“My Curiosity Has Always Leaned to the North”: A Conversation with Steve Himmer, author of Fram
When I think of writers who participate fully in and nurture what we call the “literary community,’”Steve Himmer is one of the first who comes to mind. He’s long been teaching, mentoring and helping newer writers, participating in panels and literary discussions and workshops, and running a well-respected literary web journal, Necessary Fiction. He also happens to be the full package — a terrific writer and teller of stories as well as a full-time community member. And — disclaimer, I suppose — he’s a friend of mine as well. So it was fun to have the opportunity to talk with him about his new novel, Fram, just out from Ig Publishing. The novel is part spy thriller, part Arctic exploration story, part meditation on work, and mostly something completely new — as Will Wiles calls it, “a miniature bureaucratic epic somewhere between David Foster Wallace and Jules Verne.”
Amber Sparks: Okay, first question! I think anyone familiar with you and your work would recognize in this book that great passion for the world’s most remote places, and at the same time that skepticism that humans today are equipped to visit such remote realms — mentally or physically. There’s that jarring sense that we do not belong, that nature red in tooth and claw does not quite welcome us in the ways that we might hope. Is this off base, or do you feel that way? Are modern humans destined to be at odds with nature? And do you think that’s changing, and for better or for worse?
Steve Himmer: I do tend to write about remoteness and isolation, don’t I? But you’re right, it’s a skeptical attraction. I’m drawn to places and lives that look solitary but always, if you dig into them, turn out to be more connected and complex than they seem. Even the connections between humans and the lives we share landscapes with when we think we’re most romantically, poetically alone. I guess I don’t so much think we don’t “belong” anywhere as I’m compelled by our human — western, at least, or in this case southern — ability to be somewhere and act like we’re somewhere else. To stubbornly assume we’re in an empty, uninhabited “blank page” of a place when we’re in an Arctic full of human culture and history and geopolitics, not to mention plant and animal lives and millennia of microbial and bacterial experience. And, yeah, those places don’t always welcome us as they hope but mostly because we arrive blinded by a refusal to see where we actually are and that tends to backfire — which makes for bad trips but great stories.
So I guess I wouldn’t say we’re at odds with nature so much as befuddled by an insistence on seeing ourselves as the most important thing — the only thing, more often than not — that matters in any particular landscape. I don’t see that changing any time soon, we’ll just give it new manifestations. Like the emerging idea of an “Anthropocene” age, which I’m both compelled by and cautious about. And the stories I want to read, and most want to write, are those that let me explore that befuddlement and the overlooked complication of isolated places and lives.
AS: You’re right — there’s the modern tech world always lurking in even the wilds of your fiction. And I really appreciate that as a reader — I have an awfully hard time excusing writers who write about contemporary times but don’t mention, say, cell phones, or the Internet. It certainly feels natural in your writing, but do you ever struggle to incorporate modern technology and communications into your work?
SH: It’s remarkable how many writers seem to avoid writing about the networked world they live in, isn’t it? From a practical perspective I get the frustration — cellphones undo so many of the classic plots and tropes of fiction, all those missed connections and late arrivals. But why complain about it? Because those technologies also create so many new opportunities, new kinds of stories and new kinds of loneliness and distance, even new structures for narrative, that it seems like writers should be excited — it gives us so much more to explore.
So to answer your question, no I don’t really have any trouble incorporating technology and communications. But I do struggle with the specificity of it — whether to write about “social networks” or to write about “Facebook.” Because while I’m very interested in the impacts of these KINDS of communication, I’m not very interested in the particular companies or products. It’s the larger cultural force I’m curious about. And I wonder sometimes if having a character use “Facebook” can be SO familiar to a reader that they take it for granted, assuming they know what it means to their life, whereas finding some way to strip that experience out of a branded context, to look at what’s actually happening when we live in networks, can force a reader to consider it afresh. I guess it’s the equivalent of writing about a character’s car versus their Chevy or Ford. I honestly couldn’t care less about the difference between one car and another, though of course I realize what car a character drives can reveal something useful about them in many circumstances. But I am very much interested the presence of the car — or the presence of the internet, or the cellphone — and what it changes about that character’s world and their experience of it.
AS: I totally agree — it seems like an opportunity for new stories rather than the same old ones. I recently read a book by a favorite author, set in modern London, and was so disappointed because the entire novel hinged on A CHARACTER NOT BEING ABLE TO FIND A PHONE. I mean, I was so distracted because of this, it completely took me out of the story. I didn’t believe it.
That said, I think there is something lasting about non-specificity. I hate branding in novels anyway, where I have to know, I guess, that a character drinks Moet, wears Miu Miu, buys Keds. I like how in the movies a character just asks for a beer at the bar. This somehow seems more timeless and I think the same could be said for any sort of social media, too. It’s all about balance I guess.
But back to your novels. Unlike your first novel, your protagonist in this one has a (mostly) happy marriage. He loves his wife! It struck me, in a funny way, how old-fashioned (and rather refreshing) it’s almost become to write about a happy marriage. Why did you?
SH: The easy answer, though I feel strangely hesitant to say it, is it’s because my own experience of marriage has been happy. But it was a deliberate choice to make Oscar and Julia’s marriage strained — and this isn’t a spoiler — not because of anything dire or dramatic or some awful thing one of them has done to the other. I wanted it to feel more inevitable, for lack of a better word, a strain that’s the result of time and their jobs and each of them retreating into their own worlds over the years. Their own obsessions. Especially Oscar, of course, with his unrepentant “polar fever” and inability to step out of that obsession to relate to other people on non-Arctic terms. I also, in a way, wanted to set myself a challenge. I realized a while ago that all three of the novels I’d written before Fram were set almost exclusively outdoors and avoided the domestic to a degree that started to worry me. My default had become protagonists who had no one. So this was my attempt to write a novel in which people spend more time indoors and in which marriage and more domestic concerns matter not only for Oscar and Julia, but along several of the sidetracks of the story as well. I won’t say how strictly I managed to meet that challenge by the time the novel was finished, but that’s where I began. Anyway, the domestic sphere left behind is always the overlooked, undervalued foundation of the kind of strictly gendered exploration Oscar is so obsessed with.
AS: That’s interesting — I hadn’t really thought about how gendered Arctic exploration is (or just exploration in general) but I suppose it is, extraordinarily. Do you see that same interest in yourself? Does it bother you that it’s gendered, or Euro-centric? I like the way you examine it critically — rather than coming from a place of complete adoration/awe.
SH: It does bother me, and I suppose that’s a tension I was trying to work through by writing the novel — I’m drawn to the exciting stories of these explorers because they ARE exciting, and yet I’m always aware that behind the scenes are lives equally important but less “thrilling,” whether it’s the explorer’s wives, or indigenous guides, or any number of others who didn’t get full credit for their own contributions during the heyday of “polar fever,” who pop up in the novel in a number of cameos. I hope the reader can feel those absences in my story, too, because I’m not making any claim to have written some expert text on the Arctic, which is why the absurd approach to it all seemed crucial. Because the possibility of both seeing the problems with a kind of story and still enjoying — which we all do, whether it’s books or TV or whatever — is totally absurd. And unavoidable.
I think that’s why the “thriller” framework seemed important to the story, too — as a genre thrillers are often so oversimplified and ridiculous and full of stereotypes and erasures, not necessarily for malicious reasons but maybe there’s something inherent in telling such a fast-paced story that means not slowing down to acknowledge the subtleties. And I know all that yet I STILL love to watch big, loud movies full of explosions and car chases and everything else. And I feel bad when I’m watching them, too, because of everything I’m gladly ignoring.
AS: Speaking of car chases and explosions — inside this very smart, very witty, very savvy novel, there is a little bit of old-fashioned spy thriller. Was that conscious? What were your influences when writing Fram?
SH: Oh yes! Very conscious. I love spy thrillers with their conspiracies and secret organizations. And I loved the idea of an unlikely protagonist — Oscar — who obliviously finds himself in such a chain of events. Very different from a James Bond or Bourne or even Holly Martins. The biggest influence in that regard was Jean Echenoz, whose first few books are these awesome, frantic takes on spy novels and detective novels. The specifics of the conspiracies or events aren’t so important but they’re so precisely executed that they come to FEEL important. Plot is so often rejected as artificial and historically problematic, which it is. But Echenoz seems to say, “Yes, we know it’s ridiculous, this plot, but let’s revel in the ridiculous until it becomes something or reveals something.” One of the jokes I made about Fram while writing it was I’d set out to imitate Echenoz until I inevitably failed at it and ended up with something of my own. Maybe that’s not such a joke.
Another influence was Keith Ridgway’s novel Hawthorn & Child, which I read at just the right time because Fram had stalled and I wasn’t sure why. Hawthorn & Child got me thinking about a more fragmented story, one less constrained to the primary thread, and that really opened it up. Also JM Ledgard’s Submergence, which is just an incredible book and made me want to acknowledge a wider world than just what happens to the main characters. And it’s not fiction but Lisa Bloom’s Gender on Ice was a hugely important not stylistically but intellectually, first when I read it fifteen years ago for my undergrad Arctic research, and later when I returned to it while writing Fram.
AS: Oh! Tell us about your undergrad Arctic research — so this is a long-running obsession, eh?
I think my curiosity has always leaned to the north. I know lots of people who daydream about tropical islands or the south of France or Spanish beaches, but for me it was always colder places. Mostly northern Atlantic islands. Then in the summer before my last year of college I was in Canada visiting someone and read Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams, and it just caught me. Especially a section about the polar bears who wander into Churchill, Manitoba. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. We had a rental car and some extra time in central Canada so I looked at a map to plan a route to Churchill, only to discover we couldn’t drive there. There was no route. Which was frustrating but also so evocative — the Arctic as an idea versus the Arctic as an attainable place coexisting so literally, something Lopez had explored quite a bit in his book.
And when I got back to campus to finish my anthropology degree, all of that became not officially a “thesis” but a seventy-something page research essay about the Arctic and in particular polar bears and indigenous people taking on complex, often troubling metaphorical uses in the south. I thought I was going to continue that research toward a PhD but not a single anthropology program I applied to offered me a place. Which was crushing, an awful series of rejections. But in the midst of that frustration I got serious about fiction instead, and all those rejections become good practice.
Steve Himmer is author of the novels Fram, The Bee-Loud Glade, and Scratch (coming 2016). He edits the web journal Necessary Fiction and teaches at Emerson College. You can purchase his new novel, Fram, at your local indie bookseller or online here.