The Decorative Hermit: Inspiration for a Novel

KENSINGTON, MD — Inspirations for novels come from various places, sometimes even a television show. In “The Worst Jobs in History,” program host Tony Robinson examines the 18th-century hermit, living in the Georgian Age of landscape art, “lurking in the undergrowth.” While listening to Robinson describe those “smelly, bearded recluses … eccentrics, romantics, misfits,” Atticus author Steve Himmer found the spark—the jolt all writers crave—the seedling of an idea for Finch, the main character in his debut novel, The Bee-Loud Glade (Atticus Books, April 2011).

In the following interview, Himmer covers many facets of his novel and his process of writing it, including some of the themes that ended up growing in significance with time, such as how (and how much) work and wealth define all of us — whether we work in an office or in a cave.

Atticus Books: Many ideas founder at the onset; how did you persevere in sticking to the narrator and protagonist, Finch? Did he have a sticky quality? We’re fascinated by why some ideas stick and others don’t. There’s a cool book on the subject, Made to Stick, which is more about business ideas, but the premise certainly applies to all creative art forms, too.

Steve Himmer: For reasons I don’t really know, and maybe don’t want to, I’m intensely drawn to characters who are isolated in one way or another and toward solitude as a source of identity for characters and “real” people alike. Each of the two novels I wrote before The Bee-Loud Glade (to varying degrees of success) also explored some type of isolation or another, though in very different ways and I didn’t notice the connecting thread until later, after writing about Finch.

A few years ago, I read Remy Rougeau’s magnificent novel of the monastic life, All We Know of Heaven, and it really struck me. I’m not a religious person, but I became interested in the question of whether it’s possible to commit to something so completely in a secular way. I had some provocative conversations about it with a friend who is a priest, then filed the question away until I was home sick one afternoon watching “The Worst Jobs In History” and saw this segment. The idea was pretty instantaneous: a novel about a decorative hermit, but contemporary, in a world with technologies and realities that make silence and solitude and “dropping out” more complicated, and where landscapes can be manipulated to a degree Capability Brown never imagined.

So to answer your question about what made Finch “sticky” as a character, I just know I couldn’t shake him. I heard his voice right away, word for word narrating an opening scene which ultimately didn’t stay in the novel (and in fact took place after what’s now the end of the story). After that he was lodged in my imagination and although the story took on many different shapes before it was finally written I became as bound to Finch as a hermit is to an estate. And I should add that it was the estate, too, that caught me — I could see the space of the story right away, and that map stayed in my head all along as much as the characters did.

(The two-minute clip about hermits begins at 2:18 in the following video.)

Atticus Books: Please shed more light on the estate in the novel. Describe the map in your head to us. It sounds as if the setting was as integral (to the book) as your attachment to Finch. Was there a point in your writing where you not only envisioned Finch’s life as a hermit, but you imitated it?

Steve Himmer: So much of the story is Finch moving through the simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar space of the estate, and as a consequence a big part of writing the novel was picturing where things occur in relation to the landscape — how far from the big house on the hill Finch is at any given time, and what the sightlines are like. I was concerned with making the story and Finch’s character as physically present as possible, and tried to be conscious of what he would encounter moving from place to place: sharp branches, bees, water, mud, and so on. Some of that concern was because I could hear the voice of Rick Reiken in my ear, reminding me to maintain a distance between narrator Finch and character Finch, and the particulars of Finch’s embodiment were how I tried to achieve it. That idea of Rick’s is probably the most valuable bit of writing advice I’ve gotten.

I didn’t quite imitate Finch’s eremitism while writing, but as my wife might be glad to tell you I live so much in my head anyway that he and I have lots in common. The way in which I did imitate him was losing a job. I was far more surprised and hurt than Finch, and much more panicked because my daughter had just been born. Up until then the novel had gotten so far and no farther, the story stalled with an interesting premise but something missing. But as unemployment and economics and the context of a national recession crept in and became part of the story, questions about how and how much work and wealth define us — whether we work in an office or in a cave — gave it (for me) more momentum and weight. It would be nice to say I used my time out of work to write the novel, but I didn’t; it was only after I’d settled into a new job and gained some perspective that I could filter my own feelings from Finch’s and finish his story.

Atticus Books: How much research went into writing your novel? Is there much literature available on the lives of hermits? How important was it for you to make the setting authentic?

Steve Himmer: I read anything I could get my hands on about hermits. Frederick Buechner’s novel, Godric, especially blew me away, which was a mixed blessing because it took a few weeks of writing to work through my unconscious imitation of his style. Somewhere along the way I stumbled upon the website, Hermitary, which has been a favorite haunt ever since. The proprietor/curator Meng-hu provides an incredible resource whether for someone seeking to lead a life of committed solitude or someone — like me — who’s just curious. I read a stack of books about silence and noise, and others about landscape design and historical attitudes about nature. But those are longstanding fascinations so I’m not sure I read much specifically with the novel in mind. That’s true about the way technology weaves through the story, too — it’s hard to pin down what’s from “research” undertaken just for the novel, and what’s a reflection of the things I’m always thinking about, anyway.

All of that research was inspirational rather than proscriptive. I wasn’t concerned about accuracy in a literal sense — I like what Wallace Stevens said: “Realism is a corruption of reality.” Artificiality and reproduction are major elements of the novel, which is maybe just a way to give myself an excuse to avoid worrying about accuracy, but I think there’s more to it.

If I’d tried to make the cave accurate and specific, or even the geographic setting of the story, it would have diminished the reader’s ability to project their own ideas about nature and the romantic pastoral life onto the story. Landscapes, and stories, are most exciting to me when they’re fraught with tension between what’s projected onto them and what’s actually encountered within, and I hope I’ve managed to produce some of that tension in the novel.

(In the following video, shot at Emerson College where he teaches, Himmer discusses his book and how he uses the same research methods he used to write The Bee-Loud Glade in his first-year writing course.)

Atticus Books: Finch must contend with the whims of his employer, Mr. Crane, the billionaire estate owner, much like today’s corporate employees must deal with the impulsive demands of their manager or company CEO. Did this concept develop naturally or did you intentionally create this dichotomy, where work functions interrelatedly in parallel universes no matter whether you’re digging in an idyllic garden or banging out a Powerpoint presentation in a windowless cube?

Steve Himmer: It happened organically, but once I noticed, it became a conscious parallel between Finch’s old job and his new one. Like The Who sang: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” It seems a little sad, I guess, that whether it’s corporate drudgery or a dream job there’s always someone to answer to — Finch couldn’t live the life he does without someone paying the bills, without someone cooking his meals and mowing the lawn. And without someone to tell his story to, for that matter. Mr Crane couldn’t live his life as he wants without relying on others, either, even though he’s in charge. But I don’t find that as depressing as it might sound. It seems almost too inevitable to lose sleep over.

I’m more interested in the contradictory nature of power and wealth to be creative and destructive at once. A good boss, a mentor, makes you a better, more creative person than you knew you could be. A bad boss makes you paranoid and nervous and broken, a lesser version of yourself. ~ Steve Himmer, author of The Bee-Loud Glade

How many lives did [Andrew] Carnegie destroy with his aggressive style of business, and how many have been improved by his philanthropic legacy? Or, for that matter, how many writers and artists live lives committed to personal freedom and expression by relying on grants and fellowships funded by who knows what streams of money?

Atticus Books: One way for more people, particularly younger readers, to “access” literary works is for presses to draw comparisons and create connections with other mediums of contemporary culture, such as film and music. If you were approached by a deep-pocketed Mr. Crane with visions of turning The Bee-Loud Glade into a movie, which popular song would you choose as the theme to the soundtrack? There’s an indie band called Mumford & Sons, which has a tune titled, “The Cave,” which we think might work. What do you say?

(The video below is a Mumford & Sons session at Treadwell’s Books in London.)

Steve Himmer: That’s a good song. Thanks for sharing it. Would it work for a movie of the novel? I can see how it would for a certain vision of the story — there’s an earthy, driving kind of optimism in the song that could set a resonant mood for Finch. But the truth is that if a film were made of something I’d written (knock on wood!), a commercial film anyway, the only way I’d be able to deal with it would probably be complete lack of involvement. I’d rather see a film as its own project entirely, complementary to what I’ve written, rather than worry about how closely it’s come to my vision of the story. Because it won’t; it can’t. And that turned out wonderfully with the novel’s cover — Jamie Keenan produced an image that was totally unexpected to me, but so powerfully in tune that it made me think about my own novel differently.

If I made a film myself — not that I would try — I’d be more likely to incorporate instrumental music, I think. Not very market-savvy, I guess, but while writing, I listened to Brian Eno’s ambient series over and over, and Daniel Lanois’ instrumental albums. Bill Evans Trio, and Adrian Legg, and Peter Gabriel’s film scores like “Long Walk Home” and “Passion.” Am I betraying just how uncool my musical taste is? Probably. I think I listened to David Francey a lot, too, who is a terrific Canadian singer-songwriter, and Gillian Welch, among others.

More than film, I’d be interested in a video game as a complement to the story. Not to retell it, but to explore it from another angle, making the novel’s notions of surveillance and control more tangible. I’m a lifelong enthusiast of interactive fiction, and love the possibilities of actively “playing” a story. Molle Industria’s “Every day the same dream” feels closer in some ways to what I want to do with fiction than some novels I read (whether I’ve managed to do it or not), and is as moving or more so than any film I’ve seen in ages. If Dante’s Inferno and Thoreau’s Walden can be reimagined as games, why not The Bee-Loud Glade? And, of course, if someone else wants to make a film, I’d be glad to discuss it. Especially if that someone is Wim Wenders or the Coen brothers. Actually, I think the Coens could really do this story right — anyone know how to reach them?

Steve Himmer teaches at Emerson College in Boston, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and is on the faculty of the First Year Writing Program. His stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, Pindeldyboz, PANK, Emprise Review, and Everyday Genius. He also is a frequent blogger on writing and teaching, and edits Necessary Fiction, a webjournal from So New Publishing, a press based in Eugene, Oregon. His debut novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, is slated for publication in April 2011.

If you’d like to see Steve in action as an amateur marketer who develops a video game through stalking Peter Gabriel and the Coen brothers, please visit The Bee-Loud Glade page on Facebook.

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