Jeff VanderMeer is a multiple World Fantasy Award–winning author and editor. His novels include Veniss Underground, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch. His short fiction work has been collected in City of Saints and Madmen, Secret Lives, and The Third Bear. He has co-edited numerous short fiction anthologies with his wife Ann VanderMeer, including Best American Fantasy (Volumes 1 and 2); Last Drink Bird Head; the pirate-themed anthology Fast Ships, Black Sails; the themed anthologies Steampunk and Steampunk II; the weird fiction anthologies ODD?, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities; and most recently, the themed anthology The Time Traveler's Almanac. He also edited the nonfiction writer's guide Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.
Jeff's latest novels make up the Southern Reach trilogy, comprised of Annihilation (released in February 2014) Authority (released in May 2014) and Acceptance (coming in September 2014). I got the chance to speak with Jeff about the Southern Reach.
The Southern Reach novels have been described as a "biopocalypse." Tell us about the story you tell in Southern Reach and how that label does or doesn't fit.
The Southern Reach novels basically explore a 30-year attempt by a secret government agency to unlock the mystery of Area X, a seeming pristine wilderness in which very strange things are happening. Expeditions sent into Area X through a door in an invisible border don’t fare well—especially the ones where the members use names and modern communication tech. There’s a suggestion that these things make minds more “hack-able,” so to speak.
Biopocalypse perhaps doesn’t fit because the human world is what’s at risk. The rest of Earth’s biosphere seems to thrive in Area X. I’ve also heard terms like “cli-fi” and “eco-fabulism” bandied about. It’s true that I’m dealing with issues related to the environment and interrogating the human gaze, but the series is also very much about what we do when faced with the inexplicable, both on an institutional and individual level. We’re dealing with that right now with regard to this “invisible” thing, global warming, that manifests through so many visible consequences.
Each of the Southern Reach novels seems to focus on a different set of characters. Did each novel have a particular theme that you wanted to explore, and if so, what was it?
Annihilation documents what happens to the 12th expedition into Area X, while Authority is kind of an expedition into the Southern Reach secret agency and is one part workplace dysfunction, one part spy/mystery story, and then added to that some fairly odd things happen. Acceptance follows the characters from Authority, while also widening the scope still further to show the reader more of Area X and the Southern Reach. By this point, of course, the situation is fairly dire. In terms of how the titles speak to the novels’ themes, any time you have abstract concepts as titles I think the writer has an obligation to think about what they mean and especially what they mean in terms of the characters. What is “annihilation,” for example? Is it just the end of all things or is it something else? What does it mean to be “annihilated”? And you just try not to let your subtext spill out into your text or to be didactic [in regards to] the thematic resonances. But, also, by choosing these titles it gave me some freedom in thinking of each book as its own compartmentalized entity. So Authority doesn’t just take up where Annihilation left off, and the same thing goes when it comes to passing the baton from Authority to Acceptance. Each novel comes at the situation from a different perspective, a different structure. In addition to this, it was important that, even though countries or states are never named, I commit to giving readers a realistic version of the American South. The weird or speculative elements in a novel don’t work really well if you don’t have the contrast and the commitment to the reality that surrounds them.
Film rights to all three books of the Southern Reach trilogy were sold last year to Paramount Pictures even before the first book, Annihilation, was released. How did that happen?
Basically, we got Annihilation in front of producer Scott Rudin and his people, and they loved it so much they went to Paramount, and Paramount got excited about it. Honestly, it was the fastest and most surreal thing—to get a phone call from my agent out of the blue to say “we’re a couple of hours away from closing this deal.” The plan as I understand it is to do one film per book, and I imagine since Annihilation is a first-person narrative and film is a third-person medium that some changes will need to be made for the screenplay.
All three novels of the Southern Reach trilogy—Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance—have a release date within the 2014 calendar year. Why the nontraditional publishing schedule?
Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s offer was the most enticing in part because of this accelerated schedule. A middle book sometimes suffers from being published a year after the prior one—readers have forgotten the first book or the publishing landscape has changed in the meantime in some way that makes the middle book, or even the last book, less visible. So I liked this idea of having them come out in the same year. So far it’s working, with Authority having made the New York Times bestseller list, and excitement building for Acceptance, the third novel. But it was FSG that wanted to do it this way, and that, of course, affected how the trilogy’s other publishers in the U.K., Canada, and in other languages approached it. The approach wound up making the front page of the New York Times, with all kinds of ripple effects, so it definitely helped in that way, too.
You work hard at self-promoting your work. Is this a sign of how modern publishing has changed? What lessons have you learned about publishing that would serve as good advice for other authors?
I have a strict divide between my public book-life and my private book-life. Which is just to say, I don’t think about marketing or PR or any of those things when writing. But when a novel is finished and about to be published, then I am perfectly comfortable moving into the public sphere and making myself available to my publisher to the maximum extent possible. But the point isn’t to be [on] social media 24/7 or to in some way become a shrill shill for the work. Especially on these Southern Reach novels, which are so personal to me, it’s been so important not to contort myself for the PR, to not say or write anything I don’t believe in. I also believe in using “creative objects” in PR, so I’ve collaborated with Jeremy Zerfoss and others on cool visuals and interactive maps and whatnot—that way you have something that you’re proud of at the end of the day, and you’re having fun, too. I’ve also gotten to talk about subjects dear to my heart: the environment, how we view animals, and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge here in North Florida. Does most of this interest readers in the novels? Perhaps, but it also sometimes gives back to the community.
My advice is to have a strategic plan, not a tactical one, for how you interact on social media. Make sure you’re not just a hamster on a wheel. Getting on Facebook or Twitter is not a strategy. Make sure the things you do count, and that they exist at a certain level. For example, don’t do a blog post just because you’re invited to do one—do it because it supports your beliefs and your views about your book. You see a fair number of writers who wind up writing about things that are not personal to them, or about subjects they really don’t care about, just to get the attention. And sometimes it backfires. People do, I think, sense when you’re not genuine. So, be genuine.
Which authors, either current or non-contemporary, are criminally underrated?
Michael Cisco is criminally underrated, especially for novels like The Traitor and The Narrator, which are neglected masterpieces of dark supernatural fiction. Stepan Chapman, who passed away this year, wrote a masterpiece, The Troika, that won the Philip K. Dick Award in the 1990s but is largely forgotten today. Although she’s gotten her share of attention from time to time, I think Molly Gloss is an amazing writer and deserves much more attention than she’s gotten. Many of the writers in our The Weird anthology deserve more attention. People like Michel Bernanos or Eric Basso. But also—we don’t even have a collected stories volume from Joanna Russ. And there are dozens of amazing women writers from Latin America who often work in a fantastical mode who need to be in wider translation. I’m at the beginning of research in that particular area because I’m just fascinated by the glimpses I’ve seen here and there of one or two translated stories, or a slim collection.
You have strong opinions about genre labels. What are the pros and cons of genre labels as you see them?
If you walk into a bookstore, there’s some value in having the fiction section sub-categorized into Horror, SF/Fantasy, and all of the rest. It’s almost a necessity for a lot of readers. But we shouldn’t necessarily talk about books that way or write about books using those divisions. For one thing, we only see part of what we’re looking at. For another, we render writers invisible, on both sides of that divide. Plenty of fantasy fiction gets published in the literary mainstream, but unless it’s [a writer] who feels the genre “gets” them or supports them, like Michael Chabon, they’re either ignored or even perhaps sneered at. And on the other side, you do get a fair number of literary mainstream readers and gatekeepers who will hold up their nose at anything on the genre side. So a fair amount of the really interesting stuff winds up being made invisible by one side or the other, and that’s really sad. For my part, I don’t care at all whether there’s a dragon in a book or there’s no dragon in a book, or from what side of the tracks good fiction comes from, and I think more and more readers think that way, too.