Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Feature: Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Jeff Vandermeer is an award-winning author, editor, and publisher and his book-length fiction has been translated into 15 languages. He has also contributed to many publications including The Washington Post Book World, Publishers Weekly, SF Weekly, Bookslut, The SF Site, Locus Online, Amazon, and many others. He has several new books coming out this year.

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. First off, you're quite busy these days, dabbling in everything from writing, editing, blogging, and other arcane rituals. What in your opinion is the biggest change for you compared to, say, ten years ago? What advice would you have given to your younger self back then?

I would tell my younger self to do exactly what I did—to fanatically and obsessively work on improving my fiction and being addicted to the idea of art for its own sake. It’s only when you get some comfort level with technique and craft that you can relax into your writing, so those early years, at least for me, were always going to be intense and narrow in focus. But I’ve always done all kinds of different projects—the internet has just changed the kinds of visibility for those projects. Before the internet, I used to do more with magazine publishing and with putting on local poetry and fiction reading events in my community. Fiction is always the most personal and the thing I was born to do, but editing is also very fulfilling, and blogging often allows me to get my sense of humor out into the world. The way these cycles go is, I have a major novel out and then I need to recharge so I have anthologies out, and in that period people suddenly think of me as an editor. Then the next novel comes out and the anthologies recede and I’m a writer again. But I’ve always believed in the writer as person-of-letters—i.e., that if you’re creative in the written arts you should be as well-rounded as possible for your skill set. I love to write reviews, for example, do critical essays when I have the time, and have recently started doing very amateurishly-edited films. I’m also doing comic books soon and collaborating with musicians. It’s all connected in my opinion. But it’s in part because my comfort level with writing has gotten greater—not that I don’t push myself, but that I’m more confident.

Over at
The Agony Column, you have two comprehensive columns on the production of City of Saints and Madmen. Considering all the other projects you've churned out since then, is it still the most challenging book you've written/produced/published/promoted? Will we be seeing another incarnation of the book?

I dunno. The fake disease guide came close to being as intense. Here’s the thing—if you really care about what you’re doing, and you’re detail-oriented, and you want to push your projects as far as they can go...most of them are going to be intense and challenging in some way. The projects this year, including a Clarion charity anthology, are challenging in different ways. The only difference with City of Saints is that it was the first that became widely visible to readers. There will be no further incarnation of that book, in terms of a revision, although there’s a possibility a Czech version will include City and Shriek, with some interlinking material between.

Aside from
City of Saints and Madmen, you also edited publications like The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. What drives you to produce such original and very innovative books? Have you also considered experimenting with other mediums, whether it's the Internet, film, animation, comics, etc.?

Zach Taylor and I are actually doing a Torture Squid comic based on City of Saints. And there’s the Shriek film, based on my first screenplay. More comics projects are forthcoming, and film projects. As for what drives me, I think it’s important to push your creativity as far as it can go without it becoming self-referential and un-fun for the reader. The Victorian stylings, the supposed disease in Spanish written by Borges, and some of other things are pushing the envelope in ways that readers find to be fun and entertaining. It’s mostly about fully realizing the concept of whatever project you’re working on—on making sure you are using your imagination as fully as possible. I am not happy unless there’s a challenge.

Both you and Ann have several books coming out this year. Can you tell us more about them? (Go plug away!)

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: New Weird antho (with Ann, editor, collecting fiction and discussion about this dispute movement centered around China Mieville); Steampunk (with Ann, editor, collecting classic reprinted steampunk fiction from Joe Lansdale, James Blaylock, and others); The Situation (PS Publishing, long story about a crazy bio-tech dysfunctional cubicle workplace); The Leonard Variations (with Ann, editor, a Clarion charity anthology containing student riffs on the same story plot with accompanying instructor essays; kind of a workshop in a box); Secret Lives (the long-delayed micro-stories collection from Prime Books in a limited hardcover); Shriek: An Afterword (the limited edition with the Shriek movie, Church soundtrack CD, with cover by Ben Templesmith and layout by John Coulthart); Best American Fantasy 2 (the best North American fantasy, with Ann and Matt Cheney, editor, mostly from literary mags and some genre mags; a different look at fantasy in 2007); Predator: South China Sea (my tie-in novel, with a definitely surreal couple o’ twists, but also definitely adhering to the classic themes and action that appeal to the readers of this series); Fast Ships/Black Sails (with Ann, editor, a collection of fantastical and SF pirate stories, including original fiction from Naomi Novik, Michael Moorcock, Garth Nix, etc.). Then we collapse and die.

If I might intrude, how did you meet Ann?

We met when she started the magazine The Silver Web and came down to Gainesville, Florida, from Tallahassee, Florida, to a reading I was sponsoring/staging for a book about Alexandria David-Neel, a Victorian explorer. She wanted advice on how to do a magazine since I’d been doing one for a few years. I was 19 at the time. We corresponded for four or five years and became close and eventually started dating.

What it's like working with her on these projects? For the anthologies, do you have a set method, whether it's your working schedule or a technique in determining which stories qualify for the anthologies (i.e. both of you has to like the story, etc.)?

It’s a very organic process and depending on time limitations we’ll perform radically different tasks for each project. Sometimes she’ll do most of the editing, sometimes I will, and sometimes it’s a mix. As for picking stories, we tend to agree on about 75 percent or more of what we put in a given anthology. On the rest, we tend to just talk it out. We’re not big fans of both of us having to like it because we know that we each love really good stuff that doesn’t work as well for the other person. That doesn’t seem fair for the quality of a given anthology. If I have a blind spot when it comes to writer X and Ann doesn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to that writer, either. Oddly, despite the fact we’re both passionate about our fiction, we were just talking about this, we rarely if ever get into arguments. I think this is because we respect each other and each other’s opinions. One thing is usually the same, though—I do the PR for the book. The only downside of this is that sometimes reviewers want to credit me with doing a particular anthology, when in fact it’s fifty-fifty. Even on something like the fake disease guide, where I had a different co-editor, Ann did a LOT of work on the antho. And she also did a lot of work on the Leviathan series.

What's your daily schedule like? And I'm asking this because you're a prolific blogger (whether it's for Amazon or your own site) as well as editing several anthologies and let's not forget your own fiction writing. Do you still sleep (and if you do, do you dream of squids)?

Except during the crunch of final book deadlines, I always get up, eat breakfast, and go off to the Black Dog coffee shop and write from about 8:30 to about 11:30 am. After that, I run a few errands. Then I spend my afternoons with the editing, writing Amazon stuff, taking care of other nonfiction assignments, and then I hit the gym from about 4 to 6. In the evenings, after dinner, we’ll read stories, work on stuff that isn’t as intense. And then just watch TV. And repeat.

How'd you end up blogging for Amazon.com?

They asked me. I knew someone who had blogged from them, sent in a resume, didn’t hear from them for five months, and then they emailed me, had a trial period, and it’s worked out really nicely. Tom Nissley, the book editor there, is such a nice guy, and so knowledgeable about books. I can’t say enough good things about him and his staff.

Whose idea was it for you to write
Predator: South China Seas? Did Dark Horse approach you, was it an idea you pitched, or simply some big cosmic series of random events that involves mushrooms?

I’d become a freelancer quite recently when I met up with Brian Evenson, creative writing director at Brown University, at the AWP conference in Atlanta. He mentioned he was writing an Aliens novel for Dark Horse, and I asked if he would mind giving me an introduction to the editor there, Victoria Blake. He was happy to, and Blake bought the novel based on a short summary followed by a detailed summary. Blake had worked at the Paris Review and was looking to bring a few writers in to do the tie-ins who aren’t normally associated with that kind of work. Evenson and I have a long history together—we both had first books taken by Pyx Press, who did the magazine Magic Realism, were both screwed over by them, and have known each other ever since. In this case, it also turned out nicely because Blake left Dark Horse to start her own press and took novels from both Brian and from me. So our careers seem kind of intertwined at this point.

Do you experience any difficulties in juggling several roles, from book reviewer to interviewer to author to editor (and occasional book promoter)?

I don’t. I know the difference between those different roles. I think other people sometimes have a problem with it, but those who ascribe negative or sinister motives to my actions are always going to be jerks anyway, so I don’t worry about it much. There is a kind of theory that most people, though, cannot see another person as more than one thing. There’s a very clear delineation between my art and my commercial self (the PR), and I keep a wall between the two. I also make a clear delineation between blurb writing, blog writing, feature writing on Amazon, and book reviewing. You’ll always see a more critical, analytical bent to the reviews I do, whether it’s for the Washington Post Book World or SF Weekly, or whomever. The fantasy trilogy I might pimp on Amazon in a feature is probably not within my core reading area, but it IS for the readers of Amazon—I’m not serving those readers if I only pimp, say, Michael Cisco. But I tend not to think in binaries—the New Weird anthology is a good example. It’s a great project as an anthologist. As writer, I’m more ambivalent.

In your opinion, do some authors/books don't get the attention they deserve or are underrated?

Absolutely. There are certain power groups within genre and when they get hold of an award or a reviewing organ, then they promote their agenda. Sometimes that’s harmless and sometimes it’s very harmful. Where it’s harmful is when writers who actually suck, like on a line-by-line level or a plotting level or whatever, get elevated beyond what they deserve. And I mean critically. Sales are dependent on what readers generally think is good, and that’s fine. But when the commercial seeps into the critical where it’s unwarranted, it’s not good for genre. It leads to bad examples for beginning writers, for example. You also see the avalanche effect with reviewers. A book gets a few raves or pans and then other reviews tend to echo whatever the trend is—out of fear, basically, of looking stupid. Underrated writers tend to be on the literary end of the spectrum—the writers whose prose is amazing (and I don’t mean to the detriment of their plots—character is plot; prose is plot and character). I’ll always, personally, value a writer whose prose is alive. Here’s the difference. Some writers are using cement beams to construct their novels. The beams aren’t alive—they just contribute to the structure. Some other writers use living trees to construct their novels. The trees not only contribute to the structure, they are also full of sap and nutrients and all kinds of other things. That’s an imperfect metaphor, but....

Working with various publishers and taking on different roles, what's the biggest challenge you've encountered so far? What do you think is the biggest challenge the industry faces?

Every publisher is eccentric in some way, whether large or small. You have to learn how to talk to each in the language they’re used to dealing in. You have to assess their strengths and weaknesses going in so you know how to take up the slack or when to leave well enough alone. The biggest challenge is a lack of imagination and a willingness, because of past trends, to perceive reality in an essentially negative way. On the other hand, when you come in as an editor or author, you’re not taking the risk of publishing, the risk of putting out the money. So you also have to show results. And some projects we take directly into the indie press because we know a commercial publisher won’t take a chance.

As an editor, what do you look for in a story?

Integrated fiction. Someone who can plot but can’t write—forget about it. Someone who has great characters but nowhere to go, a little more forgiving. But I want it all—great prose, great characters, and interesting plot. But I do want the writer to show me they have their own style and approach and point of view about the world. This is why I dislike advice about invisible prose, because it tends to level out and make boring many a writer. Look, we have plenty of “invisibility” in our media—in TV, in movies, etc. Fiction’s great gift to us is that it engages and stimulates our imaginations. So I don’t want to be spoonfed. I don’t want to be written down to. I don’t want to have a great love scene between two characters and then be told “They loved each other.” I want a hint of mystery. I don’t want everything wrapped up nice and neat at the end. I want there to sometimes be rough edges. I want to have the back of my head blown off. I want to remember why I started reading fiction in the first place, ya know?

As a writer, what advice can you give to aspiring writers?

We live in uncertain times, and times in which we’re told fiction doesn’t mean anything, that we should just provide entertainment, with a kind of anti-intellectual streak to the discussion, a kind of “let’s beat the crap out of the smartest kid in the room” mentality. But ultimately if you’re not writing for yourself and because you believe that what you’re doing is in some way important—whether it’s just to convey something about a way of life you feel isn’t represented in fiction much or to recall a summer several years ago when you were in love, or whatever—then just don’t do it. There are easier ways to make money. And fiction does mean something, it is important, and entertainment is only one part of what fiction does. It’s only when we cynically tell ourselves it doesn’t that we make that reality come true.


Corey said...

Good interview. Jeff's a swell guy, and man, he's so talented I'm practically overcome with jealous rage.

J m mcdermott said...

Another great interview!

I'm proud of you, Charles!