Whether it’s because of the Southern Reach trilogy, City of Saints and Madmen, any one of a number of anthologies covering everything from time travel to steampunk, his Wonderbook, Shriek or Finch — or that he’s married to editor/publisher Ann VanderMeer – you know Jeff VanderMeer and you are witness to his slow conquest of the universe of weird fiction. He brings his ravely reviewed Borne into our store this Thursday night. Here’s a short conversation.
Eric Larkin – Growing up, what were the first stories you read that made an impression?
Jeff VanderMeer – William Blake, of all things! My parents read his poetry to me. They also gave me Aesop’s Fables and I remember books they read to me like Swallows & Amazons and the Dark Is Rising series.
EL – How did you get started as a professional writer? (BTW – thank you for Wonderbook – what a great, portable fiction-writing clinic.)
JVM – I started out as a poet selling poems to literary magazines and then switched over to fiction in my late teens. I sold some stories to professional science fiction magazines and then eventually sold novels to small presses that were then picked up by large commercial publishers. The arc of my career has really been more like a gentle incline over time, ending up with the novels I’ve had out from FSG. And thanks regarding Wonderbook—a revised expanded edition will come out next year.
EL – A few years ago, you said something in a post for Electric Lit: “I closed myself off from the internet for several months and during that time I wrote in the mornings and in the afternoons, then did nothing but read in the evenings- long, uninterrupted reading that healed a fragmented brain and energized my writing.” Is that what reading does, heal our fragmented brains?
JVM – I think reading does heal—any kind of deep immersion in a single thing can help, but reading engages in the imagination in a very particular way. As we’re reading, we more or less create things in our heads and in a sense reading is a way of dreaming well.
EL – In Borne, there is a character who is sort of a plant, but also sort of an animal. Southern Reach Trilogy involves both science and the supernatural. I remember things from other stories, like insects that are a kind of technology. Why do you push together things that most folks keep very distinct?
JVM – There’s a lot of science that seems very alien or uncanny, especially in biology, where even just the life cycle of certain animals is outrageously peculiar from a human perspective. And then soft tech like biomimicry, which seeks to use the way the natural world works to create a better human contribution to the world, is very much about animal as tech, in the sense that, for example, mushrooms used instead of Styrofoam means packing materials biodegrade in months. Figuring out how plant-fungi communication networks operate could help us create truly green tech—like, wires made of biological tendrils. This seems like science fiction, but a lot of hard tech felt that way back in the day too.
EL – Now that Borne has been unleashed on the world, what are you working on next?
JVM – I’m working on a novel titled Hummingbird Salamander that’s about a forty-six-year-old woman, a former body builder turned software manager, who gets a key to a storage unit from a dead woman she doesn’t know. In the storage unit are a taxidermy hummingbird and salamander. They turn out to be among the rarest species on Earth. Investigating her connection to the dead woman and the significance of the taxidermy leads her down a rabbit hole of wildlife trafficking, eco-terrorism, and environmental awareness, in a near-future scenario somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
This Thursday night at 7:30 in the p.m.. Don’t be afraid: we will not let you turn into a sentient slime mold or fall into a time warp mud puddle. Just show up, and we’ll see what happens.