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The Invention of Solitude

Steve Himmer interviewed by Susan Tomaselli.

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3:AM: What was the first book that made you want to write?

Steve Himmer: When I was nine or ten, the publisher of the Choose Your Own Adventure books had a contest inviting readers to submit their own novels and the best would be published. My friend Jerry and I got a roll of newsprint or butcher’s paper or whatever it was and planned out ridiculous, unwieldy plotlines involving secret agents and ninjas and who knows what else. We never managed to write the novel – an impossible task, given all we wanted to cram into it – but that was the first time it occurred to me a person could sit down and write a book.

Then in high school I began browsing bookstores, picking up things that looked interesting, like Nicholson Baker‘s The Mezzanine, Joy WilliamsBreaking and Entering, Brian Kiteley‘s Still Life With Insects, and Peter Schneider‘s The Wall Jumper. I read Douglas Coupland‘s Generation X around the same time. It’s seems naive now, but I hadn’t realized until then people still wrote novels that weren’t horror stories or science fiction or fantasy – everything we read in school was old, and that’s what I thought made it literary. So to discover that these books were being written – a whole novel about a guy riding an escalator! – was a revelation, and made me rethink what fiction could do.

3:AM: The Bee-Loud Glade has been described as a “rubber-band, stretching from nature to virtual reality and back”. How would you describe it?

SH: The description I came up with for query letters is, “a postmodern pastoral about the nature of nature and the nature of work, and the limits of solitude in a networked world.” What I hope the novel does is complicate wild places in a way I’ve longed for as a reader but haven’t seen much of in contemporary fiction. Fiction has grappled with cities as contested, constructed spaces made up of overlapping layers for decades, at least as far back as Knut Hamsun. But in ‘nature’ fiction, or whatever you’d like to call it, more often than not it’s the same idealized pastoral or demonized wilderness we’ve seen for what, 200 years? With some exceptions, of course. Rural and wild places are as mediated and complicated as cities are. Pollution and agriculture and communications systems from folklore to Twitter connect even the most remote places to global networks and current events. Combines are steered by satellite and hikers check their email on mountains. So it’s about time the innovations and challenges of modernism, never mind post-modernism, found their way into stories about the outdoors.

I don’t know if I’ve managed to accomplish such a lofty goal in my novel – like I said, it’s what I want to be doing. Someone’s probably reading this thinking, ‘Get over yourself, it’s a silly story about a guy paid to be a hermit in someone’s backyard.’ Which it is, but those ideas were in my mind as I wrote it, so I can only hope the questions that seemed important and complex to me aren’t pedantic and obvious to everyone else.

3:AM: The title comes from Yeats‘ ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ (“Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee / And live alone in the bee-loud glade”), which itself was a response to Thoreau‘s Walden, while Tom McCarthy describes the novel as “Thoreau meets Ballard meets Huysmans. I couldn’t help noticing nods to Bartleby and Robinson Crusoe. Are any of these writers, or characters, influences?

SH: Walden was unavoidable, to the point I felt like I needed to refer to Thoreau’s text explicitly to acknowledge the long shadow of its influence on anything I might write. Part of the impulse to tell this story came from my shifting reactions to Walden. Before reading the book I had a romantic notion of Thoreau’s solitude, and learning later how punctuated it was by visits with friends, and that his project in self-sufficiency was only possible because Emerson owned the land and let him use it… well, it seemed hypocritical and rankled me the way young men who have it all figured out tend to get rankled. Now it doesn’t bother me because I doubt there’s any such thing as ‘pure’ solitude. Not for my hermit, at least.

Bartleby is one of my favorite characters. Such a perfect story, and so prescient in a quiet way compared to the boldness with which Melville took on the possibilities of fiction in Moby Dick. And Yeats because ‘Innisfree’ is a poem that has stayed with me a long time, and once I remembered the phrase, “the bee-loud glade” seemed perfect as a title. In fact, while I knew Walden was an inspiration for the poem, I only learned recently that the immediate impetus for it was Yeats’ overhearing a fountain splashing, an event that gets ‘borrowed’ in my story by pure coincidence. I wish I could say it was an intentional connection, that I’d known what I was doing there, but I can’t.

In another way, Tom McCarthy was a big influence. When Remainder was published by Metronome, I read about it on Short Term Memory Loss or Ready Steady Book and ordered a copy from France. It came at the right moment, because I’d been struggling to reconcile the way writing fiction, for me, feels more like an intellectual project and a cultural inquiry than a way of reflecting realistic experience or of using language only aesthetically. I butted heads over that in grad school and got reprimanded for it in the rejections I received for the stories I submitted to journals. Then I read Remainder and said, ‘Aha!,’ this was what I wanted a novel to be doing. It was liberating to see a story told in a straightforward way, challenging not for its structure or style but for its ideas – just to see a novel so unabashed about having ideas, rather than pretending language or plot can happen without them, and without being didactic or sacrificing narrative momentum. It was a welcome relief, and I hope it’s what I’m working toward as a writer.


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3:AM: “Any respectable [Georgian] estate had a hermit in residence on the grounds.” What kind of research did you prepare before beginning the Bee-Loud Glade?

SH: I read books and watched films about hermits religious, ornamental, and otherwise, and about the psychological attractions and impacts of extended silence and solitude. I read earlier novels about hermits and solitaries and learned about landscape design and the development of gardens, which were things I was already interested in. I suppose there wasn’t much research beyond interests I already had, because I’d been fascinated by silence and solitude for a long time, knowing I wanted to write about them but not knowing quite how to do it until an episode of BBC‘s The Worst Jobs In History introduced me to the tradition of decorative hermits and I had the germ of an idea. Then I tried to put all that research out of my head as I wrote. I didn’t worry about getting the details exactly right, because I wasn’t going for historical accuracy. Hopefully, through osmosis, all that research found its way into the story in useful ways.

The other kind of research was experiential. Right from the earliest draft, the story started with my protagonist losing his job. But it was only after I’d been working on it a while, struggling to find the momentum and stakes I was after, that I lost my own job and was able to make my inaccurate, hypothetical vision of joblessness more believable and more traumatic and more crucial to the story as it unfolded. It was miserable at the time, but as I said at a reading recently it was ultimately the most important bit of research I did and a breakthrough that let me finish the novel. Still, I hope I can finish another without needing an equally awful experience.

3:AM: What is significance of the main characters’ names, Finch and Mr Crane?

SH: This is actually the first piece of fiction I’ve written in which the characters’ names meant anything so directly – I usually go for generic, meaningless, unlikely names as a way of challenging the idea that characters are ‘real’ people beyond being ciphers for whatever the author directs them to do. But in this case the names became another in which the story and its world insisted upon its own artificiality and construction.

So, Finch because of the birds Darwin saw in the Galapagos Islands, and how they adapted their behaviors and bodies to the environment. There’s an echo of that in my hermit’s absence of desires and goals of his own, his malleable willingness to fit himself into whatever position he’s offered whether it’s an office or a cave. And Crane because, first, it’s the avian opposite of a finch in some ways: finches are common and small, easy to miss, while cranes are graceful and grand and spotting one is an event. Also because cranes, as vehicles and tools, are capable of both construction and destruction, building and unbuilding the world often on the same site, which my hermit’s benefactor, Mr Crane, seems to be doing: manipulating money and lives and landscapes in mysterious ways. “Creative destruction,” he calls it at one point in the novel.

One of the only other characters with a name, really, is Mr Crane’s butler, Smithee, who gets his from a running joke in the film industry. He’s a character I really like – especially because of the way he gets complicated (I hope) in the end. And Mrs Crane, who conspicuously doesn’t get a name, and may be the most complicated and is certainly the most sympathetic character in the story, the most trapped and least able to do much about it.

3:AM: There’s a case to be made that Finch was a ‘virtual’ hermit beforehand, isn’t there? “I might have made final postings for each of my online personas, bringing their imaginary lives to some closure, but the idea of dozens of people who had never existed simply vanishing all over the web had an appeal I couldn’t resist.” And also, “my computer full of the bookmarked detritus of hours and hours of aimless browsing.” How much does technology, or the internet, influence your writing, or reading? Are we, as a culture, addicted to technology?

SH: He’s definitely a bit of a virtual hermit. I’m fascinated by the web being social and solitary at once, because there’s so much more to it than the knee-jerk panic that often provokes. It resonates with Thoreau’s solitude, mediated as it was by social calls and meals out and so on. There’s actually a thriving network of hermits and would-be hermits online, people who live in solitude or wish they could or are just interested in the possibility, and while at first glance that seemed contradictory 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. Reading’s like that, too, isn’t it?

So the internet is a huge influence on how and what I write. I’m convinced we’ve reached a point culturally when we’re always online, even away from our devices. It’s our default, the sense we can look something up or find what we’re after whenever we need it, the assumption that anyone or anything should be available all the time. Arguing about whether that’s good for us or not is beside the point now.

It’s like something Paul Carter wrote in his history of Australia, The Road to Botany Bay, to the effect that once you know what’s on the other side of a vista, you can never get back to the mystery of not knowing. You’ll never recreate the experience of earlier travelers who arrived there not knowing – no matter how vast the desert might be, knowing it eventually ends because someone has already been there and mapped it changes what that vastness means. I don’t think most of us are ever offline anymore, really, because we know too well the web is available to us or will be again soon. As often as contemporary fiction seems to leave out the internet in its characters’ lives, I can’t help thinking every novel written today is in some way an internet novel, even historical ones, because it’s the moment and mindset we’re writing from. The bigger an impact it has, the less visible it becomes, like Marshall McLuhan‘s lightbulb.


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3:AM: Finch says, “and that’s how I got into trouble, wandering away from routine.” Do you have a routine? What are the best conditions for writing?

SH: I used to have a routine, and now I have a daughter instead. Which is infinitely better, of course. But when I started The Bee-Loud Glade I could write for hours a day, especially in summer when I wasn’t teaching. By the time I finished, it was in spurts while someone napped for an hour or two. And these days I grab time whenever I can. Not that I’m complaining, because while I have less time to write I also have a stronger sense of why I’m writing, and why it’s worth telling stories.

The whole idea of a routine seems at odds with what I said about the internet, maybe. I’m always at work because I feel the guilt of not answering email and my students expect me to answer their email because I’ve done so before. That division between work/not work is so broken down; the best I’m able to do now is to not own a smartphone and to make sure everyone knows I don’t have one. It buys me some time. It’s so rare to be able to do one thing and only one thing at a time, isn’t it? Which seems to be what having a routine requires, rigidity between one use of our time and another. Maybe that’s some of the impulse for writing this book: wishing I could have a routine, wondering what it might be like to focus on something – or nothing – as fully as my character does.

3:AM: What are you working on now?

SH: I’m working, slowly, on another novel. It’s kind of an intentional departure, because I realized that The Bee-Loud Glade and the first two novels I wrote (unpublished, perhaps mercifully), as well as many of my short stories, are about people staying still and settling in. So I’m trying to write a story propelled by motion, and by dialogue because I seem to avoid writing that, too. It’s too soon to say much about where it’s headed, but it has to do with a couple of very minor bureaucrats involved in Arctic exploration, alienated from culture at large by their arcane professional interests. Maybe that’s an expression of my anxieties about publishing this novel, and worrying it won’t speak to anyone in the ways I hope it will. But I shouldn’t overthink that until I get more of the writing done, huh?

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli is a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine and lives in Dublin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 10th, 2011.