The Rumpus Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

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I got a copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilationthe first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy—from a friend. I took it traveling with me. I couldn’t put it down, and devoured the next two volumes over the next week in airports and tiki bars around the world. Plenty of others are in the same boat: the novels have received wide critical acclaim, made the New York Times bestseller list, and have been optioned for a three-film series by Alex Garland, who directed Never Let Me Go. All three volumes have now been collected in a hardcover omnibus, out November 18th.

The trilogy chronicles the thirty-year effort by a secret agency known as the Southern Reach to explore and understand Area X, a surreal wilderness cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible barrier. I’d say this is typical of VanderMeer’s work, except that if there’s anything typical about it, it’s atypical: VanderMeer has established a reputation for blending “literary” and “genre,” mostly by ignoring the distinction entirely. His fiction is a delightful stew of influences like Franz Kafka, Ursula K. Le Guin, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, and Amos Tutuola. And luckily for the future of literature, in his nonfiction work for the New York Times, LA Times, the Atlantic, and others, VanderMeer has expressed a commitment to international fiction, translations, unclassifiable fiction, and putting writers in conversation with one another who—by accident of where they are published—might otherwise never come into contact.

VanderMeer’s work was shaped by living in Fiji from the age of four to nine—and by his parents’ decision to come home via a six-month trip around the world. He also reports seeing a Planet of the Apes movie in Singapore dubbed into French with Chinese subtitles and being bitten by a monkey in Calcutta, although he cannot tell how influential any of this was on his fiction. (I can, though.)

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The Rumpus: I’d like to begin by saying that reading the Southern Reach Trilogy made me want to run in circles yelling for joy. It’s such a rare experience to read a vision so singular, true to itself, and unapologetically strange. It made me glad for the future of literature. So first: thank you.

Jeff VanderMeer: Seems appropriate then that I ran around in mental circles of joy when I saw your tweets about it because you seemed to be the ideal reader for the novels, and because I like The Girl in the Road quite a bit.

Rumpus: Well, that makes me very happy. Thank you in turn. OK. I want to ask, “Gah, where did the idea come from,” like hoi polloi, but here’s a more precise question: what is the oldest text in the manuscript—the very first passage you wrote?

VanderMeer: When I woke from the nightmare of walking down into a tunnel-tower with living words written on the walls, I scribbled down a summary. But I also wrote down the sentences I’d seen on the walls. So, from my subconscious brain’s perspective, those wall-words are the oldest text in the manuscript.

But when I woke up again in the morning, I went to the computer and I typed up about ten single-spaced pages that became the beginning of Annihilation, which I at first called “Where Lies the Strangling Fruit.” The first paragraph read like this in the very first draft:

The tower plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats, beyond which lies the ocean and, a little further down the desolate coast, a lighthouse abandoned decades ago. All of this part of the country has lain abandoned for decades, and not for reasons that are easy to relate. We discovered the tower while sampling the air and the water. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for several years, and the equipment of our predecessors was rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks.

In the published version, the opening paragraph reads like this:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict light house. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

You can tell that in the first draft I was too eager to get to the tower-tunnel, and the cadence of the sentences is a little off. But it’s fairly remarkable, for me, that those first ten pages remained fairly unchanged from the time of that draft. I think it’s because the biologist’s voice was there with me when I woke up and I knew everything about her right then, which was almost as startling as the nightmare had been. Because the landscape is the hiking trail I’ve walked for so many years, too, I knew the setting so well that in terms of the early writing, it was like relaxing into the text, disappearing into it in an odd way. I felt subsumed, and I just let that feed into the narrative. I’ve never quite had a writing experience like it.

Rumpus: That’s amazing that the biologist came to you fully formed. I loved her because she spared no words and suffered no fools. Area X seems to be some kind of wish fulfillment for her—an existence she didn’t know how to ask for, but was provided. Is Area X a kind of wish fulfillment, for you? Or does it fulfill an impulse you have about where we’re headed as a society?

VanderMeer: Yes, an existence she didn’t think was possible, that was always revealed to her before in glimpses and solitary moments—and these glimpses and moments were both a joy and agitation because they promised something more, from her perspective. It’s also important to realize that for all of her adult life, Area X had existed, it had indeed been there, and on a metaphorical level you could think of her prior experiences in the world as glimpses of Area X, or meta-infiltrations of allies of Area X. Or maybe not.

So in a sense the calm the biologist feels at times while exploring Area X isn’t just that she’s recounting the events a few days after they happened, but also because she feels increasingly like the glimpse has become the entirety of her life, even though it’s still intermittent for a bit, not fulfilled entirely, and fraught and incomplete.

My impulse about where we’re headed as a society is that without a fundamental change in our relationship to our environment any fixes for pollution and global warming are just patches. We’ll still be clumsy would-be biosphere engineers ruining twenty things with our pathetic opposable thumbs even as we save or create one good thing. So we need to inhabit and consider perspectives different from the Dominant Position. Which is difficult, because most of us are stuck in this uber-capitalist, rampant consumerist society/hegemony that is built to assimilate any resistance—to turn it into meme or cliché or commodity. Just take a look at those “sexy Ebola” Halloween costumes that sprang up almost overnight.

We live in an Area with nothing outside of it and within it there are vague and hostile forces, some of which are actually indifferent to us as individuals, acting upon us every day. And we are also born into a world in which we assume the sovereignty of our species, even the least powerful among us, and many of us go to our deathbeds still convinced of this, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary—the transmissions coming in every day, near and far, that we do not know what we are doing and do not understand the planet on which we live, this planet for which there is no replacement. (This situation is the photonegative or inverse of Area X.)

This isn’t a hopeless situation, but it is a situation that requires us all to become fully awake, alive, and aware. And to become fully awake, alive, and aware continually, every day, which is the hard part. I’m aware I’m asleep most of the time I’m awake, although I try to fight it.

Rumpus: As a liberal, I often feel like I should be more “awake”—more involved in environmentalist causes—but I always get frustrated with what I feel is a misguided sentimentality. What is your relationship to environmental activism?

VanderMeer: It’s a tangled thicket, although I’m not sure I know what you mean by sentimentality. A fair number of my thoughts on this issue can be found here.

Any organization whose monies primarily go to habitat preservation—buying wilderness lands and protecting them—is valuable because we have no land left to lose if we want a healthy planet. Habitat preserved means preserving animal populations. The total biomass existing on the Earth’s surface—not including the deep ocean—has, by some estimates, decreased by 50 percent since 1970.

That’s a startling number, and one that might seem to lead to despair. But it’s important to realize that there are still areas with relatively healthy ecosystems. Local activism, local involvement, is really important to preserving habitats in these, or any, areas. A personal investment, a connection to the land, is key.

What I resist, again, are the normal approaches. The idea that we can either control our environment or somehow be wise stewards—both set us apart from that environment and have to learn to be part of the environment. We need to find a third way. If we don’t, a third way will be forced upon us, and the longer we resist the more hideously painful it will be.

This, again, is logical. The idea that somehow some miraculous solution will appear is ridiculous. The idea that somehow we can all be uploaded to some future Human Cloud is bullshit too. Even if that were possible, it would be in the context of having caused global genocide of the environment. There are all kinds of steps we could take as individuals if we had government report, but listing them would add another ten thousand words to this interview.

Rumpus: Noted (and thanks for the link). Now back to the dreamlike: I loved how faithful the books were to the utter strangeness of lived experience. The other day I was reading outside, and saw a spiny black creature scuttling to and fro that looked like something from the Cambrian Explosion, and kept staring at it until I realized it was actually a large wet feather. And that seemed weirder than what I first thought I’d seen. When was the last time you had an experience like that?

VanderMeer: That experience of the brain working hard to, through simile or metaphor really, process an unfamiliar sight—X moves like SBC therefore classified as SBC until reclassified due to further investigation of shape, texture, etc., as F—is a fascinating part of the uncanny found in the mundane. It happens to me more often than it should and while I know it’s an illusion my mind’s creating, there are in some instances in which I irrationally take it as something beyond the mundane, trace evidence of the divine, a word I use in a secular but still spiritual sense. Perhaps it’s also because our senses are so limited and so paltry in observing all of the processes going on around us. We have a need to fill in those blanks on some fundamental level. We also seem to have an innate need to make things conform to narrative and that need creates illusions at times.

But I’m trying to think about the last time it happened. The ones that are most jarring are where you never get the rational end-bit. Like there’s a scene in Acceptance where Saul the lighthouse keeper relates how he thought he saw a black kangaroo while hiking. This happened to me—and it was chilling. I looked up while on the trail at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge and saw what looked like a grotesque black kangaroo at a distance—it looked oddly like it was a burn victim but also as if that were its natural state. The people I was hiking with were staring in another direction, said “Look!” I turned—to look at an alligator they’d seen. When I looked back again, the black kangaroo was gone and I was left with this really annoying and gnawing puzzle that if I’d only stared longer and gotten a bead with my binocs would’ve been resolved as some confluence of creature and tree branch or something. Instead it became an itch, and in part that little side-anecdote is in the novel because I couldn’t find a larger narrative use for it and wanted the itch scratched.

I do also get a strong sense of déjà vu that’s oddly non-dramatic in what it pertains to but must somehow pertain to this question as it’s a dislocation of what you think you know about reality. For example, I’ll dream of a window distorted by the sea wind looking out on a bay and an island, and on the windowsill is a wilted yellow flower in a vase made of beveled glass. Two years later, I’ll be on vacation with my wife Ann in a place we’ve never been before and reading in a chair I’ll look up and recognize that moment from dream. I’m fairly anti-mystic, anti-Freud, etc. But I can’t deny these things happen: intrusions of dream into the mundane. Suggestions of permutations of reality that may have perfectly logical explanations but lend themselves to exploration in storytelling. I think these things are relatable in fiction because most of us experience these moments.

Rumpus: Right—these are moments we all experience, but have difficulty describing. Your characters also struggle with the inadequacy of words. But we’re writers. Words are all we have. Do you sometimes wish you could work in other art forms? If you had to “translate” Area X into a painting or a symphony, what would it look or sound like?

VanderMeer: My mother is an artist—painting and biological illustrations. I grew up with an art studio in whatever house we were renting. But I have no artistic talent. It’s a frustration because there are times when I feel some confluence of forms would come closer to conveying the essence of a particular story. I like Sebald’s use of photographs and other images, for example, because they anchor the surreal aspects of the prose—they provide the prosaic or fixed compass setting from which he can set off into the unknown.

I had to fight the urge, though, with these novels to provide images, found objects, say, like maps in the text or facsimile journal entries or photographs of thistles. I’ve done that sort of thing in the past and in this case I think it would’ve robbed the text of some essential sense of tension or unease.

A symphony, I find the idea of that interesting and even more frustrating because while I love music and find some classic compositions and rock and alt-country songs incredibly moving, I’m even less musically ept than I am art-ept. I’m ept-less in this direction and so I do have this music in my head when it comes to Annihilation in particular and I just can’t get it out even in description here in this interview. Except to say that parts of it might be like Mozart’s Requiem if that piece recognized within it death as a kind of rebirth or if it had some kind of ecstatic moment coiled within it.

But it’s true there’s a kind of music that rises while hiking, when you reach that second or third shot of adrenaline—when the biologist says an aria rose within her when she starts out toward the lighthouse, it’s the same aria that rises in my head at times, in a perfect ecstatic moment of being.

I’m sure this sounds fairly pretentious but in practice it’s the most down-to-earth thing imaginable.

Rumpus: Not at all pretentious. These are just really hard states to convey. So is the new “state” of Area X, but you did it anyway. It makes me wonder whether Grace and Ghost Bird—pitching pebbles, at the end—will come to some greater understanding later. Do you think everything in the universe is ultimately knowable by the scientific method as we currently understand it?

VanderMeer: I can’t remember who said it in an interview recently, but a confluence of philosophy and science seems more likely to get us closer. But I’m probably the wrong person to ask, because my dad is a research chemist and entomologist who specializes in fire ants and other invasive species. I admire the hell out of him for being very detail-oriented and precise and he doesn’t cut corners. He’s a model scientist in my opinion. But having had a peek at the world of scientists and scientific culture, I’ve become very jaded about the rationality of science because I’ve seen such eccentric behavior. And when it comes to physics, I just had to laugh while I was working on the trilogy because as each new “advance” was written about online it became clear there was nothing I could put in the books that would be weirder than reality.

Elsewhere, I’ve talked about this study showing white mice are more afraid of male human scent than female human scent, and how this may have affected many hundreds of thousands of studies involving white mice. But there are other examples—like the now-classic one of how male scientists describe the act of procreation, assigning the female egg the passive role and the male sperm the active one, even though the real relationship is much more complex and there’s compelling evidence that the egg has a role in choosing sperm, etc. This is entirely because of so many scientists being male, that this outdated viewpoint is still the prevailing one. It is not scientific. It obscures the actual factual reality of the situation. So, how do we get to the purely objective? Is it impossible in most cases, or is it possible in half the cases if we’re very, very careful? I don’t know.

Rumpus: You’ve nailed my problem with science. The fantasy of science is that it’s some kind of pure amoral endeavor, but it’s a human institution, so it reflects human prejudice, no matter how hard we strive for “objectivity.”

Speaking of morality, novels usually have an internally consistent moral system. For example, most writers would “punish” the biologist for murder, and some would even point to her transformation as said punishment. Do you think a moral system exists in Area X; or exists at all, apart from human invention?

VanderMeer: Yes, the biologist is a murderer, in the strictest sense of the word, I suppose. Some days the biologist probably views an attachment to a certain state of accumulated atoms comprising a body as somewhat juvenile and other days is not so sure about that.

I don’t think Area X has a moral system that we would recognize, but it definitely has a kind of over-arching purpose. The purpose is so caught up in its being, in its existence, as to be inseparable from that—is a moral system that is inexorable and reflexive the ultimate moral system or not one at all? Beyond that, and this probably strays from your question, part of the resonance in the series, I hope, comes from humans butting heads with Area X rules they don’t comprehend. For example, there are good reasons why some people bud doppelgangers and others don’t—and good reasons why some becoming assimilated, seeming to turn into animals. (It’s just that the characters never figure out the logic, or the trigger.)

Which brings me to the biologist’s [REDACTED] into [REDACTED]. I recognize that some readers may wind up seeing it as a punishment or something horrible, but I believe to the biologist it is a kind of uplift or a rising or the crescendo and grand finale of her self. You see the world differently, you shape it differently in your imagination, you align yourself unlike others—and this transforms you. Although, you know, perhaps never in the real world with this kind of “!!!” emphasis.

But I also find things like fruiting bodies beautiful and humpback whales beautiful and I assume other people think they are beautiful too, until I have a conversation with someone or read some article and realize that a lot of people find these things ugly or, as with fruiting bodies, repulsive. Which is an odd kind of value judgment put on organisms that are fairly miraculous and fascinating. I guess if sharks were water-breathing bunnies we’d be falling all over ourselves to save the endangered ones. (A shark will never a bunny be, and more’s the pity in some people’s eyes—but not in mine.)

Rumpus: Well, novelists have to see the world differently from most people, or they don’t have anything interesting to say. When you were a kid, did other kids think of you as strange? If so, how do you think it affected you?

VanderMeer: I was an odd mix of things but definitely a bit shy and a bit of a loner, although I had friends. In middle school and high school I played soccer and was on the varsity team but also edited the school literary magazine. I had a hard time feeling like part of any particular group or clique—I didn’t really fit in with the nerds or the jocks, so to speak, but then the whole soccer team at my high school was a brilliant pack of misfits and iconoclasts, with a couple brutes thrown in. (Today, I am not a member of any writer groups or organizations or of any clubs or any more general organizations and it’ll probably stay that way.)

I don’t know really how other kids saw me. Probably strange? Or just reserved? I came back from Fiji to the school yards of Ithaca with a British accent, which didn’t do me any favors. I came from a place where most people were indigenous Fijian (Melanesian, Rotuman, etc.) or their families were originally from India and that was the norm and what I expected, into a place where that not only wasn’t the case but de facto segregation existed and the whole dynamic was very different. It was very confusing to me and for a while the world in general felt gray and chalky and somehow not right. This of course also had to do with going from a tropical paradise to a dreary wintery atmosphere—and was the difference between a close relationship to nature in Fiji, and a wealth of life, just a super-saturation of it there. Contrasted with Ithaca, and an urban setting that seemed to have suffered catastrophe to its ecosystems: a biosphere that seemed stunted by comparison.

When we moved to Florida that feeling changed to some degree because the landscape reminded me in some ways of Fiji, but for a long time there was still this kind of idealized version of Fiji in my head because the other thing going on was my parents’ slow divorce, which tended to make me more introverted and angry. I immersed myself in writing fiction, and fiction subsumed other things I was doing—like keeping a bird-watching journal.

Rumpus: Changing gears here: as soon as I started reading about the biologist (and the psychologist, and the surveyor, and Grace, ) I knew the Likeability Police would be out in force. They are for me too, and it’s a criticism I find baffling. What’s your reaction to readers calling your characters unlikeable? Do you think there’s any merit to the conventional wisdom that readers “need someone to root for”? Is that code for something else?

VanderMeer: I want to write interesting characters who are flawed and sometimes inconsistent because people are flawed and sometimes inconsistent. You run into real problems creating realistic characters if you want to pander to the idea of “likeability” because it tends to flatten out the things that make us human. We all like to think we’re good people and that good people have certain attributes, and in our mind we iron out all of our bastardly acts and our own bizarre rituals and the times we failed to measure up, to support a mythology of our own goodness. And thus sometimes we want fiction that supports or affirms a fiction we’re creating in the real world. But I’m resistant to giving readers that because I think it’s a lie. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I’m a bastard. Sometimes I’m not. I don’t think I’m alone in this.)

As for the Southern Reach—I’m writing about some characters who have become damaged or have suffered damage, and are trying to recover themselves the best way they know. Others, like Control, are being continually and repeatedly damaged without being aware of it. Which happens sometimes in the world. Then, it’s true, there are good, honest, decent people who get caught up in the wrong things at the wrong time. There’s no getting around that. There’s no moral or ethical compass anywhere that’s keeping certain people from death and throwing bastards into the gristmill of non-eternity.

Others, like Grace Stephenson, are simply not likeable to another character, which shouldn’t make them unlikeable to the readers. I love Grace—I love so many things about her, and she has her fans. But I do get some feedback where because of her obstruction of Control readers think they’re meant to see her as a villain. I even get some readers—almost always male—who wish Grace was more out of the picture in Acceptance so that what they see as the inevitable romance between Control and Ghost Bird can blossom. Which is something that ain’t blossoming and never was, because any attraction only exists on one side.

The biologist, I get some people saying she’s somehow messed up because she’s distant—they identify her difference as a defect. Something I reject entirely. These are often readers who like the books but they do so in the context of assuming the authorial intent was to create a messed-up person who for whatever reason could’ve been normal if not for something unfortunate in her environment impacting on her, etc., etc.

But this is in the context of the vast majority of feedback I’ve gotten being very positive in this respect and me being grateful that readers have engaged with the nuances of the characters to the point of not reducing things to trying to tag some characters as “bad” and some as “good.” Or likeable/not-likeable. Although, they can do that to Lowry all they want; he’s an amalgam of every psycho-boss I’ve ever had. Although I’m sure some see him as caricature, people like him exist.

Rumpus: Oh no. I’ve known them too—real, live caricatures. Speaking of The Menz, the two main characters who are male—Control, and the biologist’s husband—are far more fragile and emotionally dependent than the woman characters are. It’s usually the reverse in literature, especially when written by male writers. To what extent were you deliberately overturning gender norms?

VanderMeer: When the Annihilation expedition characters presented themselves to me as described by function I considered what that meant. Was this a Kafka-esque story like “In the Penal Colony”? Was something else going on? And in thinking about those questions I then had to ask myself whether they were men, women, or a combination. I can’t remember whether it was an organic thing I slipped into or if I thought, with intent, “they’re all women.” But however it happened, I determined they were all women and I then tried to name the characters. They resisted, the biologist most of all. Indeed, I kept trying to the end of the novel. Initially, the last line of Annihilation was the biologist saying, “My name is [fill in blank].” But, again, the text resisted. The biologist resisted. Everything resisted.

This pertains to the gender question because once I determined they could not be named in the first novel and that all four were women, I also had to decide if I would describe them or not. And I most definitely decided not to include descriptions to help subvert expectations. I feel there’s a lot of baggage following descriptions of women in fiction. That the wider culture creates this—that as soon as I described them, then certain assumptions would be made by some readers, assumptions brought in by societal norms. And I didn’t want that.

What I did want is to let the readers’ expectations—what they then had to fill in—be subverted in book two. I figured many readers, for example, would think of all four as being white women. I wanted readers to have to recalibrate for book two and to think about why they might have reached certain conclusions despite the lack of evidence on the page.

As for the men being more fragile and emotionally dependent, I don’t want to make generalizations but men are often more fragile than they let on or pop culture media leads us to believe. With lots of misdirection and bluffing and chest-beating to disguise this state.

There are the roles we’re told we fit or are supposed to fit into because of gender and then there are the real people we are.

Rumpus: It’s conventional wisdom that, when you’re drafting, you have to “silence the inner critic.” But you are a real live critic. Is it easy for you to switch that part of your brain off, or is your inner critic just an especially nasty one?

VanderMeer: I always find it easy to get rid of the inner critic. For one thing, I don’t allow any distractions when I’m writing rough drafts. I don’t have Internet access or phone access. I get up early and I write right after a breakfast of four scrambled eggs and two cups of strong coffee. Sometimes while I eat I’ll watch something innocuous—half-hour format like Frasier or Parks & Recreation as a kind of distractor. I’m usually still half-asleep by the time I start. I put on my headphones with a track list of stuff I love that’s atmospheric and I know so well nothing in the lyrics distracts me, and then pick up two paragraphs before new material, to kind of take a running start, and I write in longhand. Usually I’ve got enough longhand stuff after a few hours to spend part of the afternoon typing it up (although I often break it down into longhand again). That process seems to work well for me, although I’m not one of those people who feels like I have to follow that routine every day. Sometimes I’ll write all day and wind up with fifteen thousand words and then spend a week or two getting that into shape before I proceed—whatever seems right in terms of not getting too finicky too quickly.

I love to edit, and often do a lot of rewriting after the third draft. I do that longhand too, in a café usually, and being around people but not talking to them tends to silence the inner critic too—while activating the technical imagination I need to truly see and re-dream the work, so to speak.

Rumpus: I know what you mean. And I feel like, since we’re living in 2014—we can still call this the beginning of the millennium—this is the time for big dreams (and re-dreams). If you were to found a new religion for the third millennium, what would be its morning prayer?

VanderMeer: I’m not big on organized religion, so the morning prayer would have to be for me alone and any religion’s first commandment would be “disband, thank you.” But I feel that way about a lot of institutions. But if I did have to create a prayer it might very closely follow the hymns set out by Margaret Atwood in Year of the Flood.

Rumpus: And finally: I would like to personally thank you for the mouse-washing scene. That is all.

VanderMeer: I am terribly proud of the mouse-washing scene, which is probably not the correct thing to say, but there it is, I am.

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Author photo © Kyle Cassidy.


Monica Byrne is a novelist, playwright, and world traveler based in Durham, NC. Her first novel The Girl in the Road was published by Crown/Random House in May. More from this author →