The Peculiarities of Jeff VanderMeer: An Interview
With a pandemic ravaging the world and in-person events still not particularly safe, Miami Book Fair has pivoted to virtual panels and conversations instead of in-person events. Last year I unfortunately missed Ann and Jeff VanderMeer discussing their editorial work on The Big Book of Modern Fantasy at the festival, but was lucky enough to have interviewed John Waters [both for Miami New Times and in person at the festival (viewable under Tuesday, Nov 19th)].
This year, following the release of his latest novel this summer, VanderMeer will be part of a panel titled Perilous Schemes, Dangerous Skies at Miami Book Fair. Over the phone, we spoke about Floridian insanity, his stunning oeuvre, and the absurdity, characters, and politics of his young adult novel, A Peculiar Peril. The first portion of this interview is available at Miami New Times, but there was plenty more conversation that couldn’t fit in. Here’s that.
Juan: There’s something interesting to me about the idea of evolution as versatility in perspective. You as a writer sort of bounce between theory, academic texts, adult fiction, YA novels, short stories; is there a conscious shift as a writer in the way you approach your unifying themes and concepts throughout various forms?
Jeff: Well, one thing is that I am most engaged when I’m doing something I haven’t done before. So, you know, the environmental themes and things like that are always going to be constant, even if they’re expressed by talking marmots. But I bored with my own writing easily if I’m doing something I’ve done before. If you’re going to write about these issues and you want to express something that you haven’t expressed before, you have to find a different way to do it. There’s something comfortable and absurdist about, at least the beginning of, A Peculiar Peril, and then something like Dead Astronauts is like a formally experimental fragmented narrative that’s also trying hard to do something different. The next book, Hummingbird Salamander, is a tightly plotted ecological thriller that’s written in a very invisible style and very serious and it allows me to do something else again. If I start a book and I feel like I’ve done it before, I feel like something’s off. If I start a book and I feel like I’ve never written a novel before, that’s the kind of feeling I want to have.
Juan: And that’s rare because I feel like a lot of writers are comfortable falling into the same patterns. Do you feel like that sort of drive to be changing stems from the fact that you’re also constantly researching and studying past stories and histories and all sorts of science fiction and fantasy and horror in a way that directly influences your growth?
Jeff: Yeah, I think so. And I think that, you know, the anthologies my wife and I do and fiction from the past really do influence my books. I mean, A Peculiar Peril would not have been as interesting a book — if it is interesting [he laughs] — without having done The Big Book of Classic Fantasy and Modern Fantasy, and the Southern Reach wouldn’t have been quite what it was without having done The Weird. So that sustained kind of immersive reading and being kind of a magpie about subject matter and basically mining out various topics, but also, starting with the Southern Reach, there began to be so many academic papers and think pieces written about it, that that by itself becomes its own research. People start mentioning things they find similar that I haven’t read and then I wind up seeking that stuff out. And I really think hard about the kind of opinions people have had about the subtext and the themes, so that also then affects on a subconscious level what comes out next.
Sometimes it’s very specific, like for Hummingbird Salamander: an environmental activism class, like “we love things like Annihilation, but how can you or others express stuff about the environment more directly?” So that just goes into the back of my mind and then your subconscious comes up with an idea that’s not didactic but does fulfill that requirement, so sometimes it’s direct input like that.
Juan: Yeah, and it’s good for authors and artist to sometimes respond to and take into account what certain critics note. Obviously not always because some are terrible though [laugh].
Jeff: Well, what I think I do is I internalize everything and just consider it. And then a lot of it just goes away [laughs] because it’s almost like, with writing workshops, I found eventually I had to not bring stuff in for critique because, at the end of the day, it’s not useful to have like 20 voices in your head. You have to choose the direction and, at some point, you can’t really write by committee.
Juan: And speaking about ecological things, I feel like a lot of your fascination with that seems like it’s borne out of like, sort of, Floridian culture and these tropic landscapes where we’re sort of encountering new signs of life and climate change and edging a little closer to drowning on a daily basis.
Jeff: It’s not just North Florida, where I live. We have relatives down in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and just last year before travel became kind of an issue [laughs], we were sitting down in Coconut Grove and one of our relatives, who is well aware of climate change, was talking about how they’re putting in more condos. And, at the same time, people are complaining and mystified by the flooding that’s going on! [laughs] And it’s not funny, but it does speak to the absurdism of it all [and my wife wants to be clear that they have nothing to do with the condos being put in]. But yeah, it’s here! And yet people are still responding to it being there, like I wish it was actually like an infestation of like a million rabid raccoons or something that you could see. People would take it seriously if they were being flooded by, I don’t know, zombie wombats, and it would make more of an impression, which is sad to say. So sorry that’s kind of a tangent.
Juan: Oh trust me, if I could complain about Miami’s structuring every day, I would [laughs]. So Jonathan Lambshead is Floridian; did you ever treat him as something of a self-insert?
Jeff: Well, basically I grew up in Fiji, which is a British Commonwealth country, and at the age of nine came back to Ithaca for two years which was horrifying. Then we moved to Gainsville, Florida, specifically to be in the kind of semi-tropical kind of feel. But the upshot of that is simply that I had a British accent for a while coming back into the States and it was very confusing for me culturally in a lot of different ways. So I channeled a lot of that for Jonathan and I was really happy that no one called me out on the fact that he’s using Americanisms and Britishisms because that’s really how I was as a kid. I failed so many spelling tests [laughs], you wouldn’t believe, because of the Britishisms. And I was also very much a nature loving kid who, in a sense, was very anchored in a way Jonathan wasn’t, because I knew I wanted to write. So I didn’t really go through a lot of angst at least about what I wanted to do. He’s very different from me in some ways, but, you know, every character has to have, I think, something a little autobiographical or something personal that you can kind of use along with your imagination.
Juan: You get to reflect on your good and bad features through characters who are vastly different.
Jeff: Right, yeah, absolutely.
Juan: A lot of your work jumps between these parameters of just like one novel or a novella or short stories that exist within the same universe. I’m curious: do you ever feel like you’re finished with any particular realm you’ve created or that you can continue to adapt and expand within that?
Jeff: Well, it just depends. Sometimes you’re done, like I know that with Dead Astronauts, I’m done with the Borne universe [which also includes The Strange Bird] and that’s pretty definitive. With Hummingbird Salamander, I know it’s a stand-alone novel, but oddly enough, the next novel I’m working on, Drone Love, extends thematically some of the things in it, so I feel like they’re companion pieces even though they’re not actually related with characters. With A Peculiar Peril [which itself is two novels in one tome], I see basically another huge volume of two concluding novels. And what I want to emphasize, and will when the second book comes out, is that I feel like there’s a lot more to the universe. So if it’s useful for people to write fan fiction or extend it, I think that’s a good thing. And I’ve deliberately left some parts of Aurora alone so that people can kind of fill it in. But it’s definitely just those two volumes and that’s it.
I do have one last Southern Reach book that I’m slowly working on because I finally had an idea that I thought was kind of beautiful and moving. It’s not like, “Hey, so this book did well, let’s do another one.” So Absolution is a book I’m working on trying to get right and working on slowly, not under contract or anything like that, so maybe in a couple of years.
Juan: I mean, that’s very exciting. Annihilation is one of those things I get into arguments with folks about because I love the Southern Reach books so much and they’ve only watched the movie.
Jeff: I was really quite heartened and flattered by the fact that usually when people see the movie and then, when the book is so different they’re not like “I hate this book” but they’re like “how cool, the book is different, so it’s not like I’m retreading the same thing.” So I kind of lucked out with that and got a lot of new readers who really liked it.
Juan: And I think there’s something really fascinating about your writing, with Southern Reach as much as A Peculiar Peril, about the power of horror lying in the way your descriptions sort of defy depiction to some capacity. There’s a lot of imagery that I can’t imagine being depicted on a visual level, like just the concept of something like the Burrower and its millions of earthworms or the Crawler.
Jeff: I actually think, and I’m not talking necessarily about individual images, but a lot of people said Annihilation wasn’t filmable, and it’s like, actually, if you look at the actions of what the team is doing and just followed that, you would have a movie. A lot of people talk about the surreal aspect of the images, but the fact of the matter is, if you actually look at them closely, you know, I’m really a big believer of what the surrealist painters would do which is that maybe the total picture you’re looking at would be completely surreal and dreamlike, but the individual paint strokes have a certain amount of realism to them. So, actually, I feel like to get to those surreal and absurd places, I often have to be very precise in my details to make it believable. I think with A Peculiar Peril, the challenge with adaptation is to pare down some of the imagery and focus on those things that have the most power, interest, or humor, and basically select from the abundance of stuff and pare it down.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]