The Big Pivot: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer on Authority

Authority, the second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, was released on May 6. Late last week, I managed to get a hold of him to talk about the book on the eve of its release. The first book in the trilogy, Annihilation, was published in February. The final chapter, Acceptance, is due to be released in September.

Brian Slattery: Authority is a very different book from Annihilation; it’s more of a (fascinating) turn in the story than a direct continuation of it. As you mentioned to me, it’s not Annihilation 2—which is interesting, because it’s very easy to imagine what Annihilation 2 would have looked like: There’s another expedition into Area X, in which the scientists find out what happened to the previous expedition and encounter fresh terrors of their own, which in turn lets the reader learn more about Area X and how it works. Instead, Authority focuses on the Southern Reach, the agency responsible for managing Area X, which has an interesting effect of both expanding the story’s scope and blocking off certain parts of it; Area X is in some ways even harder to comprehend for the agency than it is for the expeditions it sends. There are, of course, benefits and risks to this. Why didn’t you write Annihilation 2? By writing Authority the way you did, what did you find yourself allowed to do that writing Annihilation 2 would not have allowed?

Jeff VanderMeer: As we find out in Authority, even after thirty years not much progress has been made through the expeditions. They keep changing the metrics of the expeditions, they keep recording data, but they’re not much closer than they once were. What do you do when you encounter something inexplicable that has no real interest in communicating with you? So, to me, another expedition into Area X would be a useless repetition, and although perhaps the expected way to continue a trilogy, and something some readers will have wanted, ultimately no good for me and no good for the reader. I was also very interested in an exploration of a secret agency whose functionality has become degraded by thirty years of failure with only small successes. The idea of the irrationality of human beings and of human organizations—these issues are always on my mind. Along with the vagaries of science, the ways in which science itself is not particularly objective, and sometimes doesn’t even know it is. Take, for example, the recent finding that mice are more frightened of men than women because of their smell, and thus the research using mice may have been skewed for many decades. It’s the kind of absurdity that crops up all the time, and yet our central narrative continues to be one focusing on efficiency and progress. I also wanted the novels to be closed vessels of a sort—to both complete their characters’ arcs and to be independent of one another. You can read Authority and then read Annihilation with no real loss of mystery or tension. Different secrets are revealed in each.

BS: How did the change in setting—essentially, from a wilderness to an office building—change the tone of the narrator’s voice for you?

JV: It’s more that I’ve got a different viewpoint character who has a different take on things. Control, Authority’s central figure, isn’t much of a hiker or scientist, isn’t particularly enamored of the natural world, and so the things he notices are not the things that the biologist from Annihilation would notice. He comes from a totally different background. Further, although he might find some oddness about the Southern Reach work environment, it’s still basically the same environment he’s used to from his prior jobs. This all just means that the kinds of descriptions and level of description is probably sparser. Not to mention, the biologist’s point in writing down her account was to document details of what happened, whereas I write about Control from a third-person vantage. I do joke, however, that Authority is my novel about the spaces between—a lot of scenes in parking lots, corridors, hallways, and doorways. Control is always trying to get someplace and not quite arriving.

BS: By the time we’re halfway into Authority, it’s pretty clear that certain central questions are not (yet) going to be answered. There are benefits and risks to this as well. Was this an ongoing concern as you wrote the book? Part of the master plan, given that you knew a third book was to follow? Or did this book simply take the shape it needed to take?

JV: You know, it’s kind of adjusting the balance on your stereo until it’s just right—some things I thought would be in Authority got moved up to Annihilation, some things from Annihilation got pushed back to Acceptance in the final thinking about what would happen, so it’s kind of a give-and-take and layering process. But it’s also the idea of what certain characters would and would not know. The problem, I find, with a lot of novels that to some extent hinge on mysteries is that people suddenly rise up out of their chairs and shout “Eureka!” and make all kinds of ridiculous logic leaps. I wanted to avoid that scenario, so even in the third book I can at least say that the reader gets some ultimate answers but individual characters may be left without the full picture. The short answer, though, is that novels come to me very organically, and I have to do what’s right for the novel. One freedom for a second book especially is that you can remain true to the characters and situations without having to contort anything for the reveals, since you have a third book coming. And this also means that if you’ve layered the story right everything in the third book feels organic and true.

BS: Authority reminded me most, oddly enough, of an exhibition I saw by New Orleans artist Blake Nelson Boyd called Zombie Katrina, which used mock-ups of newspapers and Polaroids of people—from everyday Louisiana folks to New Orleans politicians to celebrities such as Bruce Campbell and Larry King—to create a (clearly fictional) zombie outbreak that starts in Louisiana and spreads to the rest of the United States. The idea was that the effects and aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are still being felt, and because very few people outside of Louisiana seem to care, there’s a chance of those effects spreading; Louisiana, in the context of the exhibit, is a canary in the coal mine, and what happened there could eventually engulf the rest of the country.

JV: The effects you speak of often seem invisible, like how some a-holes on the Gulf Coast say “there’s no oil showing up on the beaches so everything is fine” and some of them are mental, the ways in which catastrophes and our response to them shapes us for a long time to come. In the context of the Southern Reach Area X has some effects on personnel, which then expands outward through interactions and attitudes, which then affects other people.

BS: Given that Authority is a turn in the plot, I’m assuming that Acceptance will take a third turn. How does the focus and tone of Acceptance differ from the previous two? How is it a continuation? How is it a departure?

JV: I conceived of the series as a slowly widening lens that lets in more and more light. In Acceptance, the context is much wider than in either of the first two novels. We do follow characters from the first two novels, but we’re also introduced to additional characters, with threads that move forward in time and others that take the reader back in time. Throughout Acceptance, the focus is firmly on the characters and the resolution to various mysteries comes out of that. It is structured like a giant blossoming flower, in a sense.

BS: Finally, even though we don’t get to read the third book until later this year, how does it feel to be done writing them?

JV: It feels weird, to some extent, to be so immersed in them for such an intense period of time, and now for that period to be over. They’re also my most overtly autobiographical novels in terms of the landscapes they inhabit—there are very few details of description that are things I haven’t observed or experienced personally in one form or another. It was emotionally devastating to leave some of the characters. I had a somewhat weird moment during a reading at WORD bookstore in Brooklyn—I was reading from Annihilation but I was seeing the overlay of the same character from a scene in Acceptance, and I almost couldn’t finish reading, I was so overcome. I know I’m trusting my readers a great deal with Acceptance. I wanted to tell the story that had to be told, but it is probably not the story that readers expect.

Brian Slattery is an editor, writer, and musician. His first three novels were published by Tor.


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