Jeff VanderMeer, The Hardest Working Man in Fantasy

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In close proximity to primordial Florida swamps, branch-shrouded canopy roads, and Kafkaesque state capital intrigues, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are Tallahassee’s greatest unnatural resource.

Ann is the fiction editor of Weird Tales Magazine, its continuing mission to publish brilliantly strange original material unavailable anywhere else. Jeff is on the cutting edge of the “New Weird,” infusing literary proficiency back into gothic fantasy and sci-fi with such novels as Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and most recently, Finch.

Together, Ann and Jeff have edited a number of anthologies, most recently, the pirate-themed Fast Ships, Black Sails, in which, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “Saintly pirates, loony pirates, pirate cooks and talking animal-buccaneers slash and swagger through the Caribbean, the Internet, the perpetually frozen Atlantic and the seas of distant planets in this collection of 18 original stories.”

Winner of the World Fantasy Award, Jeff VanderMeer has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Z. Danielewski, Henry James, and Edgar Allen Poe. His novels are sublime mixtures of genre, meta-, and literary fiction, books within stories within other books where the characters provide commentary via footnotes, illustrations, and other appendixes. If that sounds dry, it’s because it doesn’t convey the absurdist humor, nightmarish fear, and sweeping epic drama of VanderMeer’s secret history of the city of Ambergris. Tragic poets and artists populate dark cafes, naked holy men and furtive mushroom people menace hapless wanderers in alleys and alcoves, and once a year, the Festival of the Freshwater Squid plunges the city into decadent mayhem.

It was hard to catch Jeff when he had time to answer questions. He pours his energy into writing with a perfectionist’s drive to “get it right.” When he isn’t writing, Jeff and Ann spend a lot of time on the road. Jeff conducts writing workshops and Ann recently attended a Weird Tales reading at the KGB Bar in New York. Earlier this year they traveled to the Czech Republic and Romania in conjunction with the release foreign VanderMeer editions. The couple breezed in to San Francisco on November 4th to sign copies of their Steampunk anthology at Borderlands bookstore.

But I finally caught up with Jeff and asked him a few questions.

Bill: Congratulations on finishing your latest novel, Finch. Is this another Ambergris novel?

Jeff: Finch is the third in the Ambergris Cycle, set 100 years after Shriek. It features a detective.

Bill: I understand you’ve been hunkered down, hard at work on Finch for quite a long time. Are you in a state of decompression? Finally able to shave and go outside?

Jeff: I am in a state of severe imaginative withdrawal in the sense that I need to recharge before the next novel.

Bill: When did you first read Nabokov's Pale Fire and what effect did it have on you?

Jeff: I can't remember when I read it but it has had a profound effect. It showed me that using an experimental structure didn't mean you couldn't also achieve an emotional response in the reader. I think Nabokov's formal brilliance blinds some critics to the emotional resonance in his work.

Bill: Are any of the artists, writers, and musicians in Ambergris based real people or real groups of people, for example, the Lake Poets, the Beats, or the Romantics?

Jeff: A lot of them are loosely based on the Decadents. Some are based on Chagall and Arcimboldo. The rest are based on contemporaries and thus I cannot divulge who ...

Bill: At the end of Shriek, were you consciously invoking and/or venturing beyond Gatsby's green light? I'm referring to pages 338 - 339, "As I sit here in the green light and review these pages, I see what Duncan saw" and "my father running across the unbearably green grass."

Jeff: Not consciously, although I have read Gatsby. It was more to do with the idea of having the theme of fungus and death/life and Duncan's explorations continued throughout the novel.

Bill: You've written enthusiastically about the book as art and artifact. How do you view the future of printed books in the digital age?

Jeff: We see people using horses and mules and bicycles even though we have cars and other motor vehicles, so I don't see books going away. I could never read a novel for pleasure online but I read the New York Times off my PDA each morning.

Bill: Is there a reason you do some rewrites in longhand? Doesn't your hand get tired?

Jeff: No, my hand doesn't get tired any more than my wrists do typing on a computer. Longhand allows me to get into the fictive dream more easily. I also will break a scene back down into longhand after it's been typed up if I need to radically revise it. I tell writing students who only have laptops that they're missing out. You’re ignoring a potent tool in seeing your fiction in a new light. A lot of beginners are doing light edits not revision, and they also allow the computer, through IM and other things, to fracture their attention while writing.

Bill: J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan refused to grow up and H. P. Lovecraft feared that reaching adulthood meant "growing too old for pleasure." Is it important for a writer of weird fantasy to stay in touch with childhood feelings and intuition? How does one balance that with the responsibilities of real life?

Jeff: Every writer needs to see the world fresh. Lovecraft, for all of his brilliance, was trapped in an adolescence fearful of women and foreigners and unable to live a fulfilling normal life. That's definitely not necessary.

Bill: We hear about indie bands having their CD "picked up" by a major label. Do major publishers ever "pick up" independent and/or self-published books?

Jeff: Sure. I've had the majority of my books picked up by majors after being out first from indies. That's how I finally got on people's radar.

Bill: Fantasy author Ekaterina Sedia suggested I ask what your favorite dark beer is.

Jeff: Heh. It is Delirium Nocturnum followed closely by Arrogant Bastard.

Bill: How did it come about that you wrote a Predator novel?

Jeff: I think you write from love, mental illness, money...or some combination of the three. Predator I wrote for fun (love) and money. Brian Evenson got me an audience with Dark Horse and they liked my pitch.

The challenge I set myself was to write the Predator movie I would want to see. I actually think both Predator movies are good action movies. So it is meant to be fun and exciting ... with a few signature VanderMeerisms as part of that.

6 Responses to "Jeff VanderMeer, The Hardest Working Man in Fantasy"

Great interview, Bill. I have VanderMeer on my list of people to read.

by Bill Ectric on

Thanks, Michael. I recommend starting with City of Saints and Madmen, then Shriek will make more sense.

A great nonfiction book by Jeff is Why Should I Cut Your Throat, collection of essays and articles about the world of writing, publishing, and promoting weird fiction.

I also like The New Weird, an antholgy edited by Ann & Jeff. One section of The New Weird features a group discussion on the pros & cons of genre labeling. The discussion takes place in the form of transcribed email exchanges, which reminds me of the format used by Levi Asher & Christian Crumlish in portions of Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web.

by david on

Interesting stuff Bill!

thank!

by WIREMAN on

another gem of an interview bill....i always enjoy these insights into what's happening in the "NOW" of the writing world....anytime arcimboldo is mentioned a smile comes over my wired face.....

by Bill Ectric on

Wireman, I should have known that a mention of Arcimboldo would get your attention! I had almost forgotten who Arcimboldo was when I read Jeff's reply, so I looked him up and thought, oh, yeah! he was the artist who painted portraits in which the faces were made up fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, books, and other objects. Weird, wild stuff!

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