Author Jeff VanderMeer talks about the importance of literary cross-pollination, binge-watching TV, and his latest novel, Annihilation .
Jeff VanderMeer is a writer who does it all. He has published many novels, collections, and non-fiction books (including last year’s fantastic Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction), has edited or co-edited over a dozen anthologies, and writes regularly for several papers and journals such as The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review. His most recent novel is Annihilation, book one of a trilogy that will be published entirely in 2014 by FSG. Books two and three are due out in May and September.
Annihilation is a tightly-written page-turner about a team of female scientists sent to explore a lush yet haunting wilderness known as Area X. These scientists—referred to only as the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor, and the biologist—are the twelfth expedition into this strange region. The previous expeditions all ended up dead or returned with their memories gone and then succumbed to cancer. VanderMeer writes in taught, atmospheric prose filled with mysteries and uncanny unease. Fans of speculative fiction—especially the subgenre of weird fiction—and great writing should put this at the top of their to-read list.
I spoke with Jeff VanderMeer over email about writing in an immersive state, literary cross-pollination, and binge-watching TV.
BuzzFeed Exclusive: We have the exclusive first look at the cover of book three, Acceptance, below.
The seed of Annihilation—which I absolutely loved—came to you in a dream. I’ve heard you say that as a general rule you write fiction in the morning as soon as you wake up. Why is it important for you to write right after dreaming?
Jeff VanderMeer: My best time to write is right after coffee and breakfast—four eggs because, full disclosure, I’m really a komodo dragon—and that’s because then I’m energized but not so awake that the critical voice clicks on, the voice that sometimes says “Don’t write that” or “Man, that sentence is terrible—you should give up and go pet the cats.” If the reader enters a kind of immersive experience reading a book, then I have to enter a kind of immersive state to do my best work. Dreams, though, are just one kind of inspiration—no more or less special than something in a newspaper article or from the world around you sparking inspiration. The main thing is to put yourself in a place where you’re receptive to what offers itself up to you.
One old writing cliché is “describe a dream, lose a reader.” How do you feel about descriptions of characters’ dreams in fiction?
JV: A dream inspiring a story is different than placing a description of a dream in a story. When you describe a character’s dream, it has to be sharper than reality in some way, and more meaningful. It has to somehow speak to plot, character, and all the rest. If you’re writing something fantastical, it can be a really deadly choice because your story already has elements that can seem dreamlike. So in Annihilation there are no real descriptions of dreams except in one place where it speaks to the transformation the expedition into Area X is undergoing. In a sense, whatever has created Area X is manifesting to the character through dream. So there, where it’s a form of distorted communication, it means something. It’s a kind of haunting. But, in general, I don’t recommend it. And even a dream as inspiration doesn’t mean anything unless you then find that it’s sparked an actual story with a plot.
There has been a tendency on both sides of the literary / genre divide to pretend that they are unrelated traditions. One thing I love about both your writing and your editorial work is that you consciously bring writers from both traditions together and place them in conversation with each other. For example, your massive anthology The Weird, coedited with your wife Ann VanderMeer, includes Jorge Luis Borges and Joyce Carol Oates alongside Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Why do you think it is important to read these authors alongside each other?
JV: If Borges writes about love or death, why should that be divorced from a story by King or Bradbury about love or death? If Kameron Hurley or Nnedi Okorafor write novels that are in part about war or the effects of war, why should that somehow exist across an invisible border with some mainstream lit war novelist on the other side, if there’s some useful communication going on there? If it’s all good stuff? When I read Deborah Levy or Marcel Theroux or Sjon I don’t separate them from Tanith Lee or Laird Barron or Thomas Ligotti, necessarily. Cross-pollination and “contamination” is really important to the health of fiction—and sometimes it’s a literal conversation, too, in that writers who might never otherwise meet and talk do so because of our anthologies.