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

 

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Fine Lines

I suppose my recent cut-up experiment is more about marketing than writing. It’s certainly easier to write a cut-up than it is to get someone to read it, but I don’t want to trick anyone into reading something that isn’t any good. Quality should always come first. One should believe they have a product of top-notch quality before promoting and marketing it. One produces a good cut-up the same way one creates good poetry or prose – study, practice, persistence, and patience.

I used to think maybe I was “cheating” when I added, deleted, or otherwise manipulated the raw composite of two different texts joined together in the middle. Finally, a quote from William Burroughs himself, which I found at Reality Studio, put my mind at ease. In a statement to the 1962 International Writers’ Conference, Burroughs said, “In using the fold in method I edit, delete, and rearrange as in any other method of composition.”

Note: A fold-in is simply a variation of the cut-up. As Burroughs explains in the same Statement to the 1962 International Writer’s Conference:

“Brion Gysin, an American painter living in Paris, has used what he calls ‘the cut up method’ to place at the disposal of writers the collage used in painting for fifty years — Pages of text are cut and rearranged to form new combinations of word and image — In writing my last two novels, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded, i have used an extension of the cut up method I call ‘the fold in method’ — A page of text — my own or some one else’s — is folded down the middle and placed on another page — The composite text is then read across half one text and half the other — The fold in method extends to writing the flash back used in films, enabling the writer to move backwards and forwards on his time track — For example I take page one and fold it into page one hundred — I insert the resulting composite as page ten — When the reader reads page ten he is flashing forwards in time to page one hundred and back in time to page one — The deja vue phenomena can so be produced to order — (This method is of course used in music where we are continually moved backwards and forward on the time track by repetition and rearrangements of musical themes.”

Go to Reality Studio to read more of Burroughs’ statement as published in the Transatlantic Review

Now, back to my statement that quality should always come first. I’m enjoying a novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Finch (the third and possibly last in the Ambergris cycle). This reminded me that Jeff and I had briefly discussed an article by Jessa Crispin about Jeff’s other new book, Booklife. It went like this:

19 October 2009 at 6:21 PM

Bill Ectric says:

Jeff, I would like to say a word about the one negative review of Booklife that I’ve read. I’m a fan of Jessa Crispin and many of the books she recommends are right up my alley, but when she says Booklife “made her uneasy” and has questionable priorites, it occurs to me that virtually every book Crispin likes has already been through the “networking” and “ego-feeding” processes that she apparently finds distasteful. The difference is, in many cases, those authors have people in the trenches to do the legwork and nurturing for them. Jeff, I believe you wrote Booklife for authors who must “switch hats” from artist to publicist to merchant without loosing foucus. Anyone who has read your fiction knows that creativity and skill are first and foremost. I’m finding Booklife to be quite solid and helpful.

19 October 2009 at 6:27 PM

JeffVanderMeer says:

Bill: I was bothered by it because it seemed to insinuate that I was being dishonest in the book. But I’ve since asked Jessa if I can interview her for this site, and she accepted. That’ll run sometime in November or December, but it’ll go into more detail about her views on writing, creativity, and careers. I do plan in the second edition to reference that “non review” as she called it, in the context of double and triple making sure that readers understand why I’m offering up the information in the Public Booklife section.

I really look forward to further dialogue between Jeff and Jessa, two of my favorite bloggers, and I hope it happens!

Fortune Smiles

Top Center: Bruce Zolar King; Bottom Center: Kings book, which was featured in the Libra man scene of the 1976 Grey Gardens film by by David and Albert Maysles, Elen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, & Susan Froemke; Right: the face of Occult America author Mitch Horowitz photoshopped onto a coin-operated fortune teller

Top Center: Bruce "Zolar" King; Bottom Center: King's book, which was featured in the "Libra man" scene of the 1976 Grey Gardens film by by David and Albert Maysles, Elen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, & Susan Froemke; Right: the face of Occult America author Mitch Horowitz photoshopped onto a coin-operated fortune teller

Aside from reading, my big three interests are (1) writing (2) promoting my writing, and (3) erasing the line between science and mysticism. I’m reading Occult America by Mitch Horowitz. Fun and fascinating. This passage is only tangentially related to writing, but  it’s got the other two covered nicely:

One vending machine especially caught my eye: a dime horoscope dispenser. Drop in a coin, pull a lever, and out would slide a little pink scroll wound in a clear plastic sleeve.

 That coin machine  . . . machine had it’s own story, one perhaps less august than that of ancient scholars or Renaissance courts but, to a young boy, no less fascinating. It was invented in 1934 by a clothing and securities salesman named Bruce King – or, as he was better known by his nom de mystique, Zolar. (“It comes from ‘zodiac’ and ‘solar system’,” he explained. ‘Registered U.S. trademark.”) His initiation was not in the temples of Egypt but on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey. There he witnessed a goateed Professor A. F. Seward thrusting a pointer at a huge zodiac chart while lecturing beachgoers on the destiny of the stars. Professor Seward sold one-dollar horoscopes to countless vacationers – so many, the rumor went, that he retired to Florida a millionaire. (The rumor, as will be seen, was true.)

 Bursting forth from the boardwalks, Bruce King knew he had what it took to sell mysticism to the masses. “I felt the competition wasn’t great,” he told John Updike in The New Yorker in 1959, “and I could become the biggest man in the field.”

And that’s only the beginning. I’m going to enjoy this book, and will probably finish reading it just about the time UPS delivers my pre-ordered copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s new Ambergris novel Finch, which promises to be a fantastic noir/dark fantasy thriller of high literary caliber. 

Oh, and here’s the Grey Gardens link.