The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe

The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe: Jeff VanderMeer

Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!

Today we’re joined by Jeff VanderMeer, a two-time winner and twelve-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award as a fiction writer, editor, and publisher. The final novel in his Ambergris Cycle, Finch, was published in 2009 and was a finalist for the Locus Award, Nebula Award, and World Fantasy Award. The Steampunk Bible was released in 2011. His latest work is an illustrated guide to writing entitled Wonderbook, available now from Abrams Image. You can read an excerpt here on!

Join us as we cover subjects ranging from ill-advised Halloween costumes to Ren & Stimpy, and more!

Please relate one fact about yourself that has never appeared anywhere else in print or on the Internet.

I once was one-third of a Halloween costume that was just a huge blue bed sheet with eye holes cut into it and for some reason we decided to cross a four-lane highway under the sheet and almost died. The holes don’t really line up right when you try to run in different directions because you think you are collectively about to be run over. Sometimes working on Wonderbook felt like that, but it all worked out okay…

What’s your favorite method of procrastination?

Answering questionnaires. Filling out forms is a close second! I also like to stand in lines! Or linger in corridors. Sometimes I also like to run screaming around the outside of the house. If I’m very bored and in a car, I might shout “Squid!” at passersby. But procrastination…for me, that’s just another word for getting distance and a bit of separation to be able to think about what I’m working on.

Do you have a favorite unknown author?

That’s tough—there are so many… Edward Whittemore and his Jerusalem Quartet are way up there. But so is Finnish writer Leena Krohn, whose Tainaron is one of my favorite books of all time. Michel Bernanos’ The Other Side of the Mountain is brilliant. Someday some publisher will do the collected fiction of Leonora Carrington and she’ll be much less obscure. Then there’s Cassandra N. Railsea, who I talk about in Wonderbook.

Strangest thing you’ve learned while researching a book?

It’s kind of a tie between a lot of things, to be honest. For example, I discovered that the Visigoths created cloaks out of field mouse pelts, with the most important chiefs having the cloaks woven out of the most pelts. But also this: the term “going to hell in a hand basket” comes from Charlemagne’s efforts to subjugate pagan German chieftains, amid suspicions that his lieutenants weren’t being forceful enough. He therefore demanded that he be brought the right hands of those who refused to submit, and his lieutenants brought these pagan hands to him in baskets. Also, in ancient Byzantium, a dispute between two rival theater groups over esoteric matters of stage business once sparked a civil war. I find all of that pretty odd.

Wonderbook Jeff VanderMeerDescribe your favorite place to write?

I used to love to write with a cigar and a diet-and-Crown on the balcony right outside a place called Anthony’s here in Tallahassee. I still love to write in bars but you can’t write in bars without someone coming up and poking you in the shoulder and asking “What’re you doing?” So it’s mostly coffee shops for me, including a place called Black Dog Café.

Two roads diverge in a yellow wood: one leads toward a mysterious laboratory in which a mad scientist is currently ensconced. The other winds its way toward a tower inhabited by a powerful wizard. You could really use a snack, and it would be nice to have somewhere to crash for the night—which road do you choose?

I’d probably cut through the woods and avoid both of those losers. Seriously. I can wait to eat until I hit the pub beyond the woods in the morning.

What was your gateway to SF/Fantasy, as a child or young adult?

My parents read William Blake and Aesop’s Fables to me. And then later, growing up in Fiji, I feasted on Indian comics based on tales like the Ramayana—as well as Asterix and Tintin. My mother is also a painter and illustrator, and although she usually works in realist modes, her more fantastical art was an inspiration. Living in a house with an art studio tends to do that to you.

What’s the most embarrassing guilty pleasure you’ll admit to? (music, movies, pop culture, food, drink, etc…all fair game!)

I’m hooked on that reality show Naked and Afraid. Even though all it does is mostly affirm this truth: If a naked man and woman are left on a deserted island to survive for 21 days, the man will immediately sunburn his privates and get malaria while the woman traps lobster offshore and wonders what the hell his problem is.

If you were secretly going to write fanfic (or, even better, slashfic) about any two characters, who would they be?

Ren and Stimpy (they’re really one character when you think about it) rampage through Proust’s Remembrance of Lost Time and meet [your favorite character] from that classic.

List three things you’d like our readers to know about you and your work.

  • I never write the same book twice.
  • Wonderbook is the result as much of listening to other writers as it is teaching writing.
  • I believe imaginative play isn’t frivolous but an important part of life.


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