Good morning. Your novel Fram is about people at work, more or less, but by the end of the story I wondered if some of your characters might need to seek new employment. So I’m going to ask you what Forbes says are the most difficult job interview questions.
Oh, um… okay?
Why is there a gap in your work history?
It hasn’t been that long, has it? What’s the usual time between books? I guess it feels like this one took a long time because the research for it and some of the ideas have been in my head for years. So I’d say I’ve been working on it in one way or another all along, even if it’s not clear on my résumé.
Tell me one thing you would change about your last job.
I don’t think I’d want to change it. My last book, I mean. There are things I sometimes wish I’d done more of or less of, like any writer, probably. But at some point I guess a book is as close to what you ideally want it to be as you’re capable of making it at the time and you have to accept that even though there might be another level to go to maybe you’re not going to get there. At least not this time. Does that sound defeatist? Like an apology for bad art? I don’t mean it that way.
Tell me about yourself.
Well that’s… broad. I don’t know what to tell you. I think if I wanted to talk more about myself I probably would have written a memoir, right? Sure, there are moments I’ve borrowed from my own life. Experiences. But the novel isn’t about me in any literal way. I do share the protagonist’s fascination with the Arctic and its explorers, but I hope I’m not quite as obsessive about it. And I guess we share an ambivalence about “progress” while taking advantage of it at the same time. There are some other things we have in common, too, but I’m not sure I want to tell you about those.
Explain a complex database to your eight-year-old nephew.
Gladly! I’m a total database nerd. In college I worked as a troubleshooter for a database of medical research, trying to predict and prevent mistakes in the data entry process to avoid screwing up the records. Is anything more satisfying than a successfully written query delivering precisely the required results? It’s so much more direct than writing fiction. A query either works or it doesn’t. I guess that’s another part of me in the novel—Fram’s obsession with databases is my own, and I’m excited about ways in which novels and databases might overlap or inform one another. Oh… I need to explain it, right? Okay, nephew, a database is a big collection of information and possibilities, all just sitting there waiting for someone to make connections between one piece and another and organize them in some exciting way. Into a story. Like the box of “treasures” under your bed with the mouse skull in it. Which pieces of treasure you draw out and the order you arrange them is how your story gets told.
What would the person who likes you least in the world say about you?
I don’t think I want to know. Would anyone want to? Whoever it is, they’re probably subtweeting something awful right now and if I read it I’d feel terrible. It’s probably something about how sad it is that the things I think are important and worth writing about really aren’t. And that my own attempts to describe what it’s like to live in the world don’t feel accurate to anyone else’s experience of it. Which really hurts. That’s kind of the worst thing that can happen as an artist, isn’t it? Man, now I want to know who this jerk talking about me is and give them a piece of my mind.
Tell me about a time when old solutions didn’t work.
In terms of writing, or what? Just in general? I don’t know, I guess one thing — and I find this really exciting — is the access we have now to books and literatures from all over the world. Not that I’ve crunched the numbers or anything but between social media and the diversity of especially small presses there’s just so much literature from traditions I haven’t been able to read before suddenly becoming available. It depends on translation, of course. At least it does for me, with nothing beyond English but barely functional French. But this seems like such a great moment for taking an international view of literature and I’m excited to see what effect it will have. I can’t help wondering if future generations of writers will be influenced by that access in powerful ways, looking beyond their own so-called canons in idiosyncratic, unexpected directions. I look forward to reading whatever that leads to.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Definitely my solo trek to the north pole. Or do daydreams not count? In case they don’t, I think writing and trying to publish is also risky. You might reveal the way you see the world only to discover it’s not the world anyone else lives in. And you might try and try to publish while fearing all along that you’re wasting your time and will seem foolish when it comes to nothing, that you aren’t really good enough, and you’ll never really know until it’s too late one way or the other. Honestly, I think the risk of not giving up — not just in writing, but in everything — is the biggest risk all of us take. It’s amazing what people manage to push themselves through without giving up.
Have you ever had a supervisor challenge a decision?
Who needs a supervisor when I’m so good at doing it myself? Like when I have so many ideas I’m excited to write about or get to work on that I can’t decide where to start, and can’t commit myself to one of them long enough to see it through. I end up spinning my wheels for months because every time I get down to work I’m suddenly gripped by fear I’m pursuing the wrong project first.
Describe a time when your team did not agree.
There was that penalty kick when Diego Fagundez thought he should take it, but Lee Nguyen… that’s probably not what you mean, though. I don’t know if I have a team. I guess writers and their agents are usually a team but I’ve never had an agent, other than a long running joke on Twitter about my literary agent being a squirrel who lives in my backyard. Which is a joke I probably enjoy way too much but I can’t help myself. And it makes for very funny reactions when someone asks me for advice about finding an agent, which happens surprisingly often.
So, did I get the job?
We’ll call you.
STEVE HIMMER (http://www.stevehimmer.com) is author of the novels Fram, The Bee-Loud Glade, and Scratch (forthcoming 2016), and editor of the webjournal Necessary Fiction. He lives near Boston, where he teaches at Emerson College.