In Ambergis for a Chat with Jeff VanderMeer

This week my guest is a multiple Word Fantasy Award winning author and editor of efforts that have become recent fixtures in fan favorite lists, writing a brand of fantastic fiction that the Guardian admits “Could well be creating one of the dominant literary forms of the 21 century”. From City of Saints and Madmen, to Veniss Underground, to his collection Secret Life and now his latest work Shriek: an afterword to a book that doesn’t exist, every journey undertaken has been one to a different place, even if at times occurring in the same location or a few steps from it.

Your new novel, one set in your much-lauded Ambergris setting was recently released in the U.K, and will be released in the U.S. later this fall. What can readers expect from your first full-length novel in Ambergris, and why was now the time to release the effort now after a series of short stories and collections?

Jeff Vandermeer- My first Ambergris book, City of Saints, is more of a mosaic novel than a series of short stories. It is meant as pieces that make a concerted whole. Some of the work is longer, in novella form. My Ambergris novel, Shriek, just happens to coincide with my moving from the shorter lengths to true novel length.

This is the first true novel I’ve done — and at 135,000 words it is probably the longest work I will ever do. I’ve been working on it since 1998 because it is very personal and you need distance from real life to write about personal stuff. Also, in 1998 I was not a good enough writer to master some of the techniques required to finish the novel. But I never really have a plan in place except to challenge myself.

For the readers who are just becoming familiar with Jeff Vandermeer from the recent rereleases of Veniss Underground and City of Saints and Madmen via from Bantam, can you describe what they can expect from your new book, from an author that many fans already believe has a established tradition of writing achievements in modern fantastic fiction?

Jeff Vandermeer- Well, readers in the US will be able to pick up City of Saints and Madmen in the Bantam Books edition last February, thus priming them for the August release of Shriek. UK readers already have become familiar with Ambergris from the Pan Macmillan editions.

But as for Shriek, it is a strange family chronicle covering 50 or 60 years in the lives of Janice Shriek and her brother Duncan, as well as 50 or 60 years of Ambergrisian history. Among other things, it describes a war between publishing houses, a doomed love affair, and further explores the mysteries of the underground gray caps. Thematically, and there’s no way to get around sounding vaguely pretentious but what the fuck: it’s about life, love, and mortality. It’s also about history, obsession, and lust. It’s also about innocence and the loss of it.

You told Jeffrey Ford, “I see Ambergris as a distortion and reflection of the real world.” That said, how has Ambergris changed the most from its beginnings — if at all — from your vantage point?

Jeff Vandermeer- Ambergris has changed as the world has changed. Which is to say, post 9–11, this is a different world we live in. Not because of 9–11, but because of the US reaction to it. How can you not be affected by this? How can you not be affected by the current administration’s attempts to suppress information about global warming?

How can you not be affected by the Iraqi war? I dislike writers that preach, but I also dislike writers that refuse to interact with the world that exists around them. I think non-realist fiction is in the best position to convey the psychological reality of the surreal catastrophe that is being played out all around us. That said, my novel is not a comment on global warming or the Iraqi War, but it has been influenced by both, if often in subtle ways.

southern reach trilogy jeff vandermeer

I agree. This non-interaction and refusal of engagement is what I perceive to be escapist in its worst form. Do you agree or have a different perception of ‘escapist’ from what was stated above?

Jeff Vandermeer- I think escapism in its worst form is just laziness. Writers who do not question their own texts after they write the rough draft. Writers who don’t have a curiosity about the world. But I have a problem with any and all generalizations about anything. The first thing you learn as a writer is that any generalization is poison.

From a writing perspective, what is the biggest difference between the Jeff VanderMeer who wrote Shriek and the Jeff VanderMeer who wrote City of Saints and Madmen?

Jeff Vandermeer- I’m older and have more distance from my work. I’m more confident. The literary tricks I use are less obvious and less about structure and more about character. I’m also using a looser, less baroque style

What is it about Ambergris that you think really causes it to really resonate with readers, and what inspired the setting conceptually?

Jeff Vandermeer- I don’t know if I can really comment on that. Readers seem to respond to the characters, to the situations, and then the city. Perhaps they can recognize parts of themselves and their own world in Ambergris. I’m not sure.

As for what inspired the setting, I grew up in the Peace Corps, in the Fiji Islands, and on the way back to the United States, after our tour of duty, we took six months traveling around the world. I got to see Madrid, Rome, Bangkok, Calcutta, New Delhi, Singapore, and many other major, foreign cities.

I was even lost in Rome at the age of eight for a period of three or four hours, a very disorienting experience. One reason I think I write fantasy is to try to establish a sense of place, because I was attached to no one country or place growing up. Ambergris reconciles all these different locations into one location. And then, of course, I have read all of the imaginary cities, from Calvino to Peake and more. They do form a little bit of an overlay on top of the real-life events I pull Ambergris’ pieces from.

You are always noted as an author who has created a setting that exists as a character itself, an apt statement given as a compliment, but in this novel, more than any other of your works transcends that. While Ambergris still breathes, it is your characters who for me, give this work its life. Earlier, you stated you are focusing more on ‘character’ Is this something that was conscious decision — is this progression, or is thing simply a writer still experimenting? I find it interesting, as last year when I interviewed Paul Park, he said much the same thing, and noted it as progression.

Jeff Vandermeer- I’ve always focused on character. The thing I find hilarious is that what I have really done in the past is pulled the city up to the level of character, not subsumed my characterization in city description. In other words, people say that because the city is as three-dimensional as my three-dimensional characters, but then think that means my characters are actually two-dimensional. Although it’s not a charge leveled often. And also because I let characterization accrete from difference sources.

In ‘Martin Lake,’ for example, you get Lake’s view of himself and then someone else’s view. You have to put the two together to fully animate him. I think my portrayal of Hoegbotton in ‘The Cage’ is an act of deep characterization, for example. But in the third person the city does take on a baroque quality that impacts on the characters lives. Shriek is a first person account, more loose, less stylized.

The real difference between Shriek and the earlier work is that Shriek is about the lives of Duncan and Janice, whereas the other stories are more about, well, the narrative, the progression of the story. But not every story needs the same kind of characterization. It’s all rather complicated, but you have to abide by what the reader thinks of as three-dimensional characterization, and this is most definitely the most complex tangle of characterization I’ve had in a novel.

Shriek, described in its simplest form, is a book, simultaneously about a book being read (and edited) by the person — thought dead — the book was written about, and the writing of the book itself. It really is an exercise in narrative dexterity, relaying a story and at the same time offering annotation and perspective from a completely different source, who is — among other differences — an accomplished author. When did you decide that this format, this afterword, was the method you wanted to approach this story?

Jeff Vandermeer- I’d read Nabokov’s Ada, which has brother and sister creating the narrative, but without differentiating who is whom. In that book, they’re lovers, too, whereas that’s not the case in Shriek. But that was the first impetus. That I wanted to use and reinvigorate that point-counterpoint structure in some guise.

Later, I read Richard Grant’s Views from the Eldest House, which was in part an attempt to re-use Ada’s narrative device. I love that novel in some ways, not so much in others, and felt that again the technique had not been used to the best advantage. That it needed more structure and differentiation — actually less experimental than when Nabokov and Grant used it — for it to be effective characterization.

Later, I wrote the story disguised as a history essay ‘The Early History of Ambergris’ and showed it to Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti interpreted ‘Early History’ as a response to Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (In fact, it was a response to Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, which I thought was vastly overrated.)

Although he was wrong, this was instructive because he said the story lacked a strong motivation for the main character, Duncan Shriek. That he was too much of a passive observer. I agreed — but believed that was correct for that story. However, this gave me the idea of writing about the life of Duncan Shriek, and there was some delight in the idea of an afterword longer than the essay preceding it.

I wrote a 12-page summary/rough draft that basically encompassed the major events in Duncan’s life, as if Janice were doing a true afterword. And then I broke that wide open and the novel began to come to life.

Those that have read your City of Saints and Madmen will be familiar with sibling pair that is central to Shriek. Duncan is the narrator of ‘The Early History of Ambergris’, and Janice who plays a role in ‘The Transformation of Martin Lake’.

What made these two characters the ones you wanted to write, what is your longest work about, was it purely due to them fitting best in the Nabokov framework you wanted to apply and explore, or due to them being siblings, or was there another occurrence that made you interested in finding out more about these characters specifically?

Jeff Vandermeer- I wanted to write something more autobiographical, which is a dangerous thing to say because then a lot of reviewers start making assumptions about what in a fiction is more or less autobiographical. But, growing up, my sister was at times my only family, since our parents went through a long divorce process. So in terms of writing about a “family”, which is what I wanted to do, it would have had to focus on a brother and sister. And I was intrigued about how Duncan Shriek would be as a person outside of his written works.

And I always found Janice Shriek fascinating because in Martin Lake’ she’s portrayed in a kind of cold light, but there had to be more to it than that because she was successful and did do a lot, even if by her own standards she turned out to be a failure.

You stated Shriek took eight years to write, growing as you gleaned more about your own craft. What proved to be the most difficult aspect of writing the novel?

Jeff Vandermeer- It takes a lot of energy to write from a perspective as eccentric as Janice’s, so there were starts and stops as I regained my ability to imagine her perspective — she’s very over the top at times. But in terms of technical issues — figuring out how non-linear to be, because I wanted Janice to ramble, in keeping with how she’s writing the account, but to ramble with purpose.

I also wanted her narrative to approximate the connections we make when we think about events in our lives — memory is not a linear thing and we make connections that aren’t chronological. And then I had to figure out how best to put in Duncan Shriek’s counterbalancing voice. In some early drafts, he commented a lot more and was a lot more snarky.

My editor at Tor, Liz Gorinsky, pointed out that it was probably best, too, that Duncan not repeat info Janice has already given the reader. So I made a lot of adjustments there. Add in the autobiographical element — the whole suicide incident happened to someone close to me — and I needed time to think about aspects of my own life and then find the imaginative spark to transform them into fiction.

dead astronauts jeff vandermeer

Shriek is being released by Tor in the U.S. and Pan Macmillan in the U.K. You have worked with Pan in the past and their reputation speaks for itself — has there been any noticeable difference with having a pending novel coming from one of Fantasy largest publishers in the U.S.? Any change at conventions, or in the writing or marketing process etc?

Jeff Vandermeer- I think it’s more of a cumulative effect. The Bantam reissues of the disease guide, Veniss Underground, and, soon, City of Saints, have spread awareness. Suddenly, my books are available prominently in US chain bookstores.

That’s a huge difference. Since Shriek is a hardcover from Tor, that will also help. I have noticed a pretty significant rise in fan email and whatnot ever since 2001, but especially the last couple of years. As for the writing or marketing process, it just means I have more access to bigger publishers from the get go.

How much of Jeff Vandermeer is in Duncan Shriek?

Jeff Vandermeer- I’m in all of the characters and in none of them. If there’s one part of Shriek that’s me it would be the kind of restless yet focused curiosity Duncan has, although I don’t take it to such an extreme obsessive place. Also perhaps Duncan’s naivete.

But there’s also a bit of Janice in me and Sybel, etc. I think all characters you write about you have to invest a bit of yourself in, and then take stuff from the outside, other real people, and add imagination to make a character really come off the page.

Citizens of Ambergris have some interesting neighbors. Who are the Gray Caps?

Jeff Vandermeer- The original inhabitants of the site now known as Ambergris. Either a separate species or a separate race — no one is exactly sure. Their motivations seem alien to the humans who now occupy the city. To found Ambergris, humans massacred most of the gray caps and drove the rest underground. But it’s not clear if they have a superior technology and if so why they haven’t reclaimed the surface. They do rather casually kill humans at times…

In Shriek, Janice has a stint in a mental hospital, another patient is a writer who thinks he created the rest of the cellmates. What did you do to get locked up?

Jeff Vandermeer- Well, that brings up an interesting idea. Because, really, what that’s intimating is that X is not really me. That there is a doppelganger Jeff in Ambergris — my shadow cabinet counterpart, so to speak. And that would mean that everything in Ambergris is mapped to everything in the “real” world. And if that’s true, it ought to be possible, through reverse engineering, to find our way to Ambergris and at the same instantaneous moment for our doppelganger to break through into this world. Are you stepping into a mirror? Or through a window?

A lot of this will be answered by the next novel, The Zamilon File. There is going to be a moment in that novel where readers are going to become aware of something very profound about the Ambergris universe and it’s going to take the top of their heads off, if I do it right. But my lips are sealed for now.

You mention Zamillion File, what do you have planned in the near future?

Jeff Vandermeer- I’m working on a top-top un-secret project called The Secret Lives of Extraordinary People, which my agent is shopping around. Also several nonfiction pieces, short. And a short film for the US release of Shriek, based on it, with original music from The Church. After that, I’m going to get going on Zamilon File again. It’s an espionage novel set in Ambergris. It’s been somewhat influenced by our mis-adventures in Iraq

You announced the film in November. Was this your brainchild, and how actively are you involved with film, and where is it at right now? How would you describe any differences in the application of creativity of film making to writing?

Jeff Vandermeer- It is my brainchild. I’m writing the script with Juha Lindroos, a Finnish designer who is also doing the direction and choreography. Right now, the script is just about done and Juha has done the rough storyboards and the rough cut of much of it. This is just to provide the Church with something to react to to do their soundtrack.

Then Juha will begin to shoot the final footage and replace the stock footage, using the Church’s soundtrack as a barometer, and the voice-over, of how to edit it together. We wanted it to be organic without being disorganized, so the idea of sending the Church a finished film and then making them just basically score it didn’t appeal.

In writing, of course, the words carry the full weight. In film, the sound and visual aspects take up some of that weight, so you have to be careful not to use too many words and make sure the words don’t repeat the visual/sound stuff. I’m liking the challenge. It’s making me stretch and develop muscles of mine that are perhaps under-used.

city of saints and madmen jeff vandermeer

You are one of the authors that have really garnered an online audience with your blog Vanderworld. I should thank you myself, for directing me to Edward Whittemore.

Has your blog in any measurable way aided you in your career? Also with that audience, and your past and current positions as an author/editor/publisher who is frequently mentioned at the forefront of contemporary fantastic fiction you feel any sense of added responsibility with content there or is it something that you don’t consciously consider?

Jeff Vandermeer- It helps focus reader attention on writers I admire. I suppose it also helps me a bit because of the exposure my blog has gotten. Some readers who only knew me from the blog have then sought out my fiction. regarding responsibility, I go back and forth on this. A blog is less formal than a regular review website. Sometimes I apply less rigorous standards, so that the reviews are half-way between a normal review and an author blurb. But of late, with so many people reading the blog I’ve decided to become more rigorous and not to pull any punches.

A recent comment you made at your blog interested me, “I self-published my first collection — I didn’t feel I deserved real publication at that point. My second came out after I’d had work in Asimov’s and others. That’s just my path”. Even as a new site, has established good repoire with numerous publishers, both big and small, but what really surprised me was the absolutely overwhelming amount of solicitations from self-published authors.

Unlike the majority of venues we don’t begrudge the submissions (at this point), but I definitely see the vast difference of quality in a work I may read from someone like Matthew Hughes, or a Jay Lake, or a Richard Bowes for instance who have developed their talent in various reputable genre mags from these submissions. Regarding your path, what is it that you think — if anything — that hitting the magazine submission circuit offers an author eyeing a more immediate means of publication?

Jeff Vandermeer- It offers a certain credibility, in other words, people who have read a lot of other stories have chosen your work. I don’t believe in editors validating writers, though. And I don’t really care what an editor has to say in rejection.

If they’re rejecting it, I just want the “sorry but no thanks” email or rejection letter. You shouldn’t, generally speaking, rely on editor comments. Editors are overworked, often mistake their personal taste for every one’s taste and comment accordingly. Use them as a gauge of your writing generally, but not as critiquers of your work. Sometimes you might be taken under and editor’s wing, and that’s slightly different, of course.

That said, most of my work has been rejected by the genre magazines. Certainly much of the work in City of Saints either came out from small presses or not at all, even my novella that won the World Fantasy Award.

It was rejected by just about every major genre magazine out there. So, if you are writing idiosyncratic stuff, unclassifiable, there is a small chance, but still a chance that editors are misinterpreting or just not getting your work if you’re getting rejected a lot. But it’s taking a real chance to ignore those rejections, because usually they mean there’s something lacking in the fiction.

As we speak now, what has been your high point as a writer, and at what point was the lowest and what were the circumstances?

Jeff Vandermeer- High point is still the acceptance from Pan Macmillan of Veniss Underground and City of Saints, because I had worked so hard for over two decades to get to the point where a major publisher would be interested in my work.

The lowest was in 1994, when Pyx Press, run by C. Darren Butler, totally screwed me over on a short story collection I was supposed to have out from them. I was given the choice of submitting to some truly heinous editing or basically pulling out of the project, despite the contract giving me final line-editing. I wasn’t interested in being blackmailed, so I pulled out of the project. Second worst was shopping around Veniss in the mid to late 1990s and getting no interest at all.

What, whether authors or anyone or anything else, do you feel most influenced you as a writer, and motivated practicing fantastic fiction specifically?

Jeff Vandermeer- I take my influences from everywhere, but Whittemore, Nabokov, and Carter are still pretty much at the top of the list. Also John Irving, M. John Harrison, Stepan Chapman. Borges. Calvino. But there are so many.

You’re an author who actively raises awareness of younger or less exposed writers. Who are some of the writers out there that deserve a look that may not be getting there just due? What has impressed you recently?

Jeff Vandermeer- I think Ben Peek, an Australian writer, will in the fullness of time be a very unique and wonderful voice. The same for Kim Westwood, another Australian. I think Anna Tambour is underrated. If not for the huge explosion of interest in his work, I’d still be pushing Hal Duncan. I’ve been reading Caitlin Kiernan’s short fiction and I’m very, very impressed.

She’s been around awhile but I’m not sure people understand just how good she is. And no one needs to know George R.R. Martin is good, but he is — he’s amazing. In the next year, look for Alan DeNiro to come into focus as an important short story writer. I think people also underestimate the fiction of Matt Cheney, because he’s known for his nonfiction. But I feel he’s getting better and better.

Eric Schaller doesn’t write much, but what he does write is often excellent. And there’s the Unknown Quantity from Manchester, John Coulthart (known for his design work for Hawkwind, the fake disease guide, etc.), who has been working on an amazing series of unclassifiable fantasy novellas for years now and may soon put them into print. I’m actually actively seeking to find those twenty-something writers of talent because I feel like I’m beginning to lose touch with who they might be, and because it’s a good way to rejuvenate my own fiction.

You mention Martin, and earlier this year I was asked if I was aware of any negative opinion or critique by you on his work. A couple months later, I found out you hadn’t even read these books (as you were reading them during our correspondence for this interview) How did this rumor perpetuate itself?

Jeff Vandermeer- Somebody on the Asimov’s messageboard had heard I did and posted about it there. And the rumor spread outward. At which point I decided to read the books, since they’d been recommended to me by so many people. And I absolutely loved them. I have learned so much about narrative structure from those books

Putting you on the plank; why should readers pick up your books opposed to anyone else’s?

Jeff Vandermeer- I read writers who have a unique worldview. I don’t care what they write, I’m going to read it. I’m thinking of Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Whittemore, Brian Evenson, etc. Readers should pick up my books to see if my worldview is something they’re interested in. And if not, they can always put my books right down again

If you enjoyed this interview I also talked to Jeff about Predator. Yeah… just Predator.

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