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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Thomas Ligotti Interviewed by the Weird Fiction Review

Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Here’s an interview with Thomas Ligotti from Weird Fiction Review:

Ligotti: The first story I read that is usually classed as a specimen of weird fiction was Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan.” I didn’t fully understand the story, but I felt immediately captivated by it. There was a real whiff of evil behind the events of the narrative. I then read other stories by Machen — “The White People,” The Three Imposters—and sensed that I had found a world where I belonged: a kind of degenerate incarnation of the Sherlock Holmes tales I loved so much. Immediately after reading Machen, I read Lovecraft and recognized the resemblance between the two authors, no doubt because Lovecraft was influenced by Machen.

Read entire article

AylettVison Goes Online

My edit of Steve Aylett’s LINT THE MOVIE can now be seen in its entirety HERE.

Starring Alan Moore, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Steve Aylett, Robin Ince, Jeff Vandermeer, D Harlan Wilson, Andrew O’Neill, Vessel (Mister Solo/David Devant), Bill Ectric, Mitzi Szereto, Spencer Pate, Mo Ali and others, LINT THE MOVIE documents the life and work of cult SF author and philosopher Jeff Lint, creator of some of the strangest and most inconvenient works of the 20th century.

Featuring clips from Lint’s books, cartoons, music, comics and films, the movie follows the writer’s life from the days of vintage pulp, psychedelia, dangerous theater, and his disastrous scripts for Star Trek and Patton. Commentary by those who knew and read him create a compelling portrait of the creator of Clowns and Insects, Jelly Result, The Stupid Conversation, the Caterer comic, and Catty and the Major, the scariest kids’ cartoon ever aired. Based on Steve Aylett’s books ‘LINT’ and ‘And Your Point Is?’

http://www.steveaylett.com

Weird Fiction is Thriving on the Vine

Great good news! Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have launched a very promising online journal dedicated to the examination and enjoyment of outré literature, called Weird Fiction Review. Not only does the first issue contain an interview with Neil Gaiman, I see on GalleyCat that “the journal will maintain a ‘symbiotic relationship’ with S.T. Joshi’s print journal, The Weird Fiction Review.” This is a very good thing, Joshi being one of the world’s foremost scholars of the uncanny genres.

I like the way Jeff and Ann refer to their project as “a non-denominational approach that appre­ciates Love­craft but also Kafka, Angela Carter and Clark Ash­ton Smith, Shirley Jack­son and Fritz Leiber — along with the next gen­er­a­tion of weird writ­ers and inter­na­tional weird.” That quote is also from GalleyCat, and here’s a link to the entire article.

But Ann and Jeff VanderMeer didn’t stop there. They have a new book out. You know those old, weird/horror/sci-fi anthologies I like to talk about in my Bill’s Bookshelf series? Most of those books are from the 1960s or 70s, but here’s a brand new collection that carries on the tradition and brings it into the 21st Century. It’s called The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories. This ambitious labor of love  boasts over one hundred years of weird fiction collected in a single volume, representing  more than 20 nationalities, with seven new translations. Check out the table of contents.

Apparently, when Weird Tales magazine decided to replace Ann VanderMeer as editor, the magazine’s loss was our gain. Ann & Jeff’s book-life is flourishing like the verdant foliage of Ambergris.

LINT THE MOVIE Rolls On !

 
LINT THE MOVIE is screening on Sep 16 at the Idler Academy, London –
 
The event will also include stand-up from Robin Ince, an Aylett Q&A, Aylett books and Lint paraphernalia for sale.
 
There will also be a screening at the Nook Cafe in Northampton on Sep 2 –
http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002652733154#!/event.php?eid=241489719214970
 
In the US the movie will be screened at BizarroCon 2011 in November –
http://bizarrocon.wordpress.com/ 
 

Big Announcement: LINT the Movie!

LINT THE MOVIE documents the life and work of cult SF author and philosopher JEFF LINT, creator of some of the strangest and most inventive works of the twentieth century.

It stars Alan Moore, Steve Aylett, Josie Long, Stewart Lee, Robin Ince, D.Harlan Wilson, Jeff Vandermeer, Leila Johnston, Andrew O’Neill, Bill Ectric, Mitzi Szereto, Vessel [David Devant] and others.

  Read more about it – click here

Raw Head and Bloody Bones!

Photo of Rhys Hughes book taken from Jeff VanderMeer's blog, Ecstatic Days. Images of human anatomy from a late 1950s edition of The Book of Knowledge, published by Grolier.

Talk about one thing leading to another!

When my brother and I were kids, we delighted in the scary stories our dad used to tell, especially the one about a fellow called “Raw Head and Bloody Bones,” apparently a revenant seeking revenge for being skinned alive.

Above: The house where I grew up. Around back is the door to our basement, where my brother and I were fairly certain several sinister creatures dwelled, including Dero mutants left behind by ancient alien astronauts, as well as the grisly Rawhead & Bloody Bones.

My wife and I spent Christmas at my mother’s house in snowy Christiansburg, Virginia (the small town where I grew up, and which the town of “Hansburg” is based on in my novel, Tamper). My brother, Jeff, and his family joined us for dinner at Mom’s house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t long before Jeff and I were imitating Dad’s deep, ominous intonation, “I’m Raw Head and Bloody Bones and I’m coming to get you . . . I’m on the first step . . . I’m on the second step . . .”

 I always associated Raw Head and Bloody Bones with the human anatomy illustrations in The Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that my parents bought in the late fifties. I started out tracing the pictures with thin tracing paper and eventually made my own little comic books. To my mother’s consternation, I drew skeletons, hung with gruesome veins and muscles, chasing terrified victims. This can’t be good, she probably thought.

I don’t know where my father first heard of Raw Head & Bloody Bones, but thanks to Wikipedia, I recently discovered that the legend goes back to 16th Century Great Britain and eventually spread to the United States. It can be found in the 1550 edition of the Oxford Dictionary and in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Cambridge University Press, 1902 edition, pg 117). Wikipedia doesn’t tell us if Locke was for or against using the tale for educational purposes.

In some stories, Raw Head is a pet hog owned by a witch. Someone steals the hog and butchers it. Outraged, the witch brings the hog back to life and sends it to seek revenge on the man who killed it. A version of that story, by S. E. Schlosser, appears on the American Folklore web site. At some point, it went from being a hog to a man, kind of an old-time Freddie Kruger.

Laurell K. Hamilton makes reference to the legend in one of her Anita Blake novels, Bloody Bones.

There is a book by Mary E. Lyons called Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural (Aladdin Fiction, 1995).

Most fascinating of all, to me, is the Rhys Hughes book, Rawhead and Bloody Bones & Elusive Plato (Tanjen Ltd, 1998), because Rhys Hughes writes the kind of refreshingly weird fiction that I am greatly interested in. Jeff VanderMeer describes Rhys Hughes as “a prolific Welsh writer of absurdist fiction who most closely resembles Italo Calvino and John Barth.”

Here, via The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic, is a good interview with Rhys Hughes by Jeff VanderMeer, in which Hughes says a lot of things I agree with.