Must You Be a Cave-Dwelling Hermit to Write a Novel?
Utter isolation is a fond fantasy for many creative types.
Posted Mar 24, 2012
Finch is the main fully-realized character in The Bee-Loud Glade. Fired from his trivial job (blogging on behalf of made-up people), Finch sinks into depression. He cuts himself off from the world -- until he gets an offer he can't refuse: to be an ornamental hermit on a billionaire's estate. The narrative is playful, pastoral, ironic, and ultimately refreshing.
I recently interviewed Steve Himmer, who teaches at Emerson College and edits the webjournal Necessary Fiction.
What surprised you about the whole process of writing this book and getting it published?
That the novel reached people. I mean that both in the sense of readers finding the book, and knowing it exists, because I was incredibly fortunate to have the support of some enthusiastic voices from both friends and strangers, reviewers and and readers alike. Just the fact that this story I wrote, something that seemed so personal and idiosyncratic, and a novel that had been overlooked or ignored by agents and publishers -- "rejected" seems too active, because the most part my submissions got no response -- just the fact that it ever made its way to the readers it did still boggles the mind.
And to have had the response be so positive, for the most part, feels a little bit miraculous and entirely astounding.
I'm also surprised by how much readers want to talk about the novel, and how much I've enjoyed that. In part because it's a story of solitude and silence, so touring and giving readings and meeting book clubs is a little ironic, in a wonderful way.
But even more because solitude and isolation are at the center of writing for me, so the risk and worry I feel most keenly aren't what I've heard other writers describe as concerns about exposing your most honest emotions, or feelings, or memories. For me, it's more about revealing my obsessions, and the ideas I've worked over and over in the privacy of my head for years. Because this novel, and pretty much all the fiction I write, comes at least as much - if not more - from grappling with what seem to me like important personal and cultural and technological questions as it does from experience and emotion.
It's a real concern, then, to share those questions and worry that what, to me, seems important and worth asking isn't the least bit interesting to anyone else, and is in fact cliché or obvious or irrelevant. Which would only deepen rather than alleviate the isolation the whole endeavor starts with. So I'm glad it hasn't happened that way. I can alienate myself with the next book, right?
Are there particular themes or questions you're obsessed with that you're looking forward to exploring with your next novel?
Solitude, loneliness, homesickness... the novel I've just finished definitely explores some of these, too, except through the lens of a character who is far less attracted to living that way than Finch is in The Bee-Loud Glade. Those are definitely some of my obsessions, not because I'm an antisocial person but because I'm more compelled, in many ways, by people in isolation than by people in familiar company. People out of their element, and without any close relationships to rely on.
I'm also deeply interested in the way natural landscapes are influenced or altered by history and culture and technology, and how our lives and our stories fit into those places that are both natural and constructed at once. Lately I've been writing about characters in wilder places, in which those alterations are more gradual than literal - like the clearing and reforestation of New England (where I live) into something half-wild. I'm interested in the long-term progression of technology, too, and how it reshapes and redefines our lives, changing the way we tell stories about ourselves.
And my greatest obsession is probably bears, which I just seem to keep coming back to again and again in short stories and, now, in a novel.
What was the hardest part to write?
The hardest part was finding a structure. The story itself -- the events of it -- came fairly easily, though it took a number of false starts to find the right voice for Finch. The first draft opened long after what eventually became the book's ending, but I realized I needed to build to that moment so I backtracked. And I never quite arrived at that original opening, ultimately leaving it out altogether. But it was the parallel structure, moving back and forth between plotlines, that took the longest. I borrowed that structure from Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, reading and re-reading his novel to see how the intertwined threads wove together and trying to imitate it.
How do you help yourself focus and get into a writing flow?
I need to do it early. My ideal is to wake up and write immediately, which doesn't happen very often because there's a daughter to get ready for preschool or a job to go to. But the earlier in the day I sit down to write, the better - my brain is usually too tired for writing fiction by mid-afternoon, so I tend to work on other things. Or reading, because I do a lot of research for writing, even if it's very tangential, like reading a whole history of homesickness because I wanted a character to feel homesick (it's by Susan J. Matt, and it's a phenomenal read).
Once I'm working, especially on a novel, it goes pretty fast, and I can pick up more or less immediately from where I stopped when I last wrote, unless it was more than a day or two ago. Not that it comes out the way I want it to or anything, but I can write a draft fairly quickly.
- Read some of Steve Himmer's stories online here and a couple of dozen interviews with him here.
Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry
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