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Jeff VanderMeer

interviewed by Tamar Yellin

2002 was a good year in the career of Jeff VanderMeer, and 2003 and 2004 promise to be even better. Winner of the World Fantasy Award in 2000 for his Ambergris novella The Transformation of Martin Lake, his Ambergris compilation novel, City of Saints and Madmen (Prime Books) appeared to great critical praise late in 2002, and was followed in 2003 by his far-future novel of love and obsession, Veniss Underground (Prime). A second World Fantasy Award came in 2003, this time for Leviathan 3, co-edited with Forrest Aquirre (Ministry of Whimsy). A comprehensive collection of short stories, Secret Life, is due to be published by Golden Gryphon in Spring/Summer 2004 and a selection of non-fiction, Why Should I Cut Your Throat? (Monkeybrain, Summer 2004). In the UK, Veniss Underground was published by Pan MacMillan (Tor UK) in October 2003 and City of Saints and Madmen follows in 2004.

City of Saints and Madmen (US)


The interview

TY: Jeff: I've known you for about three years now and during that time I've watched you progress from a writer and publisher with a strong small press reputation to winner of the World Fantasy Award to a published novelist with starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly and a two-book deal from Pan MacMillan. I must say it's been tremendously exciting. How do you feel about where you are right now?

JV: I feel vindicated. And perhaps a little pressured. From about 1997 to around 2000, I was writing the novellas that comprise City of Saints pretty much in a vacuum. I had a difficult time getting them published. This freed me in a sense--if you are obsessed with what you do, and you can't do anything other than that, not getting Veniss Underground (UK edition)published, or having difficulty doing it, doesn't matter quite as much. I felt kind of like a hermit. Now, those same novellas I had difficulty publishing have won awards and been on a lot of year's best lists. So vindicated, and happy, yes. On the other hand, pressured. Now there is an audience out there. Which I must do my best to ignore, perversely.

TY: Most readers will I imagine be familiar with you as the creator of the fictional city of Ambergris. Your new novel, Veniss Underground, is not set in Ambergris but I can see many links between the two imaginative landscapes. The underground itself, for example. Why do you think the 'underground' is such a powerful idea for you?

JV: I've always loved secret, hidden places. I love maze gardens. I love tramping around hidden trails. When I lived in Gainesville, Florida during part of my childhood, my sister and I would find all of these ways to get from one part of town to another without being seen--which meant trails through forests and Veniss Underground (US edition)through other urban wilderness. We used to take our bikes out on a weekend and just explore. The few times I've been cave hiking, I've enjoyed the sense of mystery and adventure as well. I think this is part of it. The other part is the role the subconscious plays in my work.

TY: Yes--the subconscious. I wondered about that.

JV: In Ambergris, the underground sort of represents what we can't know--it's in a sense what happens after death. Because the underground inhabitants of the city, the gray caps, have, among other things, cheated death. In Veniss, the underground represents the irrational, the insane part of consumer society. In concentrated, nightmarish form. In both cases, I find my subconscious shaping those places to a greater extent than when I think about or conceive of the aboveground levels of the city. The rules are different.

TY: The city has become an iconic setting in modern and contemporary fiction. What is it that makes the imaginary city so alluring to write about?

JV: I have a surreal take on the world. When I write fiction anchored in the real world, it becomes fantastical in some way. When I discovered Ambergris, and also Veniss in the new novel, the imaginary city aspect allowed me to concentrate that surrealism on a single, complicated place. It allowed me to both intensify the surreal aspects and echo the real world. I wouldn't say in real life cities are necessarily more complex than other kinds of human habitats, but for fiction, it does allow for more composites. In a city, you are perhaps more likely to find several centuries of architecture, several generations of different kinds of cultures mixing together. These things appeal to me. I can satisfy my surreal side but also build a very high level of verisimilitude through imaginary cityscapes.

TY: In Veniss, in Ambergris too to some extent, the 'out there' beyond the city is a sort of wilderness even more dangerous and primitive than the city itself. Will you be venturing into the 'out there'?

JV: That's a good question--and makes me wonder if I'm actually partially writing allegory. Let's see. You've got the City, the Underground, and the Beyond...Yes, perhaps there is some allegorical content. As for venturing out into the wilderness--are you crazy? It's, as you say, dangerous out there--and no indoor facilities, running water, etc.

TY: So you're definitely a city boy?

JV: As long as the city has an underground to explore that contains a wealth of wilderness of its own, in which one might lose oneself for an eternity--yes.

TY: The setting of Veniss is incredibly detailed and compelling. But it's the characters and their emotions who really dominate. One of the reviews said that the novel 'packs a strong emotional punch.' No kidding! What is the novel really about for you?

JV: In one sense, when you write fiction, you're trying to bridge the gap between human beings. You're saying you're going to do the impossible and eavesdrop on their thoughts. When really you're just eavesdropping on your own thoughts, in some form. The core of Veniss--and there are several subplots or themes that revolve around this or form a background--has to do with memory, with love, with the fact that we can't ever know what another person is thinking. And if we can't know what another person is thinking, then we can't really know how that person feels about us. I use the far future setting to postulate technology that allows us to do that. And, for me, the center of the novel is the scene in which Shadrach accesses his former lover's memories. Without that scene, all that follows is anticlimax.

TY: There's a sense, then, in which Shadrach becomes Nicola in that scene? What follows is a spree of violence...

JV: Yes, in a sense. And Part III actually starts violently and progresses from there, well before that scene. The scene is key because it marks Shadrach forever. Many people would have just cut their losses, been pragmatic, and gone on with their lives. Shadrach continues on a kind of war against Quin, who he sees as being responsible for what has happened to Nicola. Does he do this out of love for Nicola? Does he do it out of desperation? Does he do it because of the rationalization that with Quin alive he'll never be safe? Perhaps. But deep down, I think he does it out of pain. I think he does it because he wants to die, having learned what he has from Nicola's memories. It's possible he does it, hideously, out of a need to impress Nicola, but that would be the action of a madman. One thing about characterization--I don't think the author is always supposed to know why a character does something. I think sometimes the author should provide a range of possibilities, should provide some sense, but to know exactly, and to tell the reader exactly, leads to the impoverishment of both author and reader.

TY: Yes--Shadrach seems to me to be a paradox, in that in his quest to preserve the thing that makes him human, he perhaps destroys his own humanity. That's what makes him so interesting. As for what happens to Nicola -- without giving too much away, I've noticed that 'the flesh' is one of the themes that runs through much of your work, from "The Bone Carver's Tale" in which the protagonist goes in search of the bones of his rejected lover to the Ambergris stories where people's flesh is invaded by fungal spores until they spontaneously disintegrate. Is anybody safe?

JV: We're all disintegrating almost from the moment we reach adulthood. And before that our skin is flaking away to be replaced by new skin, we are infested with micro-organisms, we are so clearly already the "dust" in "dust to dust" that anything I put in my fiction simply places an exclamation point at the end of a very familiar sentence. No one is safe. No one reading this in 2003 is going to be alive in 100 years. Only our possessions and the things we create have the ability to survive beyond this short loan we make of atoms. In the dissolution of the body in my fiction, you see, perversely, an attempt to live beyond it--by creating a book, by creating a story. A record. There's nothing new in this--it too is a very familiar sentence.

TY: It puts me in mind of the Flaubert quote: "Sometimes I feel I'm liquefying like an old Camembert." I know you see the funny side--the Book of Ambergris is absolutely rife with humour.

JV: Yes, I sound like one of those crazy people with signs about the end of the world. "We're all going to die." To which the proper response is: So what? Woody Allen once said "time plus tragedy equals comedy." I don't know if he was quoting someone else, but I find the best comics are those that come from a dark side. Until after I was about 25 or 26, I really had no sense of humor in my fiction. That this coincides with moving in with my now-wife Ann may or may not be coincidental. Despite the doom-and-gloom answer to the previous question, I do have a fully-developed sense of humor--absurdist in outlook. But, as I say, for the longest time that did not translate into the fiction. For one thing, I think I was a little tense while I was learning my craft. If you're still practicing in a sense, it's difficult to relax and be yourself. Once I started writing the Ambergris stories, I fully found my voice. As a result, that aspect of me as a person found its voice as well.

TY: In your novella, The Transformation of Martin Lake, Lake achieves greatness as a painter through being forced to partake in a horrible crime. Before that, as one of his friends tells him, his work is 'small.' Do you think an extreme life event of some kind is necessary in order to reach one's full potential as an artist?

JV: Not necessarily. I think for me, certain traumas probably gave me the grist to make stories from--when I reread my fiction, I see autobiographical elements that would not be obvious to a reader. And I do believe there has to be some kind of irritant to make the pearl from, if that makes any sense. But I don't believe this irritant has to be a trauma or an extreme life event. I do think such events do create certain types of writers, however.

TY: You're a very energetic and inventive marketer of your own (and other people's) work. Ambergris chocolate bars spring to mind. How did you learn that, or does it just come naturally?

JV: I run a publishing company, Ministry of Whimsy Press, now an imprint of Night Shade Books. In 1997, we published a book by Stepan Chapman called The Troika, which went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award. We had a large budget for the book and I spent literally a year of my life promoting it--every aspect. I learned a lot from that. But also if you stay in the business for any amount of time you begin to build up important contacts. Then came what I call the fun factor. Now that I'm comfortable with doing PR, I like to have fun with it--candy bars, fortune cookies, all kinds of neat, creative ways to promote books. There's no reason that PR shouldn't be fun. And there's no reason for a writer not to revel in the promotion--so long as the promotion is kept strictly separate from the work of art. The fact is--I have to do aggressive PR because my books are generally a little strange and a little out there. My job is, one reader at a time, to get people to pick up the book. I'm gratified to find that there are readers of action-adventure who are really getting into Veniss just for that aspect. Whereas those readers looking for literary prose, are also enjoying it.

TY: The genre small press seems to me to be wonderfully vibrant at the moment, and to be linked by the internet into a community in a way the mainstream small press, sadly, isn't. How do you see the role of the small press in the context of ever-bigger publishing and bookselling conglomerates? And--I have to ask--now you have a deal with Pan MacMillan does that mean you've passed over to the Other Side?

JV: Small presses will continue to provide an excellent alternative to the large publishers, while 80% of small presses continue to produce material that means to City of Saints and Madmen (US)compete with large publishers rather than provide that alternative. I actually like the cross over between "genre" and "mainstream" small presses--those publishers who publish what might be called "literary fantasy." Although these lines are becoming so blurred that it is my hope that one day we'll just have "good" and "bad" fiction, with no other labels. If selling out means reaching a larger audience without changing my work, then by all means, I will sell out. If it means something else, I'll soon be back in the indie press. But I have nothing but good things to say about Pan MacMillan and their Tor UK imprint. They're aggressively pursuing writers like myself, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Carroll, and Liz Williams who tend to blur genres.

TY: Your wonderful long story, Secret Life, which is the title work for your collection, is set in a surreal office block. I know you're working on a new Ambergris novel, and also, I think, have an Ambergris novella in the works. I wondered if at the same time you were beginning to take leave of those VanderMeerian leit-motifs we know and love and move into new territory?

JV: There's one more Ambergris novel after the next. After that, I don't know. I am certain I will not write any more fiction set in the milieu of Veniss Underground--between the novel and the related stories, I've covered that rather thoroughly. The allure of Ambergris is that it can be anything I want it to be depending on what time period I choose. When people ask me if I'll ever write about the real world, I tell them I'm already writing about the real world. So I'm just not sure.

TY: Finally: is there a question about your work that you've been simply dying to answer but never get asked?

JV: You have asked me all remaining questions of interest. There are no questions left. And no answers.


Tamar Yellin is a novelist and short story writer. Her fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Leviathan 3, Nemonymous, Leviathan Quarterly and The Third Alternative, and her first novel, Genizah, will be published by The Toby Press in the spring of 2005.

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