September 2006

Geoffrey H. Goodwin


An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer has done something distinctive and different with Shriek: An Afterword. It's a memoir by Janice Shriek or perhaps a biography on Duncan Shriek written by his sister, but it's trickier than that. Shriek: An Afterword comes together as an intricate, subtle story of love, a war between publishing houses, the joys and obsessions of historical research and the painful advance of a fungal disease. But listing those aspects isn't fair either.

Publisher's Weekly took a stab by saying, "Janice Shriek, a failed gallery owner and journalist, has ostensibly created an afterword to The Early History of Ambergris by her brother, Duncan Shriek, a talented if unconventional historian who finds his career in shambles after his controversial theories concerning Ambergris's founding and the genocide perpetrated against its nonhuman inhabitants gain public disfavor."

Jeff VanderMeer, two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, has managed to get something down that's more appealing than nutshell descriptions can describe. It's a compassionate story set in his personal otherworld -- though it's quite different from his other stories set in Ambergris. All told, his characters' personal relationships and how they interact with Ambergris are both as magic and as real as fiction can be.

[Note: In the book, Janice's thoughts and recollections have occasional parenthetical comments from Duncan. Something similar happened via e-mail. Or it may have been an appearance by an alter ego known as Evil Monkey. When VanderMeer's answers returned, an additional question had appeared. This mysterious exchange appears at the bottom of the interview.]

You're known for world travel. Where are you now and where have you been recently?

I am in that netherland known as Jetlag. I just got back from a five-week book tour of Europe since editions of my work have recently appeared in Portugal, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Romania, and Finland. It seemed like a good time to do this, and it was probably the most amazing experience of my life, from the silly (sending a smelly cheese down in an elevator and being coerced by Michael Moorcock to panhandle using his hat in Paris) to the sublime (the first night in Prague and an endurance trip down the Danube in Romania and doing a sauna in Helsinki), not to mention meeting a lot of readers of my books and doing a ton of events and interviews.

You're prolific in many directions, be it Youtube's Evil Monkey appearances, your film-in-progress on the book biz, or your popular blog. How do you balance it all? Do they bump each other or are they synergistic? 

They tend to be synergistic, and they're all different forms of creativity -- and connectivity. The connectivity is key, whether meeting other creative types and riffing off of them or just recharging the brain with new ideas that tend to come out in the fiction over time. The film work is a bit like that -- it makes me see fiction from a different perspective and it also is preparing for me another novel, one in which instead of illustrations being key to the plot an actual video with music is key. I like the idea of combining all different kinds of media and collaborating with artists in those fields. Because, again, I get a different perspective on things. The only disheartening thing is that some people think most of this stuff is about self-promotion when it's really about artistic expression and cross-pollination.

Rikki Ducornet has said, "I think I have a theory about what I call potencies, that there are objects that evoke entire worlds and set us to dreaming." You've talked about using charged concepts to trigger as many connections as possible as an element of your plotting. How internal are these for you? (Please tell if you're extraordinarily fond of mushrooms.) 

The internalization, even if you spit it back out again, is key. And it has to do with receptivity -- letting in as much of the world as possible. I'd compare it to the difference between someone who is guarded in love and someone who allows themselves to stumble and fail in love over and over. If you can put yourself out there, make yourself a raw nerve-end even if you get burned from time to time -- that's the best possible situation for a novelist. At the novel length, I really think writers are absorbing as much of the world as possible and putting it into their work, because novels have the length to handle that. So it doesn't really matter what the objects are -- mushrooms, squid, Byzantine history -- just that you become obsessed with something and then allow that narrow something to expand out through whatever it is connected to, since everything is, ultimately, connected to everything else. When I'm writing a novel, those charged images or concepts accumulate all of this other stuff that feeds into the fiction. In an odd way, when you're writing a big novel, everything around you can go into the novel in some form.

You're also known as a critic, essayist and reviewer. Reviewing is dangerous for writers, sometimes because Speculative Fiction becomes a small world after all. Have you ever regretted a review you've written, or its fallout?

I've never regretted a review I've written. Not a one. I regret only that we don't live in a world where honest discussion about books can occur without personal vendettas occurring as a result. I'd like nothing better than heated and honest discussion about various books, but we don't live in that world. I have regretted in recent years the reviews I didn't write because I was afraid of something more subtle than the reaction: the time it would take away from my fiction to defend the review and the fact that if I were to do more controversial reviews in the world of Speculative Fiction, which is only part of the world I work in, then I'd get trapped in paradigms that represent only a subset of my interests and concerns. I tend to think of the world of writing as comprising a vast, dysfunctional, argumentative family and don't hold grudges on my end, and am, perhaps naively, continually surprised when others can't compartmentalize. I also think we live in a world where writers are becoming perilously close to pop stars -- in terms of how reviewers and readers are always looking for the next pretty young thing (metaphorically), often at the expense of writers in their forties, fifties, and sixties, who have actually achieved mastery. Comparatively.

Since you perform interviews in your VanderWorld blog… interviewers tend to ask your own questions back at you. As such, please assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience? 

Given that Shriek was designed (in its entirety) to be both unfilmable and unkind to child readers, the book would seem like the monolithic black block in the movie 2001: impenetrable, mysterious, and puzzling. No therapy needed, even if they happened to flip to the (few) sexual references. This is not thaumaturgy for the naive, to be silly for second.

Teaching at Clarion East next year, a student in 1992, what has your learning process been like for writing fiction? Have you done other formal classes as a student or has it been more organic? 

As a student I learned more about what I didn't want to write than what I did want to write, which is a legitimate use of a workshop too. Most of my learning has come from reading what I think of as great books and dissecting them. I used to type up scenes I particularly liked in great books, word-for-word from the published version, to see how they worked. Then I'd try to write them from memory and study the differences between my text and theirs. I also did a lot of self-teaching through books like David Madden's amazing Revising Fiction and Carol Bly's The Passionate, Accurate Story, along with some of John Gardner's nonfiction (I'm not a fan of his moral story stuff).

Do you still feel that you "never really have a plan in place except to challenge" yourself? 

There are certain effects I want to accomplish artistically, of course, certain structures I want to use, but I usually file those away until a character or situation organically demands it. So I'd say, yes, I still feel that way. The one systematic thing I do these days is to just make sure I don't repeat myself. If I start a new novel, it should feel like I've never written a novel before -- it should have that element of fear and the sense that I don't know anything about writing. It's just a way to keep the inevitable decaying orbit from occurring too soon. And it's a way to keep myself excited about what I'm doing. I get bored easily.

You've written fiction and nonfiction with a monstrous range of tone, word choice and overall style. It's probably valid to say that none of your books (perhaps even comparing the first and then most recent editions of City of Saints and Madmen) are similar. Along those lines, is it fair to say that Shriek: An Afterword is unlike anything else you've ever done? If so, how come? If not, what are the commonalities across the books? 

I suppose one commonality across the books and stories is that many of them have to do with love and death (with a revolving subset of themes that changes as my obsessions change). But Shriek is probably the most straightforward novel I've done (if you include City of Saints as a mosaic novel), in that the characters and situation did not require some of the more formal structural experiments and techniques I've used in the past. In fact, using those experiments and techniques would have hurt Shriek immeasurably. It was enough to have two narrators and realize that the main narrator, Janice Shriek, would not be strictly chronological in her reminiscences -- that her idea of connectivity of materials would not always be organized by time, since our memories don't work that way. I also think that Shriek is the most obviously non-fantasy book of my career. I've been writing stories set in an imaginary place with no element of fantasy for a long time with very few people noticing, but never a whole novel in which every element of the plot, really, could happen in our world. For this reason, even if it's a false idea, I still think irrationally that Shriek depends more on traditional three-dimensional characters than some of my other work. I say irrationally because it is always about the characters for me. It's just that I always thought of Shriek as a family chronicle first and foremost and a fantasy only second.

Where do the three main characters, Duncan, Janice and Mary, come from? How did you choose to shape the dynamics of their relationships and how their relationships changed throughout your novel?

I just thought about them for a long time and then let them find their own way, in a sense. It's not so much that I believe in characters who "come alive" any more than I believe that settings or anything else can "come alive" and somehow be channeled from outside of the author's intent. Just that I thought about them to the point where I knew the general dramatic tension but not the specific dramatic tension and then started writing about them. It helped that I wrote the book over eight years, though, because it allowed my thoughts about the characters to mature, and they did change in my mind -- or, I could see more layers to them. I began to examine the text and think to myself, "Janice said this, but that's something she would only think as a young woman, not at the time of writing this account." And that allowed for a lot of subtle effects.

Duncan and Janice, like certain other paradigms in other stories, are probably my main idea of family, in that growing up my sister and I were the only family the either of us had at certain times. It's a dangerous and untrue statement at the same time because there are parts of Janice that are more like me and parts of Duncan that are more like my sister -- and large parts of both that are from other people or completely from my imagination. It's all so mixed up at this point that I can't really tell what's autobiographical anymore, which is as it should be.

I'm not quite sure where Mary came from. At first she may have been conjured up in the form of Duncan's lust for her -- almost a creation of it, in the way that men mentally create women who don't exist, but which women then sometimes allow themselves to become -- but she quickly became more three-dimensional and independent of Duncan's view of her. Or Janice's view of her.
One thing I like about the novel is that although Janice and Duncan both pass judgment on each other and sometimes on Mary, I as the author don't judge any of them. Perhaps as a result, readers tend to differ wildly about whom they most sympathize with among the three. And throughout the novel Janice and Duncan are constantly changing their opinions of Mary to some degree. I wanted that shifting balance because it's a lot like real life. We're not that consistent about our feelings, really.

To focus on one relationship, what was it like to write about a teacher and student dating in such a different world? Was there anything special, especially in terms of world building, that you had to do to set up their love affair and its outcome? 

Again, I kind of let the characters do what they seemed to want to do, even if that is just a writer's trick. I've never really thought of myself as a fantasy writer, to be honest, when writing rough drafts or even revisions. I don't think, "Let me find an example of how a fantasy writer handled this." I don't divide fiction out that way, so I handled their love affair and outcome the same way I would if I were writing fiction set in the real world. It's very limiting -- and gives you fewer tools to work with -- if you really deep down think of yourself as anything other than just "a fiction writer." So, nothing special. Just the same things everybody does -- think about it for a long time, do some backwriting, think about your own experiences with romance, etc. At the same time, I did like the idea of updating the teacher-student romance cliche a bit, and also of spoofing it. I thought about parts of their romance in terms of humor, really. And overheated language.

What made you choose the memoir form? How has Janice's voice changed since her first appearance? 

The book originated literally as an afterword to a story called "The Early History of Ambergris" (supposedly written by Duncan Shriek), which appeared in my previous book, City of Saints and Madmen. In the original of that story, published as a stand-alone chapbook in 1999, there is a brief afterword by Janice commenting on her brother's work. So there's one reason. But I also really loved the idea of using first person, and a very eccentric first person character, to break away from the more baroque style of City of Saints and Madmen. It allows me to make Ambergris more real by its very (relative) informality. It also makes the non-chronological structure smoother, easier for the reader.

Janice was more sarcastic in early drafts, but that was making her two-dimensional and shrill. Maybe it's because the subject matter in the novel is serious that some readers don't realize how darkly humorous Janice is. There's a lot of dry humor in the book that wasn't there in the first draft.

How did the Shriek: An Afterword film come about? Does this mean the rights are tied up and it can't be turned into a Hollywood megahit or did you manage to wriggle free of strings?

Ha! It doesn't affect any possible Hollywood rights, although as I said above I really wanted to write an unfilmable novel -- what's the point of writing something easily convertible to another medium anyway? I just wanted to experiment with doing film scripts and decided to put part of the advance I got for the novel back into a short film. I didn't direct it because I wanted to learn how to direct by learning from someone who already had some experience with it. Doing the script was great, though -- it really taught me a lot about how image and voice-over can work in relatively esoteric ways.

Be honest, do you think you'll ever be able to leave Ambergris?

No one believes me, but there are only two more Ambergris novels after Shriek, and a couple of short stories. I'm working on completing a cycle I first conceived of in 1998. Shriek just took a little longer than I thought I would. When the cycle is done, I will think of the four books as one mega-novel, since so many characters are intertwined throughout the four. The next will be titled The Zamilon File and the last one will be probably a thousand pages with tons of viewpoint characters and titled Fragments of a Drowned City. There will be an installation art piece of that novel as well -- a kind of interactive version the reader puts together themselves. Just because.

I am very disappointed there aren't as many squid in Shriek as in City of Saints. Why is that? I must admit that there's a festival near where I live that's semi-appropriate for that kind of thing and every year I dress up in my giant squid costume and prance down the street, without a care in the world. So it was a bit disappointing. I was hoping to get more ideas for costumes.

I really don't have any comment on that issue.