Jeff Vandermeer is the publisher for Ministry of Whimsy, and the author of City of Saints and Madmen, but there's a lot more to Jeff than you might think, even if you've read his unusual "fictional non-fiction." I managed to get some questions to him between the fast and furious work he's done with two new anthologies and his newest novel, Veniss Underground.
Rick Kleffel: How did you begin designing the world you've unveiled in Veniss Underground?
Jeff VanderMeer: My research for Veniss was easy -- look around you. We're destroying this planet at a rate far faster than anyone could have conceived of even sixty years ago. We are systematically polluting our skies, our water, our earth. We are systematically committing mass genocides against animal populations and ecosystems. We are expending non-renewable energy at a reckless rate. And because none of us is an eye in the sky, looking down on all places at all times, we somehow think our limited experience in which "everything looks okay in my immediate vicinity" counts as some kind of authority that can allow us to sleep peacefully at night and not realize that our ecosystem is collapsing around us. We anthropomorphize our cats and dogs but tend to care less about anything that's not furry and cute. We think anything with nerve ends that can't think the way we think is our plaything to use as we like. We justify our SUVs by saying we need them to cart our families around, and then spend most of our time alone in them, humming to ourselves, with the air conditioning on, closed off to our environment. When I suggest in Veniss that humankind may have had its turn, I'm dead serious. Because ultimately, we have only a few choices: wise up and change our behavior (which will probably not happen); hope for the emergence of technologies that will allow us to pursue reckless cruelty and reckless expenditure of energy for a few more hundred years; go extinct before the planet is completely devastated; or go extinct after we've devastated the planet beyond repair.
RK: Veniss Underground seems to come from a very different set of research and artistic choices than your other work.
JV: There was very little research involved in writing Veniss. But the term "research" also suggests a process more systematic than what I employ even in writing the Ambergris material. As for the artistic choices, I was glad, in part 3 of Veniss, to write an extremely fast-paced narrative, something I love to do. I love to write action scenes, but most of what I write does not require them -- or does not require them without some other element involved that slows the pacing. Many of my short stories share similarities to Veniss.
RK: You seem to love monsters, and you seem to love them to be monstrous both physically and psychologically.
JV: That's an interesting observation. I don't think of any of them as monsters. And, besides, isn't Shadrach a "monster"? And he's not monstrous physically. In the case of Nicholas, not to give too much away, Quin makes him look physically like he is psychologically. That was Quin's choice, not mine. There's a little bit of the monstrous in all of us, however. In our imaginations, there's a perversity that runs deep and therefore should probably not be thought of as perverse.
RK: How do your monsters differ from the prototypical "human monsters," like say, Hannibal Lecter?
JV: I was on a panel with Ellen Kushner at ReaderCon once and she said "A good villain is someone you find fascinating enough to want to have lunch with." To which I replied, "I don't want to have lunch with Hannibal Lecter." But I wouldn't mind meeting some of these human and nonhuman monsters I've created. They're all flawed, as we are all flawed, and they all have at least a trace of humanity in them.
RK: How do you bring your creatures into the realm where they can have enough human traits to be interesting reading for humans?
JV: Someone once asked me how I went about creating a main character that was homosexual for my novella "The Transformation of Martin Lake." I told them there was no difference between creating a homosexual and a heterosexual character. Or a male or female character. Similarly, there is really no difference between creating a human and a nonhuman character. Each one is a distinctly different "person," but that difference is usually not based on the most obvious difference from what's "normal." You may proceed, however, from a different place in terms of syntax or in terms of what the creature wants. But, for example, we all want to live, and to live without pain. Some basic things do not change.
RK: The character of "John the Baptist" is particularly inspired; how did you strike the balance between hilarity and horror and gravity?
JV: Utter ruthlessness is the answer. Not looking away. "John the Baptist" is a decapitated but still living meerkat head strapped to the arm of Shadrach, the main character of the third section of the novel. There are a lot of reasons for Shadrach not to cut off the meerkat's head and bring it along with him, but they're all the wrong reasons. The balance between hilarity and horror begins with the sheer unsettling audacity of the act and what it tells us about Shadrach. This balance is confirmed by the banter between Shadrach and John, wherein the mere fact that this is a disembodied head talking while strapped to someone's arm creates a tension between humor and horror. Sometimes John the Baptist speaks like an oracle. Sometimes he speaks like an animal. As do we all.
RK: You find room for a lot of cruelty and horror in Veniss Underground. Was this because of or in spite of the injections of myths and monsters?
JV: One of ReaderCon's organizers told me last year that too many people die in my fiction. I should have responded that not enough people die in other people's fiction. The world itself is a place divided between kindness/reason and insanity/cruelty. People die in horrific circumstances every day across this globe. Cruelty occurs in every city every hour of the day. There is nothing in Veniss that does not have its basis in the real world, not even the most horrific scenes. Further, the lesson a writer like Nabokov teaches is that without cruelty in a book you have no measure for kindness. And that sometimes the best way to teach a lesson in kindness is to describe cruelty. To document it. To unflinchingly explore it. Half-measures are for mediocrities. The whole last part of the book is about how far do you go for love and for the salvation of the person you think you are. When does righteousness become criminal? When does love create cruelty?
RK: Jeff, you like to mingle fiction and non-fiction, as clearly evidenced by your inclusion of monographs about non-existent squids, advertisements and tour guides in your book City of Saints and Madmen. Where did you first find this mix outside your own mind?
JV: It seems like I'm mixing fiction and nonfiction, doesn't it? A monograph on a fake type of squid requires research into real squid, but does a real squid fact included in fake squid fiction constitute nonfiction? I'm not sure. One difference with fictional nonfiction -- or "fantastical nonfiction" -- is that I don't have to actually be factual, just consistent. A lot of reviewers believe they see the influence of Borges in my work. This may be true, but I've only read five stories by Borges, so it may also not be true. I am greatly influenced by Alasdair Gray, especially Poor Things. The way in which Gray included a kind of "nonfiction" appendix that undercut everything set out in the "fiction" part of the novel created a deep and profound sense of pathos regarding his characters. I was drawn to this approach because of its emotional resonance, not so much because I was impressed by the "trick."
RK: How do you approach reading actual non-fiction?
JV: Skeptically. Any journalist who tells you they're objective and that their opinion does not infect their prose is lying. It gets in there, maybe in just a word choice or two, but it's there. (Case in point -- the largely nauseating coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)
The same applies to historians. Everything that makes up a historian's life influences the choices they make when writing a book. Their experience and point of view create a history that sometimes tells us as much more about them as it does the historical events. So, recognizing that most recorded history, beyond dates of battles and whatnot, exists in a kind of quasi-fictional realm, I am interested as much in an exciting story as in any kind of historical "accuracy."
RK: And how does this influence the kinds of research you do to create your own fictional non-fiction?
JV: I don't really have a method to my research -- I'm like a magpie: whatever's shiny, I steal, whether used to support traditional or nontraditional approaches. After a certain point, a place like Ambergris becomes so baroque and multi-leveled that almost any obscure or interesting fact fits into it without threatening its internal consistency. My research is, for example, walking down the street and seeing a red surveyor's flag and imagining that it was put there by a subterranean race known as the "gray caps." And I loot nonfiction books for oddities as well. But it's all the same thing -- grist for the imagination.
RK: Do you find your writing influenced by any particular group of writers?
JV: Almost every reviewer mentions a different writer or set of writers as my influences. While this may reflect a wide range of reading on my part, it mostly means that I'm doing my job. Each story, each novella, each novel, has different stylistic and structural needs. In Ambergris, I leave the underground part of the city shrouded in darkness. In Veniss Underground, I lay bare the underground part of Veniss. That's not just an aesthetic decision -- it has structural and stylistic implications as well.
When you read in anticipation of becoming a writer, you should read widely and deeply, with no restrictions imposed by publishers' ideas of "genre," "mainstream," and other largely meaningless distinctions. As I was growing up, I just sought out good books, with the idea that I wanted to amass as large a library of technique and style and structure as possible. I didn't become aware of movements or schools of thought until much later, which is probably a good thing. I came to the Decadents very late, and then devoured them whole, but after I'd already finished most of the Ambergris material. I came to the New Wave much earlier, but they weren't as much of a formal influence. Cyberpunk never impressed me, because it seemed sexist and simplistic -- boys with toys. Individual writers, like Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, Edward Whittemore, Michael Moorcock, and Vladimir Nabokov impressed the hell out of me. I read and re-read their work. I learned technique in part by copying whole chapters of books by these writers just to see what it was like to type up those words -- to inhabit them momentarily.
RK: What were you setting about to do when you created the Leviathan series?
JV: At the time, I wanted to map the entire world of fiction through short stories and novellas, using loose themes and encompassing, eventually, all styles and approaches to fiction. Perhaps a little ambitious. Instead, over time Leviathan has become devoted to publishing strange and non-realistic fiction while ignoring the labels that have divided "genre fiction" from "mainstream" or "literary fiction." As a New York Review of SF review of Leviathan 3 pointed out, you get unexpected epiphanies from the juxtapositions that occur as a result of this approach. You find that writers who are walled off from each other due primarily to labels, as opposed to the reality of the work itself, actually have a lot in common. Anyone who wants a good thesis project in "fantastical literature" should look at the associations we make in Leviathan -- they'll find a good foundation for analysis, and connections people currently don't make very often.
RK: You work very closely with visual artists. How do you respond with written words to visual art, and how do you collaborate with visual artists to get such a sympathetic response to your written words?
JV: This has been one of the most satisfying aspects of having books out -- getting to correspond and interact with artists. My mother is an artist. Growing up, I developed a strong sense for images, and for the emotional and psychological effect images can have.
My work is very visual, very "painterly" as some reviewer once said. This tends to provide artists with a richness they can work with and riff off of -- in part because my images aren't static. They resonate. They have subtext. Therefore, an artist can convey the essence of my work by drawing on the subtext, without having to do a literal interpretation. I'm not sure it's a true collaboration, though. Usually, it takes one of two forms -- finding existing artwork that captures the mood of my fiction or commissioning art that is a response to my fiction. In the case of a response to my fiction, that artwork tends to become something separate from my fiction as well as part of it. In other words, the art does not need my fiction to be whole.
RK: Tell us what led to the Lambshead Guide anthology. The Lambshead Guide is extremely funny, and yet it appears to be dead serious. Could you talk about the combination of gravity and humor and how they play off one another in the Guide?
JV: Allen Ruch, who runs The Modern Word website, goes by the email moniker of "The Great Quail." You'd have to ask him why. One day in 2000 or 2001, I think, he sent an email with a P.S. that read something like "I have contracted Mad Quail Disease." The proverbial light bulb went on in my head and the disease guide was born.
To be successful at humor, you must take it seriously. For one thing, humor often arises out of pain, suffering, discomfort, and tragedy. For another, you do not need to tell a joke to be humorous. The brilliant thing about the Guide is that we all believed in this doctor called Thackery T. Lambshead. We believed in the fake medical reference guides we created for mention in the various diseases. And so did the writers who have been accepted into the Guide. The majority of rejected submissions were by writers who acted like the Guide was a joke -- more specifically, they did not take their assignment seriously. It was a lark [for them]. And they tried to tell jokes. The most successful approach to humor in this situation is to first buy in to the concept utterly, and let the sense of play arise naturally out of the character, situations, etc. Thus, instead of an arch experiment, we have something much more organic and natural -- that just happens to be humorous. Although, of course, there are also deadly serious pieces in the Guide.
RK: Switching to your writing techniques -- do you approach your longer works with outlines?
JV: No. I retroactively outline after I finish in order to flush out any weak spots, any structural defects. But there is an outline in my head, and I do always know my ending before I begin any piece, short or long. That ending may change during the course of writing the piece, but I know it beforehand.
RK: How do you go about writing? Do you use a computer?
JV: I write rough drafts in longhand specifically so that I can write wherever I happen to be, no matter what the circumstances. For me, longhand is infinitely superior in creating rough drafts and, even after I've typed it up on the computer, rendering a fiction down again into its essential elements and building it back up again. Somehow, I can relive or re-imagine the fiction better this way. When I write in longhand, I am living the story in a way I'm not when typing. Without longhand drafts, I could not effectively rewrite. Besides, I look at a screen all week for my day job. I need the relief.
Because I have a good sense for pacing, I don't write more than I use in a short story. Sometimes I will add or delete a scene, but usually the rough draft is pretty complete. It's then my job to bring certain things more into focus, move other things into the background. And add layers. Each draft is a layer in a sense.
RK: You've been catalogued as part of the 'new fabulist movement.'
JV: To me, both "New Fabulism" and "New Weird" are coffins and since I'm not yet dead, I'm not particularly interested in being interred. With both New Fabulism and New Weird, I'm perplexed. Fantasy fiction is on the verge of entering the mainstream and here we are trying to create sub-ghettos. What's the point? Especially when the writers being described by such terms are such a diverse group. More to the point, neither term helps illuminate or explain the many different impulses at work in modern fantastical fiction. I don't mind the idea of an Interstitial Arts Institute, because such an organization does not appear to champion one particular strand of the exciting fiction being written today over any other.
My own efforts are all about creating and promoting individual, unique works of fiction. My work and the works I promote happen to fall into the category of "cross-genre" or "literary nonrealistic" fiction. There's no real unified vision. A unified vision would imply limitations and limits. I'm not interested in creating movements.
RK: What new projects are you currently working on?
JV: The new novel is Shriek: An Afterword, set in Ambergris. It is a first-person narrative and a strange family chronicle. No quests. No dead loved ones. No metafiction. It goes against the grain of the current fiction about imaginary cities. It's certainly the most autobiographical fiction I've yet produced, in a way that feels personal to me, that is. It's the most brilliant thing I've ever written.
RK: Where is your career headed? What do you think you'll be doing in the future?
JV: I've given up trying to predict. This is a crazy business. One day you're obscure, the next you're reviewed all over the place. Maybe tomorrow I'm Stephen King. Maybe the day after that I'm R.A. Lafferty. Who knows? Probably somewhere between those two extremes. I can get some satisfaction out of having met my career goals, though, to this point. It's hard to believe I'll be 35 on July 7th -- why, I'm practically an old man. Now it is important to keep finding new readers, but more importantly, to continue to grow and improve as a writer. I do not want to repeat myself.
RK: And your final words for Strange Horizons readers?
JV: Squid. Squid. Squid. Squidmeerkat. Or, perhaps, a short excerpt from Shriek: An Afterword.
Copyright © 2003 John Kleffel
Rick Kleffel has written fiction for DeathReam, Grue, Thin Ice and Winter Chills (the Magazine of the British Fantasy Society), and in the upcoming collection The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. His reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Cemetery Dance, Midnight Graffiti, and OtherRealms. His interviews have appeared in Cemetery Dance. He writes for and edits The Agony Column, an online book review and commentary website. He also does radio interviews and reviews for Fine Print, the literary program for central California NPR affiliate KUSP.