An Interview with jeff vandermeer
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Dubbed "King of Weird Fiction" by The New Yorker, New York Times-bestselling author Jeff VanderMeer has been working in literature since his teens. VanderMeer crossed into mainstream success with his bestselling trilogy, Southern Reach, of which the first novel, Annihilation, won the Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards. He's also the co-director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing summer program for teens. His most recent novel, Borne, was called "strange and brilliant" by The Guardian, and Paramount has optioned the rights for a film. A follow-up novella, The Strange Bird: A Borne Story, was released in August 2017. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffvandermeer and visit jeffvandermeer.com for more information.
TMR: What were some of the first works of literature to influence you as a writer?
JV: My parents were big literature buffs. They were reading me Blake's poetry at a very early age. Then there was James Thurber's The 13 Clocks. I responded to that because there were things left unexplained; there's this bouncing ball in this mansion that mysteriously bounces down a flight of stairs. There was something called the golux that was never seen. It left a lot of space for your imagination, and it was very uncanny and weird, but it also had a little bit of humor to it. Also, my parents gave me a copy of Aesop's Fables, and it was something I could look at and think, "I could actually do something like this!" Some of my earliest stories were me rewriting Aesop's fables. I would read the stories, put them aside, and then a day or so later I would do my own version.
there should be consequences to people's actions, a weight to what they're doing. If you're going to set them on some kind of quest, there should be an element of real seriousness to it.
My parents gave me Lord of the Rings way too early. I was nine, and we were just returning from Fiji, where we'd lived for a long time. As we traveled back around the world, I read this series I didn't have the vocabulary for. When you read something like that, when you don't understand all of it, it becomes much more mysterious—and in some ways, better than it actually is. What I took out of that and applied to my own writing is the idea that there should be consequences to people's actions, a weight to what they're doing. If you're going to set them on some kind of quest, there should be an element of real seriousness to it. There should be a sense of loss and sacrifice involved. It was very interesting reading that at that age. Even today, I'll pick up advanced philosophy books that I don't have the underpinning for to relive that experience. I have to live in a state where I understand part of it but not all of it, and it's mysterious to me. That's very useful to my creative process.
TMR: Who did you admire when you were starting out as a writer?
JV: There's a whole period where you consider yourself to be a beginner, and of course one thing you learn is that you never stop learning. You never reach a point where you say, "Well, I'm done. I know what I'm doing. I don't have to continue my education anymore."
Early on, I was just writing, writing, writing, writing. When I reached middle school, I had an amazing creative writing teacher named Denise Standiford, and then Diana Maples was my English teacher. The two of them were great.
As for college, I have to be honest, when I went to the University of Florida, the creative writing department was a complete dumpster fire. It was clearly in its last alcoholic days. So I didn't get a creative writing degree. I got an English degree with a Latin American history minor. Janet Jane Stewart, who was the daughter of Appalachian writer Jesse Stewart, gave me clandestine creative writing classes. I would go after-hours to her office where she would critique my manuscripts. Most of my actual education of creative writing was from individual people.
TMR: Did this help influence your work with Shared Worlds, the annual summer writing program for teens that you help facilitate?
JV: It definitely does. It's one reason why I'm very adamant about one thing: There's not one way to be a writer. There's not one way to teach creative writing. My approach and my wife Ann's approach—at Shared Worlds and everywhere we teach, whether it's for adults or for teens—is to make it clear that there's no magic bullet. We try to see what it is they're trying to do, and then form-fit our instruction to what they need—not impose some system on them.
TMR: Why is working with young creative writers important to you?
JV: I never thought I would be teaching kids, but now we've done ten years of it. It's one of the more rewarding things that I do.
A thirteen year-old that's written a couple of stories sees creative writing very differently than somebody who's already gone through certain processes and systems. You're trying to bring out their imagination, to give them confidence in their creativity. They don't know what's impossible. They haven't been taught yet that certain things are impossible. There's also the fact that because they're not yet formally trained, the things they'll say about story are sometimes very original and something I wouldn't think of. They make me see simple things in a different light.
We have students who come in who have autism, and our particular structure allows them to relax into the program and get a lot more out of it than they get out of other programs. That's something unexpected that really makes me feel good about what we do.
We get so many great, imaginative, creative kids, and although we're ostensibly teaching creative writing, we're really teaching general creativity. The skillset is part creative writing skills, part enhancing and thinking about your creativity and your imagination. We've seen so many of them go on and blossom using the skillset we give them. They really are forming the next generation of good imaginations.
TMR: In an interview with Bookish, you discussed starting and editing a literary magazine. How did this inform your work and your process?
JV: I started out editing my high school literary magazine, and it just seemed natural to form my own press when I was in college. I learned a lot from that.
Inhabiting so many different roles in book culture—whether it's an editor, I've been an agent at times, I've been an art director for my own press, I've been the managing editor, all these things—the different sides you see things from help you with your career as a writer. You understand the system better, you have a more strategic vision, you understand the people you're talking to. You get a sense of who's confident or not when you're working with editors if you've been an editor yourself and have been through that process. I think it's highly useful for writers who have the opportunity to edit a magazine, or contribute, or even read a slush pile. It just gives you a better perspective. That always informs and helps your own writing to some degree.
It's part of your own self-preservation, to some degree, to continue to engage. But also it just bears fruit, and it's the right thing to do.
I've always wanted to be involved. I've always felt that paying it forward, being a responsible member of a community—in this case book culture—always pays you back ten fold.
It's part of your own self-preservation, to some degree, to continue to engage. But also it just bears fruit, and it's the right thing to do. That's the philosophy that we, both me and Ann, subscribe to. Not a competitive one, but taking care of your own career without looking at other people's careers, and trying to pay it forward and be a responsible member of the artistic community.
TMR: In a WIRED roundtable discussion, you and several other authors spoke about dystopia. What would you define as a utopia?
JV: We have these absolutes in literature that I don't like very much. Utopias usually involve some continuation of the consumerist culture we have now that I don't think is actually possible. Dystopias tend to be run by right-wing militias with no hope and no differentiation at all. Those are all lovely fantasies from an image-driven point of view, and they can be very potent, but I don't find either of them particularly realistic. And so even when I have a giant, psychotic, flying bear in my fiction, I'm trying to find a psychological reality that's a livable utopia. I wouldn't say that the setting in Borne is a utopia. It's just supposed to be more realistic as to what the future might hold. There are actual cities, sans giant flying bears, that exist in this condition today, with multinationals coming in and usurping their resources and basically leaving the city a desert.
In terms of utopias, we have to find a better way to work with the flow of the world. I'm not meaning in some mystical, hippie way. I mean simply that there are biological imperatives in this world, and ecosystems, and there are ways that we can mimic those in terms of soft tech that could make our way a lot easier. To do that, we have to stop having a failure of imagination and stop putting our hope in things that are from the past, like fossil fuels and that sort of industrialization.
We have to stop creating so much waste, we have to stop using so much plastic—all these things that even if we didn't have global warming, would be polluting the world to a point where we would be in crisis. That's what I push toward. That, and a better understanding of animal behavior and animal minds. I think that's all very important to being a better part of the larger community. We really can't survive without this environment. Do we really want to live in a Bladerunner future? I don't think so. I think that's actually a dystopia.
TMR: Where does your passion for conserving nature come from?
JV: I've always felt close to nature. I've also never felt like the human world is divorced from nature. I've never felt that nature and culture shouldn't be intertwined. What I find really interesting, and also horrifying, is that the barrier between animal and product is breaking down. The barrier between animal and art is breaking down. And this is being done without the hard moral and ethical questions being asked, because we live in this runaway capitalist society, where profit is pretty much everything. So that becomes the moral imperative: the profit, rather than asking those difficult questions about why we're doing something or how we're doing something.
The whole time I've been writing, I felt that a writer's job is to try to show some kind of truth. Not "the truth" because there is no "the truth," but to find some kind of way of showing the truth. I thought this was an area that has not been fully developed in fiction, and something that was very much close to my heart. That's why I pursued it.
The whole time I've been writing, I felt that a writer's job is to try to show some kind of truth. Not "the truth" because there is no "the truth," but to find some kind of way of showing the truth.
I don't think my books will influence someone who's a climate change denier. They might, however, influence someone who believes in climate change but doesn’t think anything bad is going to happen in the next fifty years—they just don't feel the urgency of it. People throw up their hands and say, "Well what can I do?" In the moment, you can do a lot. Even just maintaining the birdfeeders and wildlife stations I have in our big backyard. You're doing something. You're helping life in the moment. There's all kinds of things you can do.
TMR: What can you tell us about your book in progress, Hummingbird Salamander?
JV: The protagonist is living a normal life as a software manager and a former bodybuilder. She one day receives a key from her barista, with a note from a woman who's just passed away—a woman that she doesn't know and has never seen—and then the keys to a storage unit. In the storage unit are a taxidermied hummingbird and salamander. She takes them home and for a long time she decides she's going to leave it at that. But the mystery keeps picking at her. She finally does some research and finds that both of them are endangered species. They're so endangered that there shouldn't be anything taxidermied; there shouldn't be any kind of trafficking of them whatsoever. That leads her down the rabbit hole into wildlife trafficking, into ecoterrorism, into the mystery of who this woman was who gave her this key, and why. It blossoms from that.
It's an ecological and psychological thriller about a woman who thinks her life is set. Then this one seemingly random thing changes her life forever. She can never get back to where she was before because of it. She can't ever unsee the stuff that she learns. It's also about someone who comes to an environmental awakening, who never really thought about it before. The stakes get higher and higher because of who the dead woman was and what she was trying to do—she was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist but she became basically an ecoterrorist over time—so there's a very real reason why she gave the stuff to the main character. It’s probably the most tense thing I’ve ever written.
It's a first-person narrative in a very sparse, spare style. I always go by the character of the person as to what the style is. The biologist in Southern Reach doesn't really care about human beings, so there's lots of nature description to what she does. In Borne, Rachel is more focused on her relationships and the dangers around her than even describing her environment. This woman has a different focus, so it's a totally different style again. It's like I'm a beginning writer again because every time I sit down with a different character, I'm trying to find a different way to get in their heads. It's a great thing because you always have that sense of anticipation and danger in writing, but at the same time it's unsettling because you can never really say, "Oh, I know how to do this." But that's okay. That's the way it should be.
TMR: Do you ever feel the need to outdo yourself?
JV: Borne has done extremely well, but I'm totally reconciled to the idea that Annihilation might wind up being the most popular thing I've ever done. It doesn't really bother me, as long as I get to continue to publish with FSG and do the things I want to do. I'm more concerned about living in the moment of each thing I'm working on and making it the best I possibly can.
I've been very fortunate that my career's been this slow incline upward rather than having a first book that was hot out of the blocks. Along the way I've seen just about everything publishing can throw at you, good and bad, and so I feel blessed to be in this position. I've had a good career. I'm still very hungry when it comes to being successful, but I also have some perspective on it. I think if The Southern Reach had hit big when I was in my twenties, I might have lost my mind and maybe bought a Ferrari and become an insufferable asshole. But coming when it did, I kind of knew how to take advantage of it, and things are going very well.