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Jeff VanderMeer

interviewed by Tom Hunter

March 2006

City of Saints and MadmenIt was two years ago, at the Blackpool Eastercon, that I first really encountered Jeff's work and the whole surrounding Vanderworld that goes with it. The Lambshead Guide was making its mark in must-have item collectors' circles, while the UK publication of City of Saints and Madmen saw him moving from a word of mouth favourite to somebody even I had heard of. Of course I didn't realise this at the time. I was just pleased to find a writer who was creating the kind of fantasy books that felt like my kind of fantasy books: in other words dark, clever and urban (and, um, full of squid), so having been given the opportunity to chat to Jeff around the launch of his latest book I naturally wanted to go back to the beginning (as I saw it) and ask about that Eastercon and the whole feeling of having multiple projects coming to fruition in such a short space of time, and was he as busy now?

Shriek: an afterword (UK edition)JEFF: Yeah -- that trip to the UK was a bit like a coming out party. I finally had books out from a major publisher, instead of indie press, and I really wanted to savour the moment and build on it. Not to mention I really enjoy travelling in the UK. Since then, I've been all over the place -- Seattle, Vancouver, Australia, Minneapolis, New York City. That UK trip definitely marked the beginning of a pretty rapid ascent. I've been doing a lot of writer festivals, book fairs, and individual readings.

I've also finished the book I never thought I'd finish, Shriek: An Afterword, and in addition to that coming out from Pan Macmillan (and Tor in the US in August), I now have Veniss and City of Saints out in the US from Bantam -- which is kind of re-creating in the US the atmosphere I experienced in the UK back when I visited.

And, in addition to that I'm working on two or three movie projects.

TOM: Still back at the Eastercon, I remember that one of the things that interested me most as someone new to your work was the extra effort you went to in creating a 'fake' presentation based around your city of Ambergris rather than simply doing a reading or an interview session. I wanted to ask you about this, and also all the other bits of 'added value' stuff you create around your work and, I guess, the author persona. I'm thinking fake author blogs on your website, Festival of the Freshwater Squid memorabilia T-shirts etc. Is it all just canny marketing or do you see this linking into your fiction, and connection with your readers, in a deeper way?

JEFF: It really links to City of Saints quite well in that I've always envisioned that fantasy milieu -- Ambergris -- as being an echo of the real world. Not to mention that there are dead-serious stories in City and then ones that are very playful.

But you have to separate some things out, I think. The Rough Guide to Ambergris you mention is pretty much a multi-media reading. It's very immersive -- especially in places where I can include the soundtrack and sound effects -- and accurately reflects the cinematic qualities of the Ambergris stories and novels. I don't see that as canny marketing so much as another form of artistic expression.

Some of the other stuff is just frivolous, which is quite all right in my book, too.

But when I make an actual artefact supposedly from Ambergris -- like the Exchange booklet -- that's a very serious form of play, of artistic expression. These things tend to have some marketing or PR value, but that's not the primary reason I do them. I do them for artistic fulfilment.

Rough Guide, for example, was just meant as the prototype for getting into doing short internet films -- and, in fact, Rough Guide itself is being turned into a Quicktime movie for the internet. Will it promote my work? In a way, but mostly it's just a really cool visual treat.

I'm also working on the script for a movie based on Shriek, being directed by the noted Finnish designer Juha Lindroos, with an original soundtrack by The Church, one of my favourite, favourite bands. And that's just loosely based on the novel and will be a combination of live action, animation, and still photography. So I'm really excited about the ability to build on these initial outcroppings of Ambergris in the real world -- taking them someplace utterly different and at the same time expanding my own range as a writer and creator.

TOM: That makes me think about books as objects in their own right, and what you might find attractive about them, and what value they might have to you as an art object in their own right?

JEFF: My mom's an artist and we grew up in an extremely artistic household. I've always loved art of any kind if done well, in any medium, and I just see books as another way for really creative people to express themselves. That's why I don't like the idea of electronic books because it limits, in some ways, due to the lack of the tactile, the opportunities to create three-dimensional art through them.

TOM: Have you ever looked at the idea of dispersing your work via the internet, either for free or in some other way?

JEFF: I find the creative commons stuff somewhat funny -- the big deal being made about it. For years, I've been allowing websites to put vast quantities of my work online, including a lot of stuff on IP -- a whole novella ("Dradin, In Love") set in Ambergris. As for putting whole books up, a lot of that depends on my publishers and what they want to do. I imagine in the next two or three years you'll see the entirety of one of my books on the internet. I don't have any philosophical problem with it.

TOM: Coming full circle back to conventions, am I right in thinking you're a GoH at the Finnish convention this year?

Veniss Underground (US edition)JEFF: Yes -- which should be very cool. The folks in Finland have always been very supportive of my work and there's talk of having some version of City of Saints published in time for Finncon. With any luck, we'll debut the Shriek film there. I'm doing a whole continental European tour this summer, as I have books coming out in Portugal, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Romania at roughly the same time. My French publisher, Calmann-Levy, tells me that they're positioning City of Saints to be a bestseller, which is exciting.

TOM: I wanted to ask you some questions about the writing process itself now, not only about your own work but also about how you work with other people. For instance I know you're very good and thorough when critiquing other writers work and I was wondering what difference there is for you between critiquing and reading someone's work, and also whether this is different from when you come to your own work?

JEFF: Unfortunately, if a book I'm reading in published form isn't very good, there isn't much difference between a critique and a read. I think one of the down sides of being a writer is that you become more sensitive to indifferent prose and therefore it's more difficult to enjoy some books.

But in critique, I first try to figure out what the writer was doing, ascertain whether it was worth doing (by as objective a model as possible, not my own personal tastes), how well they did it, and where, if anywhere, the manuscript fails to accomplish what it set out to do. Veniss Underground (UK edition)Then I provide specific comments on the story or novel along with general comments, a list of strengths and weaknesses that seem particular to the writer, along with a list of exercises intended to help. That's for beginners. For peers, I just ask what they want out of my comments and give them what they want.

For my own work, I do the same thing. I'll circle words or phrases I think are clichés or nervous tics. But mostly I do vast amounts of rewrites. I do maybe 15 to 20 drafts, working things in, taking things out, adding scenes, removing scenes, checking the pacing, making sure the rhythms of the sentences work, looking at the dialogue, etc.

TOM: So, do you enjoy reading your own prose or do you have to circle the word processor for ages before getting down to editing?

JEFF: I love writing and I love editing. There's nothing about the process I don't like. The only part that I don't like is when it gets stale. For City of Saints, there have been so many editions that it's hard to, say, answer indepth questions from a German translator because I have to revisit the work again in such detail. And then it comes out in English from an indie press three times, from Pan Mac, and now Bantam. I rather dread it when I have to deal with new editions of City of Saints. It's a book I can't ever read again -- it's just like chewing the same piece of gum for four years.

TOM: You mentioned film projects before, have you ever written specifically for another medium, for instance theatre?

JEFF: I like theatre. Until recently, I'd never thought about writing for theatre because my work is generally not dialogue-driven. But now that I'm doing scripts for short movies, I'm beginning to understand how drama works and how to create some of the same effects as in fiction through drama -- and how to create effects unique to drama. I don't think it's out of the question that I might one day write a play. These internet movies are the first baby steps toward that kind of visualization.

I tend to think that in general most people working in the Arts tend to under-use or under-imagine its potential. I always loved what Angela Carter said about working without a net, about just going for it. Her work is so good because she always went for it.

TOM: I once read in an interview with Kathy Acker that she found taking up a proper exercise regime really benefited her writing, which both made sense to me and seemed entirely counter to our stereotype of a writer, and wondered whether you'd found any similar benefits through exercise?

JEFF: I've always been athletic -- used to run three miles a day and be on the football (European definition of "football") team in high school. But after high school, I let the stress and lack of time of juggling college and a writing career and then a day job and a writing (and publisher) career make me more sedentary and I put on about 100 pounds over a ten year period. I topped out at 270 pounds in 2002. At that point, something had to change. So I took up weightlifting, made sure to get cardio every day, changed my diet, and dropped 70 pounds while putting on, over the past three years, about 20 pounds of muscle. Although I could still lose a little fat, I'm more fit than at any time in my life.

The primary benefit though is that I can handle the demands of a pretty high-work rate writing career, including all the demands of time and energy, and a day job without dropping dead. The way I was going, my writing would have eventually have ground to a halt.

And I really love the weightlifting. I love it. I get into a kind of Zen-like mode. It's very relaxing.

TOM: Another change of subject now. What do the terms fandom, community of writers and dirty pro mean to you?

JEFF: Excellent question! "Dirty pro" means nothing to me. "Fandom" makes me think of the SF community in general in an affectionate way. "Community of writers" is the one that speaks the most personally to me, though. That means to me paying your dues, paying things back, helping out your colleagues and getting help from them. I do not see things as a competition. I see it more as a vast network of connections -- we're all connected -- and you can either acknowledge that and help people out to the best of your ability or you can close yourself off and try to pretend you're not connected. I love my fellow writers, even the ones who piss me off. I've never let a feud or disagreement get in the way of helping someone out, either. I still don't understand people who hold grudges forever. It's stupid. It's unhealthy.

TOM: I want to ask you about your latest book now, but in a way this takes me back to two years ago as well. I've had a memory of Shriek from two years back without knowing quite why. I remember when you were in the UK you did a reading at Pat Cadigan's regular London meeting at Borders on Oxford Street which at the time I thought was from City of Saints. However after reading all of that (even decoding the encrypted story) I realised that actually it wasn't in there. It was the bit when Duncan first arrives at Janice's covered in a shroud of fungus and mushrooms. I guess this means you've been working on Shriek for a long time?

Secret LifeJEFF: About eight years. I needed a lot of time to accumulate the necessary skill and technique, and distance, since a lot of the stuff in there is personal, if transformed. It took a devil of a long time. It's my first true novel, for one thing, so the learning curve was rather monstrous, given the complexity of the narrative structure.

TOM: Given it's such a complex narrative I thought I might use your own words as questions now and ask you to expand on the following quotes from Shriek ...

- From P50: (I) didn't think I needed first hand experience to write the book

JEFF: Well, when Duncan Shriek says that he means he thought he didn't have to immerse himself in the underground of Ambergris, but more generally, it comes to mean that he didn't think he'd have to obsessively devote his life to the subject of the underground inhabitants of Ambergris, and that he was wrong. For me, it might well be a reflection of myself in my early twenties, when I was creating highly stylized fictions that perhaps didn't let enough of real life in. This new novel, Shriek, is a totally different creature from those early stories.

- From P114: We make up stories to understand ourselves and tell ourselves that they are true, when in fact they only represent an individual impression of one individual fingerprint, no matter how universal we attempt to make them.

JEFF: Here I think Janice is having a kind of epiphany, a sad one, about the nature of memory and the nature of how we choose to remember people and events. And acknowledging that the story she is telling about her and her brother is only one perspective on that story. Which pretty much sums up how I feel about history and about memory and the stories we tell about ourselves and each other. And, ultimately, what Janice is saying is that we're each of us totally and utterly alone.

- From P285: There is an art ... to being an outsider, a skill to being a good crackpot.

JEFF: Duncan's admonishing Janice for not seeing the uniqueness, the individuality, in members of a very marginalized historical society. He's also, I think, making a direct plea to her to remember that he is himself an outsider, a crackpot, and that by dismissing the others, she's also dismissing him, which hurts his feelings. Which is why he gets somewhat preachy in his response to her. In general, I think we do tend to not understand that a person can be a work of art, whether or not they produce any Art of value. A life lived well or lived oddly can be its own work of art. But we tend to only accept eccentricity and oddness if it is part and parcel of the personality of a working creative person. Somebody actually doing something. Then it's actually kind of romanticized or accepted. Otherwise, not so much.

TOM: All good answers, and thanks for that, but before I finish up no interview is really complete without a few random questions from the audience, so having spread the word I was interviewing you I asked various colleagues for a few questions to finish up with starting with ... do you have a particular favourite type of mushroom?

JEFF: Not really. I just love the ones that look really, really alien.

TOM: Is it better to be weird on the inside or the outside?

JEFF: I think it's more interesting to be weird on the inside. Richard Calder looks pretty normal, doesn't he? Jeff Ford seems pretty normal, too. LOL!

TOM: Are blogs a first step towards a new form of consciousness?

JEFF: More like a new form of self-consciousness.

TOM: And finally, is it true you that where you live people regularly jump over alligators without a second thought?

JEFF: A lot of non-Floridians don't understand that alligators sunning themselves by a river or lake tend not to be that big a deal. They're sluggish and usually well-fed. I have had to jump over an alligator -- the trail was surrounded by water on either side and the alligator was straddling the path and it was the only way back to the car. My sister jumped over it, too. And my best friend. It was a big thing -- about fifteen feet long. It didn't even twitch.


Tom Hunter is the current editor of Matrix:
The News Magazine of the British Science Fiction Association.
www.matrix-magazine.co.uk

Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword was published by Tor UK in January 2006 (and by Tor US in August 2006); the US mass market edition of City of Saints and Madmen was published Spectra in February 2006.
Shriek: An Afterword Veniss Underground City of Saints and Madmen

Order online using these links and infinity plus will benefit:
...Shriek: An Afterword (Tor UK) from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
...Shriek: An Afterword (Tor US) from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
...Veniss Underground (Spectra) from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
...City of Saints and Madmen (Spectra) from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
...Secret Life (Golden Gryphon) from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
...and other Jeff VanderMeer titles at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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