Jeff VanderMeer knows a lot about “weird” fiction—that sub-genre that lives between the surreal, the fantastic, the absurd, between horror and speculative fiction, between Franz Kafka and China Miéville, Angela Carter and Kelly Link, William Gibson and Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti. With his wife Ann, Jeff edits the Weird Fiction Review, and the two have also curated two anthologies, The Weird and The New Weird. VanderMeer is also a novelist who, in the past two years, has achieved a tremendous success, which catapulted him to one of the most widely-known and interesting names in the world of fiction, globally.
His Southern Reach trilogy—comprised of the novels Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance—was published by FSG over an eight month period in 2014, to national and international acclaim. It was optioned by Paramount Pictures for a series of movies, the first of which will be directed by Alex Garland (Ex-Machina), and was translated and published in 35 countries. Specifically, the three novels could be considered speculative, fantastical eco-horror. They are set in and around Area X, a wild, mysterious, and dangerous patch of land, which lies in an unspecified part of the Southeastern United States, surrounded by a strange border within which there exists a new, unexplainable ecosystem, one where the laws of physics and biology seem to not apply. The first novel, Annihilation, tells the story of the biologist, one of the four women who are sent into Area X as part of the twelfth expedition. The expedition team is made of the biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor. All previous expeditions before this one ended very badly. One saw the members kill each other. Another group contracted massively aggressive tumors. Others committed suicide. And how about the Southern Reach, the government agency created to study and control Area X? What secrets does it hide?
The Southern Reach trilogy unites mystery, suspense, ecology and horror, adventure and literary experiments like no other work of the past few years. It almost feels like VanderMeer managed to somehow distil a new approach to fantastic literature. I called him over Skype to ask him a few questions.
Timothy Small: The movie based on Annihilation will be out soon. How do you feel about it?
Jeff Vandermeer: It was kind of surreal to begin with. This book was very intensely personal, you know? Part of it came to me in a dream and I didn’t even know if it was a novel, or what, at first. And now it’s becoming a major motion picture. But I got used to it. Now I’m quite excited to see the results, especially because of large roles for new talents like Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. I do know that it’ll be very different from the book. The director, Alex Garland, has a pretty unique vision. I think there are certain aspects of the book that he is going to capture quite beautifully. I’ve been visiting the set and seen everything that’s gone into it and I am especially amazed by the visual imagination behind it.
It must be weird to see a film version of something that came from a dream of yours. Considering how dreams always have these kind of blurry, fuzzy, inconsistent, features and boundaries, are you afraid that by photographing it precisely, in a way that a film does, they might lose some of that element?
Well, I mean, the dream was the catalyst. And then you write something very precise on the page, the descriptions of the landscape are very precise, very specific. And I think, like, to use a cliché example, but a good one, if you look at the paintings of Dalì, he uses very detailed micro-work on the canvas to create an overall surreal effect, so a lot of the time surrealism occurs in a context of realistic detail. It just builds up overall to something surreal.
Reading the Trilogy, I got a very strong sense of place. And I think that a very tricky thing when writing a novel that’s also fantastical, like yours, is having to establish a credible world for the people to inhabit. Do you describe it in detail? Do you risk over-describing it? Do you say little and let the reader fill in the gaps? How did you strike that balance?
Everything that’s not uncanny in the novel is taken from the Southeastern U.S., a place I know very well. Before I became a full-time writer in 2007, I had jobs that took me to small towns in Florida, and other places. That helped me, for example, depict some of the settings in the second book, Authority. My work was with state government agencies, so I would go into these kind of run-down places and that’s where I took a lot of the second book from. Not having to do any research on the setting allows you to relax into thinking about other questions. When do I need this to encroach so that there’s more of a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia? When do I need to leave something to the imagination so the reader has a place for his or her own imagination to flourish? So that was something I was definitely thinking about, and also thinking about how the tone and texture changes from book to book. Book two is all about the human world and the bureaucratic nightmare of that world, and the irrationality of that world, which was meant to be at least equal to the perceived irrationality of Area X.
But you never wanted it to have a specific location.
No. I had to keep a certain distance because I didn’t want it to be named Florida — I wanted it to be able to combine a lot of my different experiences with my imagination in such a way that they conveyed an idea of the Southeastern US without ever saying where specifically they are. Otherwise you have that research component, you have to be faithful to describing a particular real-life location, instead of being faithful to the idea of certain aspects or textures or tones, if that makes sense.
I also had the feeling when I was reading all three books that there was a really interesting tension between ideas that seemed to emerge naturally in the writing process and some really carefully plotted elements. Did you follow a plot outline?
The first ten pages of Annihilation are pretty much unchanged from my rough draft, except some minor tweaking. The idea is to give your imagination the space to be organic, but at the same time to have some focus going forward so that you kind of channel it. So I haven’t really worked with strict outlines, but I had an idea that Annihilation was going to be — no matter whether you were physically going up or down, up into a lighthouse or down into a tunnel — that the progression of it, the structure would always be going down. When you go further into the novel, the disorientation is such that you become acclimated but then you get disoriented again. And you get acclimated, you get disoriented, and that whole process is like going down a set of stairs into the tunnel. Like you are almost actually always in the tower-tunnel, metaphorically speaking, even though you are not physically in there the whole time during the novel. So that was the structure that I imagined for Annihilation. While the biologist’s character arc is pretty much the opposite: going up, because she is becoming more and more herself.
For Authority, I knew it would take place over a week, so that gives you a preliminary, very simple structure. And then I knew basically what scenes would occur in what places, but I didn’t know all of what would happen in them. So it was a little bit like improv, as if you’re be a movie director who says to a character: ‘I don’t really have a dialogue for you. But here’s the emotional situation and context of the scene. Go!’ So, when I came to write those scenes, they would be a revelation for me at the scene level, but not necessarily at the higher level. And then Acceptance was a strange one: in my mind it formed to a kind of three-dimensional starfish, or a star with a central area that was the biologist’s account and then everything else radiating out from it, in a sense, since that’s kind of the heart of the novel. And so yes, I did have a structure in place, I did have thoughts about what each book was going to be like. Authority is a deconstructed spy novel, with a bureaucratic nightmare instead of the usual spy elements. It was very much influenced by John Le Carré. And then the third one is a more realistic quest, if it was a fantasy novel you would call it an epic fantasy quest or something. So it borrows that structure, but for a totally different purpose.
This disorientation that you mentioned in Annihilation: how much of that did you glean at the beginning, when you were conceiving, when you had the first dream, when you started working on that idea?
I had this dream of walking into this tower tunnel, with living words on the walls and something weird down below that I didn’t want to see. And then I woke up from that dream during the middle of the night and wrote down the words on the wall. The words didn’t change at all in the final novel.
Just so our readers understand how insane that is, these are the words: Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner? I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives, while from the dim lit halls of other places, forms that never could be, rise for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen. That’s… amazing. I read about that whole text coming to you in a dream. And that’s flabbergasting, really.
[laughs] Yes. It is. But it made enough sense, and I just didn’t want to touch it. It just didn’t seem to want to be edited. And I felt like I might lose something that I didn’t even know I was losing by changing it. So I I left it.
I understand: it feels like, if you did touch that text, the spell might break.
I have dreams fairly often and most of the time they don’t lead to anything. But this time, I woke up again in the morning and I had the biologist character in my head. I ran to my laptop—which is unusual, because I usually write longhand—I just typed out the first ten pages. And then I had these notes that kind of fleshed out the whole rest of it. I tend to jot down little fragments of scenes and stuff before I write, and by the end of the third day I had all these fragments, leading almost all the way to the end, with some of the more evocative phrases, kind of like anchors, already in my head. So that came very naturally to me. I had just finished working on this book called The Weird, 100 years of weird fiction in anthology form. And that put a sort of layering in my head. Six million words of weird fiction that I had to read and assimilate were in the back of my brain. I really believe my subconscious organized that and condensed it into a kind of sedimentary layer in my reptile brain, because I look back at Annihilation and there are so many different science-fiction/fantasy tropes in it that are just kind of… compressed. Which is why I think it’s disorienting—because you think it’s one thing and then it becomes another and another, because these ideas are piled on top of each other. So even an idea that is familiar becomes unfamiliar by its proximity to so much else.
Part of this disorientation also comes from the early awareness that many characters are under hypnosis, and that sense of being on shaky ground that is typical of the unreliable narrator. Was that an early idea or did it come later?
I decided early on that the narrator, the biologist, would knowingly withhold information. She’s telling the story of Annihilation after the fact, so there’s a certain emphasis that she has decided on. As you can see in book two and three, she’s a little bit more calculating than what you’d imagine from Annihilation. Maybe she seems unreliable, but she’s very reliable, she knows exactly what she’s doing. Actually, although I’ve been very blessed with the reactions of the readers, there’s a small portion of readers who can’t believe she’s so calm in that situation, assuming she’d be screaming or something in some of the encounters. That comes from clichéd reactions in horror movies, and again not recognizing that she is a kind of eccentric biologist who’s not going to react.
Yeah, she’s a scientist. Scientists are weird.
Yeah, they are. Not like writers, who are so normal. [laughs]
It seems like a big part of the novel is our inability to understand or explain the natural world, given the limits of language and our own cognition. Nature doesn’t explain itself. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who’d just read the book. He said, “Well, I don’t understand, I never understand what’s going on, you know? Like what Area X actually is.” And I replied that that was like nature. A tree is not going to explain to you how forests work, right? And this kind of unexplainable, possibly alien phenomenon of Area X wouldn’t necessarily explain itself. As I read the trilogy, I got a strong sense that this was a very calculated choice of yours: perhaps to suggest that we should be a little more humble when we try to understand the natural world, or that we maybe just can’t.
I really don’t like novels or series that end with a kind of sudden explanation that the character could not in reality ever come to. I wanted the reader to put answers together in book three through various characters finding out different pieces. That’s much more realistic than it being this sudden Ah-hha! moment on the part of one character. I didn’t want it to be artificial that way. There is also the issue of what we can and can’t perceive through our senses. And I proposed elsewhere, in some of the environmental talks that I’ve given, that it would be very educational if we could use Oculus Rift or some other virtual reality thing to see even our own neighborhoods better. You know, to see the chem trail, so to speak, left by insects, and all the other types of communication that are occurring that are very complex and we can’t see. And because we can’t see these things, we tend to view the world around us as more simplistic than it is. And then we tend to destroy things or change things before we even truly understand them.
One good example of this would be in mycology, the study of fungi and mushrooms. There’s a lot of practical applications for that stuff. Right now I think there’s a patent pending for a fungal organic material that would replace Styrofoam: you could just toss it in the backyard and it would biodegrade in a month. You know, things like that could replace plastics, could replace substances that we’ve made out of our hard-tech world, substances that are actually incredibly toxic and take a lot of fossil fuel energy to create. If we simply mimicked and understood better the actual complex process of what is going on in nature… I mean, for example, it’s fascinating to me that scientists are just beginning to understand the complexities of fungal pathways under the ground that are also communication links for trees.
I read about this. It’s incredible.
Yeah. It begins to sound science-fictional but it’s the actual way the world works. So I wanted to begin to get at that and get at the sense that, like you say, we should be more humble. And not because I’m anti-human. It’s just simply that, as a fiction writer, you’re supposed to try and express the complexity of the world, and I suppose that a lot of time this comes out as the emotional complexity of the interaction between human beings —fair enough. But, you know, in a lot of cases, especially now with global warming, it’s very important that we understand the true nature of the world that’s around us. Another issue that I think comes up in the novels is the idea of contamination — the idea that there really is no inside/outside, there is no body/non-body in the sense that even recent books about microbes show that there’s much more flux between us and the environment around us. There’s much more communication and interaction than we’re aware of. And if we could see the world more in that way, we would actually see more connection. I think any time you see more connection, whether you see connections on the human level or just in general about what we call the natural world, there’s more of a chance for empathy, and understanding and inhabiting a different point of view. And I think that’s what we really need. Beyond just like, you know, converting to solar.
In fiction, over the past few years — be it, horror, science fiction, speculative fiction, or even literary fiction — there has been a move towards talking about biology, virology, ecology, instead of hard-tech stuff. In general, our place in the natural world seems like a major preoccupation of our times, as well as a major fear of our times. I was reading that famous essay by Margaret Atwood, aptly titled It’s not climate-change, it’s everything-change. And just the title, it says everything. And it seems to me that, if you go back through history you’ll see that the fiction, the culture being created is always, in some way, a mirror of our fears, our hopes, our dreams as a society.
Yeah. And uncanny fiction and weird fiction are well-suited to address these matters, because they deal with the irrationality of the way we deal with issues, because they can deal with someone encountering something so large, so weird, so unseeable in its whole expanse, that you feel dwarfed by it. And global warming is kind of like that, a hyperobject. Our problem with it, as Timothy Morton said, is simply the vastness.The human brain hasn’t evolved to really understand something so large, or to do anything more than react to it. And that’s one reason why there’s so much difficulty getting our act together. I really think that “weird” fiction is very useful in dealing with this. Or even fiction in general. I find it disturbing that some people on different sides, defending different so-called “territories,” would say realistic fiction is better to deal with this as opposed to speculative fiction, or vice versa. There can be interesting approaches from all over the place.
And anyway, what’s most interesting, is that we’re already in the middle of it now. We’re in a science-fictional future now, in a profound way, and not everyone is realizing it, but it’s really what’s happening, what with extreme weather events, climate change and everything else. So what’s happening is that mainstream literary fiction, that’s not science fiction, that’s not weird fiction, that’s very realistic, is dealing with these issues, too — because they’re all around us — and sometimes more effectively than science-fiction. There’s something about the can-do, science-must-solve-all, solutionist faction of science fiction that’s actually very antithetical to the nuance and the complexity of what we’re dealing with. But I’m glad that people are grappling with it. And I’m very forgiving to people who grapple with it badly, only because it’s such a difficult thing to grapple with, it’s a difficult thing to get into your fiction in a way that’s not preachy or didactic, that isn’t just an essay in story form, because, you know, at that point why not just write an essay.
Talking about this distinction between literary and genre fiction, I think it’s fairly mundane and a bit childish sometimes. Especially if anyone has any knowledge of the history of literature, I mean, this distinction was invented by marketing, like seventy years ago. Before that, no one used to care if someone wrote a literary book that was set on the moon.
It works both ways. There’re snobs or “reverse snobs” within science-fiction, too. The other thing I’d say is this factionalism needs to be nipped in the bud in the wider world. Because you sometimes see Marxists bickering with Liberals fighting with some other ideology, everyone’s fighting with everyone else, even when dealing with something as potentially catastrophic as climate change. We should pick the best ideas from all the ideologies and let’s don’t go down with the ship because we have to follow the party line, so to speak. But thankfully it’s kind of a low murmur; I think most people understand that this issue is so serious that there’s no time for that.
Let’s talk about William Gibson. After essentially inventing cyberpunk, in his later novels he started to talk about the present, after All Tomorrow’s Parties, in 1999. He was pretty much saying that we’re already in a science fiction world, that there is no fixed “now,” no present from which to contemplate a possible “future.” I think that was a moment when a lot of writers kind of woke up to that idea. Personally, I started thinking about the present in a different way. Another thing that’s been going on a lot in the past, say, twenty years, is that genre fiction has really become the mainstream. When I was a kid, I would never have imagined that we would have like seventeen Iron Man movies mass-released at the cinema and that “serious” writers who win the Pulitzer Prize for literature would write post-apocalyptic novels, you know?
For me, it’s just weird because I started out in the literary mainstream. I was a poet for a long time. I edited a mainstream poetry journal so I was pretty much immersed in that world. And then when I started writing fiction it was kind of Kafkaesque and in the US publishing environment that meant that it was genre. So, I’ve been living in these two worlds, which is why I find the whole thing ridiculous, too. Because I just take the best of both of them, and I love both of them. I love a lot of stuff that has no speculative element whatsoever in it and I love having the freedom to not have to choose a side. I don’t really buy into territories and tribalism. But I will have to say there was one other thing, besides Gibson, that helped to loosen things up and it was really Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, especially the first book, which actually got a lot of flack in the genre circle. How come you’re writing in our territory?, and all that. But that’s actually what made mainstream literary publishers, from the marketing side, sit up, look at that aspect, take notice and say Oh, we can sell science fiction! We can sell it as literary, if we do it the right way. And then that has the practical cultural effect of opening up a lot of opportunities. Including, for example, FSG publishing the Southern Reach, which was such a boon to me.
I was looking at some science fiction books from genre publishers and, next to the gorgeous FSG edition, their covers look… just so bad. They look like a manual for a graphic design software in the Nineties, you know. And I was thinking, if we just switched the covers, would people have liked the Area X trilogy in the same way? Would we even be doing this interview for a non-genre website?
The entry point makes such a huge difference, I think. The entry point for the Southern Reach could be either an expedition into a strange pristine, wilderness…or you could foreground the speculative elements. If it had been published by a genre publisher, they’d have foregrounded the speculative elements. Now, look, I’m always for maximizing the possible number of readers that I can reach. Sometimes I do very uncommercial things and I recognize, coming in, that that means a small audience, but for this, I thought, because it is set in the real world, or some semblance of it, if it has the right entry point for the reader, if they can be kind of led into in the right way, then some of the stranger things would be OK. And I know that from some other type of publisher in the US it might have gotten the standard post-apocalyptic-type cover. It would have had maybe a dark lighthouse, or a strange creature, and that’s not all the books are about. I’m very grateful that FSG understood that.
The fact that this trilogy came out with FSG is one of those moments of confluence between genre and literary fiction we were talking about before, with the Gibson and the Atwood. It’s created something of a precedent.
I feel very fortunate in that regard. You have to understand, I’ve had certain books that were perfect for a core genre audience, and ones where it was clear to me before they were even sold that they needed to be available, or seen—or not be invisible, at least—to a mainstream literary audience, too. I was pretty adamant about that with this trilogy. And it’s definitely paying off. Annihilation, for example: so far, in the US, it’s already sold well over a hundred thousand copies, and might reach other milestones in the next year. And that’s because they widened their reach.They made it palatable to a general reader that probably doesn’t read science fiction or doesn’t read weird fiction (which, of course, is only because they have a certain… impression of science fiction).
You mentioned Timothy Morton and Hyper-objects. Did you read that before you wrote the book, or is that something that kind of just happened simultaneously and then you found out about it later? Because it’s really quite uncanny how well the idea of the Hyper-object and the inability for us to describe something so vast and unexplainable as nature and climate change applies to Area X and the way people can’t seem to deal with it in the novels.
Let me back up a little bit and say that one of the inspirations for the Southern Reach and especially for Area X is the Gulf Oil Spill. And I mention that because that was it’s own kind of hyper-object. Which is to say that, for those of us who live in Florida and know that coast and fear for it, for environmental catastrophes, when oil was bubbling out and it seemed like they couldn’t stop it, and some people say that it wouldn’t stop for 20 years and the whole Gulf would become just a huge oil spill… that was in our head the entire time, it was basically non-stop spewing out in your head in a very real way, in a very stressful way. I think that my subconscious turned that into “I want to protect that area, that became Area X, this thing with pristine nature and water, surrounded by a border or a wall.” Very literally, I think that’s what my subconscious did and then turned it into a story. So there is that hyper-object of the Gulf Oil Spill that existed in my mind as I was writing. I didn’t encounter Timothy Morton’s actual theory until I read of it in one of the reviews and a light-bulb went off and I was like Wow! And then I read everything I could about the term. I believe very deeply that there are things that are embedded subconsciously in a novel, which when you find out what they are on a conscious level, you need to study them. Then the expression of those ideas, after thoughtful study, will be different in your later fiction.
It then becomes very exciting for me to study them formally, so to speak. It seems uncanny, sure, except that I also think that most of us are encountering these hyper-objects in our lives, and that just proves that the theory is good, that the term is very accurate. Even a book like William Vollman’s The Imperial, which is about the Salton Sea, a non-fiction book. It’s a very repetitive book, it’s a book that keeps coming back to the same questions and aspect of the Salton Sea—an environmental catastrophe made worse by global warming, and it tries to explain it but just keeps getting stuck on it. And I finally realized that the reason the book is repetitive—why it has some similarities to the problems the Southern Reach agency has when it tries to explore Area X—is because the author has encountered a hyper-object there, too. And he didn’t even probably realize it, but the repetitions are there because he wants to try and understand this thing that has happened, but that’s not really understandable, because it is too vast, too complex. I find this kind of resonance very fascinating.
In terms of philosophy, the Southern Reach trilogy also resonates with what has been going on now with the new theories on how we interpret consciousness, how we have been ascribing consciousness only to those animals who can speak a language.
Right. Most fiction expresses ideas about animal behavior that are 20 or 30 years behind the research—continues to put forward really non-scientific clichés that are actively harmful to our understanding and the mindset necessary to save our ecosystems. Sometimes it’s shocking: the same writers who wouldn’t dream of getting the physics wrong or the anatomy of a family dynamic in a particular social system can’t seem to figure out that animals are more complex than we once thought, and they don’t seem to care.
You’re working on a nonfiction book, that sort of deals with some of these topics, right?
I’ve got around 20,000 words so far. Some of it is based on essays that were published in the site Electric Literature and some of it is unique to the book. It’s essentially about the storytelling we’ve done, both fictional and nonfictional, about our environment, about our natural environments, and of course the key anchor to those environments: animals, and how we view animals. So there is a kind of historical section talking about the different ways that we have approached this, from folk tales and other things, to a section on the present day, in both fiction and science. And then an extrapolative section: what would storytelling look like if we really incorporated this complexity but found a way to turn it into a narrative that’s still coherent, that still speaks to readers, that isn’t too experimental, although I also list some experimental things. So it’s kind of a “what if” book that’s grounded in history and I think it’s different from some other books about global warming out there because of that, because it’s trying to find an organic way to talk about non-fictional and fictional storytelling about what has lead us to global warming, basically. Or what had led us to the attitudes that have allowed us to develop this situation…So, it’s also kind of an indictment of hard-tech, as well, but I tried not to let it become a polemic, it’s more about the creative side of things.
It sounds very interesting.
Maybe. I hope. Whenever I jump off a cliff like this, I never know what’s waiting for me at the bottom, if it’s a finished book or just a mess, so…we’ll see.
Now, I was interviewing a friend of mine, a comic book artist, and he said how he really believes that ideas float around in the air and that creators or artists have better antennae for capturing these idea, to pluck them out of the collective unconscious. It’s ridiculous but it does make some sort of sense.
As comic artists or writers or whatever else, you have to deal with things indirectly to some degree, in order to capture the nuance. That’s a different kind of effect than dealing with them head-on, the way other people have to deal with these problems, which is also a way we have to deal with them collectively. But it does mean that you get these kind of… echoes. So you know, science departments, and scientists in general, are all looking for ways to do better storytelling, which is a huge part of what they are talking about. Global warming is a kind of hyper-object challenge. Scientists are looking at a flood of data and they have to somehow make sense of it, to tell the story of it, for many different groups of people: for the public, or even people from their own institutions who are in different areas of science. And that’s why you see more conferences where you have philosophers, scientists, musicians, fiction writers and others in a common space, where they wouldn’t normally be together. I get a lot of invites to universities where they maybe the science department’s bringing me in to talk about my experience writing Annihilation and what it means to me in terms of global warming and things like that.
People say the first novel in English is probably A Journal of the Plague Year, which is a 1722 book by Daniel Defoe. But that book is also considered the first literary non-fiction book. And that was about an epidemic.
Right, right. [laughs] What’s fascinating about that is that scientists in the 19th century didn’t have that much of a division. We were talking about genre division and mainstream literary fiction, but they didn’t have that much of a division between literature and science in general. You’d have scientists who conveyed their findings in poetry, not to mention the whole tradition of the contes philosophiques. You’d have more generalist storytelling, as well, which is something that you see a move back towards, because to understand this stuff, to try and explain these hyper-objects, you can’t just be off in your own little corner. You know, you need that corner, but you also need a wider understanding. It’s fascinating how all this comes back to different kinds of storytelling about facts.