An Interview With Jeff VanderMeer: "Full Disclosure, I'm Really A Komodo Dragon"
Jeff VanderMeer is a writer who does it all. He has published many novels, collections, and non-fiction books (including last year's fantastic Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction), has edited or co-edited over a dozen anthologies, and writes regularly for several papers and journals such as the Washington Post and the New York Times Book Review. His most recent novel is Annihilation, book one of a trilogy that will be published in its entirety in 2014 by FSG. Books two and three are due out in May and September.
Annihilation is a tightly written page-turner about a team of female scientists sent to explore a lush-yet-haunting wilderness known as Area X. These scientists — referred to only as the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor, and the biologist — are the 12th expedition into this strange region. The previous expeditions all ended up dead or returned with their memories gone, before succumbing to cancer. VanderMeer writes in taught, atmospheric prose filled with mysteries and uncanny unease. Fans of speculative fiction — especially the subgenre of weird fiction — and great writing should put this at the top of their to-read list.
I spoke with VanderMeer over email about writing in an immersive state, literary cross-pollination, and binge-watching TV.
BuzzFeed Exclusive: We have the exclusive first look at the cover of book three, Acceptance, below.
The seed of Annihilation, which I absolutely loved, came to you in a dream. I've heard you say that as a general rule you write fiction in the morning as soon as you wake up. Why is it important for you to write right after dreaming?
Jeff VanderMeer: My best time to write is right after coffee and breakfast — four eggs because, full disclosure: I'm really a komodo dragon — and that's because then I'm energized but not so awake that the critical voice clicks on, the voice that sometimes says, "Don't write that," or "Man, that sentence is terrible — you should give up and go pet the cats." If the reader enters a kind of immersive experience reading a book, then I have to enter a kind of immersive state to do my best work. Dreams, though, are just one kind of inspiration — no more or less special than something in a newspaper article or from the world around you sparking inspiration. The main thing is to put yourself in a place where you're receptive to what offers itself up to you.
One old writing cliché is "describe a dream, lose a reader." How do you feel about descriptions of characters' dreams in fiction?
JV: A dream inspiring a story is different than placing a description of a dream in a story. When you describe a character's dream, it has to be sharper than reality in some way, and more meaningful. It has to somehow speak to plot, character, and all the rest. If you're writing something fantastical, it can be a really deadly choice because your story already has elements that can seem dreamlike. So in Annihilation there are no real descriptions of dreams except in one place where it speaks to the transformation the expedition into Area X is undergoing. In a sense, whatever has created Area X is manifesting to the character through dream. So there, where it's a form of distorted communication, it means something. It's a kind of haunting. But, in general, I don't recommend it. And even a dream as inspiration doesn't mean anything unless you then find that it's sparked an actual story with a plot.
There has been a tendency on both sides of the literary/genre divide to pretend that they are unrelated traditions. One thing I love about both your writing and your editorial work is that you consciously bring writers from both traditions together and place them in conversation with each other. For example, your massive anthology The Weird, co-edited with your wife Ann VanderMeer, includes Jorge Luis Borges and Joyce Carol Oates alongside Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Why do you think it is important to read these authors alongside each other?
JV: If Borges writes about love or death, why should that be divorced from a story by King or Bradbury about love or death? If Kameron Hurley or Nnedi Okorafor write novels that are in part about war or the effects of war, why should that somehow exist across an invisible border with some mainstream lit war novelist on the other side, if there's some useful communication going on there? If it's all good stuff? When I read Deborah Levy or Marcel Theroux or Sjon I don't separate them from Tanith Lee or Laird Barron or Thomas Ligotti, necessarily. Cross-pollination and "contamination" is really important to the health of fiction, and sometimes it's a literal conversation, too, in that writers who might never otherwise meet and talk do so because of our anthologies.
Cover design: Charlotte Strick, Cover illustration: Eric Nyquist, Animation: Emily Bouman
Annihilation is book one of your Southern Reach trilogy. In a pretty unique move, FSG is putting out all three volumes in 2014. Book two is out in May and book three in September. Why did you and FSG decide to publish the trilogy this way?
JV: The aggressive publishing schedule was just part of a wider plan from FSG that I found really exciting. I'd never encountered a situation where a publishing offer seemed to come with celestial music and divine light shining off an email forwarded by my agent, but now I know that it does happen. Given the way publishing is changing, everything about the offer, including the schedule, seemed to indicate an understanding of publishing in the here-and-now. I also am not particularly risk-averse — I don't mind jumping off a cliff if I trust the people who've told me they'll catch me at the bottom. And I really trust FSG.
There have been some blog posts — some panicked, some excited — suggesting that publishing is moving toward a quicker publication cycle. Do you think this is happening? Will writers increasingly release books over shorter periods of time?
JV: It's actually been happening quite a lot in the self-publishing world already. But theNew York Times article that mentioned Annihilation in this context seems to have bred certain assumptions I find inaccurate. For example, in theory a writer can spend the same amount of time they usually would writing the books, but just release the books closer together. So it doesn't mean, for those who are smart about it, that writers will suddenly enter some frenetic, endless cycle that, for endurance and quality reasons, is unsustainable. It also shouldn't mean "binge-reading" that equates to reading too quickly or skimming, as some as have suggested. When my wife and I binge-watched The Wire it became a more immersive experience, not a shallower one.
The narrator of Annihilation insists that the mysterious structure her group encounters is a "tower." Her companions prefer to call it a "tunnel." The characters themselves are not given names, only job descriptions: "the linguist," "the biologist," etc. What is the importance of names or lack of names in Area X?
JV: The tower/tunnel thing speaks to the disorientation occurring in Area X, which begins to influence your thoughts. The lack of names has a practical point: Expeditions where the members referred to each other by name rather than by function ended badly, as did expeditions using modern communication technology — in both cases, as if names and tech were too easily "hacked" by Area X. When you think about the complexity of our natural world — plants using quantum mechanics for photosynthesis, for example — a smartphone begins to look like a pretty dumb object.
What authors or books influenced you when writing the Southern Reach trilogy?
LV: Hiking in North Florida is the most primary influence, along with expeditions up the Northern California coast, and the remote western rim of Vancouver Island. Literary influences are harder for me to point to, because mostly it's a mulch of all of my past reading, I suppose. But I do sometimes point to Finnish writer Leena Krohn's short novel Tainaron and also Michel Bernanos' 1967 novella "The Other Side of the Mountain" as touchstones, along with the nature poetry of Patiann Rogers. Guardians of the Light by Elinor de Wire is a first-rate book on lighthouses that was of use. I think Molly Gloss' viewpoint on nature in her stories and novels is close to my own.
Your work draws from a number of literary traditions, but one tradition you are often associated with is "the weird" or "the new weird." Annihilation fits into the weird while also subverting it in surprising ways. The weird seems to be having a moment right now with HBO's True Detective making numerous references to elements of The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Consequentially, half of the internet is talking about H.P. Lovecraft, who borrowed some of Chambers's mythology, and The King in Yellow shot up into the Amazon top 10. Are you a fan of the show or The King in Yellow?
JV: I'm somewhat indifferent to The King in Yellow; I don't mind it. I'm still processing everything I think about True Detective, because once it abandoned the interrogation frame it began to wobble for me and the last episode fell really flat for me, but I think this delicate tightrope walk between the real and the sense of something beyond the real is a very valuable one to attempt in fiction and in film. It creates a sense of the numinous or the luminous, a resonance that works if the work in question is true to that ambiguity all the way through. True Detective also does a nice job with long shots to make the characters seem more isolated. The English naturalist Richard Jefferies said that to him "everything is supernatural." And that's a great way of putting the idea that the world is a mysterious place and the very limitation of our senses in exploring it means we are sometimes aware of there being something beyond our ken.
Do you like to read any literary magazines or websites?
JV: I love Tin House and Conjunctions and read the New Yorker pretty regularly. Ecotone is a great journal, too, and Hobart and The Ninth Letter, along with a ton of others. I also like to go through the zine sections of local bookstores when on the road and have found a lot of really great kind of underground stuff that way. It all feeds into everything else.
What can fans of Annihilation expect in book two, Authority?
JV: Well, they won't get more of the same, and I hope they'll trust me enough to come along with me for the pivot. If Annihilation is an expedition into Area X, then Authority is an expedition into the Southern Reach, the dysfunctional secret agency trying to figure out what's going on in Area X. Authority has a lot more dark humor in it, including a thousand white rabbits sent on a quixotic mission. You'll also meet a character known only as The Voice and learn more about what happened to the first expedition. Some characters from Annihilation also turn out to not quite be what they seemed. I'm over the moon that Bronson Pinchot is doing the audiobook; the samples I've heard show that he really gets that this book is deadly serious in places but also absurdist in others.