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An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
by Jeffrey Ford

Bill Babouris, editor of Oxy Press and Greek translator of my novel, The Physiognomy, told me that Jeff VanderMeer would like to contact me about possibly doing some writing for a project he was working on. The only problem was that he was somewhat shy after having just turned in for publication a scathing review of my trilogy to New York Review of Science Fiction. "This guy's got brass balls," I thought. I contacted Jeff. He showed me the review. To my addled mind, it wasn't so much a review as a fulfillment of his desire to convince himself of his superiority to the work. I took this, as perhaps only I could, as a great compliment, and we proceeded to build an on-line friendship based upon our mutual interests in literature and film. There's not too many people out there you can talk to about Svankmajer.

Over the course of the last year, I got a chance to become familiar with almost all of the fiction that appears in Jeff's new book City of Saints and Madmen. This collection represents the work of a highly idiosyncratic and gifted writer. Jeff has created, in Ambergris, one of the most remarkable Fantastic locales in the history of the genre. To read about this place is to be infected by it. Ambergris is in my head now. It has a life of its own. Although these novellas bear traces of influence from writers like Borges, Calvino, Hodgeson, etc, they are uniquely original. The writing is richly metaphoric, yet crystal clear. The stories twist and turn and sometimes double back upon themselves. Although the imaginary inhabitants of them have a profound sense of credible history, they are surreal, dream-like, but they are never confusing. There is always a resonance there that connects the experiences and machinations of the characters of Ambergris to our own lives.

Jeff VanderMeer is the recipient of The World Fantasy Award for his novella "The Transformation of Martin Lake." His short fiction has appeared in Stephen Jones' Best New Horror series, Asimov's Science Fiction, Interzone, The Third Alternative, etc. He is one of the founding members of Ministry of Whimsy Press, and is the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology series, Leviathan. A controversial Locus Online poll listed him seventh amongst currently working writers of short SF/Fantasy fiction. His books, Dradin, in Love (Buzz City Press) and City of Saints and Madmen (Prime Books), are available through, and, along with the "The Exchange," at his website. City of Saints (trade paperback format) placed 4th on a recent Top 10 of 2001 critic's poll by SF Site and is a Locus recommended book.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in the latter part of September and throughout October, 2001.

Are there any toys, games, or books that you remember from your childhood that still directly influence your work?

The earliest book I remember reading is a picture book of William Blake's Tiger poem, followed by a book of Aesop's Fables. Later on, I read Alice in Wonderland and the Dr. Doolittle books, both of which still resonate in my fiction. When I was nine, my dad bought me all three volumes of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and that made a lasting impression. I was too young to really understand everything in the books, but the darkness of them impressed me greatly and I believe those parts of the book directly dealing with Frodo's quest to destroy the ring have left a lasting impression on how I perceive my characters. I also read the Narnia Chronicles, but they had less of an impact on me, although I loved them.

As for games -- I played Dungeon & Dragons for about four months when I was in fifth grade. I thought I loved the game, but I actually loved the process of invention behind the game -- which is the real reason I wanted to be a dungeon master: I wanted to write out the adventures. Gradually, I found that when I thought I was writing background for the D&D adventures, I was actually writing stories. So I quit playing D&D and wrote quest fantasy for about four years -- two novels and about 200,000 words of short stories. Not to mention about 30 maps that I carefully shaded with colored pencils.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? How old you were? What it was about?

The first "fiction" I ever wrote was a poem called "How I Love the Sea." I wrote a lot of poetry when I was seven or eight. Then in sixth grade, I wrote my first story, which was about two clever foxes and was based -- perhaps even stolen -- from one of Aesop's Fables. Shortly thereafter I wrote a series of stories based around a hero from Atlantis -- Dracus. The adventures of Dracus were all basically Greek in nature, since that's what we were studying at the time. It probably goes without saying that all of this stuff was horrible.

You often emulate and satirize academic writing -- i.e. glossaries, footnotes, bibliographies, quotations from non-existent works. What is your take on academia? Your experience with it? How has your experience with it shaped your writing?

My dad has a PhD in Chemistry, my mom a Master's in (East) Indian Folk Art. I was introduced early on to the cut-throat world of academia -- I remember my dad always complaining about other scientists in his lab trying to take credit for his work. And I remember vividly the hoops my mom was put through in trying to get her degree. My own experience was mixed: I loved learning, but was an undisciplined and arrogant student who believed math was unimportant and that I should be able to study whatever I wanted to study. For a variety of reasons, including lack of money but also a general lack of interest, I dropped out of college my junior year. Sometimes, I felt I was wasting my time because of the professors -- one tried to teach us about French culture using Babar books; another, teaching Latin American History, was so ill-prepared that he got his facts wrong and at one point implored us to listen to him because "I'm doing this for free -- they don't pay me." I had excellent professors, too, but I had also gone into college wanting to major in journalism and by my third year knew that all I really wanted to do was write fiction. The creative writing department at University of Florida was not my cup of tea, consisting as it did of a bunch of inbred white guys who preyed off of their female students, so I didn't really have much choice but to leave.

...But getting back to your question -- I've never seen academics as any less infallible than anyone else and I've frequently seen cases where professors, or their students, tried desperately to put the objects of their study in boxes that they didn't really belong in -- to make a writer, for example, fit their preconceived notions. In terms of why I emulate these forms -- it has become increasingly apparent to me in recent years that one of the ways to innovate is to take forms thought of as nonfictional and make them fictional. It also serves as a good way to establish authority, to help the reader suspend disbelief when creating a fantasy world. I know almost everything I've done has been done in the past -- from Nabokov to Ballard -- but I've attempted to use it in a more fantastical context, for different aims.

I remarked to you recently that your fiction, most notably the novellas in City of Saints and Madmen, cracks me up. You said that readers sometimes miss the "funny" in your work. Why do you think that is?

Difficulties in reader response generally stem from the fantastical nature of the worlds I create, at least recently. For many readers, raised on either quest fantasy or on magic realism -- where some aspect of fantasy tentatively creeps into the story -- I think it can be disorienting to read stories set in an imaginary place that yet have no supernatural or other real fantasy element. Given that the humor is often juxtaposed with horror, this provides another element of dislocation. So sometimes it takes awhile to acclimate yourself to the fiction. However, readers in general "get" that aspect much more readily than reviewers, who rarely if ever mention it... And, honestly, humor's a very subjective thing -- some of the work may not be as funny as I think it is. I should note too that for readers who have followed my work for a long time, the humorous aspect is a relatively recent development. My work up until about eight years ago was all completely pessimistic and dark and lacking in humor. Now that I have attained some small mastery of the forms I work in, it has allowed me to loosen up so that my fiction more directly approximates my personality and interests.

Do you remember what you were doing, where you were, when you discovered Ambergris?

Yes. It was after midnight and I was sleeping. Suddenly, I woke with this image in my head of a missionary looking up at a woman in a third-story window. I had the first lines of the story running through my head. It was so compelling that I immediately ran to the computer and began to type the beginning of "Dradin, in Love". The chilling, inexplicable thing for me is that Ambergris just grew up around that image. There I am typing -- the first seven paragraphs of Dradin pretty much stayed the same throughout the revision process in terms of content -- and it's all just there. It's completely there -- the name of the place, the details of it. I've never had an experience quite like it. I was shaking from it and I was practically in tears because I didn't have any idea of where it was going and yet...there I was writing it and it didn't seem like there was any conscious thought involved at all. Now, I've had that experience before and since, but never on that scale. And a lot of times, you have that experience and the writing that results from it is utter crap... It is true I had primed myself for that experience in a couple of ways -- (1) I had told myself one day I was going to write about my best friend's parents, who met when his father looked up and saw his mother in a third story window, typing, and went up and asked her to marry him, without any preamble and (2) I had written a story which featured the River Moth but which was not about Ambergris. I had told myself that I should write another story with the River Moth in it, but one that was totally fantastical.

When you write about Ambergris does it take a conscious effort of creation, or are you accessing an alternate reality that seems to have already existed?

A little of both. Sometimes, it is convenient for me to think of it as an already-existing alternate reality, in order to really get into the writing. But in some cases, it is a conscious effort of creation. Stories like the recently-completed "The Cage" are all about just grinding it out and getting a rough draft done, without any real sparks of visions or whatever.

Ambergris has few equals as an invention of fantastical locale in contemporary fiction, but do you ever tire of it? Is it a place that you feel you will continue to return to in your fiction? To what extent, if any, is it your fictional home?

Having just finished over 45,000 words of new Ambergris fiction for the hardcover collection, I definitely am tired of Ambergris at the moment, but it's more a general fatigue from having pushed hard for three months. The real answer to your question is more complex. On the highest level, I recognize that using the same setting over and over again can lead to repetition and can, ultimately, be limiting. Circling in closer, there is a more specific danger in using a pseudo-Victorian approach -- one of not improving upon and strengthening my style or voice. This second threat I believe I have successfully averted, in that the three Ambergris novels I'll resume work on in November do not backfill sections of existing Ambergris history. One novel does not allow for the same style as previous works simply because it is written from a first person point of view. The other two are set far in the future of Ambergris, when the city's underground inhabitants have reclaimed the city. These novels exist in a more 1920s or 1930s type technology and the style will change accordingly. In other words, Ambergris can morph into whatever I need it to be without losing the essential logic of its illogic, if that makes any sense. Put another way -- the Ambergris I'll be writing about in the next few years will be so radically different from the Ambergris I'm writing about now that it will be, in essence, a different place. That said, I always try to be alert to the potential for repetition, for a decaying orbit with regard to my use of technique, etc. If Ambergris ever becomes a hindrance to my growth as a writer, I will jettison it mercilessly. That moment has not yet arrived, however.

Your second question -- is it in a sense my fictional home -- is difficult. I see Ambergris as a distortion and reflection of the real world. It is much more cruel than a world I would want to live in, and yet I live in this world, which is itself much more cruel than we sometimes want to believe. (I'm amazed at how often people guess wrong as to which elements are taken from historical fact and which I made up.) In another sense, all of my fictional influences can be found in Ambergris. I feel very comfortable there, surrounded by my friends and colleagues, many of whom I have lovingly stolen technique and sensibilities from.

The wonderful illustrations for the original volume of Dradin, in Love by Michael Shores are reminiscent of the collage work of Max Ernst. In addition, the story, itself, has surrealist qualities, as does much, if not all, of your other work. Has the influence of surrealism on you come from your simply viewing and reading the works of surrealists or have you actively studied its philosophical tenets? How do these influences serve your purpose?

I came first to the paintings of Dali and DeChirico, among others. I then discovered pseudo-Surrealist fiction such as Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and The Passion of New Eve. Carter, of course, had consciously distilled lessons from the works of the Surrealists, added studies of Marquez, etc., to come up with her approach. At the time I discovered Carter, I was already leaning toward the surreal -- it came naturally to me and I was often surprised when readers called my work "surreal" because it seemed very "real" to me -- but her work solidified that approach for me. After reading Infernal Desire Machines, I knew this was the kind of work I wanted to write. Since then, I have gone back and read several of the Surrealist tracts (in fact, a quote attributed to Bronet in "Transformation of Martin Lake" is a direct quote from Breton). I find most of it incomprehensible and believe the Surrealists should be remembered for their paintings -- and for the influence they had, after Surrealism itself died or became assimilated into the mainstream, on writers who came later, like Carter. A truly Surrealist text cannot be linear, have a plot, etc., and that's why any pursuit of pure "Surrealism" is a dead end for me.

As for how Surrealism informs my work, I do believe very much in the idea of unexpected or "convulsive" beauty -- beauty in the service of liberty. I also think that the techniques Dali used, where his brush creates minute realistic details to create something that, taken holistically, is from a dream world cannot help but aid any fantasist.

The writing in "Dradin" is very lush -- highly descriptive. Is this a result of the strength of the 'vision' you experienced when conceiving it or is it another technique employed to convince the reader of the reality of the fantasy? Do your general tastes tend toward the 'ornate' or 'baroque?' Is there something about that style that fits the stories you want to tell?

I've always seen "Dradin" as the most baroque and lush of my fictions and I think there are three reasons for that: (1) the intensity of the initial vision, as you point out; (2) during the six-month revision process on the novel I had a continual fever from mono, which made everything heightened; and (3) Dradin is both new to the city and in love, which means that everything should be heightened and more intense. Even with a third person main character, I believe the prose, on some basic sub-atomic level, should reflect the main character's point of view. Because of (3), I allowed (1) and (2) to influence the piece. I also very deliberately let the energetic nature of the descriptions replace standard forward plot movement. Not a lot actually happens in the book's first two-thirds on a narrative level -- Dradin walks around, basically -- but a lot is happening in the prose, and that's what saves it. I'm not sure it's really a viable approach in general, though.

I have always tended toward a lush prose style, but I take care to modulate it from story to story and to strip it down entirely when necessary. For example, a post-Dradin but not-Ambergris story like "Balzac's War" requires a much more stark style. And I really like to write a stark, muscular style as well -- as long as it's the right style for the story I'm telling. Also, after Dradin I deliberately tried not to repeat that particular style because I saw it as a dead end. I felt that such a style, with a lot of puns and references to other writers, etc., would eventually lead to clever but not deep work. It did seem successful for Dradin, though, and in a different way for "Transformation".

As for my tastes as a reader -- I do tend toward the more baroque, but mostly I just want an interesting style, lush or spare. Tim O'Brien has a clear but beautiful/strong style, for example. Nabokov's style could be dense but was not lush, really. What I object to are folks who are lauded for their clear style when it's the lack of a style, not a style at all. They write that way because they don't know any other way and haven't experimented.

You won the World Fantasy Award for the novella "The Transformation of Martin Lake." What, if anything, does this mean to you. Has it changed you as a writer in any way?

In terms of validation and name recognition, it has been huge. It has changed me as a writer in terms of my confidence. For years before that I was peddling my odd novellas to magazines and getting rejection after rejection -- this after having had a lot of success with non-Ambergris short stories. And yet I was convinced that the novellas were better than the work I had done before. So it came as a relief and made it clearer to me than ever before that the work I was doing was worthwhile. It hasn't changed my writing in any way, however. To be honest, whenever my career hits a snag, I indulge in a few days of self-pity and then say, "Okay -- just bang away at it harder." And when my career goes well, I revel in it for a few days and then say, "Okay -- big deal. Bang away at it harder." I am very fearful of repeating myself, of getting into ruts. It's one thing to have recurring themes, where a writer is trying to get at the same subject from different angles. It's another matter for it to turn into a kind of franchise.

"Martin Lake" is about a painter, and it is obvious from both the beautiful cover art by Scott Eagle for City of Saints and Madmen and Eric Schaller's work on your recent project, "The Exchange," that the visual arts are important to you. What part do they play in influencing your writing?

My mother is an artist -- painter and biological illustrator. In fact, she's in Paris right now getting her Ph.D. in French graveyard art. I have always had an acute visual sense and a sense of what images create a resonance, but this has been enhanced by being exposed to all sorts of art from a very early age. Paintings generally aren't narratives, but they are evocations of mood and setting. I very much want my fictions to do well what paintings do well in this regard. Not to mention that paintings often contain hidden messages, hidden symbols. (In "Transformation," for example, I color coded everything to correspond to the two political parties in the story, the Reds and the Greens. Everything with one or two exceptions is described in either green or red shades.)

We have on occasion discussed different movies -- "The City of Lost Children," the works of the Brothers Quay, etc. These films share many of the same sensibilities as your fiction. Knowing you, if you had wanted to be a film maker, you would have been. What can you do in fiction that they are incapable of? What does film offer that you wish you had at your disposal?

Film fixes a precise visual image in the viewer's head. In fiction, you just hope you're precise enough to convey the intended effect. This is also fiction's strength, though, in that it interacts with the reader's mind whereas even the best film requires a certain amount of passivity on the part of the viewer. I also believe that even the best films cannot attain the depths of characterization that the best fiction can -- or at least without really stretching the boundaries of what film is. I steal constantly from film -- images, techniques, etc. A lot of it can be successfully applied to fiction. Even just the idea of a 360-degree shot, for example. There's a very cinematic moment in the beginning of Dradin when he picks up coins and is shoved by children running by -- it's very dynamic: movement that leads to the end result of him seeing the woman in the window. (It also serves the purpose of obscuring a change from present to past tense, or from Dradin in love -- in the moment -- to Dradin now thinking about what he's going to do about it.)

I've actually tried shooting a couple of short skits, but even at that basic level, I have trouble framing the shots properly and what I see in my mind's eye does not get translated properly onto videotape. I would be the new Ed Wood of cinema.

Michael Moorcock has written the introduction to City of Saints and Madmen. Why did you feel he is well suited to introduce this volume?

Actually, the former publishers, now defunct, contacted Moorcock. I was all for it, but it was not my idea. It did fit in my mind because Moorcock published and/or knew most of the writers such as Carter, Ballard, Peake, etc., that I most loved. And Moorcock had also been an influence, although mostly with the later work, like Mother London. I had read some Elric, but not a lot. I was thrilled that he liked the work so much and also that he "got" it. His introduction is both insightful and hilarious, especially the bits about squid (in retaliation for which I wrote "King Squid", just to prove him right!). For the record, Moorcock is a very generous human being and I owe him more than I can possibly repay.

"The Strange Case of X" is a tale about a writer. Is this piece in any way autobiographical?

Oddly enough, the story came into being when Eric Schaller, the illustrator on "The Exchange" and a good friend, sent me pencil sketches of gray caps as if they had been "Disneyfied". This not only made me laugh my ass off, it made me start thinking about the connection between Ambergris and this world. Although the details about X are generally autobiographical, the more such information I put into the story, the less personal the story became for me on a human level while the more personal the story became to me as a writer! It was very odd. I wrote the story really just to work out some thoughts I'd had about writing -- I didn't even intend to send it out anywhere. But then I sent it to a few friends who had read the other Ambergris material...and began to get this really strange response. One friend called up and left a message asking if I was all right -- they thought I'd gone mad. Another told me he'd been so weirded out by the story that he stayed up all night with the lights on. So at that point I said to myself, "Well, if it's getting a real reaction like that, I should perhaps try to publish it." So the short answer to your question is: Yes, autobiographical, but with caveats.

"The Cage" is a truly accomplished metaphysical horror story about the corporeal and the ineffable and its style, for me, very reminiscent of Dickens. I don't think I have ever seen you mention Dickens as an influence. Was he on your mind when writing this one? If not, what was?

I love the selflessness displayed by the one twin at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, but I have read very little Dickens, unfortunately. I've liked what I've read. I think the problem is that in middle and high school they cram Dickens down your throat to the point where any natural curiosity in his work is short-circuited. I did have in the back of my mind Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, which either influenced Dickens or was influenced by Dickens, I believe.

As for the inspiration for the story: I was at a bar mitzvah party and, suddenly turning, I looked up and saw on this distant ledge/shelf, high up toward the ceiling of the building, this empty cage with iron bars. It was incongruous -- nothing around it fit. It didn't look like it belonged at all. The question that immediately came to me and which raised the little hairs on my neck was: "What's inside of it?" I don't know why I thought that. But although the cage was empty, it didn't seem empty somehow. Immediately I was one of the first Ambergris Hoegbottons, looking up at the cage. I was in a mansion. Something terrible had happened or was going to happen... The idea was there, but I couldn't write my way to it -- all the drafts of first scenes were horrible. So I shelved it. Then, on a vacation to Tampa, my fiancée Ann and I stopped at the University of Tampa, which used to be a lush, lavish 1920s hotel. Inside, in one of the rooms, was a collection of old tables, chairs, grandfather clocks...and a cage. In that atmosphere, after hours, the place like a more opulent hotel from The Shining, again, the cage seemed to contain something even though empty. This time, the idea stuck. Just the image of it. Another year passed. I couldn't write it but wanted to write it. I got the idea of starting with an inventory from Melville. That allowed me to both set the scene and define the main character. After I wrote the first scene, I asked myself what the story was about and discovered the story was about an obsessed character who encounters something so horrible that he cannot move past it. Then it was simply a matter of letting the events play out to their inevitable conclusion. It was a tough story to write -- the words fought me every sentence of the way. My favorite part of it is the main character's relationship with his wife. I wanted to make a statement about the nature of love as part of any subplot. I wanted to make the reader to finally realize that a somewhat proper character is actually deeply strange -- and that, in a sense, we are all deeply strange creatures.

I am the proud owner of a Deluxe version of your recent publication "The Exchange." Along with the text, illustrated by Eric Schaller, each customer gets a host of physical objects necessary for attending the Festival of the Freshwater Squid -- a festival pamphlet, a votive candle, a Porfal memory capsule, and dried mushrooms. Are these items merely extras or are they important to the success of the fiction? Or are they the fiction?

That's an excellent question, best answered in terms of quantity and endurance. In other words, if I were to devote the next 10 years of my life to producing such oddities, I would have to stop calling myself a fiction writer and call myself an Imagined Found Objects Performance Artist Designer, or something. I would also probably go mad -- they'd find me cackling in my workshop as I molded a mound of mashed potatoes into a replica of the Truffidian Cathedral in Ambergris. In the case of "The Exchange," though, I would argue that they are part of the fiction because the fiction comments on them and their presence helps the reader further suspend hopes.

cover scan of hardback edition

I understand that the soon to be published hardcover version of City of Saints and Madmen differs substantially from the paperback. How and why?

With the hardcover version, my publisher has been kind enough to let me experiment with the idea of book-as-artifact. So some of the new work included helps achieve that goal. I also had some additional ideas extending from the Ambergris novella "The Strange Case of X" that I wanted to explore. Finally, I had ideas for two major new novellas, "King Squid" and "The Cage." Since it seems churlish to ask anyone to pay $40 for material they could get in the $15 trade paperback, I decided to try to finish the material in time to include it in the hardcover version. In all, the hardcover contains about 45,000 words of new material, along with a number of graphics provided by John Coulthart, Garry Nurrish, Mark Roberts, Eric Schaller, Dave Larsen, and Dawn Andrews. These serve to add additional verisimilitude.

There's plenty o' squid in these pages, plus "The Exchange" is about The Freshwater Squid Festival, and I have seen another lengthy, faux scientific treatise you have done on the phenomenon of the Freshwater Squid. What's with all the goddamn squid?

Funny you should ask -- Mike Moorcock asked me much the same thing a few months ago in almost the same words, in addition to alluding in his introduction that he thought perhaps my mother was a squid. Let me just say in my defense, I never intended for it to go this far, although I do take delight in unusual creatures -- usually exotic mammals like meerkats, lemurs, etc. But the more I researched squid, the more fascinated I became. They're truly remarkable and, more importantly, alien creatures. Given that I had arbitrarily named an entire festival after them in "Dradin, in Love," I felt duty-bound to explore squidular possibilities. I do believe, however, that I am now officially squided out.

On the hardcover edition of the collection, you opted for story over blurbage. The entire book is a story. Can you comment on this?

I love books as artifacts. I love the idea of turning the artifact of a book into something that is completely, absolutely, obsessively devoted to its subject, even to the point of banishing "blurbage" in favor of even more story. Since the hardcover is primarily available over the Internet and through book catalogs, conventional ideas about what constitutes good cover design did not need to figure into the equation. Prime Books has been steadfast in their commitment to allow me to have creative freedom, working with graphic designer/editor Garry Nurrish (who provides the majority of the layout ideas) to realize this admittedly eccentric vision. There are, of course, good models about, including the books of Alasdair Gray, an author who first taught me that there can be a mischievous visual aspect to fiction.

Is it true that the book also contains an encrypted story?

Unfortunately, yes. However, part of it is decoded so that readers can decide whether they wish to go to the effort of decoding the rest. The purpose behind this testing of the reader's patience (if the reader hasn't already thrown the book across the room upon encountering the 20-page squid bibliography) is to give the reader the sensation of actually writing the story by decoding it word-by-word while also achieving some plot resolutions that might otherwise not work.

Is the entire population of Ambergris divided between saints and madmen? Is this a distinction that can be applied to the real world?

Saints are madmen, so the title cancels itself out. The real title is City Of And. In Ambergris, all the saints are corrupt and all the madmen are pure. Actually, the former publisher thought City of Saints and Madmen was a good title. I would have preferred just The Book of Ambergris, although I went along with it at the time. It is a little too late for changes now, however.

I understand you also have a book of non-fiction in the works. Can you say when that will be published and what it will contain?

Why Should I Cut Your Throat: The Selected Nonfiction will be published in May 2002 by Cosmos Books. It will contain all of my major book reviews, convention accounts, essays (including a 15,000-word essay on Angela Carter), humor pieces, etc. It'll be about 150,000 words. The title refers to something a junkie said to a friend of mine, Dan Read, while we were trying to order pizza in downtown Atlanta at two in the morning during a fantasy convention. The full quote is: "Why should I cut your throat when I can just ask you for the money?"

What are the benefits of publishing with an "independent" press? Have you perceived any drawbacks?

Prime Books (and Cosmos) have been great about giving me complete artistic freedom. All independent presses suffer from distribution and PR issues from time to time. But I feel both have done a good job.

Some of the freshest work in speculative fiction is being done by writers publishing with independent presses. You have first hand knowledge of this phenomenon. Can you point the readers toward any new works from these publishers that might be of interest?

Brian Evenson will have a new short story collection out soon. He's been around awhile, but since his work has mostly appeared in literary magazines, many readers of speculative fiction may not know of him. He's had some excellent short story collections published by Wordcraft of Oregon. As a stylist, his control is remarkable. I also believe a writer named Brendan Connell, who spent the last 10 years doing translations of Tibetan, Chinese, and Sanskrit texts, will be a great writer of note in the next ten years. He has turned his attention to fiction, with a style somewhere between Angela Carter and Michael Blumlein, informed by an acute knowledge of the Decadent Movement. Finally, Rhys Hughes, the Welsh Wonder, is a perennially under-appreciated writer who combines his own absurdist sensibilities with Calvino-esque prose.

There has been a lot of recent talk about new movements in the realm of speculative fiction. Do you see yourself as part of any movement?

No. Really, the "movements" in SF, other than the New Wave, which I think was legitimate, have been rather pathetic. Cyberpunk was dead as soon as it arrived, the authors either branching off into other things or doomed to repeat themselves. Splatterpunk in the horror field was a joke at best, a kind of "where are they now and what the hell did they do?" scenario. Steampunk is a catch-all for any antiquated pseudo-Victorian fantasy, regardless of intent. Magic Realism used to mean something but is now slapped onto any piece of fiction in which some reluctant element of fantasy pokes its head bashfully into a realistic, contemporary setting.

What were the most intriguing novels and stories you have read in the past year? What non-fiction works have sparked your interest?

The most intriguing novel I have read in many years is Danielewski's House of Leaves. It was robbed of a Stoker Award and the failure of many horror critics to realize that here was the breakthrough, here was the work that synthesized the experimental with the horrific and the mainstream, is their loss. Every time a work like that comes out, it defines and redefines us -- it gives us the opportunity to rise to the challenge as writers or to just be envious and dismiss it and go on as we have before. As for nonfiction, I have been devouring Colin Thubron's travel books on Russia, Central Asia, Siberia, and China. He has an amazing capacity to write poetically but not melodramatically about his surroundings and to, more importantly, characterize the people he meets and himself in truthful terms. Here's a quote from his book on Siberia that demonstrates also the little gems of information he embeds into his texts:

"At Oimyakon a temperature has been recorded of -97.8 F. In far lesser cold, steel splits, tires explode, and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe. As the thermometer drops, your breath freezes into crystals, and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call 'the whispering of the stars'. Among the native peoples a myth exists that in the extremest cold words themselves freeze and fall to earth. In spring they stir again and start to speak, and suddenly the air fills with out-of-date gossip, unheard jokes, cries of forgotten pain, words of long-disowned love."

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© Jeffrey Ford 26 January 2002