A Conversation with Steve Himmer

Author of The Bee-Loud Glade and Editor for Necessary Fiction

Interview by Laura Ellen Scott

For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.1, March 2011

Steve Himmer loves fiction. As a writer he’s a delightful fabulist, and as the editor of Necessary Fiction he’s tirelessly innovative. But Himmer also loves bears and trees, and stuff like that. So with a passion for fiction matched only by a passion for the natural world, it comes as no surprise that his debut novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, is both entertaining and environmentally conscious. Bee-Loud’s elegant blend of humanity and satire makes for perfect by-the-fireplace-reading, and its narrator, a hermit-for-hire named Finch, is Himmer’s own Chance the Gardener—an agent of pure experience who leaves the thinking up to us. Mostly.

LES: The Bee-Loud Glade is focused, lean, and premise-powered—definitely a “What if?” book. I’d like to think you are onto something, that the independent novel is ready to look out at the world and pose interesting questions. How did knowing that you were doing something so different from your peers influence your process?  

SH: It definitely is premise-powered, though I hope character-driven, too. I’ll let readers decide for themselves if it’s so different from what other people are doing, but it probably is more transparently concerned with the questions that inspired it than the indie lit “norm,” if there is one. That’s something I admire in many of my favorite novels, though. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, for example, which I can’t ever say enough about and which was a constant inspiration not just because it’s a great book, but because its path to publication was so long and unlikely. I thought about that a lot as half the rejections I got for the novel said the story was too straightforward, and the other half said it wasn’t straightforward enough. So according to the “Three Bears” theory of literary criticism, which I made up a moment ago, that must mean the book is just right.

But I can’t imagine a novel, independent or otherwise, that doesn’t ask questions. Wondering “what if?” is what makes fiction exciting for me, far more than language alone. I’m bored by a story that can’t look beyond the end of its author’s own nose, or is content to show me the world as I already know it — I want to see the world as I haven’t imagined it yet, whether that happens through plot or language or premise. Though I suppose the risk of an idea-driven story is that the idea might not be as fascinating or compelling to anyone else as it is to the author, so you end up looking like a crackpot mumbling to himself in a corner. Or a hermit who lives in a cave.

LES: Bee-Loud’s narrator, Finch, starts out as a cubicle-bound drone doing work he could do anywhere, blogging under multiple identities to promote brand awareness for a company that makes artificial plants. But after he’s fired he takes on a job as a decorative hermit, and he is essentially installed like a lawn gnome on the grounds of a billionaire’s compound—a job that can only be done on-site, as it were. Over the next few months you will find yourself talking to crowds of people about the hermit you have created. Is irony making a comeback?

SH: I hope there are crowds! I will gladly endure all the irony in the world if it brings out genuine crowds to talk to about my book.

And isn’t that the kind of irony we embody today? Not only writers, but everyone. So many of our most active relationships are with people we rarely — if ever — meet in person, and we can work for companies whose headquarters we’ve never been to. So if there’s irony in a story about solitude connecting people (and I hope it does), there’s also something quite natural and necessary about it. It’s a question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty: are we alone together, or together alone?

One of the things that fascinated me in the research for this book was discovering a community of hermits interacting online, through Hermitary.com and the Raven’s Bread newsletter, among other places. Not to get too psychoanalytical about it, but a need to resolve that contradiction was probably a big reason I wrote this, because I’m constantly torn between a desire to be solitary and a desire to be social, between wanting anonymity and wanting attention, and struggling to decide whether being online makes that balance easier or harder to find. Writing a novel was the best way for me to think these things through. It’s more practical than meditating for years on a mountaintop.

LES: Both as an editor and a writer you are very accessible, and to a certain degree The Bee-Loud Glade was written in public. That is, you kept us—your webby friends—in the loop as to your ideas and progress. Did that openness affect the writing?

SH: I’m not sure how much it affected the writing itself, but it did make the process less lonely at times, and more fun. And considering the specific story — without spoiling anything — that’s a nice bit of synchronicity. It’s also just the way I’m used to working, and I don’t have anything else to compare it to, because I’ve been online about as long as I’ve been making serious attempts at writing. I’ve had a blog since 2001, with an unspeakable Geocities site a few years before that, and I started my first novel (don’t ask) not too long before the blog. So as long as I’ve been writing with the hope of an audience I’ve also been writing about it in public, to greater and lesser degrees of personal revelation, depending on my mood and desire to share that year. Although these days my actual blog reveals hardly anything, except what I find interesting on other sites, or news about something I’ve published. All my revelations of process and cracks about the writing world are reserved for Facebook and Twitter. It’s very different from the way blogging itself was part of teaching myself to write a few years ago — not that I’ve learned yet entirely, but working in that forum helped me get going.

But the truth is I’m very deliberate and cautious in what I say and don’t say about a project in progress, as I suspect many bloggers are. So my process may only be “public” to a deceptive degree. I share inspirational sparks or discoveries along the way, or comment on something after it’s written, but I never, ever reveal a specific plan or plot or intention before it’s done. Even offline, I never tell anyone where a story is going until I’ve written it all the way through. Not because I worry about having ideas poached, but because stories are all about the telling for me and once I’ve told it to someone in person it saps my drive to tell it on the page — I sometimes think the only reason I’m not an oral storyteller rather than a writer is shyness.

LES: You mention teaching yourself to write, which reminds me of Cathy Day’s recent article in The Millions, “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis,” which is partly about the academy’s failure to properly support and instruct would-be novelists. How did you teach yourself, and what do you tell new writers who want to do the same thing?

SH: First things first, I do have an MFA and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise and disrespect the people I studied with and who taught me so much. But MFA or not I think we all “teach ourselves to write” through time and practice and reading. A friend of mine worked on her Masters in another field at the same time I worked on my MFA, and she went on to earn a PhD afterward, writing a dissertation while I wrote this novel. It seems to me that in an academic field, you work on a PhD largely on your own: committed, deeply entrenched in a project, only to emerge after finding your own way into the field — your own voice and perspective, a contribution that is distinctly yours. So the years after finishing my MFA felt the same way: I had the tools from studying the work of other writers and from getting feedback and guidance from professors and peers, and was ready to put my head down in more or less solitude and write something that was wholly, undeniably mine. This novel feels like that far more than anything else I’ve written.

Of course, there are PhD programs in creative writing now, too, so that probably blows my analogy all to hell.

I don’t know that any advice I could give “new writers” would be particularly welcome or useful, but I think I would recommend not studying creative writing as an undergraduate, at least not exclusively. Range broadly, learn about science, and history, and anthropology. Travel. Get weird, awful, incredible jobs. I don’t think anyone should go from preschool through grad school without at least a couple of years off at some point. See things that nobody else in your workshop has seen, so you have more to write about than yourself and people like you. READ, and not just in the classroom and not just the things everybody else is reading, but things you don’t imagine could be the least bit interesting. Devote a summer to reading everything you can find about a particular field of knowledge you know nothing about. Architecture. Mycology. Lepidoptery. Pick a country, read their canon, then read the stuff that hasn’t been canonized. But like I said, I don’t think that’s particularly good advice to new writers — it’s probably just a way of justifying my own meandering course after the fact, so if anyone chooses to drop out of their creative writing program, please don’t tell your parents you did it because of me.

LES: One of the great things about your webjournal, Necessary Fiction, is that it is always evolving, doing things other journals don’t, like the Writers in Residence series. What do you want to do with the journal that you haven’t yet?

SH: We’ve added book reviews recently, and our reviews editor Michele Bailat-Jones is doing a great job with that. And there are some really terrific writers coming up as Writers In Residence. Right now, to be honest, I’m not sure what’s next. We’ve recently made an e-book of the novella we serialized by Grant Bailie, New Hope For Small Men, though we haven’t made a big, official push to sell it yet because of some technical delays with distribution (I know, I thought that was only a print problem, too!). But that’s coming up, and we may do that again. Speaking only personally, I would love the opportunity to edit longer works, novels and novellas, though I don’t see that happening on the website.

LES: Your Tall Tale stories are always a big hit. Any news on the collection?

SH: I like those stories a lot, and they’ve probably gotten a better reaction — at least a more noticeable one —than anything else I’ve published. I think the series is almost done. I have a few more to write, some about “classic” tall tale characters, and a couple of others that are less obvious. I don’t think I’ll send any more out as freestanding submissions, though, in hopes the collection will be published eventually and can still offer a few surprises. Because there’s a deliberate trajectory to the stories as a set, and a sum that maybe isn’t apparent from any of the pieces individually. A line from Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan to Chuck Norris and MacGyver.

As much as I love short stories, I actually love novels more — I never set out to write stories, just novels, and only started in grad school because that’s what most of the workshops focused on (which I guess goes back to your question about Cathy Day’s article). And I’m usually more interested in other people’s short stories than in my own. Frankly, if I can get into a rhythm of publishing novels, I would be more than happy to not write a short story again even though I enjoy it and have been really proud of two or three of the ones I’ve written. I say that now, but ask me next week and I’ll probably have some big scheme for a whole collection of stories I can’t wait to work on.