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

 

Just Because You’re Seeing Things Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t There

Lots of good study material on Nabokov’s shortest short story, Signs and Symbols.

I personally think Nabokov’s general idea was this: The young man is considered insane because he fears inanimate objects, but by the end of the story, we fear the telephone because of the potential message it might convey to the elderly couple. There is apparently much more to it, as can be seen in the following essays by Alexander Dolinin and Roy Johnson:

 “Contrary to the prevailing line of criticism, I take Nabokov at his word and argue in this article that “Signs and Symbols,” like “The Vane Sisters,” is constructed according to a specific “system” of concealment and does contain a neat soluble riddle whose function is similar to the acrostic puzzle in the later story.” – Alexander Dolinin, The Signs and Symbols in Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”  from the Nabakov Studies section of  The Nabakov Society.

And from Roy Johnson’s tutorial on the story,

“We are given no further information, but it is impossible to escape the implication that the call is from the hospital with news of another and this time successful suicide attempt. For if it were another wrong number there would be no relation at all between these calls and the remainder of the story.

“It is not possible to ‘prove’ that this is the case, but it is quite obvious that Nabokov is inviting the reader to supply the missing explanation. Thus the old man and his wife do have a further blow waiting for them, and the second link between the two subjects is made – in the reader’s mind.”

Creepy Cut-Up, sort of

Astral Weeks columnist Ed Park finds that horror story quotes take on a life of their own (via the Los Angeles Times).

While assembling my notes for a review of the Library of America anthology “American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny” (Library of America, two volumes, edited by Peter Straub: “From Poe to the Pulps,” 746 pp., $35; “From the 1940s to Now,” 714 pp., $35), I noticed a peculiar thing. The quotes that I had quarried seemed to assemble themselves into a sort of ur-story, a template of the unheimlich. As I stitched together sentences from the works of writers as varied as F. Scott Fitzgerald and H.P. Lovecraft, John Cheever and Kelly Link, something about the common gambits and rhythms, across nearly two centuries, sent a chill through me. The following text has been constructed entirely from sentences found in “American Fantastic Tales.” Each is numbered and identified at the very end.

Read it at The Los Angeles Times

Fiction for Readers Who Enjoy the Mechanics of Literature

One reason why I am drawn to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, and James Morrow is that they write for people who not only like to read, but who also enjoy the mechanics and study of literature, especially as it relates to the humanities. 

Chapter 5 of  The Modern Weird Tale by S. T. Joshi includes this passage on writer Thomas Ligotti

“One of Ligotti’s many distinctive attributes is the frequency with which he can metafictionally enunciate his own literary agenda in his tales. Many of his stories are just as much about the writing of horror tales as they are horror tales. In ‘The Frolic,’ a psychiatrist’s report of a madman’s visions are uncannily like Ligotti’s own aesthetic quest for the unreal:

There’s actually quite a poetic geography to his interior dreamland as he describes it. He talked about a place that sounded like the back alleys of some cosmic slum, an inner-dimensional dead end… Less fathomable are his memories of a moonlit corridor where mirrors scream and laugh, dark peaks of some kind that won’t remain still, a stairway that’s ‘broken’ in a very strange way…”