by Linda Legters
Steve Himmer’s first novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, came to my attention at the recent AWP conference in Boston. A treasure I plan to share with my students, Steve (http://www.stevehimmer.com) graciously agreed to talk about his book and its philosophical underpinnings. Steve Himmer’s short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The Millions, The Collagist, Post Road, and Ploughshares Online. He lives near Boston, where he teaches at Emerson College, and edits the webjournal Necessary Fiction.
Linda Legters: In the Psychology Today interview called “Must you be a Cave-Dwelling Hermit to Write a Novel,” this very question is never really answered! To create a convincing character, I tell my students that writers need to inhabit that character as an actor would. To what degree did you mimic Finch’s (the book’s protagonist) isolation, his state of being mute? How did you become that mushroom?
Steve Himmer: I didn’t manage to write the novel in total isolation—I’m a husband, and a father, and a teacher who needs to turn up to class, after all. But I do tend to be fairly reserved and left to my own devices will stay at home rather than go pretty much anywhere. So the desire for solitude and quiet is one I can easily project myself onto. Or perhaps project Finch onto my own desire, whichever comes first. So I wouldn’t say you need to actually be a hermit, but speaking for myself, at least, you need to get deep enough into your head—and to be comfortable doing so—to let the novel be your own, if that makes sense.
As for the mushroom, that bit of the novel sprouts from something I read in an interview with the painter Donald Evans, who made these magnificent sheets of watercolor postage stamps from countries he’d invented. He painted a series of mushroom stamps and told an interviewer he’d learned to mushroom-hunt by getting close to the ground and “thinking like a mushroom,” a line I kept in my head for years before finding Finch to give it to.
LL: The best stories are “supposed to be” driven by the choices characters make, but here comes Finch. You even have him ask who would care about his story, who would want to hear about happiness achieved through dumb luck, albeit itchy balls. How did you come to write a novel about inertia and the lack of free will?
SH: I’ve heard that’s what stories “supposed to be be,” too, but I have to confess to being unconvinced. I’m really drawn to characters who don’t make choices, characters who get pushed along by the world and by forces in it larger than themselves—characters whose free will amounts to swimming a little to one side or a little to the other while swept along in a strong current. The familiar realist mode of defining moments and big decisions in characters’ lives has never felt particularly realistic to me. My sense of the world is that most of us stumble into things, or get pushed into them, and that the grand defining moments are few and far between—certainly there are decisions we realize mattered after the fact, but that doesn’t mean we made them with that in mind. Finch is the same way, and seems more realistic to my own experience because of that (not that he’s meant to be autobiographical).
I’ll admit, though, the lack of free will and the lack of decision-driven momentum weren’t exactly big selling points for publishers. I had quite a few responses from editors concerned the novel was “too slow,” and that nothing happened, or Finch was too passive a character to keep readers engaged. I understand where that’s coming from but, frankly, I think it’s wrong. How characters make a place for themselves in a world where they can’t do anything, and where bigger things than themselves are in play, seems pretty high stakes to me.
LL: My students will probably insist they don’t relate (how I have come to hate that word) to isolation—rarely turning off their devices, which they mistake for connection. But, of course, we are often hermetically sealed off from ourselves, and very much Finch-like pre-garden. Assuming your Emerson students are not all that different from mine, what do you tell them?
SH: I have my reservations about the web, but the truth is I am overall a great proponent of being online. I’ve made connections and deep lasting friendships through more than a decade of blogging, many of those moving offline into the tangible world and becoming my most important relationships. Finch, I suspect, is isolated by a loneliness he can’t account for, a sense of being displaced or placeless, and reaches out online to create that home-place for himself even if he wouldn’t articulate it in quite that way. I honestly wonder if the web is what isolates us, or if it’s more a way we try to break out of the isolation contemporary life takes for granted: riding in individual cars, living in homes without knowing our neighbors, working in asocial ways then going home to watch TV by ourselves… something like Twitter, for instance, is a way to have banter, the back and forth of genuine friendship. Not as a replacement for face-to-face interaction, not at all, but as a way of coming as close to that as possible sometimes. Which is a little bit sad, in some ways, but it also means, for instance, a kid in a small town who feels like no one else is like him can find someone, out there, who is. And that’s awfully powerful.
I tell my students that. I don’t really need to tell them to be social, I suppose, because Emerson is a very collaborative place, owing to the type of majors we have—film and theater, for instance, which are hard to do on your own. But I also try to focus on ways being online can enhance what we do offline, like getting students to build web-based projects that offer a way to engage the physical space of the city of Boston. I think you’re absolutely right that, “we are often hermetically sealed off from ourselves,” and whatever we can do to break out of that—online or off, in a cave or a classroom—is a good and vital thing. I’d call that a big part of my job as a teacher and writer both, actually.
LL: The flute—and art—comes and goes. Why?
SH: Because Finch is so entirely subject to Mr. Crane’s whims, which seems like a very obvious answer but feels complicated to me. Music, art, meditation—all the things Finch is asked to try—are the kinds of disciplines a person devotes their life to, and must if there’s to be any hope of achievement. Or of enlightenment, because their all routes to attaining that, too. But Finch, pushed and pulled from one discipline to another, never gets to focus enough to reach enlightenment or expertise: on the one hand he’s going through the motions of meditation or music or art, but never in a meaningful way. Which isn’t so different, really, from speaking in all the hollow voices of his bloggers earlier—those may have even been more real, in fact, because once he stopped trying to sell plants the voices were at least all his own.
LL: Did humor come naturally to Finch, or was it a conscious decision to lighten his load?
SH: Humor did come naturally, whether to Finch or to me, though, it’s hard to say. I find it tough to read or write fiction without at least some humor, even in the bleakest of tales. And Finch’s voice was funny as soon as I heard it in my head before I even knew what his story would be. Of course, the voice of the novel is also Finch-as-he-is, not necessarily Finch-as-he-was: it’s likely he would have been less funny in his darker days, before the present of the novel when he’s so very much at home and at ease in his world, and able to see the humor and the beauty in just about everything.
LL: I see a parallel between your novel and Donald Barthelme’s “The School” because the size of the animals Finch encounters, and the size of the questions the teacher ponders, grow larger and larger. Am I making this up?
SH: I’d be lying if I said it was a direct allusion to Barthelme’s story, but you’re right, the increasing size of his challenges is deliberate. Finch’s garden world is growing more complicated, and the size of his decisions—or, really, the size of his avoided decisions—are increasing, too. It’s a bit of a quest that way: not that Finch is meant as a hero, but he faces greater trials the further he travels (or the longer he stays put) just as Odysseus or Beowulf does.
LL: The confluence of transcendental thought—that carefully accessed inner self—with Christian trials—the hair shirt, the lion, the fire, the ice, the Job-like boils and rashes… this funny guy with his bloggers and farts…. how would you like me to first introduce your book to my class?
SH: Oh, that’s a tough one. I think—I hope—it’s hard to separate the two, so perhaps introduce it with the idea you can’t have one without the other? Though the novel is directly engaged with Christian tradition and references, and in fact was first conceived as something more directly based on accounts of saints’ lives, I’m not myself a religious person. So I’m very comfortable with knowing—hoping, anyway—the novel will say different things to different people. It’s been interesting to see how often reviewers and readers have assumed I meant the novel allegorically, because I didn’t, really: to me, it’s an attempt at imagining what the life of a person in Finch’s position might actually be like. The possibility of such a situation happening is remote, of course, and absurd, but it’s not meant (by me) to be a direct stand in or overarching metaphor for anything. I suspect Finch would agree that his story just being his story is enough, but if people want to make more of it—as Smithee did, apparently, and the hikers—then that’s fine, too.
LL: At first I thought the longing referred to in the title might be more yours than Finch’s. But now I suspect this longing was buried, unbeknownst to him, all the time. Crane does seem to have recognized this, thus singling him out. True or false?
SH: Mr. Crane definitely knows more about Finch prior to the job offer than he lets on. Quite what he knows, and how much, is intentionally vague. That was an important part of the story for me, all the machinations and complications going on around Finch that he’s neither privy to nor particularly interested in. He ignores things when they’re inconvenient for him, which Smithee calls him on in the end, of course. But I very much wanted to keep the reader in Finch’s limited POV, and his constrained—willfully or not—view of the world and of the garden where he lives. And I wanted the reader a little unsettled by not knowing how much they don’t know, if that makes sense. So yes, that longing was Finch’s (and mine, too, I suspect) and Mr. Crane recognized it one way or another, or for another reader it’s entirely possible fate delivered Finch to just the right opportunity at just the right time. I’d like to think that remains open to interpretation.
LL: Finch asks many questions, and the pace of his questioning seems to speed up at the end. If not too personal, in the writing of this novel, which of your own questions did you answer?
SH: Questions are how I write. They’re what drives pretty much everything I write in fiction or essays or whatever the genre. The Bee-Loud Glade began with me wondering how I could write a story about a silent character, then a solitary one, and then after discovering the existence of ornamental hermits wondering what such a job might look like today. But as for what questions I answered, I’d say I came closest to resolving (for myself) questions about whether it’s possible to be truly solitary or isolated, or if we are always necessarily more social, more dependent on the work and presence of others, than we sometimes want to acknowledge. I came close to finding my answer, at least, but I think I’ll keep it to myself and let others find their own answers and, better, their own questions.
LL: The book ends—well, you know how the book ends. Is this an indication that you, as well as Finch, believe there is hope?
SH: Oh, absolutely. Things are going to change for Finch, as they do for all of us, and that’s bittersweet, but the ending is hopeful, I’d say, and suggests he has a future (though not even I know what that future is, because the novel is over before it arrives). But I do find Finch and his story hopeful, and I really like him as much as he can be a bit willfully thick when it serves him. So I wouldn’t want to leave him in a hopeless state at the end of his story, but I wouldn’t want to reach a sentimental or forced “tidiness” of resolution, either. Hopefully the novel’s end splits the difference in a way readers can wonder about.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Visit Steve Himmer’s website.
Visit Necessary Fiction online.