Wednesday, November 19, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Jeff VanderMeer

A glimpse into the wonderful, weird, otherwordly mind of New York Times bestselling author Jeff VanderMeer.  His SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY is now out -- in full -- so if you're the impatient binge-reader-type who refuses to start a trilogy until it's all there, proceed!

(Note: Below, flense is not a typo for cleanse.)

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I’m obsessed right now by both abstract and visceral approaches to violence—theory/philosophy and then also more immediate accounts. I’m reading Slavoj Zizek’s Violence, Bernard-Henri Levy’s War, Evil, and the End of History, and also the abridged version of William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, while hoping to acquire a copy of the unabridged version. I also just finished Kerry Howley’s creative nonfiction account of MMA fighters, Thrown, which I just loved. Such a great poetic and yet unflinching and candid book. I’m also studying a lot of fights and other violence captured in YouTube videos and then more fictionalized violence, like the continuous-take fight scene in Cronenberg’s movie Eastern Promises. I think depictions of violence still allow room for interesting interpretations—and can still shock but also illuminate. I’m working on a novel titled Borne that requires a thorough examination from all angles. Violence is always there in the scenes, even when not expressed directly.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

Don’t let them get away with too much irresponsibility or non-responsiveness, but be aware that while writing they tend to be in two places at once and that the corporeal mess around them may seem very distant. That’s not an excuse, just an observation. And, if they’re not entertaining you and telling tales and making you laugh…maybe they should be. But, you know, writers are just people like everybody else—absurd, inconsistent weirdos made of 30% bull-crap and 70% water.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

I was an odd mix of introvert and joker. I kept a bird-watchers journal. I also had a diary where I wrote poetry and rewrote folktales. I always had a good sense of humor, but tended to only let it out around people I knew really well. Living overseas in Fiji until middle school and also traveling around the world was a huge gift my parents gave to me and my sister. It made our worldview not be very centered on the U.S.—indeed, since Fiji was in the British Commonwealth, I came home with an English accent and more knowledge of Asterix and Tintin comics as well as Indian comics serializing Hindu and Moslem and Buddist legends and epics than anything in the States. In high school I was on the varsity soccer team and won the school racquetball tournament but wasn’t a jock. I edited the literary journal and wrote for the newspaper but wasn’t really much into geek culture or whatever either.I had a very low tolerance for bullies, but was shy enough to attract them. I remember smashing one bully’s head into his egg salad sandwich at lunch in middle school and kicking a soccer ball into the face of another bully in high school, because he was tormenting a student much more introverted than I was. These actions while probably not that civilized tended to help in terms of being left alone. As for how all of this shaped me as a writer—I’m not sure. Except that I very much distrust institutions and also, because of Fiji, missionaries, I believe very much in the importance of the individual attempt to see through societal bullshit as a step toward achieving some true sense of reality. And my novels are always on some underlying level about love, friendship, and the difficulties of connection and communication.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I really hated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I hated that the intelligent woodland animals were so happy about replacing a dictatorship with a monarchy instead of just telling everybody else to shove the hell off. I hated that it had a Christian subtext. I could never get into Lovecraft. I didn’t like a lot of heroic fantasy rip-offs of Tolkien, although I can’t name names because some of those writers are excellent teachers of creative writing and very nice people. But it’s hard to remember the stuff I hated because mostly I tried to just figure out why it wasn’t working for me and took on that lesson, while the name of the writer faded away. I think what I mostly didn’t like was illogically happy endings and novels where the writer had as a hero someone who was almost certainly, by their actions, a sociopath…only the writer didn’t realize that’s what they’d written. Bad prose early on especially drove me nuts. I didn’t have any patience for lazy writing because I was trying to flense all laziness from my own.

What’s your take on touring? 

It’s an incredible privilege and opportunity to contribute to book culture and to meet readers. I don’t think book tours are on the way out, especially as ever more indie bookstores are getting strong and smarter and doing the things necessary to make their brick-and-mortar locations centers of that culture.
But it is a really weird thing—you live like a hermit for a year or more, writing. And you begin to talk to your cats, like long, long conversations. Then you go out among people and you’re genuinely liking the experience and interested in meeting readers. Yet there is still this strangeness of going from one extreme to the other. In my case, because of three novels out on one year, I’ve toured what amounts to five months in 2014. It does become tiring, you have peculiar lapses in energy and moments of being too manic. I still wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. I love meeting readers, I love what they tell me about their communities and their thoughts on books.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

It’s probably more that I don’t believe place or landscape exists separate from characterization, even in third-person points of view. The reader is still more or less experiencing the world through that character’s eyes, and as a writer I need to understand what this particular person will or won’t notice about the setting, from scene to scene. And how the landscape impinges or doesn’t impinge on a character based on such basic things as whether they’re rich, poor, or middle-class. We pull the elements of fiction out to teach fiction, but the less we think in terms of elements when we actually write, the closer we get to living in an immersive dream…and hopefully also the best experience for the reader.

Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy was published by FSG Originals 
in the U.S. over the course of 2014 and has now been collected in a hardcover omnibus. The novels have received wide critical acclaim and also made the New York Times bestseller list. Paramount Pictures and Scott Rudin Productions bought the movie rights with Shine and Never Let Me Go screenwriter Alex Garland set to write and direct the first movie of a projected three-film series. The trilogy chronicles the 30-year effort by a secret agency known as the Southern Reach to explore and understand Area X, a strange pristine wilderness cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible barrier. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post,,, and many others.

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