.
Atticus Books: The novel explores an almost unheard-of situation and setting to tell a page-turning story, but it also brings to light several far-reaching questions about the nature of nature, employment, society (or what happens in its absence), solitude, and wealth. In the novel’s nascent stage, did you plan to incorporate these themes into the work, or did they find their own way in as a result of the subject matter?
Steve Himmer: The questions about nature and solitude were there from the start, as they seem to be in just about everything I write, fiction and otherwise, and have been for years. Whether that means I’m exploring an idea to its fullest or am a sad one-trick pony, I’ll leave for someone else to decide. But the questions about wealth and work and so forth came later — as I said in the first part of this interview, I lost a job while trying to get this novel off the ground, and that experience became a crucial part of both the story and my writing of it. So while it’s not autobiographical by any means, in that way it’s very personal and was, while I wrote it, very immediate to my experience.
AB: Why “Finch”? Obviously, at Atticus Books, the name is special to us. Is there any particular significance to it in the novel, or was it a random pick? In general, do you consciously use names as a way of telling your readers something about the character?
SH: All the names are deliberate and referential, which is unusual for me–in most of my stories characters have intentionally generic names. My hope is the names work as “just” names, in addition to their suggestive qualities, so I’m reluctant to overstate where they come from, but Finch gets his from both the qualities of that particular bird and from their historical significance. Mr. Crane is named after a bird, too–obviously–but there’s another historical reference buried in there, as there are with all of the characters who actually get names.
AB: Although Finch is encouraged to believe he’s living in an all-natural, pastoral environment, his every need is well met by Mr. Crane, his employer. This sort of pseudo-naturalism is so common today—like going camping with a generator. Do you think the “help” of technology in our encounters with nature can actually be a hindrance to them?
SH: Hm, I tend to think we’re so far past the possibility of an encounter with nature that isn’t mediated by technology that the real hindrance is thinking we might have such a thing. There are degrees, of course, but since the first paleolithic hunter carved a spearhead before leaving the cave for the day–maybe even when earlier primates put twigs in anthills to fish out a snack–we’ve mediated nature through technology. And I’ve done enough cold weather hiking to know I’m unwilling to give up the mediation of polar fleece and Gore-Tex. That doesn’t mean I’m advocating for generators on campsites, mind you. But I do think there’s opportunity in hiking with a web-enabled phone (which, admittedly, I don’t own) and using software like iBird or even Wikipedia to answer your questions immediately, rather than making a bed sketch or trying to remember how a bird song went until you get home to look it up based on faulty evidence. The trick, I guess, for us as well as for Finch, is finding the balance where technology enriches rather than prevents the kind of “natural” experience we’re looking for, whatever that may be–because it’s not going to be the same for everyone, just as no two readers are looking for the same thing in a book. Personally, I hate ringing phones, and the idea of being “reachable” when I’m off hiking or kayaking or camping is horrifying. But that doesn’t make my encounter with nature any less mediated, just differently so. My kayak is made of plastic, and my sleeping bag is nylon, and however deep in the woods I go, however long I spend offline, I’m still carrying with me a mind defined by the web as much as by the wild. Just as Finch’s mind is always online, even when he’s abandoned computers, because it’s the way he’s learned to think.
AB: In the first few days after transitioning into his new life as a hermit, Finch finds himself plagued by commercial jingles he can’t get out of his head. It’s a great moment, as Finch’s attempt to contemplate nature and deeper truths are foiled by inane ad campaigns. Do you think we allow our minds and experience of the world to be shaped by the commercial environment in which we live?
SH: “Allow” sounds like we have some alternative, but yeah, that moment of Finch’s is one I’ve experienced myself. The amount of TV detritus, the flotsam and jetsam of jingles and ad dialogue crammed into my head is astounding, and a little bit scary. I can recite things I don’t even remember watching, and I don’t feel like I grew up watching very much television. I can definitely quote more Simpsons than Shakespeare. On the other hand, the cultural “flattening” that makes possible, the way so-called “high” culture has come to recognize the potential of pop, is not only exciting but (and obviously I’m not saying anything original in pointing this out) one of the defining elements of our age. Just look at a writer like Kelly Link, or Jonathan Lethem. Or Jean Echenoz, one of my favorites, who borrows the tropes of pulp detective fiction to produce compact, complex, powerful novels. So I don’t think it’s a problem, per se, to have jingles stuck in our heads, as long as we discover creative, meaningful ways to redeploy them–the same we writers and artists reinvent Shakespeare over and over. And yes, lots of that stuff is still pretty horrible, and the intrusiveness of earworms makes me angry sometimes, but maybe it’s the aural equivalent of carrying burs and seeds home from the forest to grow something new in your yard.
AB: The sexual tension between Finch and Mr. Crane’s wife is palpable; refreshingly, with Finch’s vow of silence, the scenes are more humorous than erotic. Their connection is ambiguous, but their common denominator (the imposing, eye-in-the-sky Mr. Crane) is clear. How would you describe Finch’s relationship with Mrs. Crane?
SH: Their relationship is a contradictory one, maybe. Mrs. Crane wants Finch to be something more than he is, a confidant or friend instead of another of her husband’s hobbies. Finch, on the other hand, wants Mrs. Crane to be less than she is–he’s unable, really, to see her as a whole person, as more than a sexist stereotype or a cliché, until it’s too late to matter. So, yes, it’s a relationship full of sexual tension, but also of idealizing in ways that will never be productive or fulfilling for either character. Mrs. Crane, to me, is in some ways the heart of the story, and the tragedy of it–she’s a character I was very cautious with, I hope, trying to make clear that she’s a much more complex person than the reductive views of those around her allow for.
AB: The title of your novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, is from a line of a poem by W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Did the poem play a significant role in your inspiration for or development of the story?
SH: It wasn’t an inspirational role so much as a confirmational one. I’ve loved Yeats’ poetry for years, and when the story was already pretty far along but untitled–though there were already bees in it–I reread “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and felt the spark of a perfect title. And of being reminded, again, of how many other writers have already taken on some of the same questions I’m exploring through Finch. Which is always a mixed blessing, isn’t it? In some ways it would be nice to be isolated like Finch, to pretend ideas and actions are wholly your own, but it’s not that simple even for him.
AB: On the surface, Finch’s job, essentially, is to work at contemplating nature, to work at not working. It seems like his task, in many ways, is similar to that of the writer—to tune out all distractions and focus on being open to inspiration. Thoughts?
Sh: I hadn’t thought much about it, but they do seem similar, don’t they? Except that a writer is expected, ultimately, after all that wandering about muttering to oneself and being awkwardly antisocial, to produce something. Whereas a hermit–this one, at least–has the luxury of producing nothing at all, and of not being expected to. But there’s definitely a question about creativity here, perhaps most of all about collaboration. I won’t say too much, because it could give away things I don’t want to, but in an age when culture is networked and social and participatory, I think the question of what happens to the solitary, romantic figure of “the Artist” is unavoidable. Whether it’s the pressures of jobs and taxes, or family, or book tours, or just the daily clamor of Facebook and Twitter, how many writers or artists can really afford to live an isolated life of the mind? It takes a kind of independence that comes only with wealth, or else with the total rejection of wealth–of being a genuine hermit, someone like Idaho’s late “Dugout Dick.”
AB: During the writing process, were you inspired to take any trips or getaways to try to experience the kind of isolation Finch is seeking?
SH: Inspired, yes, but unable. My daughter was born during the writing of the novel, and I have a full time job and other responsibilities that make taking off for a cave more easily dreamed than done. And, to be honest, as much as I might romanticize an isolation like Finch’s in my own imagination, and as much as I like time to myself–and lots of it–I don’t think I’d work well in a writers’ retreat or similar situation. I suspect I’d be too self-consciously aware of the pressure to write, the inherent “value” of the time available to me, and it would start to feel a bit “precious” in the pretentious sense–“Oh, and now off to my aerie to capture more brilliance!” I think I need to treat writing as more ordinary, something to do alongside changing diapers and cooking dinner, rather than something elevated and rarefied. I may have less time to get writing done that way, but I’m happier with what I produce.
AB: It’s so perfectly ironic that Finch’s pre-meltdown, pre-hermit occupation is marketing plastic plants … something that man thinks he’s improved upon which really isn’t even a close second to the real thing. A perfect, microcosmic example of the book’s theme is that in our attempt to fit “nature” into our modernized, materialistic lives, we often get it all wrong. Would it be accurate to say that when we try to possess nature or revise nature, we inevitably change it?
SH: Absolutely. And that’s not all bad–I’m glad somebody changed nature enough to make vaccines. But there can be hollowness to those changes, as I think Finch discovers about his “hyperefficient” plants. Personally, I find “natural” fakes fascinating, whether it’s cell phone towers poorly disguised as trees, or the quasi-wild hunting reserves like the one where Dick Cheney shot his friend. I mention that not to pick on Dick Cheney–or not only that–but because it’s a great example of the “wild” bursting through into even the most carefully controlled, contrived, artificial environment. Despite all the fakery, something genuinely wild occurred. Those moments that demonstrate how fragile our control of the world is, and how full of exciting, surprising, wild potential even a manicured, computerized landscape can be, are what keep the world a wonderful place to pay attention to. I’m not sure Finch would agree with me about all of that, though–he wants control, and wants to be told what to do and to be left to do it, whether it’s by Mr. Crane or, without saying too much here, some other kind of “boss.” Maybe it’s fair to say that Finch is eager for someone else to control his nature, and to adapt himself to whatever controls are placed upon him, so in that sense he’s the opposite of the wild, natural world that he and I both find so fascinating.
AB: This same kind of manipulative, possessive nature is seen in Crane’s constant reworking of the landscape, in ways most people might not even think possible. Is Crane a perfect example of someone who likes the idea of being “naturey,” but is not interested in actually encountering it for himself (as seen by the fact that he hires someone to encounter it where he can observe the process, rather than undergoing it himself)?
SH: He is, and in that way he’s pretty typical–as far as I know–of the estate holders who really did hire ornamental hermits. Back to nature by association, perhaps akin to the way we read Thoreau’s Walden or Scott and Helen Nearing’s The Good Life–or even an LL Bean catalog–to fantasize about “roughing it” but with no real intentions to actually do so. I expect that for lots of people the whole appeal of roughing it would be lost to even a possibility of having to live that way. But I think Mr. Crane is more than that. He’s also a person who lives his life “offstage,” so to speak–and, in the novel, deliberately “off page”–manipulating and directing the world through the long arms of his money and power, but not really involved with that world in a direct, intimate way. That makes him a bit sad, to me, and I hope more than a caricature.
And in some ways Finch isn’t so different. He manipulates the landscape, in his own more modest ways, and more than that he manipulates his story–forgetting things, distorting things, correcting and repeating himself to the point that, at times, even he gets confused. If Crane is almost wholly off stage, Finch is so persistently, fully on stage there’s no room for anyone else–and, in telling his story the way he does, he avoids making that room. So while Mr. Crane depends on others doing what he wants done because he can’t do it himself, Finch depends upon doing what others want him to do in the absence of his own desires. They’re a good team that way, I hope.
AB: Would you say the book is concerned equally with the internal (human nature) as much as the external (outside world)? Which in Finch’s world is easier to control, influence or change? How does that compare to our world?
SH: I would. And I think it’s equally concerned with the possibility we can’t have one without the other–we need something to project ourselves on or define ourselves against in order to be ourselves, just as we can only make sense of the world by measuring it against what we want it to be. That may be as apt a description of what Finch and Crane are doing as anything I can offer. And I suppose that’s how a story works, too, isn’t it? A compromise between reader and writer, or teller and listener, collaborating to make it the most it can be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Himmer teaches at Emerson College in Boston, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and is on the faculty of the First Year Writing Program. His stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, Pindeldyboz, PANK, Emprise Review, and Everyday Genius. He also is a frequent blogger on writing and teaching, and edits Necessary Fiction, a webjournal from So New Publishing, a press based in Eugene, Oregon. His debut novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, is slated for publication in April 2011.
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