On my many days of chronic over-employment (or at least professional over-stretchment) I often find myself daydreaming of a simpler life of commune living, of swapping pupik lint and wild-harvested leeks for ink pens and coffee beans, and this sort of thing. I’m far from alone in this fantasy.
In Steve Himmer’s breathtaking debut The Bee-Loud Glade, our hero realises this fantasy by becoming a decorative hermit. Below, author Himmer chats with The Bee-Loud Glade audiobook narrator Mark F. Smith about employment, wealth, and self-sufficiency. Maybe if you read the entire thing, you’ll find a way to win a copy of the audiobook for yourself.
Mark F. Smith, narrator of The Bee-Loud Glade: OK, right away, we need to know if the inspiration for The Bee-Loud Glade was a family camping trip in your past that went horribly wrong?
Steve Himmer: Thank goodness, no. I’ve had some exciting camping adventures but never one that went horribly wrong. The closest I’ve come to was a camping trip in Australia during which some drunk hunters out spotlighting mistook (somehow) my friends and in our brightly colored sleeping bags for possums. The seed of the novel probably was planted during that trip, though, because during my time in Australia I was volunteering as a conservation laborer and became fascinated (and confused, and appalled, sometimes) at the degree of artificiality and construction even in so-called “natural” landscapes. I spent a couple of weeks, for instance, removing all the “unapproved” plants from a riverbank so the “approved” plants could thrive.
MFS: How on earth did you latch onto the idea that a great self-gift for the man who has everything is having one’s own hermit?
SH: It came from TV, from the BBC series The Worst Jobs In History. I watched a marathon of that show one afternoon while home sick, and in the episode about the Georgian period one of the worst jobs was “ornamental hermit.” It just clicked in my imagination, and I knew immediately I wanted to write a novel about someone with a contemporary version of that job.
MFS: I wanted the employer, Mr. Crane, to turn out to be some mystical being with a hidden purpose. Were you really tending in that direction as you wrote?
SH: No, there’s nothing mystical about him, I’m afraid, although he has attained a level of wealth that approaches being supernatural and as implausible as mystical powers. But I was committed to making the novel plausible, though unlikely — I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s strictly impossible, though I wasn’t terribly concerned with making it realistic.
MFS:Why did you decide to impart special flow properties to the artificial river?
SH: There’s that old adage attributed to Heraclitus, that you can’t step in the same river twice (though the number of other people that also gets attributed to suggests you can coin the same phrase twice). Finch, however, can step in the same river twice. It’s a natural feature, yet wholly artificial at the same time, and that seemed potent to me — we’re used to thinking of rivers as flowing, as both timeless and deeply entrenched in the passage of time, and I enjoyed playing with and inverting that notion.
MFS: Just as the reader is left wondering about the employer and his life, the camping couple invites the same question. What’s their backstory?
SH: Oh, I can’t tell you that! I’d rather each reader or listener work that out on their own, or make up their own version. Some of it’s revealed, of course, in the end of the book, but the specifics… well, I suppose I like keeping the reader in the dark about that to the same extent Finch himself is kept in the dark. One of the novels I drew inspiration from while writing The Bee-Loud Glade was William Gaddis’ Carpenter’s Gothic, and what I enjoyed most in that book was how much of the action took place “off stage,” so to speak, and beyond the knowledge of the main characters and readers alike. I hope I’ve done something similar in my story.
MFS: At some point I wondered at the unfairness of Finch’s contract: five million a year to do nothing. That had to rankle Smithee and the other employees. Why so much for a decorative hermit?
SH: Oh, absolutely it rankled, as Smithee eventually makes pretty clear — and yet that’s all beyond Finch’s ken, isn’t it? There’s some tension, I hope, around that issue of labor and so-called self-sufficiency. But as for why he’s paid so much, you’d have to ask Mr. Crane, but there’s a vicariousness, a symbiosis maybe, between employer and employee: Mr. Crane is willing to pay so much first because he can, but also because that’s all he can do — he can’t actually live as Finch does, whether he wants to or not, and throwing money at the problem is his only real option. As it seems to be with most of his life.
MFS: Which is closer to the truth: The Bee-Loud Glade is a commentary on how people live vicariously by watching other people’s lives, or, it’s about how one can live while under that scrutiny?
SH: Can I just say, “Yes?” I suppose the question for me is is a combination of those two, or one that falls between them: how dependent is one life upon other lives, and how possible is it to actually live independently or in isolation? So it’s about not only watching other lives, but impacting them whether through wealth or labor, and also about telling ourselves we’re independent while depending so directly on institutions, and structures, and myths, to give ourselves that complicate, possibly false, sense of independence. With regards to watching and being watched, I guess I take it more or less for granted — or did in this novel, anyway — that we’re all in the panopticon already.
MFS: Come on: — you can tell us — didn’t you want to write a love story between the hermit and his employer’s wife?
SH: I can honestly say it never occurred to me to have an actual romance blossom between them. Desire, yes, and a sense of possibility, certainly, but no, I never thought about having something actually happen. In part, because the story required isolation rather than connection, as well as the monastic nature of Finch’s commitment. And I doubt Finch is capable of an actual “love story” — certainly not one with a woman he’s built up in his head before he even meets her, to the point he’s more or less incapable of seeing her as the person she actually is.
Miette Elm: In an interview with Atticus Books, you express a tendency toward isolation and solitude in your characters. I think that as a rule, the experience of listening to an audiobook removes the element of solitude from the reading experiences by introducing a narrator reading the book to you. How do you think The Bee-Loud Glad, specifically Finch in all his solitude, works when interpreted as audio?
SH: On the one hand, the nature of the novel is so interior — told in Finch’s voice, with so little dialogue, that I think a narrator becomes the embodiment of the character as much as of the story (if that makes any sense). There’s a freneticism, and exuberance, I imagined in Finch’s voice that I think Mark captures nicely. At the same time, one of the elements of the story is Finch’s own need for an audience, one he fulfills by imagining a “scribe” who follows him around and writes down what he thinks and does. So by listening to the story the reader is almost forced into the role of that scribe, following Finch around, taking in his story as it unfolds. I find that pretty appealing, because it adds a whole new layer to the experience.
ME: Finch’s voice is so rhythmic throughout the text, and his story so vibrant, that to me The Bee-Loud Glade seems perfectly suited for the oral tradition. Did you read aloud while writing? (Or, do you as a rule?)
SH: I do read aloud, and I’m very concerned with rhythm; I’ll add or remove a word or syllable just to match the rhythm I hear in a line. And writing, for me, is as much about connecting to oral traditions as literary ones — I’m really interested in folklore and storytelling performances (which isn’t to say I’m much good as a storyteller myself), and I think that’s reflected in how I write. The use of alliteration, for instance, which I know some reviewers and readers didn’t care for, but to me is an element of oral tradition that makes a story take on a performative life of its own.
ME: We love identifying great contemporary books that would be missed by mainstream audiobook publishers. What titles come to mind that you think would benefit from an audio treatment?
SH: Oh, well… just off the top of my head, I think Sara Levine’s new novel Treasure Island!!! from Europa Editions’ imprint Tonga Books would be a phenomenal audiobook. Her narrator has an exiting, madcap, and distinctive voice that could really come to life in the reading. Also, Robert Kloss — who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine — has a novel coming out with Mud Luscious Press called The Alligators of Abraham. His writing is dense, and driven less by narrative than richness of description, repetition, and incredibly vivid imagery. Fiction like that would be really exciting to listen to, and could envelop a reader with more than “just” hearing the story. The way Seamus Heaney’s recording of Beowulf does, for instance.
Tom McCarthy (C, Remainder) calls The Bee-Loud Glade An allegorical novel that seems eerily contemporary. Thoreau meets Ballard, meets Huysmans and many more.
Steve Himmer’s The Bee-Loud Glade can be had for $6.99. Or, for
cheapskates bargaineers: We’re still all swoony from recent corporate chocolates, so from now until Friday, February 17, 2012, get this and any other title for 50% off by entering the code love-your-ears when prompted for a discount code at checkout on Iambik.com.
Or, for hermits-in-the-making looking to take a step toward self-sufficiency, here’s a chance to win one of three copies of the audiobook: