Jeff VanderMeer Interview: “Fiction isn’t supposed to always be comfortable”

10 min read

Our contributor Alexander Pyles talked ecology, literature and changing the world with the author of critically acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy and Ann VanderMeer’s husband – Jeff VanderMeer. 

Due to scheduling issues and tight deadlines, the following interview didn’t make it into our latest issue.

Alexander Pyles: To open us up, if we could bring them into our reality (that might be terrifying to imagine), which one of your characters/creatures from “Borne” or “Dead Astronauts” do you think we need right now to help us in our present moment?

Jeff Vandermeer: That’s a tough one. I think the blue fox wrenches us out of our complacency and pushes back against foundational stupidities that we’ve inherited and amplified without thinking about them. The blue fox urges us to act and to think in unusual ways. On the other hand, characters like Moss and Chen speak to the idea of the contamination of the world and how to live with it and live through it. On the other hand, in Borne Rachel is trying to survive while keeping her relationships and some version of the old world, which I find very moving. Even Borne, a stranger in a strange land, in his developmental steps and how he encounters such a broken world is instructional. Because his perspective, like a child’s, is fresh. So, in a sense, all the characters are coming at this from totally different stances or foci and all of them are in some way of use in the way you suggest.

AP: “Dead Astronauts,” says – a lot of things, but if you could choose and isolate one message, that is if you want to be direct, what would it be?

JV: Biodiversity is not separable as an issue from the climate crisis and if we separate it out we risk both extinction and becoming permanently, as a species, just a bunch of sociopaths and psychopaths. Lack of respect for the rights of the nonhuman is especially dire in the context of the coming wave of biotech, which in the context of capitalism rejects true exploration of the ethical and moral dilemma of creating lives for exploitation.

AP: I’m always curious about what writers believe is the crucial thing they learned from each work they write, did you have a moment like that with “Dead Astronauts”?

JV: It’s more what happened before. An environmental science class implored me to write more directly about the climate crisis. That substantially influenced Dead Astronauts in that to become more direct I had to offset that didactic quality with lyricism. And to do that I reached back into the past and my life as a poet early in my career. 

AP: This book is not comforting read, nor is it meant to be one. I know you’ve mentioned this before in prior interviews, but aside from attempting to jolt the reader into a new space of thinking, what other benefit do you see in forcing the reader into an uncomfortable space? Accountability? Compassion?

JV: I firmly believe that one job of the novelist is to get to some truth that the reader didn’t see before. I also read to have my own foundational assumptions challenged, so I write that way, too. Sometimes even in a humorous mode, as in my forthcoming A Peculiar Peril. But in Dead Astronauts the lyricism and the formal experimental made me feel that the varied methods of conveying a point of view and the varied styles of that conveyance allowed me to pursue this idea of a challenge in its least watered-down form. Fiction isn’t supposed to always be comfortable, but in trying at least to get somewhere new you may offer comfort because you take both yourself and the reader on a journey of discovery. 

AP: What inspired you to create such different ways to format each perspective? (Thinking of the Leviathan & Blue Fox & Sarah’s journal)

JV: First of all, I’ve read too many novels with multiple viewpoint characters where the differentiation between the styles and modes of conveying very disparate personalities wasn’t sharply different enough. So I thought going in that the best way to make these distinctions was not just by using first, second, and third person, but also, given the number of nonhuman characters, to try to think about how the very form the prose is conveyed in reflected their point of view. Thinking in this way, to my mind, helps push back against the possibility of formal experimentation seeming an intellectual exercise—whereas I wanted the use of these forms to make the characters live viscerally in the bodies of readers.

Secondly, I do take the point some have made that using the traditional structures and modes of fiction can in some cases reinforce the hierarchy and ideologies that have brought us to the brink. The idea of a traditional three-act structure, the idea of a return to normalcy or the usual character catharsis—these can be traps and make it hard to convey nontraditional ideas without diluting them or commodifying them. So I tried to find new forms and subvert the old structures.

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AP: “Dead Astronauts” ends on a rather hopeful note, are you finding hope yourself or seeing it out there?

JV: My daughter Erin Kennedy works for an amazing sustainability company in Amsterdam and has contracts with places like Boulder, Charlotte (NC), and Singapore, to do vital work in the ecological space. She has more raw data at hand than I do and she still believes we can turn it around. The main thing being that we absolutely know what to do and how to do it. We could if we thought of converting to a war-time footing, so to speak, start in earnest tomorrow. If we only had the will. So the information makes me still hopeful. The stupidity and lack of will at the policy level I find genuinely distressing.

AP: Why do humans require an extinction of something (e.g bees) to feel the gravity of the problem? 

JV: Because we’re bad at abstracts and much better at absolutes and personal anecdotal evidence. So it might take someone observing bees dying from herbicide application to get the point even if countless articles tell us this is so. The challenge and irony are that we must use our imaginations to their fullest to live in the world as it exists as opposed to the world that we think we live in.

AP: Being that we are living in a culture that is fighting against an administration that is actively hostile to the natural world – what would you encourage readers of your books to do?

JV: It’s different for everyone. For me, I try a three-pronged approach. I use my platform on social media to celebrate the natural world, given we have a healthy ecosystem in our yard and to dispel harmful myths about animals. I try to do something strategic re the national situation by giving what I can to places like the Center for Biological Diversity, and whenever possible I involve myself in local politics and environmental causes. Doing something local is extremely important in pushing back against environmental degradation. I would also say that if you own property, working on that property to make it more biodiverse on a daily or weekly basis is not just very helpful to wildlife and the cause but also makes you feel good and helps protect against being frozen. If you don’t own property, even an hour volunteering to remove invasive plant species from a local park or removing trash is useful.

AP: You tend to walk the line of spec and literary – while genre descriptions are almost just arbitrary marketing tools, do you see yourself ever leaving either entirely?

JV: Because these are marketing terms you have to both subvert them and work with them in order to get any readers. Mostly, I just try to be slippery, in part because I don’t write the same novel twice. If I was working in one mode all the time, I would, of course, lean hard into that. But since I don’t, it’s very harmful to be pegged as just one thing, in terms of keeping a readership. These are the things you think about, though, after you’ve finished writing the next novel, not ever while writing it.

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AP: Are there any hard limits that come to your mind when it comes to books? You’ve seemed to push the limits that much farther with DA, but do you believe they can go farther?

JV: At a certain point if you push those limits too far, you’re actually creating a short film or moving into other media. So I would say there are limits but at the same time limitless combinations that still work in the context of calling something a novel or a book. Part of that is what you’re influenced by. I try to observe and go to a lot of art installations and exhibits and multi-media events. I also study film. I think “how would this translate into fiction?” And even if that’s just scaffolding to get to a place I wouldn’t otherwise and not actually a direct translation, it winds up helping me get somewhere more unique.

AP: Thinking of “The Wonderbook” – what value is the interplay between visual art and the written word? Do they complement one another? Should we combine them more?

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JV: Absolutely! When it’s possible and makes sense. There are a lot of diagrams we abandoned for Wonderbook because it turned out some things made more sense conveyed in words rather than images. So the main thing is simply to not force it. But, for example, I would love even the simple thing of a coffee table book that collects both Leonora Carrington’s art and her fiction. Right now, we have books with the two things separated out and I think a book with both would be a different form of unity and communication.

AP: Can there be truly anticapitalist art? Are you afraid that BP or Chevron would bastardize “climate fiction” by loving your books and support your art instead of doing anything tangible? I’m thinking of the ultra-rich like Elon Musk loving Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” that was aimed to criticize them.  

JV: It’s impossible to control readership once something is out in the world and kind of presumptuous to think you can. All you really can do is as the creator is to point out hypocrisy when it occurs and not agree to gigs or situations that work against your message. Of course, that’s when you have the luxury of choice. So the more the literary community can create support and situations where writers don’t have to make decisions about “selling out,” the better off we’ll all be.

AP: So, I believe “A Peculiar Peril” is the up and coming release followed by “Hummingbird Salamander”, but is there anything else waiting in the wings? 

JV: After that, I will have an all-originals collection out of novellas that are informed by things like the 2008 subprime housing crisis in the US. All of them are weird, uncanny fictions. So it’s a kind of updating of things in the context of what I would call uncanny economic and nationalistic events. The working title is “Nice Is Just Another World For Terrible.”

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AP: Should we expect another “Big Book of” book from your wife and yourself?

JV: We have a Big Book of Modern Fantasy out in July. 

AP: If it was up to Jeff Vandermeer – what would he do to save the planet?

JV: Take the short-term economic hit and immediately work on carbon reduction via national and international law that would outlaw fracking and immediately in an emergency sense uptick solar power while phasing out fossil fuels. In addition, all current development would be subject to a much more rigorous review to avoid destroying more wilderness while still providing housing for people in a way that is environmentally aware. I’d also launch an international rewilding effort so that private property owners would have an incentive to restore biodiversity. But I’m not the one to ask—there are actual experts who know what all the steps are. The main thing is to not take our cue from green-tech bros, because they’re often destroying the planet even as they’re being of use in some other arena.

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