This Thursday, 1/22 at 7 p.m., author and Emerson College professor Steve Himmer will appear at the Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, to read and talk about his new thriller Fram.
In Fram, we meet Oscar, a prognosticator in a secret U.S. government agency created after the Cold War. He, along with his partner, the competitive eater Alexi, invents settlements in the Arctic and creates the records to “prove” their existence. Apart from his unusual job, Oscar is a regular guy. He takes the DC Metro everyday, worries about his increasing estrangement from his wife, Julia, to whom he is bound not to confide any details about his work, and spends his free time re-reading articles of actual polar explorations in his extensive National Geographic magazine collection.
But Oscar’s simple, static life is about to go into overdrive, starting with a secret government mission that will take him out of his basement office and into parts unknown—while various mysterious characters seem to be shadowing his every move. Fram is fast-paced and suspenseful, but also includes some touching moments that speak to the intimacies of marriage and the desire to be a part of something more important than yourself.
I emailed with author Steve Himmer about Fram and asked him about the nature of exploration and how he came up with the novel’s unique plot.
Brookline Hub: Oscar is fascinated with early twentieth century polar explorers like Robert Edwin Peary, Roald Amundsen and John Franklin. Do you share Oscar’s fascination or did this aspect of the book require research?
Steve Himmer: I do share Oscar’s fascination, though to a less obsessive degree, I hope. I did quite a bit of research but not all at once. And without really knowing it would become a novel. I tell my students when they’re trying to select research topics for an essay or projects that the most enjoyable research often doesn’t feel like research, especially when you’re learning about something you genuinely want to know about it. So I’ve read a lot of explorers’ accounts and Arctic histories and books about Arctic politics and ecology and so on, but that all started long before I had an idea for a novel about it. In fact, it started as research toward my undergraduate anthropology degree, before I’d shifted my focus to fiction.
Brookline Hub: Oscar invents settlements in the Arctic and creates records to “prove” their existence. In this way, the “explorations” he embarks on are no more real than the reality show about space travel that his wife watches and which he despises. Do you feel that we have reached the end of exploration as we’ve known it and now must invent discoveries?
Steve Himmer: I wouldn’t say we’ve reached the end of exploration, but the terms have certainly changed. There are so few places truly “off the grid” and unmapped — at least on this planet — that it would be hard to find a “new” place to discover. Maybe that’s why we see so many “stunts” generate excitement, like around the world balloon races and skydiving from space. On the other hand, it seems to me there’s plenty to explore if we look closer, or smaller — the microbial world, for instance. And I’m really excited about exploration not as a one-off, there-and-back-again event but rather as a process of time. I love reading books by authors who spend a long time in one place, even a place as small as their own backyard, exploring it not across distance but across time. It’s certainly less dramatic, and won’t make good movies or headlines, but it’s awfully exciting. And the more we discover how connected the world is in terms of climate and ecology and species extinction, it seems to me those connections become the most vital “places” to explore.
Brookline Hub: How did you come up with the idea of the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, where Oscar secretly works?
Steve Himmer: Among those Arctic books I mentioned reading was one by John McCannon titled Red Arctic: Polar Exploration and the Myth of the North in the Soviet Union, 1932-1939. Amidst the many branches and departments of Soviet Arctic bureaucracy McCannon writes about is a single, passing reference to an office translated as “Bureau of Ice Prognostication.” There’s no description of what they did, or what the agency was for, and I’ve never found another reference to it, though I suspect my odds would be better if I read Russian. It was such an evocative, mysterious name and stuck with me for years until finally becoming part of this novel.
Brookline Hub: In Fram there are many references to staying still versus being in motion. There are moments in the book when time seems to stop, and in the pauses Oscar notes small details like the square patterns of alternating horizontal and vertical lines on the subway vents or a slight wind or shadow on the otherwise unchanged view on the North Pole cam that he’s constantly checking on his cell phone. But then there is much motion and commotion as Oscar is sent on a secret mission to the Arctic. Without giving too much away, can you explain why you chose to explore these themes of stillness and motion?
Steve Himmer: I don’t know how well any of us can completely explain or make sense of our idiosyncratic obsessions, in art or life or wherever. But this tension and balance between stillness and motion is definitely one of mine. I’m fascinated by ways in which tools that connect us and make us available — like cellphones — can also isolate us and create unexpected pockets of disconnection. My first novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, was about a decorative hermit, paid to live in a billionaire’s backyard and do essentially nothing. With Fram I wanted to somewhat deliberately write an opposite kind of story, not about a character who sat still while the world came to him but instead a character who, despite himself, is pushed out into the world where everything moves too quickly for him (and the reader, I expect) to get a firm grip on everything at once.
Brookline Hub: Why do you think Oscar is such a model government worker?
Steve Himmer: Well, I suppose he’s a valuable worker because he’s devoted and discreet and doesn’t ask a whole lot of questions. I think that’s something a lot of employers value, not only government. To a point, at least: you can only rise so far — and Oscar has only risen so far — being the kind of worker who doesn’t take risks and ask questions. And, full disclosure, I’ve never worked a government job so Oscar’s experience is purely my imagination.
Brookline Hub: How long did it take you to write Fram? Were there any surprises for you as a writer as you were developing the story?
Steve Himmer: Once the novel really got going it went pretty quickly, and I suppose the actual writing time was a couple of years. There was a long period of “passive” development, in which I knew I wanted to write about the Bureau of Ice Prognostication but wasn’t quite sure how. And initially I thought this would be a short story, so the first surprise was realizing, at the end of that story, I was only getting started with these characters and their world. The other big surprise was the realization I wanted to insert the sidetrack chapters, bits and pieces of other stories just visible in the margin’s of Oscar’s own, rather than simply telling his story in isolation, which is what I’d begun with. For me, that’s a big part of the “commotion” you mentioned, which is a great word for it. I’d been reading Hawthorne & Child by the Irish novelist Keith Ridgway — a book I was really disappointed didn’t get more notice when it was published in the US — and was really excited by the way it used fragmentation and misdirection to make its narrative whole. I realized I wanted to try for a similar effect in Fram. Not by the same means as Ridgway, but aiming for a similar goal.
Brookline Hub: Who are some of your favorite fiction writers? What are you reading now?
Steve Himmer: I could go on all day about the books and writers I’m excited about. In terms of direct influence, I don’t think any novelist had a bigger impact on Fram than the French novelist Jean Echenoz, whose early novels especially are frantic and hilarious as they play with the tropes of detective novels and spy thrillers and so on. Other favorites these days are Nicola Barker, Carlos Gamerro (who I’ve only read in Ian Barnett’s translations), Tom McCarthy, JM Ledgard’s Submergence, one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in years. And I’ve been reading a whole lot of Penelope Fitzgerald and Muriel Spark lately, because they both have such great pace and manage to be very funny and very sad and very smart all at once, and with such incredible efficiency. At the moment, I’m reading Mary Mycio’s book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, and Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, credited with being the first Inuit novel and only recently translated into English, by way of French, by Peter Frost.
Brookline Hub: What do you have planned for the Brookline Booksmith event?
Steve Himmer: I’m thrilled to be reading with Robert Repino (Morte), who is a friend from graduate school. Each of our novels is pretty wild and absurd in its way, so I’m sure the passages we read will reflect that. And I look forward to the discussion, too, which is often the most exciting part of a reading. This will be my first event reading from Fram so I’m curious what kind of questions people are going to ask that I didn’t expect.
—Interview by Jennifer Campaniolo