Jeff VanderMeer Talks Ambiguity, the Wilderness, and the New Weird in His Reddit AMA

Author, editor, and writing teacher Jeff VanderMeer has been one of the most prolific writers of 2014: Farrar, Straus and Giroux released all three of his Southern Reach trilogy books—Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—over an eight-month period. Readers eagerly immersed themselves in the creepy, uninhabited land of Area X, abandoned by humans and reclaimed by nature at the start of Annihilation. As a twelfth expedition (narrated by a biologist) attempts to do what their predecessors could not and learn Area X’s mysteries, their own secrets threaten the expedition.

Paramount Pictures has acquired the movie rights for Annihilation, with Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland adapting the book. Plus, Annihilation was one of your favorite books of 2014. It’s been an exciting year for VanderMeer! This week, he took to Reddit for an AMA discussing ambiguity in the Southern Reach trilogy (including an upcoming novella set in that world), his affinity for the wilderness, and keeping “New Weird” fiction alive. Check out the highlights!


On Intentional Ambiguity:

Redditor fleegerdig compared VanderMeer to Swamplandia! author Karen Russell, praising both for describing “the natural beauty of Florida” in their books. However, fleegerdig also pointed out that in certain Southern Reach passages, the narrator’s descriptions of Area X “got sort of waffly, ambiguous, and hard for me to imagine exactly what you were describing.” Ultimately, the fan boiled down their question to, “Is leaving the unknown somewhat to the imagination part of the plan?” VanderMeer answered:

In Annihilation, the biologist is trying to get down her account of what happened. Since it was probably confusing as it was happening to her, it’s not unexpected that she can’t be as precise about that part. But there is also a way in which Area X kind of distorts people’s impressions. Like, the dialogue in Annihilation is intentionally stilted and awkward. That’s Area X already corrupting thought processes. So that’s a factor too.


On Fantasy Without Cities:

el_donaldo: Your earlier trilogy and so much of fantasy and weird fiction deal with cities. Area X is without one and very environmental in focus. Is eco-literature a potential fertile ground for fantasy? Are there limits to always writing about cities?
JVM: I just gravitated to the wilderness because as I’ve matured as a writer I’ve become more comfortable with directly autobiographical influences and figured out how to use them in my fiction. In the prior novels I studied a lot of Byzantine and Venetian history, among other areas of study, to create the setting. It was almost like writing historical fiction in that sense. I wanted to explore the dynamic of urban spaces, for sure, but a lot of it was not from first-hand observation.
Whereas the Southern Reach trilogy is very much from first-hand observation. There’s not a detail about the natural world in the novels that wasn’t taken from something I’ve seen. Even down to the kangaroo reference in Acceptance.
So the setting naturally suggested itself, and then I asked myself what that setting and the initial situation meant…and I knew there had to be an ecological subtext. Although not a didactic one—I hate essays disguised as novels.
I would say everything is fertile ground if it’s personal to you or it interests you, if you’re passionate about the subject matter. That’s where the inner light in a narrative comes from. For me, with this series, it was always about the fact that I love North Florida’s wilderness and in a lot of ways I wanted the backdrop of the novels to be a kind of love letter to the places I’ve known and appreciated.


On Leaving Us Hanging:

bernhardski wanted to know if VanderMeer would ever actually explain what Area X is. VanderMeer thanked them for “being okay with the ambiguity” and responded:

It’s kind of funny—I think Authority teaches the reader to distrust so much that the answers given in Acceptance, the true ones, get a bit discredited in reader minds. Which is very flattering, really, because a theme of the novels is how subjective reality is and how much we kind of create our own narratives, with varying levels of “fact” embedded in them.

He did hint at an upcoming installment set in the Southern Reach world:

I am writing a novella, “The Bird Watchers,” set three days before the creation of Area X that may push things forward a little bit. But in general I have no plans to write more Area X. I do think in the movies they might be more straightforward about things. We’ll see.

Rest assured, he knows all the ins and outs of his world, even if his characters don’t:

I do have a whole backstory in my head, it’s just that most of the characters would never come close to knowing the truths behind Area X. But it is fairly rigorous—like, the difference between people returning as doppelgangers and people turned into animals—there are rigorous logical reasons why one or the other occurs.


Casting the Movie Version:

Stizzed: Can you tell us anything about the Southern Reach film adaptation? What would be your dream cast?
JVM: I can’t really say much except that Annihilation should still feature an expedition team of all women. Also that I really think Brit Marling would be great in the movies in some role. Other than that, I would hope they keep some semblance of the diversity in the novels.


On Diversity:

digitalstowaways: I’ve been slowly working my way through The Weird. Great stuff! I’m not quite at the contemporary section yet. Do you have any suggestions for current non-white weird fiction writers? I hear a lot about Ligotti and Barron (and you, of course!) but would like to find more work from people from other backgrounds.
JVM: Reza Negarestani is awesome, even if his Cyclonopedia is a hybrid of philosophy and novel. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories by Hassan Blasim verges on the supernatural. Some of Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar’s fiction qualifies. Others who have written weird fiction: Kurahashi Yumiko, Jamaica Kincaid, Merce Rodoreda, Rikki Ducornet, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tananarive Due. But that’s just off the top of my head, and not including a lot of non-US, non-UK writers of interest who come from outside the Anglo hegemony.


On Choosing Between His Two Loves:

trigunned: do you prefer journalism or literature?
JVM: I like both, but fiction is my first love. It’s what expresses things in the most personal way—for me. I just read an amazing creative nonfiction book on MMA fighters called Thrown. That author clearly finds her way into the personal through nonfiction. So it just depends.
Novels are like creatures I make. Essays I write feel more like mathematical equations I’m solving—in a good way. I like writing nonfiction. But that’s how it is, in terms of the difference.


Choosing the Most Important Book He’s Ever Read:

A tall order, indeed, from RabidNewz. VanderMeer, impressively, was able to narrow it down:

The most important work of fiction I ever read—have to narrow it down—in terms of my writing—will narrow it down further—was either Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman or Stepan Chapman’s The Troika. Because both taught me that you could break all the rules—ruthlessly, joyfully—and produce something amazing. And then Nabokov came along and showed me how to put it all back together again, using the rules in an infinite variety of amazing ways.


On Keeping the New Weird Alive:

unconundrum: After [China Mieville’s] Perdido Street Station became huge, there was a lot of talk about The New Weird and how integral it could be to genre fiction. Now, it’s become sidelined for the most part, and the only two primary New Weird writers still going strong are you and Mieville.
Why did it burn out so sharply and what current books would you recommend for someone who wishes there was more of those books?
JVM: In a nutshell, most of it didn’t sell very well. I survived by the skin of my teeth and sold better than most, and also diversified into other kinds of books. Which helped. But it is telling that now things like True Detective and things with proto-weird elements are becoming popular now.
A lot of great stuff but often very weird, a lot of it weirder in terms of character and plot than Perdido. And like every gold rush things get acquired because there’s perceived to have been a shift in the paradigm…and then it just turns out, oh no—it’s just that people loved Mieville’s work, not new weird per se.
But that’s just one side of it. In other countries the term caught on as a commercial category and made it much easier to find readers for certain kinds of weird fiction. And after the initial glut of new weird and the way in which it receded as a commercial category, a lot of those writers kept writing and other writers were influenced by them, so “new weird” mutated and found other pathways.
I’d recommend anything by Brian Evenson. I’d recommend some of the work of Rikki Ducornet, although she’s also more of a surrealist I guess. I just read The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Rombes and thought it fit the term. Weird Fiction Review publishes a lot of interesting stuff, some of it contemporary. I see mostly glimmers and glimpses of it in work that’s primarily doing something else.


On Getting Noticed as a New Writer Today:

johnnycleveland: Given our technology age and the decline in periodicals, what would be your suggestion for a new writer trying to get noticed?
JVM: The tools and the hierarchies and the landscape may have changed, but the basic premise of how to get noticed is the same as it has ever been: write what is personal to you or interests you, what you’re curious about and passionate about. Write about what gives you pleasure to write about or makes you uncomfortable to write about. Concentrate on the craft and art of writing and develop what you think you bring to the table that’s unique. While you’re doing this begin to work your way up the food chain. Maybe you have to start small, get a foot in the door in a local or regional publication or website. But you work your way up, always working on the quality of the fiction or nonfiction.
A career = potential + practice + endurance + patience.


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