Wednesday, January 04, 2006

An Interview with Jeff Vandermeer

At the end of this month Jeff Vandermeer's new novel SHRIEK(UK)/(US) will be published in the UK. The US will have to wait until August which is a little strange since Mr Vandermeer lives in Florida - but that's the wonderful world of publishing for you - completely incomprehensible to this woman on the street. I have already seen this book in manuscript and reviewed it here.

Some books I find I enjoy but I forget them quite soon, they leave just a pleasant vague memory, while other books, like SHRIEK, stay with me much more vividly. For the uninitiated SHRIEK is set in Jeff VanderMeer's invented world of Ambergris (which I first encountered in the award winning City of Saints and Madmen(UK/US) - a world where spores and fungus have a pervasive and sinister presence. In this latest book this world is described even more seductively and mysteriously. It is a wonderfully intriguing book with an exciting and original structure which I am sure will win Mr Vandermeer a whole new troop of fans.

So, just to whet your appetite I asked Jeff to respond firstly to the seven questions and then to some additional questions on his writing in general. I think his answers are a fascinating insight into the life and career of a writer - it is a difficult business for most of us and what follows gives some indication of the dedication and tenacity involved (for more of an insight into this process see Jeff's books SECRET LIFE - an anthology of short stories which are quite fascinatingly annotated...

and WHY SHOULD I CUT YOUR THROAT?...which is a collection of critiques and autobiographical pieces clearly showing the writer as well as the writing 'in progress')

The Seven Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)

JV: I have no particular anecdotes, just an abiding affection for snails. Every time I see one, I think how smooth and beautifully alien they look, how fully formed and finished. I like the slow elegance of their movements, the sense of their movements being carefully choreographed and yet fluid. I always stop and watch them when I encounter them.

CD: What is your proudest moment?

JV: Such a tough question. There's the proud moment of marrying Ann. There's the proud moment of selling my first book to a big publisher, Pan Macmillan. I've several times been very proud of my stepson Jason and my stepdaughter Erin. Fiercely proud. My family in general has made me proud. Over the past few years, I've been proud of being able to shed eighty pounds. In terms of individual moments, I think finishing Shriek - finally finishing it and seeing that it wasn't a load of rubbish - was a very proud moment for me. At many times I thought I might never finish it.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

JV: I have had several, but I don't feel comfortable talking about the most profound of them. Most of the time a life-changing event for me has been a self-inflicted stupidity that has made me wiser or a tragedy that has made me see the world differently. But every year or two, I have what I call a kind of walking dream-time epiphany. It's where inspiration strikes so strongly that everything seems to whirl together and wherever I am, I have to sit down and write and there could be two people around me or two thousand and I don't notice them at all. These are life-changing in that they recalibrate you somewhat. You're the same but you're slightly different. Another time, when I was out hiking and in deep forest came across either a jaguarandi or a Florida panther that was life-changing. Because I found I was willing to stand there and fight if I had to, which sounds hopelessly caveman, but I was glad to know that I wasn't a coward in that sense. You can be brave in that kind of situation, though, and be an emotional coward. Generally, the life-changing events of the horrific variety come out in my dreams. When they enter my dreams and they turn to nightmares, I have to write them out of me or it becomes too much to bear.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?

JV: It's almost too horrible to contemplate, but there are two of them. Horrible and sad. One is a photograph I once saw of a woman being burned alive in China while also being flayed alive. The other was a National Geographic special where they showed a market in the Far East and there were several skinned puppies, still alive despite being utterly skinless, in a basket for sale. I don't know that I can really convey how this affected me, but I couldn't even cry. It was beyond that. I just wanted to scream. Sometimes it is impossible to exist in this world and, for all of the goodness and beauty in the world, withstand the crushing pressure of the cruelty we do to each other and to animals. It's horrific, but behind the horrific is the sadness of it all, because of the lack of necessity of it. It's just dumb, blind, sad.

CD: If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?

JV: I would listen to other people better. I'm fragmented a lot, and off in my thoughts, and I sometimes shortchange people that way. I come in from bouts of 'receiving' i.e. just basically soaking up conversation for story idea and go through bouts where I try hard to listen in a non-writer sense. I also think I can be very selfish and I try to work on that. I think my wife suffers from the fragmentation the most because she is closest to me but many times I am Somewhere Else even when I'm there. She knows that's the nature of my work and the nature of being very busy, but I need to work on that more.

CD: What is happiness?

JV: Happiness is understanding that people and love are the most important things in the universe - not ideas, not things. For me, my happiness is my wife, my work, my interactions with my friends. All of these are about love. And I think love is about curiosity and getting out of yourself and trying to understand other people. I do an incomplete job of loving others, I know, but I try hard. I think happiness is indistinguishable at times from sadness because everything we love will one day no longer exist. But that's what we've got to work with and through.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

JV: Jump in the shower. LOL!


CD: I was wondering if your vision of Ambergris comes from a nightmare, also was it something that built up slowly in your mind or was it suddenly there - complete, all at once?

JV: I wrote a story called "Learning to Leave the Flesh" which was basically a prose poem about dealing with death and loss. It mentioned some Ambergrisian features like Albumuth Boulevard but felt more like just a distortion of our world. I liked "Learning" but that story was also very ephemeral, shimmery, delicate. I decided that at some point I would write about that place again but in a more muscular style. Six months later, I remember going to bed in a kind of peaceful state. Everything around me seemed to be slow and comprehensible in an odd way. I began to dream. I can't remember the dream, but I remember waking from the dream with an image of the city of Ambergris in my head. And the image was wedded to the character of a troubled missionary staring up at a third story window and falling in love with a woman he saw there. I don’t think I was really awake yet. I mean, I had woken up, but I hadn’t *woken up*. There was a kind of energy running through my body. I remember that my fingertips felt weighted, like something was coming through them, as I sat down at the computer. There was a firmness to the keyboard that hadn’t been there before. I sat there and very deliberately, without haste, I typed out the first eight or nine pages of “Dradin, In Love,” the first true Ambergris story. I think I recognized even as I was typing, from some calm place, that the setting was a combination of all the places I visited as a child. But mostly I was excited, taken over by this vision, because even though I had to stop after eight pages, there was so much more information running through my head—about Ambergris, about the characters. I went to the couch and wrote as much of it down as I could, on little scraps of paper. And in the morning, I took the scraps and continued with the story. What is odd is that I had mono, with a low-grade fever, for most of the time I was writing Dradin, and so there is a kind of delirious feel to the text that is a direct reflection of my own kind of fatigued state. I also made very few revisions to those first eight pages, which never happened before or since. (As for the plot, it was based on a story a friend told me, about how his father, walking down the street, looked up and saw his future mother in an office window, went right up and asked her to marry him. Which I always thought a little odd.)

The most direct result of nightmare is “The Transformation of Martin Lake.” I suffered a kind of trauma, one which also influenced Dradin, and it began to manifest in my dreams as a shadowy figure behind a door. There was a screen door in front of the real door. The real door would open as I walked toward it and through a hole in the screen door, I would extend my arm. The figure would hold my hand, palm up, and then plunge a knife into the middle of my palm. And keep cutting at it while I just stood there and let the figure do it. It’s the most intense nightmare I’ve ever had and after awhile I couldn’t take it any more. I had to do something about it, so I wrote it into “The Transformation of Martin Lake,” where it became pretty much one of the central images of the novella. Once I had written it into the novella, I stopped having the nightmare.

CD: Can you say where it (Ambergris) comes from and what influenced you in your invention of the place?

JV: I may have answered this above, but ever since that initial vision, I have gorged myself on Venetian and Byzantine history to kind of set a base-line for what Ambergris is all about, and then thrown in my experiences in Southeast Asia for good measure. I still find myself using incidents from childhood to set the scene in various Ambergris stories. It is the perfect way to make my rootlessness as a child into a strength—creating a sense of place that encompasses all the places I experienced.

CD: Also does reality and the imaginary ever get mixed up in your mind? Ambergris is described so well and so convincingly in your books I sometimes caught myself thinking that it really does exist, somewhere far away... is there a part of you that believes in the reality of Ambergris?

JV: Because the experience of writing the first few Ambergris stories was so intense—I mean, I really was living and breathing it day to day. Everything I encountered entered the stories. At times it felt like automatic writing. This kind of frightened me a little bit. It made me feel like Ambergris was writing me. It’s just so unusual to have such a sustained level of inspiration for so long. Usually, you slog through the writing at some point, no matter what the initial spark. But, anyway, because of this, I wrote a story for myself called “The Strange Case of X,” X being an author remarkably like me who was in an insane asylum for believing his creation was real. It was a way of kind of getting outside of Ambergris, so I could write about it from a different perspective. It served that purpose. I got out from under the obsessional quality of the text, and that allowed me try different styles and modes of writing about Ambergris. But then I started showing the story to a few friends—some of whom actually thought I was nuts, and some of whom had their sense of reality so altered that after reading the story they were momentarily unsure if they were in the real world or Ambergris. At that point, I realized the story connected with readers and so I included it in my published works about Ambergris. It actually became the catalyst for the whole second half of City of Saints & Madmen.

CD: Could you tell me a little about your life - where you were born, how you spent your childhood and how you first got published and your writing career in general.

JV: I was born in Belfont, Pennsylvania. My dad was and is a research chemist, currently studying fire ants. At the time, my mother was a painter an illustrator who made good money working for the government doing biological illustrations. She also made quite a bit of money designing psychedelic doors for various offices and homes. Currently, she’s in Paris studying French graveyard art for a PhD. My parents joined the Peace Corps when I was young and we moved to the Fiji Islands so that my dad could teach Chemistry at the University of the South Pacific and my mother could do biological illustrations of sea turtles and rhinoceros beetles for various naturalists and scientists. We lived there for four years and we spent six months traveling around the world on the way back. I was ten when we came back to the US and the whole experience deeply affected both my sister and I. We got to see things that kids that age don’t normally see, have experiences that you usually don’t get a chance to have until you’re college age: trance dances in Indonesia, Kathmandu, Machu Picchu, etc. It was surreal in the best sense of the word. It’s so difficult to go back to seeing the world as ordinary, even in the most mundane circumstances, when you travel like that as a kid. I try very hard to remember that lesson, just in getting up in the morning and looking around our front yard, even. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t dismiss anything as something you know too well)

Then we came back to the states—complete with authentic British accents—and lived in Ithaca, New York, and then Gainesville, Florida, where I went to high school. I had written poetry for a long time—I still have a little notebook with a really awful “Oh how I love the sea” poem from when I was eight or nine. But I didn’t start trying narrative until the sixth or seventh grade. In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mr. Welker, had us all writing novels for some reason. And I did all these novel installments about Draco of Lost Atlantis. I also played Dungeons and Dragons briefly, but found I preferred writing stories about the characters to actually playing the game, and so I guess that was influential. At the same time, by high school I was reading a lot of mainstream poetry, founded a national poetry magazine called Chimera Connections (we published a lot of award-winning poets, including work by National Book Award winners), and in addition to reading SF/Fantasy was reading Vladimir Nabokov, Barth, and many others. Soon, I was writing short stories and had abandoned poetry. I took a creative class in high school and unified the various assignments by sticking a frog in each as a grace note. I self-published a collection based on that work called The Book of Frog. By then, I’d sold work to a number of indie press publications and some literary magazines, mostly on the genre side of things. Over time, I began to sell to larger and larger publications and I thought I would have a really good career as a short story writer. But then I had the Ambergris vision, started writing novellas, and for ten years had difficulty expanding on my earlier success because the Ambergris material was so different from my prior work. Long story short, I labored in the indie press until 2002, when Pan Macmillan bought City of Saints and Veniss based on their success in the indie press, and from there my hard, long slog has blossomed into commercial press footholds on both sides of the Atlantic and in many foreign languages.

CD: Your new book Shriek has an unusual and very effective structure. Can you name any important influences in your work?

JV: Shriek, structurally, is, on one level, a direct response or in dialog with Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, in which twinned narrative voices intermingle. It is also in some structural dialogue with Views from the Oldest House by Richard Grant, which was itself an attempt to re-use the Nabokov technique with more success. I thought neither book had used the technique very successfully but thought it had potential if redeployed in a totally different context. Now, that’s just one aspect of the novel, but it’s an important one from a writer’s point of view. I think Proust has also been an influence in that he’s mastered a kind of plotless plotting. Edward Whittemore helped me in terms of an example of how you can use half-scene and summary effectively and also how to manage large stretches of time in a novel. Really, I had to learn so much to write this novel, which is one reason it took eight years to write.

CD: What are your immediate plans in your writing career?

JV: I am taking a break from the next Ambergris novel to help promote Shriek and my other books coming out in 2006. I’m writing some short fiction and nonfiction in the meantime.

And finally...

CD: Your new novel Shriek, published by Pan Macmillan later this month in the UK, and by Tor books in August is also based in Ambergris - what is the origin of this novel - how does it fit in with your other works?

JV: The novel originated from a conversation I had with Jeffrey Thomas, the publisher of the original stand-alone chapbook of "The Early History of Ambergris," a story disguised as a faux history essay (included in City of Saints) and another conversation I had with the brilliant writer Thomas Ligotti. Jeff had wanted to know more about Duncan Shriek, the writer of the "essay". I told him I would include an afterword by the sister of Duncan that would go into more detail. A truncated, two-paragraph version of this made it into the final chapbook.

At the same time, Ligotti had read City of Saints in manuscript form. He really loved a lot of things about it, but he recognized the way "Early History" used some of the structure of Pale Fire, and objected to it because he said I hadn't really incorporated the narrator into the story, and therefore a whole level of complexity was missing. I told him, and still believe it, that the whole point of the story in "Early History" *is* the history (and the humor) and the rest is meant as entertaining window dressing. However, it did get me to thinking about the life of Duncan Shriek and what it means to write an afterword and who Janice Shriek was, etc. Before I knew it, I had about 10,000 words. I told Jeff I wanted to include this mammoth (at that time I thought it would be 30,000) afterword to the main "Early History," which would function both as fleshing out the character and as the ultimate joke: an afterword longer than the actual main body of the essay. However, Jeff had two concerns: (1) he didn't have the space to publish it and (2) he really hated what I sent him. It was very different from City of Saints and it was a little early for anyone at that time to wrench themselves out of that milieu and into Shriek's world.

At that point, the negative feedback didn't matter (and I didn't take it personally)--I actually incorporated Jeff's comments into the text of Shriek. Shriek at that point was eating the real world in large chunks. It was very clear in 1999 that it was going to be a huge undertaking, that it was becoming organic, that it was coming to a kind of lurching life. Over the next eight years, I wrote Shriek on and off, getting distant from the personal events disguised in it, and learning more and more writing technique.

I'd say it's different because it's less formal and it's also the first real novel I've done. At 130,000 words it dwarfs my other "novel", Veniss Underground, which was only 55,000 words. I am very pleased with it precisely because it is a true novel. And, I think, my best work.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clare: Thanks for posting this great Q&A.

Thu Jan 05, 02:37:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Kelly - and thanks for mentioning it on your blog too.

Thu Jan 05, 10:33:00 pm  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Excellent interview, Clare.

Sat Jan 07, 12:52:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Jason. I notice THE FAMISHED ROAD by Ben Okri is next in your reading queue. I shall be intertested to see what you think. I got half way though years ago, and to my shame never got round to finishing it. I shall keep having a look at MOST EXCELLENT AND LAMENTABLE.

Sun Jan 08, 12:45:00 pm  

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