An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
by Bill Babouris
Judging by your work, I'd say that you prefer a subtle approach to the horror element in your novels. A lot of writers I've spoken to suggested that: "...the more overt horror is, the quicker the fear factor drops"? Would you agree with that point?
I would agree with that point to this extent: most writers do not possess the kind of universal imagination necessary to show the horror overtly and have the majority of readers react with fear.
Generally, when the horror is shown overtly, my reaction at least, is anti-climactic: Oh, so that's all it was. Or, Oh, well, that's kind of silly. In part, of course, it will always be much more personal for the reader to do some of the work -- to supply a terror, a horror, that, for them, evokes the most fear.
A writer like Thomas Ligotti is a master of evoking an atmosphere of horror or profound unease simply by the ringing of a bell in an empty attic. A writer like Clive Barker, on the other hand, shows you the horror and it often does evoke fear...Ramsey Campbell, in a book called Ancient Images, manages to use both approaches simultaneously in a scene on a lonely, winding road, where the driver of a car sees something chasing him, and with each loop of the road, finds that the thing is gaining on him. This is truly terrifying. But when you see what the thing is, it is equally terrifying. The best example of the twinned approach, though, would have to be Ian McEwan's The Innocent which has scenes of the most graphic and the most suggestive horror intertwined...
My intentions with my own work, however, are much different. I try to find the beauty in the overtly horrific image in such a way that I deliberately subvert or diffuse any fear such an image might cause -- oddly enough, I'm going more for a sense of wonder. In terms of the covertly horrific, I am much more interested in generating a sense of unease and of altered realities. My hope is that after you read a story like Dradin, In Love you come away from it changed -- because your expectations of the character have changed, or because reality itself has been found to be something other than you thought it was...This is why I consider myself a writer of dark fantasy rather than a horror writer -- because instilling fear in the reader doesn't really interest me. It's too easy to do for one thing. I get bored with it.
What's the most frightening kind of horror in your opinion?
Again, the kind which changes your vision of reality, which makes you suspect that the world is not as you think it is. This kind of horror is very good for the reader -- it makes the reader question and re-evaluate the world.
Since some of your stories deal with the element of the supernatural, I was wondering if you have ever had an experience that could genuinely be termed supernatural.
No. But I have had many, many epiphanies, moments when the immensity of the world, the beauty of the world, and the beauty of being alive, simply overwhelmed me, or moments when the writing overwhelmed me -- when I would sit down to write and an hour later, I'd have written 5,000 words but have really no recollection of how they got there. This is as mystical an experience as I am likely to have. I've also had what I believe are pre-cognitive dreams, but I don't think these qualify as supernatural.
Also, do you think that writing these books/stories for so many years has made you more open or even more receptive to the supernatural?
No. In fact, I have more and more shied away from using supernatural elements. The mushroom dwellers in Dradin, In Love are not supernatural -- they may simply be from a more advanced and more ancient civilization. I do not use the supernatural in most of my work because I do not believe in it. I think there is more beauty and more horror to be found in the real world, no matter how that world may be fractured and distorted in the worlds I created.
You've written a lot of short-stories but no novels so far [I know that you're now working on your first one]. Why do you prefer the medium of the short-story to that of the novel?
I've written no short stories in the last three years -- only novellas of varying lengths. I seem to be gearing up to the novel length.
I'm a writer who has a gift for imagery, for clever phrases, and for delving into universal themes. When you're starting out and that is all you have, it is difficult to sustain anything other than shorter work. Over the years I have worked hard to develop good characterization, to plot my work better, etc. As I have developed these skills, I have gravitated toward longer and longer work, in part because I have been able to build structures and create characters which could sustain longer work. I write very organically, very much by feel and touch, so it was only natural that I develop in this way.
I used to prefer the short story for its economy -- I'd read too many novels that seemed to contain scenes only for the sake of having 300 pages to market as a novel. I was determined that I would never pad my work for this purpose. On the other hand, I am having so much fun with longer works now -- they pose more of a challenge, they involve me more. In fact, I've read very few short stories in the past two years -- almost all novels.
It seems that market rules dictate a writer should write novels if he ever wants to establish himself. Would you agree with this observation?
Certainly. But all I have ever wanted to do is perfect my writing. I never allow myself to think about what's good for my career, but only what is good for the writing. This means I am not as far along career-wise as some other writers who do not have as good technique, but in the long run, this attention to detail, this organic way of doing things, means that when I do write novels (like the one I'm working on), they will be hopefully as interesting and involving as my shorter fiction.
I am curious about the writing process that you follow. Do you just get a skeleton plan of the story down on paper and improvise as you go along or do you prefer to let the story mature in your mind for a few months and reach a point where it needs to tell itself?
The story begins as an image meshed to a character, sometimes a character faced with a dilemma, sometimes just a character and image. This character and image is linked almost immediately to some sort of resolution -- some kind of ending. In any event, I will not start writing the story down on paper if I don't have the ending....
But long before I write any part of the story down, I think about the character, the situation, the setting -- usually, while writing a story (in my head), I'll wind up with maybe 50 to 200 scraps of paper with notes written on them -- more images, characters, connections between characters.
I get into this mode where everything I come into contact with gets transformed and sucked into the story. I become less responsive to my environment except as it relates to the story. I stop trimming my beard, take long walks, mumble to myself under my breath. I'm in the story, looking out, silly as that may sound...
Sometimes, when I have enough scraps of paper, I will get little notebooks and I will expand on each scrap of paper until the characters, the world, the situation, the plot, is fully realized in the notebooks -- just not fully connected.
Then I sit down and write, in longhand, on legal pads, the first draft of the story. Sometimes, however, I'll just write the rough draft directly from the little scraps of paper. Once I have the rough draft, I don't stop writing on the little scraps of paper -- the story isn't finished yet. It's full potential is not yet realized -- it's still growing.
Between the first and second draft, drastic changes occur. I'll do between 6 and 20 drafts, all potentially drastically different from the last, until I have the right "mix". It's very much a process of layering, and each draft may well add an entire layer...I was looking at a diagram of a zoning district at work a couple months ago while working on my novel, and the shape of it was such that I thought of caterpillars. And that made me think of butterflies. And suddenly I thought of a map that was a caterpillar -- that would turn into a butterfly when you indicated a spot on the map of its body -- that would lead you to where you wanted to go. This is the sort of transformation which occurs when I am deep, deep into a story.
Do you think that a thorough pre-plotting works in favor of the story eventually?
It really depends on the writer. For me, no. I need the story to be as open-ended for a long as possible in order for it to organically take shape in my head. All plotting is in terms of the characters anyway -- so it's more a question of figuring out what a particular person will do in a particular situation than in determining what the plot is. I work primarily from character and, in the later stages, from an idea of what my themes are. All I do with the rough draft is to look at the possibilities in it -- to try to bring things out in the text and to downplay others. I'm very rarely thinking in terms of plot -- divorced from the other issues.
Looking back, where do you think your best ideas came from?
This is a very difficult question to answer because, by this point, the process of beginning a story is so subconscious, so instantaneous, and so in league with inspiration, that I cannot tell you where the ideas come from -- only that they pop into my head.
I do try to precipitate ideas by learning new things or going to new places. In other words, I try to give myself raw material to transform, to make new. Going to England sparked so many ideas it was ridiculous. Reading about the history of the Byzantine Empire did the same thing.
I can give you an example, actually. "The Bone Carver's Tale" is my best-received short story -- reprinted the most times, etc. It came about because I saw a movie called The Killing Fields where a bridge the main character crosses turns out to be made of bones. At the same time, I had just read an anecdote about Hemingway. He'd been at a bullfight where a matador was gored, but rather than think to help the man, all he could focus on was the way in which the white of the bone contrasted with the red of the flesh. This cross-breeding of images/ideas gave me the central theme of the story.
Can you please describe a typical Jeff VanderMeer day during your writing periods? How many hours do you work per day? Do you prefer day or night? Continuously or with breaks? Do you use a computer or are you a typewriter person?
I prefer to work in the morning and in the early evening. It is difficult to gauge how many hours a day I write, because a lot of time is spent scribbling little notes and working things out in my head. When I actually sit down to write the story or novella, I rarely write for more than three hours at a time. The layering process, and the rather Gothic thickness of my prose often wears me out quickly. I do all of my early drafts longhand. Then, I'll type it into the computer, just to make it look different so perhaps I can get a different perspective on the words.
Then -- and this is the part a lot of people think is crazy -- I rewrite the story in longhand using the computer printout. I might go through this process several times. It's a way of building the story up and tearing it down again until it's right. In a sense I am living the story while I am writing it, and I find I can best get into the story and rewrite it in longhand, which somehow provides a more personal connection to the story.
Mystery writers or romance writers are seldom asked "Why do you write this stuff?", whereas with horror or weird fantasy writers it is almost always the first question that springs to mind. Although you are not a straight down the middle horror writer, you work often contains horrific elements. Would you care to try and define for us the appeal that horror has on you?
The appeal it has for me is simply this: it's part of life. It's part of who we are. We're surrounded by war and death and disease. We're forever losing the people we love to death or indifference or lack of compassion. We live in a Bosch painting, with all the beauty and horror that entails. How can we know what beauty is if we don't have horror to remind us? How can anyone tell the whole, true story of what life is like if he or she doesn't include the horrible with the wonderful -- each is equally profound.
I believe it was Stephen King who once said: "We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones." Would you agree?
No. The horrors I make up are usually real ones to begin with -- which is why I don't dabble much in the supernatural, as I feel this can be an avoidance of the real horrors.
What was your strongest, most profound fear as a child?
Probably that my parents were going to leave each other -- which they eventually did. Also, I feared very much the onslaught of my asthma attacks which, combined with my allergies, would rob me of my sight and my ability to breathe.
If you could negate one natural law, which one would that be?
Death, decay. I'm an atheist and I would like to live as long as I am able, because afterwards I'm just going to be dust. But mostly because I am so much in love right now with my significant other that the one thought I cannot bear -- the one thing which I fear the most -- is simply the loss of that person. No other one thing could destroy me.
Apart from the obvious financial benefits, what else is there for you in writing? Is it a means to "exorcise your inner demons"?
I love to tell stories. I love to write -- although my subject matter is grim, there is nothing more delightful to me than to create, to paint with words. I am deliriously in love with the whole process. To say, this is beauty, this is horrible, to comment on the world, to give something back to the world. I cannot express the joy, the immense satisfaction, that this all gives to me. There are few financial benefits that I'm aware of!
Please name (a maximum of) three new horror or weird fantasy writers whose work you respect and explain why. (Somehow I get the feeling that one of them is going to be Stepan Chapman.)
Well, Chapman is one of my favorites, but actually he's been around for ages -- he's 55 years old. He was published in major SF/fantasy anthologies in the 1970s, but with the death of the New Wave movement in the U.S. in the 1980s, he found it impossible to sell to SF markets and from then until now his work has appeared in some of the most prestigious literary journals in the country. The Troika is a novel he worked on for about 15 years, and which he couldn't find a publisher for until we took it on. Ironically enough, the pre-publication reviews of the book are raves -- including an upcoming review in Publisher's Weekly. I took a huge chance accepting the book, but it's one of the best books I've ever read.
Brooks Hansen, author of The Chess Garden, is a genius. The Chess Garden is basically his first novel and it's the best fantasy I've read in a long time. Brooke Stevens, author of The Circus of the Earth and the Air, is a close second. I also think Donna Tartt, who wrote the quietly horrific The Secret History, is a first-rate writer. I'm sure there are a number of new writers percolating up through the morass of sf/fantasy/horror magazines, but I'm not really reading short fiction any more, so I'm out of touch with regard to these.
At risk of breaking your rule of three, however, there is a writer I'm publishing in Leviathan, Rhys Hughes, an Englishman, who, at 31, has a great career ahead of him -- he's just got a mammoth imagination and complete control of the English language.
You're the editor of Leviathan; which pleasures do you derive from this "job"? What do you look for in a story that gets submitted to you?
I try to provide a place for work of a surreal nature that might not otherwise be published -- so I get satisfaction out of reading through my slush pile and finding work which in many cases has been rejected in the genre markets for being too literary or been rejected by both the genre and mainstream markets for being simultaneously too bizarre and too literary (work which, in the Leviathan forum, winds up getting high praise from both, ironically enough).
I also get pleasure from the whole process of putting the book together. I'm usually involved in the design and layout process, and I always like to come up with an interesting order for the stories. In a sense, I'm as hardwired into editing as I am into writing. And I like to help out new writers with talent.
If the writer has no sense of style -- i.e., it is clear they have not really thought about how they are putting words together -- I have no interest in the writer. I tend to admire more "purple", mannerist styles as opposed to the Hemingway transparency, which bores me. I think of writing as a kind of painting, and paintings don't always resemble the reality of photographs, so why should fiction? It's ironic to me that most fantasists use a clear, uncluttered style since what they describe in many cases is cluttered, baroque, etc.
In your self-profile you speak about your childhood years with a mixture of awe and terror. And, indeed, you had quite a weird childhood. Have you used all those experiences in your work? Looking back, would you say that those events are partly responsible for your becoming a writer?
Yes. I have used those experiences in my work. They have particularly influenced stories like "Mahout" and "The Bone Carver's Tale," since many of the descriptions are directly from my travels -- for example, in "Mahout," the ride on the elephant's back up to the Jaipur palace is one I took, and although I was not in the pain that the main character in "Mahout" is in, I was conflicted over my parent's impending divorce. Most of the settings from my stories are composites of the various cities I visited as a child. These events may well have been partly responsible for my becoming a writer, but at the same time, I was always surrounded by books as long as I can remember, and as long as I can remember I was making up stories. So while those experiences influenced what I write about, I'm not sure that they are why I write. My parents also did a good job of always reading to me and always expecting me to question the world.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a story set in the same city as "Dradin, In Love." It's called "Fragments from a Drowned City" and consists of journal entries which have been rescued from a flood -- they're not in the correct order and the reader must kind of piece them together. It is probably the most difficult piece I've ever written and if it works will be the most emotionally absorbing. I'm also hoping to finish my SF/horror novel Quin's Shanghai Circus by the end of the year. It is clearly the most ambitious and longest piece I've ever completed.
Bill Babouris teaches Literary Translation Theory at the British Council, Athens and is the editor of OXY Publishing's horror literature series.
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© Bill Babouris 26 June 1999