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An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

1/04/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

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Conducted by: Patrick Mahon. Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning American writer of speculative fiction. His last novel, ‘Finch’, set in the fungus-infested fantastical city of Ambergris, was shortlisted for a Nebula Award in 2010. ‘Booklife’ provides writers with advice on how to survive and flourish in the brave new world of twenty-first century publishing, whilst finding a balance between on-line public persona and private creativity.

He has just released ‘Monstrous Creatures’, a collection of commentary, reviews and essays on monsters and related subjects. Jeff lives in Tallahassee, Florida with his wife Ann, the editor-in-chief of ‘Weird Tales’. His blog, ‘Ecstatic Days’, is at www.jeffvandermeer.com.

SFCrowsnest: What made you become a writer?

Jeff VanderMeer: I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t actually remember a time when I didn’t write. But here’s an attempt at a more comprehensive answer...My parents used to read to us when my sister and I were very young, books like a child’s version of William Blake that included ‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright’. Also Beatrix Potter. We grew up in the Fiji Islands because my parents were in the Peace Corps and the first ‘books’ I remember reading myself included the Tintin comics, the Asterix comics and a series of Indian comics based on classics like the Ramayana.



Roughly around this time I began writing my own poetry and short fables, probably at seven or so. Around age nine, my parents bought me ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ trilogy and although I couldn’t understand everything in the books, I read them all the way through. Perhaps the books being mysterious and not entirely comprehensible was a good thing. It made me want to fill in the gaps and that made me want to write even more. By age 14, I had had my work published in magazines and by 18, I had my first professional sale. From there, it was just a case of following up on my passion and seeing where it might lead. I never really thought about it being a career and fully expected that at some point I’d reach the ceiling of my talent and my luck.

SFC: Who or what would you cite as major influences on your writing?



JVM: I always go back to Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore and Vladimir Nabokov, but there are lots of others, almost too many to name. Sometimes it’s very specific influence. A single book by Deborah Levy, ‘Beautiful Mutants’, has stuck with me for years. The bittersweet and absurdism of Irving’s ‘Hotel New Hampshire’ and ‘The World According To Garp’ definitely influenced me. Patricia McKillip’s ‘Riddlemaster Of Hed’ trilogy for it’s kind of seemingly fragile intricacy — the kind of books that are like slender metal that looks like you could break it in half but is actually strong as steel or diamond. Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ and ‘Poor Things’ were revelations when I first discovered them, as was Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’. Same with Murakami, early Salman Rushdie. In 1995, when I read Stepan Chapman’s ‘The Troika’, I felt like my brain had exploded and I discovered the way into many types of storytelling that had not been open to me before....but I could go on and on and the answers would change depending on what floated up out of memory.

SFC: Your writing career involves a lot of diverse activities (writing novels, short stories, non-fiction, editing anthologies, blogging, consultancy, etc). How do you balance them against each other and against the rest of your life?

JVM: I always saw being a writer as being someone whose core activity was writing fiction as the most personal but who also wrote non-fiction and all of those other things you mention. It never occurred to me that it might be unusual to do so many types of things within the basic description of ‘writer’ or ‘editor’. So even back in the 1980s, when I started my own poetry magazine, I was organizing literary events in the community in Gainesville, Florida, writing articles for the Gainesville Sun, publishing in the college literary magazine, etc. Although the sensibility has come easy to me, though, I’ve worked very hard to develop the different muscles you need for different types of writing.

In terms of how I balance them, they frequently get out of balance, but since I get very irritable if I am too long away from fiction, I do tend to go back to the fiction as a way of regaining balance. The main problem for me is that when I do something I want to do it all the way. I’m all-in on every project and as the stakes of these projects have gone up —bigger publishers, larger print-runs, more people involved — it has progressively exhausted me more and more. So it’s not so much a sense of balance that’s now required, it’s a sense of when to give myself permission to take a real break from *all* of it. It’s tough, though, because I’m a firm believer in using what leverage you have and so my tendency is to use whatever I have in doing new projects and taking up new advocacy.

As for the rest of my life, it’s mostly my relationship with my wife and a few close friends, and I try to make as much space as possible. It’s great that Ann and I edit anthologies together and she edits ‘Weird Tales’, because it means we can remain close even while working hard.
 
SFC: Do you find that your relationship with your fanbase has helped your writing or does the need to live up to the expectations of your fans create any difficulties for you?

JVM: After ‘City Of Saints & Madmen’ was picked up by Pan Macmillan and Bantam Books, after being out from an indie press, I had a period of adjustment in that suddenly I had a lot more readers and many of them were telling me what they thought of my fiction, mostly positive. But that’s a weird thing because you work in a relative vacuum for fifteen years with some nice reactions from individuals but not a tidal wave and then suddenly there’s a sea of voices around you. It’s overall a good thing, but I did have to basically put in ear plugs. As with many things, Michael Moorcock was wonderful in helping me through that.

SFC: Could you expand a little on your relationship with Michael Moorcock and explain how he has helped you?

JVM: I’d read his work for ages, of course, but in the early aughts, the original publisher of ‘City Of Saints & Madmen’, who folded before publishing the book, approached Mike about writing an introduction. Mike was kind enough to do so and that helped when finding another publisher. He also put me in touch with my agent, Howard Morhaim and, as importantly, introduced me to John Coulthart, the amazing Manchester-based artist and designer who has designed many of our books since then, including ‘The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases’. In addition to that, he and his wife Linda were unfailingly kind to me and to Ann from then on. I cannot think of a finer example of someone paying it forward or someone who is more kind-hearted or generous and also so amazingly talented.

SFC: In the afterword to your latest short story collection, ‘The Third Bear’, you stated that you weren’t going to try and explain your thinking or writing process, unlike in your previous collection where you had. Why the change of mind between the two collections?

JVM: The first collection, ‘Secret Life’, included stories written as far back as when I was sixteen — it was more of an omnibus of the best from the late 1980s through 2003 and, as such, it was baggy. So I thought I’d be incredibly revealing in the author notes on each story, including what I thought were the shortcomings of some of the stories and giving insight into process. I thought it would be of use to beginning writers. What I didn’t realize is some reviewers would turn my honesty against me and not realize the context in which I was being forthright. So, that was one aspect. But ‘Third Bear’ is also meant as a focused, streamlined, only-the-best type collection. It’s not meant to be an omnibus. So in that context, explanation seemed to add something that was not welcome, and since most of the stories are *about* the fact there are things we will never be able to understand...it would’ve been ironic to then explain. Finally, I’d become very weary of collection with notes, intro, afterword and all of that. I just wanted the stories to come without any contextualization or preamble or back-story. Just a very classic approach. If you think of it in terms of clothing, I wanted ‘Third Bear’ to be your classic tuxedo — its own explanation.

SFC: The ‘Third Bear Festival’ [available as a free eBook via www.jeffvandermeer.com/2010/12/21/third-bear-carnival-e-bear-at-wireds-geekdad/] is a collection of responses by other writers and readers to ‘The Third Bear’. Many of these responses share a sense of intellectual excitement at your writing. Is that the kind of response you are ideally looking for from your readers or are you equally happy if readers simply value a good story well told?

JVM: I don’t believe art and entertainment should be considered at odds with one another and I’ve known from early on that one person’s sense of play is another person’s sense of work. So it really depends on what you mean by ‘intellectual excitement’. A good story, a good novel, should hopefully be both hot and cold. It should evoke emotion but also be alive at the level of idea. So I’m happy with any honest reading of my fiction and happy with any kind of enjoyment readers gets out of the stories. Perhaps the one thing that gets overlooked, though, is that even my dark stories have a subtle undercurrent of humour in them...I liked the carnival because one area in which there’s been less activity than I would hope for is critical assessment of my work and the placing of it in a wider context with other works. Reviews rarely do that and I’m currently a blind spot to a certain group of critics simply because I change from book to book and, quite frankly, I take the piss out of literary critics in my fiction every chance I get.

SFC: Several of your books and short stories have been set in the imaginary city of Ambergris, a place beset by fungal beings. Can you explain where the inspiration for Ambergris and its strange inhabitants came from?

JVM: I wrote a proto-Ambergris story at the Clarion workshop in 1992 called ‘Learning To Leave The Flesh’ and then told my brain, ‘I’d like something in a similar setting but more defined and with more happening.’ Six months later, I woke from a dream in the middle of the night and the city and the gray caps were in my brain, fully formed. I sat down at the computer and wrote the first five thousand words of ‘Dradin, In Love’, the first story in ‘City Of Saints & Madmen’. From there it was just a process of fleshing everything out and thinking about the place for the next fifteen years. I do think the initial inspiration was sparked subconsciously by my fascination with mushrooms and with certain Decadent-era writers.

SFC: On your website you refer to your last novel, ‘Finch’, as the final novel in the Ambergris cycle. Does this mean you definitely won’t be returning to the fabled city again?

JVM: It means for the next several years I have other stories I want to write and that the Ambergris stuff has always come to me very organically, so the idea of trying to push my way into another Ambergris story is kind of nausea-inducing. It probably will happen, but only after I write at least three novels: ‘Borne’ (about two monsters in a ruined city) and a two-part novel titled ‘Komodo’ (about angels, komodo dragons, lunar moths, and transdimensional portals).

SFC: In the afterword to your first novel, ‘Veniss Underground’, you explain that on a trip to England, a visit to York Minster and its gothic architecture provided you with the setting for a critical part of the story and allowed you to overcome writer’s block. What part does visual imagery generally play in your writing process?

JVM: Images are ‘charged’ in my imagination. Most images do not come to me without their being alive — either psychologically connected to a character or in some way symbolic. So when I say an image sparks a story, it’s not just some visual description — it’s an image that has a three-dimensional aspect to it. It’s resonant. Some have misinterpreted this to mean I don’t care about character, which isn’t true. The image is always hardwired into some character’s psyche and situation.

SFC: Do you enjoy coming over to the UK? If so, what do you like most?

JVM: My wife and I both love a lot of UK writers, living and dead, and we just love idiosyncratic large cities, like London, along with different types of countryside. It’s hard to say what exactly we love, but we have a lot of friends over there, for one thing, and that makes a difference. We were briefly in London around the end of November for a conference and even while we were freezing our asses off we were still enjoying the city.
 
SFC: Your non-fiction book about writing, ‘Booklife’, sets out your advice on how to be a writer in the 21st century. Do you see today’s writing life as more difficult than it used to be or just different?

JVM: Writers have more possibilities for control than ever before, but that also necessitates more work. Especially with the rise of e-books. I do feel as if I’m more suited than most for this transition in that I’m used to being intimately involved in all aspects of a book’s lifecycle already. But it does mean more work and less time writing, so for many writers they’re still going to want to find intermediaries to do some of this work for them. And you can never value enough a good editor. The thing I find funniest about e-books is that all of these authors are willy-nilly trying to get all of their stuff on-line for sale on Amazon or B&N and they’re not thinking about branding, they’re not thinking about what advantage or non-advantage they’re going to have in the marketplace and they’re not thinking about the fact that even though ‘distribution’ per se is not an issue any more, some e-book companies may have tactical advantages in the marketplace.
 
Personally, I’m dipping my toe in the waters in a few ways before committing to any one way. First off, some of my e-rights are owned by major publishers, who already have made electronic versions available. Secondly, I’m launching an e-book line under my new imprint Cheeky Frawg, which will be mostly my own work from small press and limited editions, along with what I’d call maxi-singles — short stories as separate e-books with bonus selections (b-sides and demos) — and then also granting limited e-book releases on some of my other work to other companies to see what they do with them.

SFC: In ‘Booklife’ and on your blog, you have referred to several creative collaborations you have undertaken with artists from other disciplines. For example, when you produced an Internet movie to accompany the launch of your novel, ‘Shriek: An Afterword’, rock band ‘The Church’, of whom you are a fan, wrote the soundtrack. What do you value most in these collaborations and how do they challenge you?

JVM: Just to take the most recent example: ‘Murder By Death’s soundtrack for my novel ‘Finch’. They changed their usual process to create the CD, which in turn impacts their own work going forward. In having to describe the work to them and hearing their music, it’s changed my view of some of the scenes to the point where in a couple of cases I want the mood of the scene to better match the mood of their music and if I have a chance to do a revised edition there will be two scenes that take their pacing, their beats, from the music they did.

SFC: ‘Booklife’ includes an appendix detailing how you wrote your novel ‘Predator: South China Sea’, an original story set in the universe of the ‘Predator’ movies, in just two months, to meet some very challenging deadlines. For an author generally known for writing highly original literary fantasy, a tie-in novel might seem an unusual departure. Can you tell us what led you to taking on this project and are you glad you did it?

JVM: I really like the ‘Predator’ movies, the first two, anyway. And I like Dark Horse, the publisher. I also knew I was going to be writing ‘Finch’, a hardboiled noir fantasy and that the style I’d use there would be more direct — in fact, more like the third part of ‘Veniss’ — than my previous two books. So ‘Predator’ was a great opportunity to have some fun in a universe I found interesting while also experimenting with how I cut and edited scenes for an action-adventure book...good prep for doing the same in parts of ‘Finch’. Along the way, I found something interesting: I was able to be myself in the ‘Predator’ novel. It actually features a fungal disease the predator brings with it, for example. So that was an interesting experiment that was also great fun for the reader. And, finally, as a corrective, since I really feel the attempts to jumpstart the ‘Predator’ franchise in film has been pretty piss-poor. So I wrote a ‘Predator’ novel as if I were doing the ultimate ‘Predator’ movie I’d like to see, as directed by Sam Peckinpah. I’m also possibly going to do something in the ‘Aliens’ universe. But I can’t imagine any other franchises I’d be interested in doing anything with — although I did co-write a ‘Halo’ novella with Tessa Kum, for a TOR antho called ‘Halo Evolutions’, which was a lot of fun, and is being made into an eleven-episode motion comic by the ‘Halo’ folks.

SFC: Apart from the ‘Predator’ and ‘Alien’ movies, what other kinds of films do you like? Have any particular films influenced your writing?

JVM: ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Brazil’, movies like that, I suppose. ‘Delicatessen’, ‘City Of Lost Children Totoro’, ‘Princess Mononoke’, although I also love a lot of the movies of Mike Leigh. ‘Another Year’ is just brilliant. My taste in cinema runs the gamut from baroque to minimalistic. The 70s ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ influenced my ‘Veniss Underground’ cycle — the flesh dogs came about because of a scene in that movie that had a dog with a human face in it. More generally, I find movies like ‘Don’t Look Now’ interesting from an editing standpoint and tend to study mise-en-scene in films and think of how that would translate to fiction. Another specific example—in the ‘Predator’ novel I wrote there’s a single combat scene heavily influenced by a battle scene in an Orson Welles movie. In that film, two armies of knights converge and you see it from afar, from overhead, until by the end you’re in the mire with the fighting men and you can only distinguish a sword arm or an eye or an anguished face. Then they’re all dead and the camera pulls back again. It’s highly effective and it worked well for the ‘Predator’ scene.

SFC: Do you watch much television, whether genre or non-genre? Has this influenced your writing?
 
JVM: My wife and I tend to watch series on DVD. Some of our relatively recent favourites are ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Carlos’, ‘Deadwood’, ‘Dexter’, ‘Episodes’, ‘The Wire’, and ‘Being Human’ (the UK version). We don’t really differentiate between genres in our watching, any more than we do with the books we read. Watching excellent series/mini-series is incredibly useful in thinking about structure and the interplay between characters. One thing I thought brilliant about ‘Being Human’s first season, besides packing in so much into each episode, was the use of the somewhat evil vampire girl created by one of the main characters. Any time the writers needed further conflict, up she would pop. It’s hard to do that without it seeming manipulative, but it was a good lesson on deployment of free-rovers.

SFC: Is there anything about your career that you would do differently if you had the chance?

JVM: My career has mostly been a story of continual improvement on an upward curve and I’m quite happy with that. I put in the years in the hinterlands to toughen me up, I’ve experienced almost every situation you can in publishing from just about every angle, I’m able to do some great projects with high-profile publishers. And I’ve never once compromised my vision in doing so. Ann was just telling me about how she remembered me walking away from a publishing contract back in the 1990s that would’ve been my first big break, because it would’ve meant more or less betraying aspects of myself and my writing. I’d forgotten about that, but even though it can be the harder path, it’s always the best way.

SFC: What advice would you give to unpublished, aspiring genre writers?

JVM: You’ll encounter more than the usual bullshit out there about all manner of subjects these days, especially because of the stampede over e-books. But what you need to concentrate on is honing your craft and making your work as good as it can be before you step out into the public view. Patience is your ally — e-books will still be there in five years. If you’re unpublished, it’s still best to work your way up through the ranks before doing something like...self-publish an e-book. You need to feedback and the experience. So mostly don’t rush into anything. Work on your unique vision. Don’t let anyone tell you to write like someone else.

SFC: Thank you very much.

(c) Jeff VanderMeer and SFCrowsnest 2011
all rights reserved

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