“Some Things Come Unbidden”: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer has written novels of science fiction, fantasy, and hybrid genres, most recently Borne (2017). He has also written nonfiction works on writing and edited genre anthologies. His critically acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy - Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance (2014) - won him the nickname "the weird Thoreau" from The New Yorker for his mixing of the uncanny and the ecological. The trilogy's first novel, Annihilation, was recently adapted into a film, directed by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman (2018). His current work-in-progress, the eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander, is in talks to be acquired by Netflix.

I first encountered VanderMeer's fiction while exploring that nebulous sub-sub-genre sometimes called "the New Weird," now associated primarily with China Miéville and with VanderMeer himself. Upon finishing his novel Veniss Underground (2003), a delightful and truly bizarre underworld quest-narrative featuring genetically engineered meerkat hitmen and (if I recall correctly) a talking anus-creature, I decided both to read his back catalogue and to follow his future career. This April, VanderMeer gave a reading at the University of Notre Dame, where I was finishing a dissertation on science fiction and moral philosophy. Since one of my dissertation chapters was about his Southern Reach trilogy's environmental ethics, I figured I'd better interview him.

Finola Prendergast: A lot of recent literary criticism has commented on highbrow authors who use tropes and plots from speculative fictionfor example, Cormac McCarthy, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, and Colson Whitehead. Some critics argue that this trend indexes a breakdown of literary hierarchies, while others claim that these writers are just spicing up their work with a little pastiche and nothing more. You're an interesting figure for this debate, because you've movedor been movedin the other direction. Your early work was very firmly planted in the genre world, but since Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux published your Southern Reach Trilogy in 2014, it seems different people want to put you in different places. How do you understand your career trajectory with respect to these debates about genre and cultural capital?

Jeff VanderMeer: One reason I usually steer clear of them is just simply that I came out of a dual impulse, which is to say that I read a lot of fantasy fiction, [like] Patricia McKillip and Ursula K. Le Guin; at the same time, I was reading a lot of stuff like Nabokov and everything else. And that dual impulse meant that I was publishing poetry in literary magazines, which was the first thing I did, and editing literary magazines, and editing poetry magazines. When I turned to fiction, the vagaries of market prejudices in the U.S. meant that what I thought I was going to be sending to literary magazines wound up in genre magazineswhich I didn't mind at all, because I had a foot in both camps.

But because of that duality, that's something I've been aware of my entire career, which is to say that I'm not a huge fan of territorialism. I'm a huge fan of looking at the individual evidence of a particular author, or type of author, I guess. So, I don't defend a genre territory. At the same time I do see, obviously, opportunism from people who are kind of dipping their toe in, in ways that do feel like they're just adding a little something. There's a couple of cases where, without naming names, and I never will name the names, it's pretty clear that an editor said to a writer, "Hey, this is hot right now; you should try it." On the other hand, there're people like Colson Whitehead, who has always been not a totally realist writer, in my view. His early novels have some element of the fantastical. And then there're authors like Margaret Atwood, who I feel are actuallyno matter how much genre has complained about them dipping their toe invery beneficial in helping open up that space, so that non-realist works can be considered more seriously. And no matter how fair or unfair you think that is, that that is what it took, that's what happened.

So, I go back and forth on it. I think that the actual techniques of the uncanny, and other kinds of speculative things, are very useful for getting the right distance and the right perspective to really delve into these things, as the main point of the novel... Richard Powers's new novel is incorporating things like the way trees speak to one another, in a generally non-speculative sense that is very science-based, very interesting, and may point to the fact that we're kind of in a science-fictional future with this subject. So, you're going to see more and more contemporary literature where it at least eats away at the edges of our modern science-fictional condition, in interesting ways, even if it's not the main focus. Everyone can have a voice at this table, so to speak.

But what we don't need is a certain escapism, whether it comes from within genre or outside of genre, inasmuch as we need to acknowledge those boundaries in the first place.

Sort of on this topic of genre and territorialism, various labels have been applied to your work at various times: New Weird, cli-fi, eco-fiction, et cetera. You and your wife Ann VanderMeer have edited anthologies called The New Weird (2008) and The Weird (2012), so I assume you aren't a priori rabidly against this kind of categorization. But, in your opinion, what are the limits of these labels and what are their benefits, whether aesthetically, commercially, or socially?

Well, the New Weird anthology we wanted to call "New Weird?" It was supposed to be an inquiry as to whether it was a moment, a movement, or something else. And I really regret the fact that our publisher wouldn't let us do that, because the anthology was kind of misinterpreted as us trying to codify something when we were just trying to explore a moment.

But that doesn't really matter, because weird things happen that seem commercial but aren't. For example, the term New Weird, in parts of Eastern Europe, became an umbrella under which certain publishers could do imprints of really strange stuff that they would not have been able to publish otherwise. So suddenly this thing became a brand, but it also became something that was beneficial to literature, so to speak. At various times, in what I find to be kind of absurd ways, China Miéville would say, "Oh, I love the term New Weird," or "I disavow the term New Weird," very inconsistently. Since he was basically the guy it was associated with, that created all kinds of ambiguity that probably was helpful in the long run if not so helpful in the short term.

But I like Weird as a term. New Weird less so, because I feel like a lot of New Weird authors are just authors, who sometimes write things that can be classified as New Weird, but they're just passing throughthey're doing other things as well. Weird I like especially though, and both terms, because they can't be commodified.

It's not that I have a problem with the term "science fiction," for example, but again, it's a matter of, "What is it that I actually do?" And what I usually do, like in the Southern Reach, is applying a lot of uncanny and supernatural tropes to an alien situation. So you can say it's science fiction, but all the tropes are from somewhere else. But also, there's never going to be a Weird section in the bookstore. And so, unfortunately, and you probably don't encounter this in your conversations in the university setting, but when you're out in the world and you're doing a panel or something, and you're talking about science fiction as a term, or fantasy as a term, often what you wind up talking about is marketing, rather than the actual work itself. And so we try to support terminology that, when you encounter it, it's difficult to just immediately think about marketing or commercial aspects as opposed to the actual work. Weird is one of those.

We want to try, when we do use classifications, to use the ones that fit. Obviously, I have stories that I consider science fiction, and I call them that. But if you're an author who tries to write a lot of different things, then you try to be very squirmy about labels, because it's very easy, in this world, to get stuck as this one thing. There were a horrible five years where - I had written something called The Steampunk Bible, which was just a nonfiction exploration, as a journalist, of steampunk. And suddenly [with] everything I wrote, fiction-wise, I was being described as a steampunk author. And that was just not what I was doing. I have nothing against steampunk fiction, obviouslywe've edited anthologies of itbut you can get stuck with a label and not be able to get out from under it. And so the great thing about [Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux] is that it's diluted the labels, so to speak, in a way that's useful in terms of being able to move around in the world.

Critics and readers have responded enthusiastically to the environmentalist bent in the Southern Reach Trilogy and your most recent novel Borne (2018). I think your work's environmentalism could plausibly be described as political but not didactic. What do you think the political affordances of your novels are? And more generally, what political work do writers do, and how is it differentif it's differentfrom the political work of, say, pundits or activists?

Right. Well, if I'm working on a novel, I'm living with it, usually, for a long time, and so a lecture-y or didactic quality would just begin to bore me, no matter how much I agree with something. I also don't think it's very effective in convincing what I would consider people on the brink or the edge, people who think climate change isn't going to affect anything for fifty years, or don't see that the environment around us is changing pretty radically at the moment. People who are climate-change deniers are just part of a cult; I don't engage with them because you have to engage with them in a very specific way. I know someone who's a priest, and he's able to engage with Christians who don't believe in climate change through their language, so to speak. I can't do that. So you can waste a lot of time with those people, just in terms of thinking about who your audience is.

You can, with a non-didactic approach, make someone feel something in the body, so to speakmake them feel it in a sense that is not just an intellectual exercise. To do that, you have to draw them in, in such a way that they don't really know that they're getting a message till it's too late, if that makes any sense. It's not that you consciously plan this, but if you're writing non-didactic works in the first place you can, at a tactical level, in scenes or whatnot, set traps, so to speak. You can do things that are intentional once you've read through your own rough draft, to bring things out that emphasize that message.

But at the same time, in terms of short stories, I have no problem writing something didactic. I wrote a story called "Trumpland," that's literally about a Trump amusement park in the shape of a reclining Trump, and it's very political and in-your-face. But I didn't have to live with that story for a long time.

But yeah, feeling it in your body, feeling the tactile nature of ita lot of people don't have a connection to the environment, so I think it was really important to show a character who has a deep connection to the environment, and what that's like.

Arguably, the Southern Reach Trilogy and Borne rework elements present in your earlier fiction. In terms of narrative and thematic function, Area X isn't totally dissimilar from the grey caps in the Ambergris Cycle, insofar as both seem to represent invasive species or alien colonization and yet also maybe the justified retaliation of nature against humanity. The genetic engineering in Borne bears some similarity to the genetic engineering in your 2003 novel Veniss Underground. Are you intentionally returning to your earlier work or are these simply ongoing preoccupations for you that you want to return to or rework?

They're ongoing preoccupations. One thing that's been fairly frustrating, until recently, is the fact that those aspects that have to do with the environment and biotech tended to have been overlooked. Because I do think there are a lot of environmental and other messages going on in the Ambergris stuff, about how we interact with the world, the fact that there's less of a difference between the outside and the inside of us, so to speak, the environment we walk through and ourselves, than people think. And yeah, [with] Veniss Underground, you can see a direct correlation to some of the same concerns in Borne. And sometimes it takes a while to come back to something, because I don't like to repeat myself, so if I'm going to repeat a theme or explore something like biotech [again] it's got to be from a totally different angle. And in fact I started Borne in 2016, and I was very afraid of ruining that central relationship between Rachel and Borne, and thought I had something fairly unique, so I wanted to let it sit, and think about it. So it's a little closer to some of that other work than you might imagine, in terms of the timeline.

But most definitely, exploring the ethics of [biotech is] even more critical now because we have the possibility that ten years from now, first graders could be creating their own creatures, which is ethically and morally fraught. Is that creature a work of art, a product, a living being with rights? There's all kinds of stuff going on there that is not getting examined, in part because we monetize everything and think of everything in terms of its functional use.

A lot of writers pick a point of view and stick with it, but you seem to like switching it up. This flexibility is foregrounded in Veniss Underground, which contains sections in the first, second, and third persons, but The Southern Reach Trilogy also moves between first- and third-person narration in an interesting way. How do you go about choosing a point of view when you begin a new work? And what are the ramifications of that choice for other elements of the storysay, plot and theme?

First of all, I don't think landscape or setting exists outside of character point-of-view in fiction, even in third person, because I'm usually pretty tied in, in terms of interiority. So it's very important to me, as much as possible, to get the details right about what a character would notice. And once you realize what that is, then you have certain constraints on you, in terms of story, and cause and effect, and things like that, in interesting ways. You get a feel for a particular character, you get to know the character as an individual human being. The biologist [in Annihilation], for example, just came to me. That's still kind of like a mystery to me because that voice just came to me. Some things come unbidden, and I could have written in her voice for three or four novels; it's just that there wasn't a whole lot more of her story to tell.

[The character] Control was pretty easy, because I wanted Authority to be, in some ways, a kind of darkly humorous novel, and I thought it would be interesting to have a character who supposedly has the right qualifications for a job but is going into a job that isn't what he thinks it is, and so everything that he does is going to completely be a disaster, and [to see] what that looked like in terms of interiority. And it was also kind of a send-up of a certain kind of masculinitywhich I guess I was successful at, because I got a fair number of emails from men who were upset that Control didn't become the hero of his own story. But even there, you have to be sympathetic to something in the character. There's all these other things that have occurred, that have kind of imposed things on him, to make him the way he is, so you kind of find sympathy and empathy from that.

When it came to the third one [Acceptance], by that timesometimes a series will open up. I loved the character of the psychologist so much that her voice began to come to mesomething I hadn't expected when I started writing. I mean, I knew by the middle of Annihilation that there would be a dramatic shift in how we thought of her character by the end, but I didn't know that I would actually want to write in her voice. And then sometimes one character leads to another. So, for example, the psychologist actually led almost directly to the narrator of the novel I'm working on now, in the sense that I thought it was interesting that the psychologist was an unusual body type, kind of large and hulkingyou know, worked out, had that kind of physique in middle age that you most commonly associate with men who work out but then aren't able to keep it up all the time. Sometimes it's that.

In Hummingbird Salamander, the main character is a woman who's middle aged, who's a former body-builder. And that creates, sometimes, an interesting challenge, in how you think about a character moving through the world. And then that affects a lot of other things. Middle-aged women, unfortunately, are often invisible, but she also has this unusual body type, which makes her very visible. What does that mean, in terms of moving through society, so to speak? Sometimes you get an idea for a character, but then there's also some other question about how they move through the world that's interesting, and then all that combines in a kind of natural way.

But a lot of this stuff, at this point, is muscle memory. The only thing that you get, as you get older, is that you know more and more ways to do things. Which can be paralyzing, but it can also mean that your subconscious can immediately pick something from the available choices, and you don't have to do a lot of work to find the voice. There are a lot of other difficulties that are not mitigated by having experience, but . . .

As we discussed a bit earlier, you've edited genre anthologies; you've also created writing manuals, of sorts, for would-be authors of the fantastic. How does your work as an editor and a teacher influence your own writing, if at all?

A lot. We do this Shared Worlds teen writing camp, [which is] very influential; I field-tested Annihilation and all my other novels there, because we want them to see writers in progress, so to speak, and we want them to encounter texts that are not totally perfect yet, to show them the process. But when you have students that are - maybe they've written one or two stories, in some cases, and they also haven't had a lot of creative writing instruction. Their minds are free, in a way, in the sense of how they talk about writing, and the questions they ask. So you learn a lot just from that, because they make you see even very simple things in a different light. I think there's even a line in Borne that's actually kind of from those experiences.

The hardest thing about a writing guide is, there's things that you internalize over time, mechanical processes, things you do mechanically and then you internalize them, and then you're asked to describe them. And it's very difficult to do that because you've already internalized them, so how do you communicate them to another person? Once you have to do that, especially in the form of Wonderbook, where you're having to do diagrams and everything else, you do learn a lot, because suddenly the thing that was subconscious is conscious again. And when it then becomes subconscious once more it takes a different form.

And then the anthologies - I'm firmly convinced that editing The Weird was a huge influence on Annihilation, because we'd just wrapped that up six months before Annihilation hit as an inspiration. And we had to read six million words of Weird fiction to get to the 750,000 that are in the bookthere's actually 900,000 in the book, but we lied to our editor, because we were afraid. When you do that quickly, it's the opposite of what you usually worry about with research, that you won't internalize it. It just formed this sedimentary layer in the back of my head. Especially, it gives you this real sense of perspective because you'll see, "Oh, that contemporary story is actually a pastiche of this story from the 20s or something, by this obscure author nobody knows about." Or you read a lot of Russian literature, and suddenly that American dude, who's known for his Russian cyberpunk stories, is like, mm, I don't know. It really puts things in perspective, and yes, you do learn a lot. It makes you see a lot of different literary traditions, because we tend to translate things that are not just trying to mimic Western traditions. That's one thing we found about prior anthologies; a lot of those editors were completely unwilling to see things that didn't fit a certain series of tropes or approaches.

You're a prolific user of Twitter.

Yeah, too prolific. It's usually a sign I'm not writing, because I'm not really on the Internet if I'm writing. And I apologize for my Twitter feed. There's too much.

You post on a wide variety of topics, from your own work and your public appearances to pictures of your cats to national politics. How has your authorial persona changed since you started using social media? Has your use of social media changed over time, and do you think there are right and wrong ways for novelists to use platforms like Twitter?

The first thing I advise, when a writer asks me that question, is there shouldn't be any separation between you as a person and your social media, in the sense that it does begin to kind of deform you if you create a persona, so to speak. There are writers who have fun with a kind of role-playing, which is totally fine. But if you get on social media, and you think you have a certain obligation to be a certain way, you can find that there's suddenly a separation between your true self and your public persona that's very un-useful.

The other thing is that people seem to think, "Oh, I have a book coming out," or, "I have a book coming out in two years; I need to get on social media and build up my feed," and it's just absurd, because you wind up being a hamster on a wheel, and doing stuff that doesn't actually help, and you may be very not happy about being on social media at the same time. The fact of the matter is that Twitter has become almost like blog culture. Those kinds of factors come into play. The other thing writers think is, "Oh, I need to get on social media," and that's their strategy. And that's not a strategy; that's just making use of a tool.

Just thinking carefully about how personal you want to be - I post a lot of cat pictures on Facebook and stuff, and relay little conversations between me and my wife, and people think that means that I'm very accessible and that I'm sharing personal information. But, if you'll notice, I never share any information about my family. For the most part, I don't share all kinds of wide swathes of information. It's just funny what people also think of as personal.

But I also know writers like Sofia Samatar who've gone off social media entirely. And I've kind of tracked that, just out of curiosity, and it doesn't seem to have hurt their reputations at all. The main thing is, if you have people who do have Twitter followings who retweet stuff about you, you don't necessarily have to have your own feed. I do think also there's a certain kind of writer who isn't suited for it who's become invisible, unfortunately. Sofia is very sociable and great at public events and already had a reputation when she left social media, but I worry about those writers who are very antisocial, who don't ever get on social media, if they don't have strong advocates outside of that, whether their work is actually going to reach as wide an audience.

But for me, I just like to have fun. I like to engage in imaginative play. I encourage fan art. I like to have a conversation, and it's easier for me because I already have a backlist. I don't have to worry about finding a certain number of readers - making my social media do that. So I just have fun, most of the time. I did almost post today that Wizard of Earthsea is as if someone set fire to Harry Potter, but then thought better of it. It just speaks [to] the idea of having then to monitor my Twitter feed for a long time after to see if something blows up in my face.

Alex Garland's film adaptation of your novel Annihilation was released this past February. Has the existence of a movie based on your work changed your public profile?

I've been very lucky, I would say, in that one of the things I thought would happen is, people would see the movie, then they would pick up the book, and they'd be really irritated that it's not the same. But in actual fact, most of them have been very kind about it and also like the book, which I didn't actually anticipate. I figured that by now my Amazon rating would be like two stars from all these people who were forced to read the book, so to speak. But in actual fact, the other thing that's happenedeven though the movie doesn't really have the same environmental themes at all, it's sold a lot of books, so there's this very concrete effect, which is to say that a percentage of royalties on every single book goes to environmental causes, so even though the movie doesn't have them, the movie has facilitated helping those causes.

It's definitely a different level of visibility, and I guess one mistake I madealthough maybe it wasn't a mistakewas just to let it all wash over me. My original plan was to get off social media for a month and protect my brain, but instead I let it wash all over me. And what I thought would happen happened, which is to say that my brain just shut down in terms of fiction. It was like, "Uh, you're not going to write any fiction during this time, because it would be terrible if you tried to." But the good effect is, if there is a movie made again, I know what to expect now, and so I can protect myself better while still engaging. But it's definitely a different level.

I wound up not doing a lot of interviews about the movie, because pop culture sites are so differentthere's this game of telephonethan literary sites. You'd say one thing to a local paper, and then suddenly USA Today has an article saying, "Jeff VanderMeer points out the differences between the [book] and the movie," even though that's not really what you talked to the first reporter about. Or you wind up with an article that misquotes you, saying the exact opposite of what you said. Those things were frustrating, and kind of got in my head a bit. But yeah, it's just a different level of scrutiny, and then a different level of people coming up to me with things, which is good, but also there's a higher level of having to be on all the time.

What I do is, I just forgive myself for not writing when I'm on the road, and then I'm not on the Internet at all when I write. That strategy's going to work even better going forward, at least for the next year. After that, I'm sure, all this will die down.

Annihilation the film obviously shares some thematic concerns with Annihilation the novel, but it's more a riff than a straight adaptation. For example, it gives names to characters the novel only calls "the biologist," "the psychologist," and so forth, it introduces an adultery plot that the novel invokes as a possibility only to dismiss, and it ends very differently. What is it like to see your work translated to another medium and transformed in these quite substantive ways?

I think I've pretty much experienced every emotion one can about the movie. It's hard to complain about having a movie made of your book, I suppose. There are things about the movie that I like quite a bit. I think the last twenty minutes, for example, are more surreal than the book. One of the final scenes with Tessa Thompson's character is very true to the book. It's something that I could see being in the book. The moss garden's very faithful. I think the Crawler is actually in there in interesting ways; [director Alex Garland] just separated out the human and non-human elements of that. Even the texture of the Shimmer is very much like the texture of the Crawler in the book. It's almost like he separated the Crawler out into these different aspects. The bear is more or less the moaning creature and the boar combined, so it's still kind of true to [the book].

But it does point out one thing, which is, I think, Garland had to have more logical explanations for everything, and I think he has a much more rational view of the human mind. And to be absolutely honest that's not where neuroscience is going, in terms of what it's telling us about the human mind, so in an odd logical way the illogic in the book is being more supported by neuroscience. But Alex, I think, needed those anchors to make a movie. I'm still not sure about the adultery subplot, either. It feels too on point and, among other things, I can't see the biologist teaching at Johns Hopkins. They would have found her puttering out in the field, looking at a tidal pool or something.

So yeah, it's been interesting, and instructive, and the movie is certainly beautiful, and has all kinds of other things added, like the stuff about depression. A lot of people have found it very useful. [There's this] idea that the whole movie is about cancer, which is also, I suppose, useful. But very different from what I imagined for the book. And going forward I will proactively have a different role. I'm serving as a creative consultant and executive producer on most of the projects we have coming.


Finola Prendergast received her PhD in English from the University of Notre Dame this May. Her research focuses on science fiction and moral philosophy.