Arctic Histories and Secrets: Talking “Fram” With Steve Himmer


Right about now, there’s no shortage of snow and ice falling outside my window. And so I’m thinking about Fram, the new novel from Steve Himmer, about a man named Oscar and his own obsessions with the snow. Fram follows Oscar, an employee at a secretive government agency, as he embarks on a mysterious mission north, encountering characters with mysterious loyalties and taking in progressively more surreal landscapes. I checked in with Himmer via email to learn more about the book, the history behind it, and more.

In Fram, there are a number of elements colliding, from paranoid thrillers to a portrait of a marriage that’s gone unexpectedly stagnant. How did you keep them all in balance so that each felt satisfying?

As ridiculous as it probably sounds, I think part of that satisfaction comes from not worrying if all the narrative strands are satisfying. Some of them I certainly intended to be, and I’m glad to hear they are. But there are other threads of the novel I thought of as sidetracks, the way a ship cutting through ice might sail down a channel only to discover it doesn’t go anywhere. The accumulation of them, and the puzzle to the reader of finding their own route through the different potential paths of the novel, is what I hope creates a sense of satisfaction by the end.

What first prompted your interest in the Arctic? What made the juxtaposition of it and Oscar’s fairly mundane life click, for you?

I’ve been fascinated by the Arctic for years, first as a reader from childhood on and later, in college and beyond, as a more formal research topic. Ethnography, natural history, international relations, fiction, poetry, plays, radio… for whatever reason I just can’t help myself reading or watching or listening anything about the north. As for Oscar and his mundane life, that came more gradually as I got into the novel. It began with only the work, two men in a basement office making up the map of the Arctic, and I didn’t have any sense yet of who these men were. Once I wrote Oscar’s exit from the office at the end of the workday, he needed to be someone, of course. I went back and forth with him, trying him out married and single and with various personalities, until he eventually felt right and the story took on a momentum of its own because his presence could drive it. Partly, and deliberately, it was about Oscar’s obsessions because I immediately wanted him to be a man with idiosyncratic, obsessive interests capable of making him a bit alienated and understood — probably some anxiety about my own Arctic obsession, right? But marriage, especially the way distance can work its way into a marriage over time, became a much bigger part of his character — and of the novel — than I expected it to.

Reading Fram, the agendas of certain characters are left ambiguous until late in the novel. How much plotting did you need to do in order to figure out the dueling motivations that keep the book going?

I had a map of Oscar’s story, and that took some figuring out because I wanted to mimic the tropes of the espionage thriller, which is a plot heavy genre, without necessarily performing those tropes too fully. What turned out to be much harder was organizing the parts of the novel that aren’t about Oscar, all the sidetracks and parallel threads woven into his story. Those I tried out in different combinations and orders, seeing what created tension and what sapped it, where confusion or ambiguity could be developed, and so on. Trying to create the best timing for those conflicting motivations to emerge. The last few chapters especially I moved around a few times to figure out what questions and impressions I wanted to leave for the reader. And also the points at which Oscar’s own thread overlapped with others — I tried different arrangements to see if i wanted readers to know when it happened, or only realize (I hope) that lines had crossed when they looked back. I thought of it as a kind of database, full of narrative elements I could combine different ways, and that turned out to be lots of fun in revision.

How did you go about constructing the background for the Bureau of Ice Prognostication?

That’s what came first, actually, long before I knew this would even be a novel. I’d read, in 1999 or so, a book about Arctic politics in the early years of the Soviet Union, and amidst the many agencies mentioned was a single passing mention of something called the “Bureau of Ice Prognostication.” No description of what they did, no explanation, and nothing else in that book or any other I’ve been able to find in English. Something about that name stuck with me, though, so years later I imagined what an agency with a name like that might do if the US government learned of its Soviet existence and decided, in that Cold War way, they needed one of their own to maintain the balance of power.

Fram follows Oscar’s story along with certain other parallel narratives, some of which relate directly to his and others of which are more historic in nature. What was the appeal of this structure for you?

Some of the appeal is practical, because when I first started writing a more straightforward narrative of only Oscar’s adventure, I found my interest flagging. So trying to weave in other threads was a way to kickstart the novel. But once I started it felt like an exciting way to explore some of things I had in mind, like reminding readers of all the overlooked, untold stories pushed to the margins of explorer’s accounts and thrillers and other genres that seem to rely on a tidiness of narrative attention to build excitement. I can see where it might be distracting to a reader, but I hope the puzzle of it all counterbalances that distraction. Some of the lives “at the margins,” so to speak, are real historical figures who received less acclaim than the “great men” Oscar is obsessed with. Others are imagined to suggest the kinds of lives at the edges or the ripple effects a story like Oscar’s might have, the kinds of collateral damage we don’t often get to see in stories of thrills and conquest. That kind of tension between stories we pay attention to versus those we overlook is really exciting to me.

The novel takes its name from a vessel used in Arctic exploration–why this particular ship?

Fram was first built for Fridtjof Nansen for his 1893 expedition, which for me — as for Oscar — is maybe the most exciting Arctic expedition. Earlier expeditions had tried to fight the ice but Nansen had Fram designed specifically to be frozen in, to get stuck in the and be carried in its drift to the farthest possible northern point. There’s something so appealing about that, a gracefulness and passivity so counter to the usual macho, hard-charging image of exploration. And the word “fram” also means “forward” in Norwegian and I love that juxtaposition of sitting still and moving forward at once. Plus, there’s a great comic bound sound to “fram,” like something out of Batman, that I think suits the novel. Not to mention the wonderful — to me — possibility of the title being pronounced different ways depending on whether someone goes for the Norwegian pronunciation or the more usual American clipped “a,” or whatever. That’s probably bad for marketing but I think it’s fun and really fits the novel. Fram, by the way, also went back to the Arctic on a later expedition under Otto Sverdrup, and sailed to the south pole Roald Amundsen, so the ship has quite a history and is preserved now in dedicated museum in Oslo, which I hope to visit some day.

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