Jeff VanderMeer Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor. He is the author of several books including City of Saints & Madmen, Finch, Shriek, Veniss Underground, and Wonderbook. His fiction writing has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and in multiple anthologies. VanderMeer also writes nonfiction for theWashington Post, New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, and theGuardian, among other publications. He is the multi-winner of the World Fantasy Award and a finalist for several awards including the Hugo Award, Philip K. Dick Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and others. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of VanderMeer’s latest novel Annihilation, narrated by Carolyn McCormick, simultaneously with the hardcover book on February 4, 2014. Welcome Jeff, thanks for joining us today.
JEFF VANDERMEER: Thanks for having me.
MH: Congratulations on the release of your newest novel, Annihilation, which I understand you’re currently on a book tour to promote. What’s the response been like so far?
JV: It’s been astounding actually. There was just a great review in Salon.com and the Miami Herald, and the West Coast book tour went really well. We had large crowds and a lot of enthusiasm. I’m just really enjoying it so far.
MH: Annihilation is the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy. What prompted you to write the story?
JV: For a long time I’ve wanted to write about a transformed north Florida wilderness. I’ve been hiking this one trail here in north Florida for about fifteen to twenty years now, and suddenly, a couple years ago, I finally got this idea in my head about this expedition to what looks like a pristine wilderness that’s actually very strange indeed. I also had this idea for a secret agency that is tasked with sending expeditions into Area X. The catalyst for it was a dream. This often happens with writers. It can be a dream. It can be any other form of inspiration. You put something in your conscious mind that’s like, hey, I want to write about a transformed Florida, or whatever it is, and then out pops from your subconscious some answer. In this case, it was a dream, and the dream was about walking down a subterranean tunnel and seeing these words on the wall written in living letters, going farther and farther down, until I realized that if I turn the corner I was going to see whatever was writing these letters. And at that point, some part of my writer brain woke up in the dream and said, “Jeff, if you turn the corner and see what that thing is, you’re probably not going to write this story. So I woke up, wrote down the dream, wrote down the words on the wall, which actually turned out to be put verbatim in the novel. And that’s how it started. There was this creative process going on between consciously wanting to write about something, and then my subconscious coming up with an answer about how to do it.
MH: Do you often turn to your dreams for that spark? Or is this an occasional thing that happens?
JV: It’s an occasional thing. You have to be very careful of that. If you have something like that happen and a story accretes around it, and you start to see characters, and you start to see character motivations, and you start to see the full arc of the story, then you know that you’ve got something. Otherwise, you just have something that might, or might not, be interesting to tell your friend. In this case, this very compelling character, the biologist, this withdrawn woman who cares probably a little bit more about nature than about her fellow human beings, came into my mind—the arc of the story, and then the arc of the other two books. I knew that I had something, and everything just flowed out of that. It’s a continuous process of thinking about it consciously and analyzing what you’re doing, and then allowing your subconscious to have some play in that as well.
MH: Let’s go into a little more detail about your process as you approach writing the story. You get this germ of an idea. What happens then?
JV: I just think about it. Actually, the hikes are a great time to think about writing because I don’t take a phone or anything with me, so I have a lot of time to just think about a story. I have this rule where I do not start a novel or a short story until I have some idea of the ending and some idea of the character motivation, even if the ending changes by the time I get there. I did not start actually writing this until a couple of days later when it was all laid out in my head, and then it was really weirdly fortuitous because, and I say fortuitous even though this will sound like it wasn’t, I had a very bad case of bronchitis and all I could do was get up, go to the computer, type, and then go to sleep. I did that like every day for five weeks and the novel was done. It was just one of those cases where it got done quickly because I had no other distractions and because I was single focused and in a zone, but it can happen any number of ways.
MH: You’ve won fantasy awards and you’ve been a finalist for sci-fi awards. How would you define the fiction you write? The Library Journal mentioned that Annihilation is “a dystopian story with literary overtones.” I’ve heard that described about your writing in other contexts as well, that there’s a strong literary component to it, yet you are writing in, what appears, a popular genre.
JV: I’ve always been straddling the fence on that. I started out in literary journals, writing poetry for mainstream literary magazines, and then when I started writing a lot of fiction, especially long fiction, it just came out Kafkaesque. It was one of those situations where I would give stories and stuff to my first readers and think that what I had written was perfectly realistic. But there’s something about my world view that sees the absurdity and the underlying strangeness of the world we live in, that sometimes gets interpreted as being fantasy, or science fiction, or whatever else. I really don’t care about the labels so much as cultivating a wide range of influences, reading widely and not restricting myself to certain areas. My books, in some places, are published as science fiction, and some places they’re published as literary mainstream. It really just depends on the marketing and all of that. I did know, with Annihilation, that because I was writing my first novel set in the real world, that it would probably have a greater impact. When you write imaginary-world fantasy like I was before, and you’re doing it in a Borges or Calvino mode, and when everyone thinks Harry Potter when they think fantasy, you end up having to educate readers about what you do. Here is an expedition into the wilderness, into this strange place, and I think that there’s something about the premise that’s just so clear and clean that it resonates.
MH: When did you know in the process that you were writing something bigger than a standalone that was going to be a multivolume series?
JV: It’s pretty usual that about halfway through writing a novel I’ll know whether it’s a standalone or whether there’s more story. So about halfway through, I knew that there was a larger story line, and about three-fourths of the way through I thought I had four books. By the time I’d finished and started on the second, I knew that it was going to be three novels. It’s this weird thing where you see a lot of trilogies out there and you wonder sometimes if they came to that organically, or was it some kind of contractual obligation. But in this case, I thought I had a quartet that then became a trilogy. Usually, it’s about halfway through the novel I’m working on when I know whether it’s something larger or not.
MH: When did you start writing? Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
JV: It’s interesting. In terms of this novel, it’s a close call between marine biologist and writer. The protagonist of Annihilation is more or less a marine biologist, but what I discovered is that I just liked looking at things in title pools more than the actual rigorous research, so that was one thing I considered. My dad’s a research chemist, so I was thinking about going into science. But ever since I was about eight or nine, I’ve been writing poems and stories. I started out by doing retellings of Aesop’s Fables and writing poetry, and then graduated to really, really bad versions of heroic fantasy novels, and then to the stuff that, of course, I do today.
MH: Did you study writing at all in college?
JV: I did. I had a great creative writing teacher in high school, Mrs. Stanniferd, and then in college I actually took the advice of Richard Wilbur, the poet laureate. He came to the University of Florida, and at one point he said that it was better to get a degree in anything but creative writing and to study widely. So that’s exactly what I did at the University of Florida—I took as many different kinds of classes as possible. I did take some creative writing classes, but it was better for me to just try to learn as much as possible, get a history minor and things like that, than to major in creative writing. I learned a lot from that, and a lot of the research that I did then fed into the novels.
MH: You mentioned that one particular influential teacher. Any other powerful influences on your development as a writer?
LV: There is a fantasy writer, Meredith Ann Pierce, who runs a writing workshop out of Gainesville, Florida, where I was living. She absolutely was a huge influence. She was extremely kind to me as a very young writer in my teen years when I didn’t know anything and thought I knew everything. That workshop was extremely influential. I would also say that the iconic British writer, Michael Moorcock, has been a huge influence. He mentored me a bit, got me my first agent, and wrote the introduction to my first book. I guess one thing that I’ve learned from all the help that I’ve gotten is, just simply, that it’s important to pay it back by paying it forward.
MH: On your website it says you provide a lot of writing workshops, you opened the Shared Worlds teen SF/Fantasy writing camp out of Wofford College, and you’ve written books on writing. This is clearly a desire on your part to pay it forward to a new generation. How did you get involved in doing that kind of work?
JV: Well, first of all, I’ve always thought of a writer as somebody who does all of these things naturally, that a writer is not just a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer, but a person of letters who is involved in the book culture. I started out editing literary magazines and setting up at local events for writers, so it’s a natural outreach from that to things like Shared Worlds, which is an amazing opportunity for teen writers. For one week they create their own fantasy world in groups of ten, and then they write about it in the second week. What’s so great about it is it’s personal to them, but it’s not so personal like their own writing that they bring to the camp, that they get frozen by it. They also learn a lot of things. A lot of writers are loners and here they are. We sneakily put them in groups, and they have to work together to build this world. We get a lot of writers who aren’t fantasy or science fiction writers necessarily, but they’re drawn into writing and fiction because of fantasy YA and Harry Potter and things like that. So it’s this incredible opportunity to be of use to these beginning writers. The writing books have been accidents of fate depending on what publisher was interested. The latest one, Wonderbook, is the world’s first fully illustrated writing book. Abrams Image had been very successful with my prior book, The Steampunk Bible, and said, “Hey, we want to do this. We’ll give you a budget and you can go off and do this. Whatever you want, full color, 350 pages, and come back.” So we had this great opportunity and it was like, well there’s no way that we can’t do this—create the world’s first fully illustrated writing book.
MH: Just a quick glance at your bio shows that you really are all over the place in terms of the things that you’re working on. You’ve done work with short films, collaborating with rock bands, and your fiction was adapted for promotional purposes by PlayStation. You’ve done a lot of collaborations across the board. Looking at the range of the stuff you do, I get exhausted. You’re either ADD or incredibly disciplined. Which is it?
JV: Well, first of all, I pick my spots. I do make sure that I have a lot of downtime in between. I also make use of really good software that keeps me off the Internet for hours at a time. A lot of this, lately, has been collaborative with my wife, Ann, who is a very well respected editor in the field, so a lot of the anthologies are coedited. Sometimes, she’ll be working on a project solo and I’ll be helping her out, and sometimes I’m working on a project solo and she’s helping me out. We also have had a number of great managing editors, and other people who are interns working on some of these projects, which helps take some of the pressure off. It can be fairly frenetic. I’m not going to deny that. I hate to keep going back to these hikes, but one of the things that does help quite a bit is to just get out in nature for a few hours and get away from it. But I truly believe that if you have opportunities, it’s important to try to take advantage of them. One of the things that I swear by is that if a project frightens me or I think I can’t do it, that’s a sign that I should just leap in and do it. A lot of my career has been based on not being risk-adverse.
MH: I love this idea that you’ve suggested, that you use these hikes in a way to regenerate—recuperate and regenerate and renew yourself. I noticed that you also spent about six months traveling through Asia, Africa, Europe, and how much these trips influence your fiction writing. Tell us a little about your travels and how that impacts you.
JV: Well, my parents were in the Peace Corps when I was a child, so we served two stints in the Fiji Islands. And instead of taking raises or additional monies from their day jobs with the Peace Corps, they took travel vouchers. So, on the way back, we spent six months when I was about nine or ten just traveling around the world. We spent a month in India, we spent a great deal of time in Southeast Asia, Kenya, Peru, Nepal, which was rather amazing. I think it was the perfect age where you’re receptive to everything and critical of nothing, and just completely open, and have no received ideas. I think the way that it influenced my fiction is that some people, like Stephen King, have one place they write about because that’s where they grew up and what they know. What I knew was a little bit of everything and not a whole lot of everything, which I think is a great thing for a kid. For a writer, it creates this dilemma where you try to figure out what to write about—what’s personal to you. That’s why I think I turned to fantasy, because in writing imaginary worlds I could take the personal experiences I had and reconcile them in a place that was real to me on the page, but wasn’t any one real place in the world.
MH: Carolyn McCormick is the narrator of Annihilation in the audiobook. She’s well known for her popular film and TV roles, and she’s also the audiobook narrator for The Hunger Games. How did you feel when you found out that she’d be narrating your audiobook? And have you had a chance to listen to it?
JV: I thought it was great when I heard it, and I really loved the reading too. It’s one of those things where you have the voice in your head, especially when it’s a first-person narrator, so you’re a little leery of hearing another voice. In this case, I thought that she did a really good job with it, because there’s this line that has to be walked with the biologist where she is passionate about some things, but her default mode is to be fairly impassive. I thought she did a good job of not overplaying the voice and the reactions, which is to say, there’s things that the biologist encounters in the book that for a lot of us would be fairly scary, but to her it’s not really as scary because of the viewpoint she’s coming from. I thought she did a great job with that. I was ecstatic to hear that she was connected with it, and I thought the results were great.
MH: Authority, book two, Acceptance, book three in the Southern Reach Trilogy, come out in May and September this year. Blackstone will publish both of those and the audio versions. What comes next for you?
JV: There are a couple of novels that I’m tinkering with. There’s a steampunk user’s manual, which is a huge coffee-table book. It’s cutting-edge, retro-futurism, including things like how to build your own two-hundred-foot automated steampunk penguin, where we consult with engineers and had a little panorama photo shoot with a scale model. So it’s like a crafts book for people who want to attempt the impossible. Basically, I’m focused on these books. They’re very personal to me. The second book, Authority, is personal to me in a different way because it’s about dysfunctional institutions, and I’ve worked for some companies that qualify. So I’m focused mostly on that. But I do have this other book coming out, and I’m working on a few more novels.
MH: Well, you’re clearly doing something really right. People are saying awfully nice things about Annihilation in particular and your work in general. London Sunday Times’ Lauren Beukes says Annihilation is, “A tense and chilling psychological thriller…A little Kubrick, a lot Lovecraft, the novel builds with an unbearable tension.” A Starred Review in Booklist describes Annihilation as “similar to H. G. Wells’, The Island of Dr. Moreau.” High praise indeed to be compared to those sorts of iconic writers. Is that by turns intimidating and exhilarating?
JV: It’s that. It’s all of that. Sometimes it’s frustrating when it’s somebody that you’ve never read, or someone whose view of nature might be fairly antithetical to what’s in Annihilation. But really, the readers get to decide that, and they bring their own idea of what influences. I think that there’s something in the book that has a mythic resonance, and I think that’s why it’s getting compared to so many different things, because people are trying to figure out what that resonance is. My hope is that it’s pure VanderMeer, but I know there’s a mulch in the back of my reptile brain that’s of the fiction I’ve read over the years, all of the things that I’ve read for anthologies. That’s one of the weird things about Annihilation. There are some books where you, as the writer, can say, “Yea, this particularly influenced me, this influenced me, that influenced me, this didn’t.” With Annihilation, it just all subsumed in such a way that I can’t really point to any one thing. I would say that J. G. Ballard, in the way that he managed, in some cases, to write thrillers because of the way he makes time contract and expand in your mind, is somebody that I study very carefully—and Kafka at times. Also though, the nature poetry of Pattiann Rogers is a big influence on me. It’s been fun seeing people make those different comparisons.
MH: Thanks so much for joining us today and giving us a glimpse into your teeming, creative mind.
JV: Thank you so much for having me.
MH: We’re really excited about the audiobook of Annihilation and all of the following titles coming up in the series. Thanks again for joining us.
JV: Thank you.
MH:Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Jeff VanderMeer. You can find Annihilation and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in February 2014.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
If J. J. Abrams, Margaret Atwood, and Alan Weisman collaborated on a novel … it might be this awesome.
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist—the de facto leader—and a biologist, who is our narrator. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life-forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.