Monday, April 18, 2011

Steve Himmer and The Bee-Loud Glade

STEVE HIMMER’S stories have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies. He edits the web journal
Necessary Fiction, and teaches at Emerson College in Boston. His novel The Bee-Loud Glade is just out from Atticus Books.

Q: You're getting some good early reviews on the novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, and you're appearing as a featured reader, it seems, everywhere. What has the promotional life of the novel been like for you? Any surprises on the road?

A: It’s been a lot of fun so far, and I’ve been surprised and moved by how supportive people have been. Not in terms of positive reviews (though those have been nice), but because folks have been so willing to think about the book and to share it with their readers and friends. My biggest worry was that no one would notice one way or the other. So the surprises have all been good ones. Well, except that I was on event lineup with Chris Bohjalian recently and he gave me a whole new list of reasons to be nervous about flying at a time when I’ve got lots of travel ahead.

Q: The narrator of The Bee-Loud Glade is Finch (a passerine) and his billionaire benefactor is Crane (a gruiform). And birds figure throughout the novel. What's up with that, and are there other codes embedded in Bee-Loud that readers should mark?

A: I tried not to overtax the suggestive qualities of the characters’ names or to reduce the presence of birds and animals in the story to shallow metaphors, but yes, they are often deliberate. I can’t think of finches without thinking of Darwin and his research in the Galapagos Islands, and his discovery that finches adapted to all the environmental niches available to be filled — they fit themselves into their landscape instead of dominating it, just as their nests are tucked into crooks between branches or between rocks or in other small spaces seemingly ready-made for the purpose. And cranes have always struck me as elegant but awkward birds, impressive for the vast, unlikely distances they’re able to travel in their restless migration. Not to mention the double-meaning of “crane,” an equally elegant but awkward machine that dominates a skyline as it both builds and destroys the landscape around it. And Crane is also a suggestion of a particular family history through which the character’s wealth may have accrued, but I think I’ll leave that for someone else to work out along with some of the other references I worked into the story mostly to amuse myself.

Q: As the editor of Necessary Fiction, you're presenting a ton of great fiction every month. How does this editorial work inform your writing? Also, how does your work as a writing teacher at Emerson College impact your creative writing?

A: Editing Necessary Fiction has made me a much, much better editor of my own work, and it has also given me a stronger sense of what I’m doing as a writer—or trying to do—in comparison with what other people are doing. It’s rare that I read a story and wish I’d written it, and I love finding incredible stories in our submissions that it would never even occur to me to write. I’ve also become more sensitive to cliché, because there are stories and subjects I read over and over and over without any real variation. Often competent, well-crafted stories but all of a type to the point that once we’ve published one of them there’s no reason to publish another. Which I guess means I have a longer list of things I am unlikely to ever write about myself. Or write about again, if I’m honest, because I must sheepishly admit to having written about most of those clichés at some point. Some of them multiple times. And I think spending so much time reading and editing other people’s short stories has shown me that other people are writing much better stories than I am, and that focusing on novels (which was my intention as a writer all along) is probably a better use of my time and energy.

As for teaching, I teach composition rather than creative writing (though I hope to be teaching both eventually) so it’s not such a direct impact. But both my approaches to teaching writing and to writing fiction are embedded in a liberal arts tradition. I tend to think of writing in any genre as a mode of inquiry about the world, so the questions I might ask my students about their academic writing or advocacy writing (questions like, “What am I asking?” and “What is at stake?” and “Why should my reader care?”) overlap with the questions I ask myself when I’m writing. Actually, I probably ask those questions more often when I’m revising and deciding what’s worth pursuing in a first draft.

Q: Can you name some of your literary cousins?

A: Definitely Amber Sparks, because we share so many proud nerdy interests in exploring folklore and history through fiction. Grant Bailie, because I think we’re equally enthralled by stories of the “offbeat everyman,” and I’d like to think of Jim Krusoe as a distant cousin of ours for the same reason. And maybe Tom McCarthy is the admired, successful, far away cousin you hear the family talk about but don’t really know, like the opera singer in Halldor Laxness’ novel The Fish Can Sing.

Steve Himmer will be featured at the Cousins Reading Series on May 1st.