I skyped Steve Himmer today. Never spoke to him before. I may never again. But I gotta admit, I like the guy.
He teaches in the first-year writing program at Emerson College in Boston, which is pretty cool. I have a few friends up there. He’s a mentor to a graduate writing students, which I admire; he’s giving back to the same school where he earned his MFA. I like that about him.
But by far, what I liked most about Himmer was his moxie, his cojones on the page, that got critics to compare him to Thoreau, one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, and got me to draw my own comparisons to David Foster Wallace, who is, well, one of the greatest writers who has ever live.
The Bee-Loud Glade, Himmer’s first published novel, was released in April, to widespread acclaim. What’s it about?
“It’s very much a novel work and how work defines us, or doesn’t define us,” Himmer answers. It follows the story of Finch, a marketer for an artificial plant distributer turned decorative hermit on a billionaire’s estate. For those, like me, who didn’t know what a decorative hermit is, they are men who were hired to sit all day in the gardens of the megarich, kind of like living, breathing gnomes. They weren’t often allowed to shower, shave, or speak.
“I’ve been thinking about characters who don’t speak. Thought about beachcombers, and monasteries in particular. But I didn’t want to write about religion,” Himmer says. Nothing really fit until he was watching a TV show about the worst jobs of all time “One of the episodes was the decorative hermit job. It was a come to Jesus moment.”
Besides likely being bored out of their skulls, decorative hermits generally make piss poor main characters, as I tried to point out to Himmer. By making Finch a mute, Himmer was breaking Rule Number One of fiction writing. I then pointed out that the only writer that I knew of that would try something so gutsy was David Foster Wallace. Wallace died in 2008, but his last novel, The Pale King (also published in April) contains a main character who doesn’t often speak. Fittingly, Wallace had an irksome habit of using footnotes in everything he wrote.
“He’s the narrator, so much of the story takes place in his head,” Himmer says of Finch. “He invents an audience for himself.” Himmer also used a parallel timelines, Finch’s past and present, to make up for the silence. Sounds simple enough, I guess. It wasn’t, though. The Bee-Loud Glade took Himmer about five years to complete.
“Spending 5 years working on something is an act of faith or an act of hubris,” Himmer says. “Just grind away at it. Don’t worry if it fits with the popular style, or even the unpopular style. “ Himmer gave me this advice, but doubtless heeded it himself as he worked toward a completed manuscript, a published novel, and overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Already smitten, I asked him what he liked to do in his spare time when he wasn’t writing or teaching. “I’ve got a three-year-old daughter,” Himmer says. “Mostly, I just play with her.”
Like I said, you gotta like the guy.
– Greg Howard