The OF Blog: Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff agreed to do an interview for us, and in a really short time the interview was done. I will use this occasion and thank him openly for accepting this interview, but much more than that for a very friendly and pleasant conversation. It was a pure pleasure working with him.

Veniss Underground:

Q: One of the blurbs on the back of the Prime paperback edition of Veniss had a reference to the tale being a retelling of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth. After reading the book, I have to agree with it. Did you set out to retell that myth as part of your story, or did it just develop during the course of the writing?

I wanted to use the Orpheus myth as a general compass for the last part of the novel. To give me a little focus, and because myth is such an integral part of the story anyway--in terms of mythic resonance and in terms of the creatures that the bioneer Quinn creates. So what I did was read and re-read various versions of the myth so it was firmly embedded in my brain and then only start writing after it was no longer in the forefront of my thoughts. That way, it came out kind of naturally without being a rigid structure imposed on my novel.

Q: Veniss is one of the very few works that I've read that utilizes second-person voice. Was this something you planned from the beginning, or did it develop over time and many drafts?

I tried to write from Nicola's point of view in third person and in first person, and I couldn't make the character come alive. More important, I couldn't get the plot moving. So that section of the novel I considered placeholder text while I worked on the third section with Shadrach. At some point, I realized how Nicola's point of view fit into the story and into Shadrach's section, and at that point I also realized that second person made the only sense for her perspective. Once I went back and started writing her POV from second person, her character came alive and so did the book. I rarely use second person because readers react to it in such diverse ways, but I do think it's a legitimate method of getting into a character's head and to also get into a certain dreamlike tone of writing that can be the best way to tell certain stories.

Q: What were the origins of Veniss and how different did the final version of the story become from what you envisioned when you began work on it in the 1990s?

Veniss started out as a short story about a man who wants to buy a genetically modified meerkat. That fragment of story I left alone for a few years while I developed other stories set in the Veniss universe. Finally, I went back to the story fragment and realized I had a novel about the limits and cruelty of selfless love, among other things.

Q: Veniss is close to how I imagined Hell. But I am curious about this one: how would citizens of Veniss imagine Hell?

That's a very interesting question. I think the citizens of Veniss do live in Hell, in a very real sense. That they don't think of it specifically as Hell doesn't make it any less so. I would imagine the people living aboveground have less of a sense of the Hellishness of their existence, because they're used to it. This makes me think of whether we would know if we were literally in Hell? Some real cities are as close to Hell as you can get on Earth. Some days, you can open the newspaper and it very much feels like Hell or purgatory. But, honestly, what if Earth were some kind of massive madhouse purgatory? One could make a compelling case for it, I suppose. Although I'm not much of one to believe in an afterlife or an afterworld.

City of Saints and Madmen:

Q: You have stated that this book is really a mosaic novel. For someone who is unfamiliar with your work, how would you explain the connections between each of the stories found within?

Major characters in one story pop up as minor characters in another. The city of Ambergris itself is a major character binding the stories together--the history of the city. Then there is the interference of the author himself, who in some sense becomes trapped in the city, whether you want to take that literally or figuratively. Several of the stories also require the context of previous stories in the book to make full sense to a reader.

Q: How did your experiences living abroad during much of your childhood affect your writing, not so much as in regard to settings and descriptions, but on how your characters relate to the places around them? How much of the author's general experiences can be found within the experiences that the characters have as they live and interact with the city of Ambergris?

There are two general ways in which my characters relate to their surroundings: with suspicion and with nonchalance. Or feigned nonchalance. Very few of them react with wonder, but there is another character who does react with wonder: the reader. The reader has the pleasant position of being outside of the action and therefore not subject to it. So the terrible horrific beauty of much of Ambergris engenders suspicion (or fear) or, due to sheer familiarity, indifference in Ambergris' inhabitants. But, again, the reader has distance and can fear for the characters or register their ennui--but at the same time can enjoy the utter strange terrible exotic quality of the setting. And yet, that's the irony for me, because many of the oddest things that happen in City of Saints are taken from our own history or from things that happened to me personally while living abroad. If you truly see the world we live in, then you have to acknowledge that beautiful and horrible things happen all around us, moment to moment, even if hidden within the most seemingly mundane of settings or events. Too many of us are too deeply enmeshed in the societies in which we live to see this clearly, however. So on some level, when readers respond to some of the odd stuff in Ambergris by sensing a resonance or echo of the real world, they're acknowledging that it's not as outlandish as it might at first seem.

Q: The upcoming US release of Shriek: An Afterword is related to one of the stories found within City of Saints and Madmen. Would a different perspective be gained if Shriek were to be read before City, or would it be best just to read the novella within City first?

Shriek is a stand-alone novel, but additional frissons of recognition and interconnectivity will result from reading City of Saints first. They are very different books and they open up the reader's mind in very different ways. So, in a sense, it also depends on what you like. How you like to have your reality tinkered with. I intend the Ambergris Cycle to consist of City of Saints, Shriek: An Afterword, and the forthcoming novels The Zamilon File and Fragments from a Drowned City. The effect once I've finished the cycle in reading them from beginning to end will be simply a duplication on a larger scale of the effect of reading City of Saints--the pieces do stand alone, but when they lock into position in the reader's mind, there is a synergy and epiphany and resonance that is far greater than the weight and significance of the individual books.

General Questions:

Q: The life of a writer often is a very poor one in financial terms. What sorts of jobs and interesting experiences have you had during your writing career and which experiences would you say have influenced you most as a writer?

I've worked as an assistant manager at a remaindered bookstore, as an editor and notes taker for a publisher of accounting and airplane training manuals, as a proofreader and editor for company that compiles city codes of ordinance in book form, and, most recently, as an editor and writer for a website that provides practice English passages for students who have to take state standardized tests. They've all had intensely odd moments. And until last year, I never made as much from my writing as from my day job, so I agree with your statement entirely.

I'd say that these experiences influenced me most as writer in the most prosaic of ways--they've provided some form of financial stability so in my off hours I could focus on my writing. I cannot write without a stable home environment, so this is essential. And one reason why I do not plan to ever quit some form of day job. I need that anchor, because even large publishing houses can be late with a check, and I also have no wish to be told what to write by my publisher. Which is the kind of control you may have to give up if you don't have some other source of income.

In thinking back over my various job experiences, the overriding feeling is one of the absurdity of it all. At the bookstore, someone once taped condoms into the backs of all of the young adult romance novels. I once led a midget to the juvenile fiction section. Our manager was nuts and would have us rearrange the fiction section by color patterns rather than by author, for example. Or, working for the airplane manual publisher, I would spend a week trying to get hold of Michael Jackson and see if he would be willing to do public service announcements touting small aircraft use. Or, working for the city code company, I would get calls like one from a man in a large city who wanted me to change the existing ordinances so he could make handguns in his basement. "Are you the city attorney?" I asked. "No," he said, "I just need to make handguns in my basement." At my current job, I was once hauled in to the sheriff's office for sending my former employer a message pellet that was mistaken for a bomb. That was fun. So, all of this just reinforced my sense of the absurd. I find it very difficult to take systems--political, religious, social--very seriously. I take individuals very seriously indeed. But not systems.

Q: You have been lumped together in some reviews as being part of the New Weird, but yet in interviews, you have eschewed that term. For the general reader curious to know what type of fiction you write, how would you characterize your style in a few sentences?

Fiction isn't about naming but about avoiding being named. If a piece of fiction can be neatly and accurately labeled, then either the labeler is missing something or the fiction itself is in some way lacking. And yet we are obsessed with labeling, with naming. We label to sell fiction. We label to promote our own academic careers. We label because we want to stir up controversy. But all these labels obscure what is true about a great work of fiction: that it is organic, it is not one thing. It is a fish swimming through a reef, not a fish gutted on a dock.

My style is intensely visual, but with the visual not a stand-in for characterization or for plot. My style comes out of the sense that images have resonance, and that image can be a catalyst for action or character, but it's also flexible because each story requires some variation of a style to be effective. People have called my style "baroque" or "lush", but within this particular sub-spectrum of style there are many different ways to tell a story. And more of my recent fiction has had a more stripped-down style. So it's somewhere between Mervyn Peake and Martin Amis, probably. I'm not as stylized as Angela Carter, although I love her work.

Q: You are currently part of the panel of judges that will choose the winning selections for the 2006 World Fantasy Awards. What are the general criteria for the books being reviewed and how many submissions have you had to browse through?

I appreciate the delicacy of the question! The general criteria is quality fantasy first published in 2005, in novel, short fiction, novella, anthology, artist, and other categories. It's up to each judging panel to define "fantasy" and its boundaries. So far, I would guess that we've gotten about 400 books, but I expect we'll get another 400 or so before we finish the process.

Q: If you were pressed to name five authors that influenced you (not necessarily in your writing style), which authors would you choose? Also, which authors would you point out to readers as being ones that might deserve consideration from readers here?

Edward Whittemore, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis, Mervyn Peake. But that list changes all the time. There are too many influences. If you're a savvy writer, you need to collect as many influences as possible. But if I have to take the work of five authors to a deserted island with me today, it would be those five. Tomorrow it might be Michael Moorcock and four others. Just depends. Whittemore is especially obscure and deserves to be read.

Q: If your books were mistakenly shelved in the self help section of a book store, what help would be derived from your books? Would this help actually be helpful, or are injuries likely?

I think my books would put the problems of the person looking for self-help in perspective. After reading my books and the problems of the characters within them, they would say, "Huh. Well, okay, so maybe I won't put my head in an oven. These people overcame far worse problems than the ones I face." Or the general dislocation of reality might be too much and it might plunge some of them into an everlasting madness so profound and utter that they would achieve a kind of happiness simply by having been so completely embedded in an elsewhen/otherwhere that the real world would fade away, revealed as a false prison. Or they might get about a page in and say, "This is crap." You never can tell with readers, even unintentional ones.

Q: The last question is the traditional question of the OF: If you owned monkeys, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I do own a monkey. His name is Evil Monkey and his girlfriend is Ape-Gone-Wild. Although "own" is probably too strong a word--I have a monkey named Evil Monkey, let's just say. And he's prone to collecting the heads of writers he doesn't like, but then returning them in a fit of guilt.

But if I did actually *own* monkeys, they would be woolley monkeys and there would be four of them, and they would take great delight in trashing our house while we were gone. They would climb up the chimney and drop out of it in great chuffing snuffles of black dust. They would terrorize the cats and try to take the car out for a spin. They'd converse with the mailman and chase away Jehovah's Witnesses. They'd get into the liquor cabinet and, drunk, repaint the walls a nice banana color. In the evenings, they'd curl up on the couch and watch the Simpsons while drinking banana dacquiris. In all ways, they would live contented and full and unselfconscious lives while in the little office in the back, I would be typing away, the music up loud, trying to drown out the wonderful din and play of their monkey business.

Thank you again for your time, Jeff. I hope you liked the questions and wish you the best of luck with your work.

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