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

 

Autographs Tell Stories

I don’t consider myself an autograph hound, but these three signatures are special to me because they each have a story behind them.

The August 1963 issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland featured a lengthy interview with its editor, Forrest J Ackerman. This enthusiastic, scholastic fan of the fantastic opened my eyes and legitimized my deep interest in weird genres. Suddenly I was not alone – the magazine even published letters from other kids! Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of friends who liked horror, science fiction, and fantasy, but I wanted to study it, collect it, and create it! I finally met Forry in 1999 at a convention known as the Monster Rally in Crystal City, Virginia. Since I live in Florida, I asked him to autograph the photo where he pretends to carve a stuffed alligator in my dog-eared copy of that same August 1963 Famous Monsters magazine.

 

I faced a quite a dilemma when I checked out Jeff VanderMeer’s Veniss Underground from the public library. To my surprise, it was a special limited edition, only 750 printed, and each one signed by the author. I didn’t want to return it to the library! Someone suggested I tell the library I lost this beautiful hardbound volume and offer to pay for it, but the idea troubled me. I actually did that once, by accident, at the University of North Florida when I couldn’t find Witchcraft At Salem by Chadwick Hansen. I had to pay for it before the college would release my grades and then found it a year later in a box of Christmas decorations where it had fallen. But in the case of Veniss Underground, I thought, what if the library doesn’t purchase another copy? I would hate to take even one book out of circulation. On the other hand… 

Jeff VanderMeer is such a brilliant writer, I think meeting him would be like meeting Borges, Poe, Nabokov, Lovecraft, Tolkien, and DeQuincey all rolled into one. His tour-de-force City of Saints and Madmen, is destined to become a classic, and the sequel, Shriek, is sublime. His non-fiction book, Why Should I Cut Your Throat, whisked me back into the space-time continuum of writing, publishing, and promoting weird literature. I also recommend The New Weird, an anthology of stories by other writers, edited by Jeff and his wife, Ann VanderMeer (the fiction editor of Weird Tales Magazine).

Fortunately, I came to my senses before the book was due back. I found another signed copy for sale on Amazon.com, ordered it, and returned the library’s copy so someone else could enjoy it.

Alexis Korner, John Mayall, Cyril Davies, and Long John Baldry are the founding fathers of blue-rock. In 1961, Korner and Davies formed a band called Blues Incorporated. Musicians who performed with Blues Incorporated, at various times, include Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, and Dick Heckstall-Smith, and most of the Rolling Stones.

One of the best concerts I ever attended was Alexis Korner opening for Humble Pie. It must have been around 1971 or 1972 (I know that Dave “Clem” Clempson had already replaced Peter Frampton in Humble Pie), and both bands ROCKED. When the show ended and the crowd was leaving out the front doors, my friends Roger Bolen, Bruce Showalter, Mike Lancaster, my brother Jeff, and I all gravitated toward a backstage entrance. The cop at the door knew Roger, whose dad was also a police officer. He let us pass. Not only did we meet all the members of Humble Pie (Steve Mariott, Greg Ridley, Jerry Shirley, Clem Clempson) and the legendary Alexis Korner, we chatted with them excitedly for about twenty minutes and they were all extremely cool. Korner said, “There comes a time when you have to follow your heart and do what you want to do.” As an afterthought, we got all their autographs, and I’m glad we did.

Note the numbers in the upper right corner of the card. This was the combination to my wall safe – a little post office box door that my father brought home and helped me install in the wall behind a row of books on my bookshelf. Dad’s regular job involved repairing typewriters and adding machines, but he did locksmithing on the side. The Post Office paid him to open post office boxes that were stuck, and for some reason they gave him one of the doors. He knew secret doors were right up my alley!