The Hardest Working Man in Weird Fiction: A Jeff VanderMeer Interview

Jeff VanderMeer collage Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks on December 19, 2008. In 2018, Paramount pictures will release Annihilation, a film based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In close proximity to primordial Florida swamps, branch-shrouded canopy roads, and Kafkaesque state capital intrigues, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are Tallahassee’s greatest unnatural resource. At the time of this interview, Ann was the fiction editor of Weird Tales Magazine, its continuing mission to publish brilliantly strange original material unavailable anywhere else. Jeff is on the cutting edge of the “New Weird,” infusing literary proficiency back into Gothic fantasy and science fiction with such novels as Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and most recently, Finch. Together, Ann and Jeff have edited a number of anthologies, most recently, the pirate-themed Fast Ships, Black Sails, in which, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “Saintly pirates, loony pirates, pirate cooks and talking animal-buccaneers slash and swagger through the Caribbean, the Internet, the perpetually frozen Atlantic and the seas of distant planets in this collection of 18 original stories.”

Winner of the World Fantasy Award, Jeff VanderMeer has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Z. Danielewski, Edgar Allen Poe, and Vladimir Nabokov. His novels are sublime mixtures of genre, meta-, and literary fiction, books within stories within other books where the characters provide commentary via footnotes, illustrations, and other appendixes. If that sounds dry, it’s because it doesn’t convey the absurdist humor, nightmarish fear, and sweeping epic drama of VanderMeer’s secret history of the city of Ambergris. Tragic poets and artists populate dark cafes, naked holy men and furtive mushroom people menace hapless wanderers in alleys and alcoves, and once a year, the Festival of the Freshwater Squid plunges the city into decadent mayhem.It was hard to catch Jeff when he had time to answer questions. He pours his energy into writing with a perfectionist’s drive.

Bill Ectric: Congratulations on finishing your latest novel, Finch. Is this another Ambergris novel?

Jeff VanderMeer: Finch is the third in the Ambergris Cycle, set 100 years after Shriek. It features a detective.

Bill: I understand you’ve been hunkered down, hard at work on Finch for quite a long time. Are you in a state of decompression?

Jeff: I am in a state of severe imaginative withdrawal in the sense that I need to recharge before the next novel.

Bill: When did you first read Nabokov’s Pale Fire and what effect did it have on you?

Jeff: I can’t remember when I read it but it has had a profound effect. It showed me that using an experimental structure didn’t mean you couldn’t also achieve an emotional response in the reader. I think Nabokov’s formal brilliance blinds some critics to the emotional resonance in his work.

Bill: Are any of the artists, writers, and musicians in Ambergris based real people or real groups of people, for example, the Lake Poets, the Beats, or the Romantics?

Jeff: A lot of them are loosely based on the Decadents. Some are based on Chagall and Arcimboldo. The rest are based on contemporaries and thus I cannot divulge who…

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer   Vertemnus by Arcimboldo

Bill: Is there a reason you do some rewrites in longhand? Doesn’t your hand get tired?

Jeff: No, my hand doesn’t get tired any more than my wrists do typing on a computer. Longhand allows me to get into the fictive dream more easily. I also will break a scene back down into longhand after it’s been typed up if I need to radically revise it. I tell writing students who only have laptops that they’re missing out. You’re ignoring a potent tool in seeing your fiction in a new light. A lot of beginners are doing light edits, not revision, and they also allow the computer, through IM and other things, to fracture their attention while writing.

Bill: J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan refused to grow up and H. P. Lovecraft feared that reaching adulthood meant “growing too old for pleasure.” Is it important for a writer of weird fantasy to stay in touch with childhood feelings and intuition? How does one balance that with the responsibilities of real life?

Jeff: Every writer needs to see the world fresh. Lovecraft, for all of his brilliance, was trapped in an adolescence fearful of women and foreigners and unable to live a fulfilling normal life. That’s definitely not necessary.

Bill: We hear about indie bands having their CD “picked up” by a major label. Do major publishers ever “pick up” independent and/or self-published books?

Jeff: Sure. I’ve had the majority of my books picked up by majors after being out first from indies. That’s how I finally got on people’s radar.

Bill: Fantasy author Ekaterina Sedia suggested I ask what your favorite dark beer is.

Jeff: Heh. It is Delirium Nocturnum followed closely by Arrogant Bastard.

Bill: How did it come about that you wrote a Predator novel?

Jeff: I think you write from love, mental illness, money…or some combination of the three. Predator I wrote for fun (love) and money. Brian Evenson got me an audience with Dark Horse and they liked my pitch.The challenge I set myself was to write the Predator movie I would want to see. I actually think both Predator movies are good action movies. So it is meant to be fun and exciting … with a few signature VanderMeerisms as part of that.

Predator by Jeff VanderMeer book cover   Finch by Jeff VanderMeer book cover

 

Will Self Writes in the Morning

Author Will Self, photographed by Karen Robinson for The Guardian

Author Will Self, photographed by Karen Robinson for The Guardian

Again, someone who recommends writing in the morning. I’ve only written in the morning twice. Both times were to record lucid dreams before I forgot them. I keep saying I’m going to try it for my fiction writing. Maybe tomorrow.

From The Guardian:

When I’m working on a novel I type the initial draft first thing in the morning. Really: first thing. For preference, I have a cigarette ready-rolled and a coffee percolator loaded the night before; then I simply roll out of bed, fuel up and set to it. I believe the dreaming and imagining faculties are closely related, such that wreathed in night-time visions I find it possible to suspend disbelief in the very act of making stuff up, which, in the cold light of day would seem utterly preposterous. I’ve always been a morning writer, and frankly I believe 99% of the difficulties novices experience are as a result of their unwillingness to do the same. Narrative structure, mise en scene, characterisation − you can’t get to grips with these problems unless you’ve put the words on the page.

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Magical Night at Chamblin’s Uptown: My Favorite Bookstore Turns 40

Tim Gilmore reading at Chamblin

Tim Gilmore reading excerpts from his latest book, We Are All Used Books: 70 Conversations With Ron Chamblin (photos by Bill Ectric)

To use an old cliche, a good time was had by all at Chamblin’s Uptown, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of legendary bookstore Chamblin Bookmine. There was food, drinks, readings, celebration, and camaraderie, all surrounded by books of every kind, both new and used, on shelves, walls, countertops, and in people’s hands. I saw several good friends and made some new friends.

My first visit to Ron Chamblin’s used book store in the late 1970s was magical, like walking into Olivander’s Magic Wand shop in the Harry Potter books (although, of course, Harry Potter would not be introduced to the world until many years later).

Here, I’ll let Charlie Patton of the Florida Times-Union tell you what it was all about:

Over the last four decades, Chamblin has moved the Chamblin Bookmine twice and opened a second store, Chamblin’s Uptown, half-a-block from Hemming Park,while buying almost every book he can… With 33,000 square feet of retail space — 23,000 in his store on Roosevelt Boulevard and 10,000 downtown — and an additional 22,000 square feet of storage space in two warehouses, four tractor trailers and a barn at his house on Fleming Island — Chamblin accumulated what he estimates is about 3.5 million books… Because this is his 40th anniversary in the business, some of his friends and employees have organized a “BYOB and Buy-a-Book Block Party” that will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Chamblin’s Uptown, 215 N. Laura St. One of those friends, Tim Gilmore, has written and published a biography, “We Are All Used Books: 70 Conversations with Ron Chamblin.”

Read More We Are All Used Books cover

A Psychological Drama set in France: Stranger Days by Rachel Kendall

Stranger Days book cover My book review of Rachel Kendall’s Stranger Days is on Empty Mirror.

I’m happy to report that Rachel Kendall does an exceptional job of keeping her novel, Stranger Days, fresh, fun and riveting. Kendall doesn’t shy away from the usual intrigue and romance of Paris, but she does it so well, Stranger Days is a pleasure to read. The edgy plot, with its dose of psychological darkness, held my interest from beginning to end.

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Chamblin Bookmine, Part One of Seven

The following was written by the always interesting Tim Gilmore on his blog, Jax Psycho Geo.

Source: Chamblin Bookmine, Part One of Seven

But after what happened with Manson in His Own Words: The Shocking Confessions of “The Most Dangerous Man Alive,” I was too ashamed to go back.

Even years later, when I’d assumed enough time had passed, Ron would give me a deal on a stack of books for trade-in, standing behind the cash register, with his mussed white hair and thin steel-framed glasses, and he’d joke with Frank, “Uh oh, better look out, he’s doing it to us again.”

In the years in between, I missed the strange steep back staircase that ascended to the dark and cramped second floor, and I missed the incongruous juxtaposition of poetry and horror fiction up there in the dark. I remembered particular purchases, Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil on the poetry side, and the cheap 1970s Ballantine paperback of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear on the horror side.

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Emanations 5

Emanations 2 + 2 = 5

Carter Kaplan has announced that, “Emanations: 2 + 2 = 5 is now in the final stages of production,” saying:

Here is a glimpse of the cover art by Ruud Antonius, taken from his painting The Fourth Plinth  (oil on panel, 100 x 80 cm).
Mr. Antonius is a Dutch painter who lives in the United Kingdom.  He has a large following in Europe where in the world of fine art surrealism enjoys greater support than it does in Britain and the United States.  Please click HERE to visit Mr. Antonius’s web site.

Here is the tentative table of contents:

Tales

ROBERT MEADLEY
Meeting Dr. Malthusian
C.E. MATTHEWS
In the Spirit of Enterprise
MICHAEL BUTTERWORTH
Hey, Mr. Pressman
GENEVIÈVE LAVERGNE
That Needlework
GARETH JACKSON
Numad
TESSA B. DICK
Seasons
JEFFREY FALLA
The Sword and the Tiger
TANTRA BENSKO
Catnip Pinata
RUUD ANTONIUS
J. P. Holmes, Junior
PARAMITA DUTTA
The First Time
AZIZ MUSTAFA
I was Latching on the Moon
NEHA SINHA
The Old Lady and the Sea
PHILIP MURRAY-LAWSON
Good Deed Day
MARLEEN BARR
Bedbugwoman
D. HARLAN WILSON
Dithyrambia
ANDREW DARLINGTON
My Little Black Egg
ELKIE RICHES
Most Women do not Creep by Daylight
SUSHMA JOSHI
The Zia Motel
JIM MATTHEWS
An Interview with Archibald Mansions
BILL ECTRIC
Doctor Waxwing’s Hotel of Rooms
MICHAEL G. CHIVERS
The Squalling Terror
CARTER KAPLAN
Cold Echoes (part III)
HORACE JEFFERY HODGES
The Uncanny Story

Verse
(in progress)

Themes

MARIELLE RISSE
Becoming the Buddhist Queen Elizabeth
HOLLY BAUMGARTNER
Eastern Promise
VITASTA RAINA
Writing Un-writing: A Theory of Time

Read More at HIGHBROW