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Exclusive: Interview with Jeff VanderMeer


A Triumph of the Bizarre
... and the Rise of Squidpunk


Jeff VanderMeer's fiction, for my money, is the best value in modern fantasy; his every book is packed with delectable and wicked delights, loads of lush and ominous scenery, taut (bordering on poetic) writing and deep, dark currents of thought - an intense recipe that is sure to invigorate the whole genre of modern fantastic fiction. He has won two World Fantasy Awards, has been a finalist for the Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, Philip K. Dick Award, and as you will see below, currently displays no signs of slowing down.


(art by Scott Eagle, design Oivas)

A good introduction to his fiction would be "City of Saints and Madmen", a soaring and slightly mad compilation of stories, a work of epic surrealism (think J. G. Ballard and China Mieville), some old-school weirdness (think Clark Ashton Smith & H. P. Lovecraft), and oodles of the new hip variations (cyberpunk, steampunk, squidpunk, etc.).

It's pretty impossible to pin him down to one literary sub-genre, or to predict what he's going to do next, so we asked him some questions and he kindly agreed to shed some light on his creative process.

Jeff VanderMeer
(interviewed by Avi Abrams, SciFi.Dark Roasted Blend)



Avi:
First some genre definitions for our readers: what is it you write - is this fantasy? is this fantasy on drugs? is this Dostoevsky on drugs? Is this poetry in prose form?


Jeff:
Fantasy on drugs is surrealism or "visionary fiction". I go back and forth between terminology, because one person's fantasy is another person's dreck. One person's magic realism is another person's blech. Depending on who you're talking to and the context, you find that words mean very different things. But, really, what it is and should be is idiosyncratic, original, unique imaginative fiction.

When I write, I never sit down to write a "fantasy" story or a "mainstream literary" story--whatever comes out comes out, in the way that works best for the tale being told and the characters in the story. But, yes, it's definitely more on the surreal end of the spectrum most of the time. And somewhat difficult to define, which is okay by me.


(image credit: Jacek Yerka)


(image credit: Vladimir Kush/)

Avi:
What is your favorite Jeff Vandermeer's story?


Jeff:
That's tough. Different stories mean different things to me. Probably "Bone Carver's Tale", which I wrote back in 1992 while broke and jobless, and it got a lot of attention, and it meant a lot to me personally. More recent stories, like "The Third Bear" mean a lot because I'm trying different things with them. "The Situation", coming out from PS Publishing, is another step in that direction, of pushing myself. It's kind of like Dilbert-meets-Gormenghast, and I like the idea that something can combine such disparate ideas.

"The Situation"'s front cover, by Scott Eagle:



the back cover:


(art by Scott Eagle)

"The idea here is that the front of the book is like the exterior of the story–calm with hints of strangeness, and then as the story progresses, you pull away that exterior and see the true madness beneath. Kind of like corporate America…"

Avi:
"The Situation"? Please elaborate... I seem to remember J.G.Ballard wrote once about the infinite progression of office cubicles. Corporate culture meets weird fantasy? Sounds great!


Jeff:
Honestly? I had a horrible working environment the last year of my employment at my office job (I'd worked there 8 years). One night I woke up with a vision of a much stranger office building, took my day job, and completely fictionalized it. The thing is, reality is a lot stranger than any fiction sometimes. And in this case, people will read this surreal book and say "wow, Jeff has some imagination." And yet the oddest things are actually to some extent true in that book. Kevin Brockmeier gave us this quote for the book:

"In 'The Situation,' Jeff VanderMeer has created a work of surreal humor, bemused sadness, and meticulous artifice. It is as if the workplace novels of Sinclair Lewis and Joshua Ferris had been inverted, shaken, and diced until they came out looking like a Terry Gilliam creation. That a story which curves so resolutely inward toward its own logic could also be so poignant is something of an astonishment."


(art by Hawk Alfredson)

My latest novel, "Shriek", is also out in trade paper from Tor and will be out in a limited edition with art by Ben Templesmith next year.

Avi:
I have not had a chance to bite into "Shriek" yet... maybe a little blurb for our readers.


Jeff:
It's more or less a family chronicle, with a war thrown in. Maybe this'll help:

"There came a force so beguiling that even a cold-minded scholar must surrender to it. There came a war so strange that bullets became delicacies. There came a night so terrible no one could name it. And one man's obsession may hold the key to the survival of a city... An epic yet personal look at several decades of life, love, war, and death in the famed city of Ambergris, the Afterword relates the scandalous, heartbreaking, and horrifying secret history of two squabbling siblings and their confidantes, protectors, and enemies."



Also, am co-editing, with my wife, both a Steampunk and New Weird anthologies for Tachyon. The genres are somewhat related — Steampunk is like New Weird’s escapist cousin.

Avi:
Please define "New Weird" for our readers, how's it different from old weird and just plain weird, or simply urban fantasy - is there some kind of "new wave" of weird happening right now?


Jeff:
Actually, I think New Weird has kind of gone back into the margins and is mostly practiced in the short story form again, for now at least. Except for myself and China Mieville, I don't see anyone doing that kind of thing at the moment. I'm sure that'll change again at some point. Our working definition is this one, which emphasizes that New Weird, unlike old weird, was influenced by the New Wave, and that New Weird also has a healthy horror component that you don't really find as much in straight-on urban fantasy:

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models. It creates settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects - in combination with the stimulus of influence from New Wave writers or their proxies (including also such forebears as Mervyn Peake and the French/English Decadents).

New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political. As part of this awareness of the modern world, New Weird relies for its visionary power on a "surrender to the weird" that isn't, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica. The "surrender" (or "belief") of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.



Avi:
Your writing seems to be inspired by European Old World, rather than New World? What is your preferred culture/country to live in?


Jeff:
I do love a lot of English and Russian writers in particular... If my wife Ann and I had our druthers, it'd be Tallahassee, where we live now, British Columbia, or Cairns, Australia. We feel quite at home in all three places. What I do not like about living in the United States now is that we've gone from being essentially a culture of hope and opportunity to a culture of fear and an over-reliance on material objects. I think we're just drowning in self-absorption and cowardice and a lack of individual responsibility, and I hate that. I hate that the potential of the US right now is just potential, and that too many people who live here are sleep-walking or have their heads in the sand or just plain are so in love with themselves and their iPods and their whatevers that they fail to think enough or feel enough about what it means to be alive, and the responsibility that entails.


(artwork copyright: Francois Baranger)

Avi:
Your fiction seems to "bite back", do you intentionally strive to shock the reader?


Jeff:
Not really, but I am of the school of thought that fiction should engage and challenge the reader's base assumptions. I think a really good writer doesn't show you your reflection in the mirror--a really good writer puts you in an alien place with strange people and either makes them familiar, makes you realize they're no different than you, or blows the back of your skull away by not allowing you to escape someone else's reality.



Avi:
Are you building a "fantasy history" of sorts, and will you ever open it up to be a "shared universe"?


Jeff:
No, I'll never open up my work to be a shared universe, unless there's some artistic, not financial, reason to do so. That applies to the written word--in other media, I'd be fine with it. I do have a few different threads--the Ambergris stories, which are definitely dark fantasy, set in an imaginary city with underground inhabitants who use fungal technology. Then there's the Veniss Underground cycle, which is far future SF-fantasy featuring a lot of biotech stuff and "made" species battling humankind.

Avi:
Do you intend to collaborate? write huge door-stopper trilogies?


Jeff:
I'm doing some collaborations with a very talented writer, Cat Rambo, that might extend to novels at some point. No plans for door-stoppers, but I am doing a Predator tie-in novel right now--to learn some things about writing thrillers, for the money, too, of course, but for a variety of reasons, and I'm having fun with that. It's not so much turning off parts of my brain as utilizing parts that only come into limited play in the other books.

Avi:
Are you happy with the way "science fiction & fantasy" industry is? frustrated?


Jeff:
Between 2001 and about 2006 there was a window of opportunity for stranger stuff. I think that window is closing now and the industry is getting more conservative again. For that reason, it's a very good thing that the formal experimentation I wanted to do is done, in books like City of Saints and Shriek, and that my "experimentation" over the next couple of years in my books will be that of more straight-forward storytelling. Which isn't to say I won't be pushing myself, or doing a lot of anthology and short story projects that are very bizarre.

Avi:
Do you find the modern society too cynical and harsh for a creative person?


Jeff:
I find the internet indispensable for what I do, so in that sense, no. But the rise of the corporation, the devaluing of the arts, and the continued idea within genre that it's not just okay but demanded of you that you think of your work as "product" all has a debilitating effect on the atmosphere around you. The only way you can shield yourself from it is to continue to write honestly and from the heart.




Avi:
What is your fix for inspiration (coffee? pets? nature? exercise?)


Jeff:
An average day for me is to wake up, have a big plate of eggs and fruit with coffee, maybe a slice of wheat bread, keep going with the coffee all morning, and either write at home or the coffee shop for three or four hours, commune with the cats, deal with nonfiction and "business", and then hit the gym for a couple of hours or take a long hike. Exercise, cats, and coffee are my drugs of choice.

Oh--and I have to have my music. I love the bands Spoon, The Church, Devotchka, Pinback, Black Heart Procession, and many others. The Church actually did the soundtrack to my Shriek movie.

I love surreal art of all kinds, with one of my favorites being Myrtle Von Damitz III (see here), along with Hawk Alfredson (site), and Scott Eagle (site).


(art by Hawk Alfredson)

Avi:
Who are your favorite writers: old school, new school?


Jeff:
That's tough, because I read so much. I love the compression of a mystery writer like Ken Bruen. I love the laconic off-hand brilliance of Stepan Chapman. John Irving used to be a favorite writer. Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore, and Nabokov were at one time my Trinity. Of the new school writers, off-hand I'd say Rachel Swirsky is great, Conrad Williams. One problem is that there are so many writers out there. Still love a great Jeffrey Ford story. Some Shelley Jackson, although I didn't much like her novel.

Avi:
Please give your recommendations for people unfamiliar with the genre, wishing to try fantastic literature?


Jeff:
Here's my list of personal favorites, old and new. It leaves out a lot of books, but it's the stuff that's close to my heart.

VanderMeer's Recommended Reading List

1. - Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
2. - The Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake
3. - Lanark, Alasdair Gray
4. - Jerusalem Poker, Edward Whittemore
5. - The Chess Garden, Brooks Hansen
6. - The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Angela Carter
7. - Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
8. - Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
9. - Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
10. - Observatory Mansions, Edward Carey
11. - Possession, A.S. Byatt
12. - In Viriconium, M. John Harrison
13. - Arc d'X, Steve Erickson
14. - V, Thomas Pynchon
15. - Sinai Tapestry, Edward Whittemore
16. - Quin's Shanghai Circus, Edward Whittemore
17. - If Upon a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
18. - Collected Stories, Franz Kafka
19. - The Master & Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
20. - The Collected Stories, J.G. Ballard
21. - The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
22. - Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
23. - The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica,
John Calvin Bachelor
24. - House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski
25. - The Riddle Master trilogy, Patricia McKillip
26. - The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
27. - The Circus of Doctor Lao, Charles Finney
28. - The Circus of the Earth & the Air, Brooke Stevens
29. - Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift
30. - Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavic
31. - At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brian
32. - The Troika, Stepan Chapman
33. - Solomon Gursky Was Here, Mordecai Richler
34. - Darconville's Cat, Alexander Theroux
35. - Don Quixote, Cervantes
36. - Poor Things, Alasdair Gray
37. - Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
38. - The Land of Laughs, Jonathan Carroll
39. - The Wizard of Earthsea trilogy, Ursula K. LeGuin
40. - The House on the Borderland, William Hope Hodgson
41. - Little Big, John Crowley
42. - One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
43. - The General in His Labyrinth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. - The Seven Who Fled, Frederick Prokosch
45. - Already Dead, Denis Johnson
46. - The Fan-maker's Inquisition, Rikki Ducornet
47. - Entering Fire, Rikki Ducornet
48. - The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter
49. - Views From the Oldest House, Richard Grant
50. - Life During Wartime, Lucius Shepard


(detail of "Untitled" by Tim Hawkinson, also see this, and Jane Wynn's concept)

Avi:
Also, a word to our international audiences in Europe and Japan: there must be translations of your books in other languages? Spanish? Russian?


Jeff:
I have translations of my books in French, German, Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Serbian, and several others, with translations of stories in countries like Brazil, for example. I used to document my progress in world domination, although it's now somewhat out-of-date: www.vanderworld.com. Note the photos of the alien baby at the South Pole.



My new site - www.jeffvandermeer.com features observations on writing and pop culture, movie reviews, music reviews, book reviews, polemics, and, of course, the rantings of Evil Monkey. I've been posting more and more so content updates daily. Not to mention, you can visit www.shriekthenovel.com for a bunch of video and audio objects related to Shriek, including the Shriek movie.


(art by Scott Eagle)

Avi:
One last question - please tell us three things about you that most people don't know?


Jeff:
1. I played varsity soccer in high school and was my school's racquetball champion my senior year.

2. I am terribly afraid of cockroaches because while growing up in Fiji, there was a type that would burrow into your ears while you slept.

3. I was tremendously shy in my early 20s and had to force myself to do public speaking, something that I don't mind at all now.

Avi:
Thank you Jeff, that was a pleasure, and we wish you all possible success writing the stuff that we all crave for. Barring advent of cockroaches, we should see more wonderful fiction, published under your name in gorgeous editions, full of eclectic art. Truly a case to celebrate - a triumph of the Bizarre.



The King Squid - design by John Coulthart, from "City of Saints and Madmen"

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