I have to confess, I’m concerned about this self-interview. You’re a long-winded guy, and I’m a long-winded guy, and we both tend to get easily distracted and ramble.
We’ll do our best.
Your protagonist takes a vow of silence early in the novel. Did that present a challenge as you wrote the rest of the story?
You’re going to do that?
No, not really. Wouldn’t it be obnoxious, though?
It really would. Moving on. Why a hermit?
The short answer is I was watching the BBC program Worst Jobs In History a few years ago, and in an episode about the Georgian period one of the jobs presented was “ornamental hermit,” someone paid to live on the estate of a wealthy landowner so they could be close to nature vicariously. It caught my imagination and right away I knew I wanted to write about a contemporary version of that.
The long answer is the more ubiquitous networks become, and the more we take for granted that “everyone” is always online and accessible, the more difficult it becomes to carve out quiet moment to ourselves. Or to find a quiet spot to have that moment in, because we’ve tied the world together with networks of pavement and commerce and WiFi. Not that I’m against those things, or that this novel is a Ludditic story of nature versus technology, but I do wonder if we need to build into those networks room for some quieter corners. And then I wonder if it’s possible, when those networks and landscapes we might build quiet corners into are owned by big, noisy corporations so it’s only ever the illusion of our own quiet moment outside the panopticon. The way Thoreau’s escape and solitude at Walden were punctuated by trips to town and visits with friends, and dependent on his friend Emerson owning the land where he got away from it all. It doesn’t negate anything, but maybe it makes those moments mean something different. So whether the character came first or those questions did, my hermit Finch became a way for me to think about some this.
I’m making the novel sound horribly academic, aren’t I?
Okay, forget all that. A hermit because a hairy, naked, awkward guy living in someone’s backyard is comic gold.
So it’s funny?
I think so. Parts of it. I worry that people will think it’s only funny, which is a stupid thing to worry about.
I’m glad you said that, so I don’t have to. So if it’s not “only” funny, what else is it?
You’re setting me up to say something really pretentious and self-inflating, aren’t you? So crafty. But okay, I’ll bite.
I think of stories as a social force more than an aesthetic one, and I’m interested in the ways written fiction is tied to oral traditions. It’s hard to say without sounding cliché and naive, but I believe deeply in the way stories can shift our perspective, and can show us how to imagine the world being different. Especially, for me, how we might reimagine our relationships with the natural and wild worlds, and with the places where we find ourselves living. Not didactically, but by telling stories that explore those relationships in complex, questioning ways — I love the straightforward ecological message of a parable like Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees, but it’s not what I’m trying to write.
So it’s an environmental novel?
That sounds boring and academic again, doesn’t it? So no, it’s the hilarious, rip-roaring tale of a naked guy who lives in a garden.
But yes, it’s also an environmental novel. Or a postmodern pastoral. I’ve been calling it that. It’s whatever you want to call a book in which relationships between people and plants, or people and animals, are at least as important as relationships between people. Sometimes I wish trees and bears bought more books.
Are you working on that, growing the non-human audience for books? You could probably save the publishing industry and get a trophy.
Do you know any English to Bear translators?
We seem to be wandering off track here. Let’s try to reel it back in. The Bee-Loud Glade is being published by Atticus Books, a new press and a small one. Were you concerned about that going in? And how has the experience been?
I submitted the novel to Atticus because I liked the way their mission statement emphasized both a commitment to not being constrained by genre, and a commitment to environmentally sound decisions. Plus, in an interview Atticus publisher Dan Cafaro mentioned Jerzy Kozínsky’s Being There as a favorite novel, and I figured that if there was a publisher out there likely to enjoy The Bee-Loud Glade, it was one who also liked Being There.
I was hesitant, at first, because they didn’t have a track record yet. But I had a long conversation with Dan and was really impressed by not just how serious he and Atticus are about literature, but also by his having an honest-to-goodness business plan. There are lots of small presses publishing terrific books without worrying much about marketing, distribution, design, and so on, but I didn’t want to go that route. Maybe it’s arrogance or delusions of grandeur, but I want to get the book in front of as many people as possible, and to work with people who know not only about fiction but about the book trade.
I’ve discovered that I actually enjoy marketing and outreach and all that stuff far more than I thought I would, and Atticus has let me run with my ideas — goofy trailers, a video game interpretation of the novel, letting me be involved in deciding who to send ARCs to, and so forth. I believe in the DIY approach, but I don’t think DIY means you have to settle for being far under the radar, either. I’d rather fail big and fail better (sorry, Samuel Beckett) by sticking my neck and my book out than get all good reviews because only my Mom and my friends read the book. There are probably things a bigger press or an agent, if I had one, would never let me even consider. And after so many years of submissions and rejections and writing to an audience of mostly me, I have to remind myself there are other people invested in getting my writing in front of readers now, too, and I don’t have to do everything myself. Someone who knows what she’s doing can arrange readings for me. Win or lose, though, good reviews or bad, sales or no sales (sales, please!), I’m glad I won’t be one of those writers lamenting that they were cut out of the process of presenting their book.
What would you count as success for this novel?
People reading it. People thinking about it after they’ve read it, and maybe talking about it with their friends and their students, which is to say finding something in the story that makes it worth talking about. People putting it in their backpacks and hiking into the mountains to read it in a quiet, solitary place would be awesome, especially if they then turned on their phone in the woods to talk about it on Twitter. That would really get into the spirit of it, I think.
In my wildest dreams, I would love to have the novel translated and published in some other languages. A lot of the reading I’ve done has been in translation, and there are particular literatures and cultures I feel attached to, so to see my work available in those languages — Finnish, French, Icelandic, Norwegian — is about the biggest thrill I can imagine. To have it published in countries where I’ve lived or traveled or worked or longed to visit for years. Not for the sales, but to know the story has gone back to the places that made me write as I do.
Maybe I’m not an especially wild dreamer?
True story: you recently lamented on Twitter that despite tweeting numerous offers to be adopted as a literary celebrity in the Faeroe Islands, they’d shown no interest. Someone from the Faeroe tourist council tweeted back and said yes, they are interested. Any developments there?
No, not yet. But I am ready to visit and to read my heart out as soon as the Faeroese people invite me. I would be glad to visit other archipelagos, too — Orkney, Azores, wherever. I have a thing for islands.
Islands, hermits, far away places… are you trying to tell your family and friends something?
Oh, will you look at the time!