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Interview with author Jeff VanderMeer

3 March 2014 | Tom Hunter

Exploring the Weird: Award-winning novelist Jeff VanderMeer talks about his chilling new Southern Reach trilogy

Tense, chilling, weird, wonderful and possibly the best thriller to be published this year, Annihilation is the first part of a new fantasy trilogy from author Jeff VanderMeer.

Telling the story of a nameless biologist who joins an ill-fated exploratory mission into Area X, the site of an unknown ecological or possibly other-worldly disaster, Annihilation recalls the best mind-bending moments of Lost if it was directed by Stanley Kubrick and scripted by HP Lovecraft, or at least that’s what London Calling’s Tom Hunter said after he read the book in one edge-of-his-seat sitting in preparation for interviewing Jeff:

London Calling: What can you can tell us about the Southern Reach trilogy that isn’t too Spoiler-tastic? 

Jeff VanderMeer: I’ve been told it’s about the twelfth expedition into a strange “pristine wilderness” called Area X. For thirty-plus years a secret government agency, the Southern Reach, has been sending in expeditions with disastrous or indifferent results. They’re more or less no closer to answers. The twelfth expedition consists of four women: an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and the biologist who narrates the account. Once in Area X, they find a tunnel not on their maps, a lighthouse that is both more and less than it seems…and that their mission is compromised by other forces as well.

LC: The trilogy has a quite unusual, e.g. rapid publishing, schedule, how do you hope this will work with readers?

JV: The vision here is in part based on the immersive viewing experience of fans of shows like The Wire and House of Cards—in the former case you have a ton of so-called “binge watching” since the series originally aired. In the latter, you have a series released all at once. Some might say that’s about instant consumption for people without patience, but my own point of view on, for example, reading several books in a series one after the other or watching a great TV program is that you become so immersed and so locked-in that it enhances the experience greatly. You get lost in it and more committed to it. If you have to wait a year at a time for each new instalment, there’s a kind of getting-up-to-speed again stage that you can skip with this schedule. So long as it doesn’t mean writers having to create too quickly, I’m all for it. We need bold, innovative approaches to publishing books—ones that celebrate the joys of reading.

LC: One of the main things that reviewers and fans often note about your work is the strength of the visual language. Are there any particular artists who might inspire you in the way that, say, JG Ballard was influenced by the Surrealists, and how do you approach the challenge of building imagery with words in the mind of the reader?

JV: My mother is an artist and I grew up with a studio in the house, so I’ve always had a bit of a painter’s eye, and an approach where images are tied to characters and characterization—images are alive to me, they have an inner life. It’s nothing so obvious as “symbolism” per se, but that they resonate. But there are also the practical considerations of things like blocking a scene, which helps the reader—and me. Sometimes I don’t get the right insight into a character until I know exactly how and where they would be standing or sitting in a room, and what they might be doing with their hands while talking. I do a fair amount of practical diagramming of the visual elements and even sometimes commandeer physical spaces to act out scenes. I do like the surrealists quite a bit, but I’m probably more locked in on writers like Angela Carter who found ways to take the convulsive beauty favoured by surrealists and channel it into narrative.

LC: Congratulations on the trilogy being optioned for a possible film. What does this mean for you as an author and, if it should get made, do you think you'd like to be involved in some way, even if only visiting the set, or would you rather wait for the opening night?

JV: For any full-time writer something like a film option means first and foremost more time to write fiction, and it’s important not to lose focus on that. But I also love film and take a lot of inspiration from film—the second novel, Authority, steals a lot of tricks from Kubrick and some from Jodorowsky, for example. So I’ve spent some time reorganizing Annihilation in my mind as a film, since film is more of a third-person viewpoint and my novel is a first-person account. I keep seeing the camera panning rapid across the marsh reeds and veering past the lighthouse and then settling on the base camp, where we are introduced to our main characters, perhaps with a biologist voice-over, perhaps not, but definitely getting little off-kilter flashbacks to the biologist’s past that seem just a little odd but that we can’t figure out what’s odd until later. A man standing in front of a refrigerator, for example, drinking milk until it spills across his chin and to the floor. (A reference people won’t get unless they’ve read the novel.) I’m just happy that Scott Rudin and Paramount have included in me in a general way—I don’t need anything further. I think Rudin’s a genius-level producer and they know how to translate novels to film.

LC:  Your book tours are famous for going above and beyond the usual author readings and Q&As, so we do hope you come to London soon. What is it about live readings and author events that you enjoy so much?

JV: You live like a hermit in your own head for months or sometimes years writing a novel, hopefully with some more sociable breaks in between, but it is a very solitary enterprise. I love that aspect of it, but I also love getting out there and giving readings and multi-media presentations. That, too, is a form of creativity, and although I’m not a performer, I want to be more than just a reader. So I do practice a lot and often tell an anecdote about the book I’m reading from first—that’s really valuable because I can do that from memory and interact with the audience, which then loosens me up for the reading itself. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m always humbled to meet people who have enjoyed the books and wanted to come to a reading….I do remember a multi-media event I did at a high school, with music, film, art, reading, and performance…one of the students came up afterwards and said, “I never knew readings were like that! I’ll go to more now!” It was her first author event.

LC: And finally, would you ever consider setting a novel in London (we had to ask)?

JV: You know, London’s one of those places where I’d recommend not shying away from some of the touristy things the first time around as well as take in some theatre and museums, but also to walk as much as possible. My wife Ann and I love to pick place to end up at the end of the day and just wander getting there. Paris is a bit the same, as is Prague. You discover a lot more that way—you bump into interesting people and all kinds of sudden inspiration. You hear snippets of conversation and you turn a corner into the unexpected. The other way, of course, is let someone you know who’s local show you what they love. And I can’t say I don’t love a good, dark pub and sitting at the bar and striking up a conversation.

My prior novels set in Ambergris have a little bit of London influence in them, but, honestly, so many amazing U.K. writers have written about London or set novels in London that I wouldn’t have much to add. Bits of London in disguise will no doubt continue to show up in my fiction, though.

 

Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer is published now by 4th Estate, price £10

Parts two and three, AUTHORITY and ACCEPTANCE, will be published later in 2014

Follow Jeff VanderMeer on Twitter here

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