In early April, Jeff VanderMeer dropped a surprise on fans, announcing the release of Absolution (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct. 22), the fourth book in his bestselling and critically acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy. No question, there’s still plenty to explore: The first three books chronicled the shadowy Area X, a mysterious uninhabited coastal region, and organizations like the Southern Reach and Séance & Science Brigade that have conducted ill-fated expeditions into it. While revealing the prehistory of Area X and extending its story into its future, the new book will resolve many of the series’ plot threads, VanderMeer says—while retaining the discomfiting ambiguity that’s been the hallmark of his horror/science-fiction mashup.

Absolution will be preceded this summer by reissues of the three previous books to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first of them, Annihilation. Speaking from his home in Tallahassee, Florida, VanderMeer discussed the genesis of Absolution, revisiting his past work, and whether we’ve truly reached the end of the Southern Reach story. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Were you surprised that you wanted to pursue a fourth book in the series?

I really didn’t plan to write another [Southern Reach] book, but there were these questions that had their hooks in my subconscious. I really wanted to know more about what the Séance & Science Brigade had been up to before Area X came down the border. I also had this weird vision of a scientific expedition to the Forgotten Coast, 20 years before Area X occurred, which had somehow created a condition for, or had an influence over, what happened later. And that was very powerful. All of this kind of lived beneath the surface of my mind.

What was the writing process itself like?

Last year, the floodgates broke open. For six months, I really wrote in a fever dream, which is very much like how I wrote Annihilation. Morning, noon, and night, basically. Writers don’t like to talk about this phase because it sounds…maybe too surreal. But you’re literally in an ecstatic trance—you’re basically having visions. So by year’s end, the novel was complete. It was the single greatest writing jag of my entire life, and so instinctual that I don’t remember large portions of it. I’m still figuring out how it happened.

Do actual dreams play a role in helping you create that dream state?

I will often have a dream that I write down that becomes the foundation for something. I have a lot of dreams I write down that don’t become anything. But often I’m also kind of primed by something, and I reward my subconscious a lot. So if a dream comes up with something that seems powerful, I will think about it consciously for a while, and then let it drift back into the subconscious until it’s ready.

People often talk about the Southern Reach series as relevant to our present concerns about the environment and politics. Was there something specific you were concerned about that fueled Absolution?

I think that to some degree it was the idea of the world compromising us—feeling this burden of guilt or anxiety over not being sure how much agency we have, not being sure if we’re doing the right thing. That manifests [in Absolution] somewhat in the character of Old Jim, an operative for Central who had been very intensely manipulated by Central, trying to do the right thing in these difficult circumstances on the Forgotten Coast. There’s always something in the text that reflects the modern day. There was a lot in Authority about bureaucracy that is really also about how we receive information in the modern era, like through the internet, and how dangerous and difficult and anxiety ridden that can be. I think that there are things like that in Absolution. Maybe it’s in a totally different context, but it is commenting on some part of the modern condition.

Whom did you first tell that you were working on a fourth book?

I told my wife, Ann, and then vaguely told my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sean McDonald. I told him that I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen with it. And then about a month in, it was so intense that I knew I was going to have a book. Then I just decided to just keep writing. I didn’t really tell anybody, though at certain points, when I felt I’d reached a certain level of completion, I’d share some excerpts online, which helps motivate me.

How do you handle fan response to those excerpts? I imagine a lot of writers would just find the comments on a work-in-progress overbearing.

My readers have been extremely kind to me, so [there’s been] a very generous sense of play. They’re really cheerleading more than critiquing when I do that. That’s the kind of energy that I’ve tried to use to engage with my readers online, like over fan art, especially with the Southern Reach series. The feedback doesn’t live in my headspace except in a really good way.

One hallmark of the Southern Reach series is that it’s written in a variety of registers. Was it a challenge to find a tone that was unique to Absolution?

It was such a pleasure writing this book, because it’s in three distinct parts, which interlock and form the full story. The first part of the story involves this long-ago expedition and its impact on things in the first three books. It’s uncanny fiction, and it allowed me to get to that sweet spot of what I think readers love about the books. It’s told in a more clinical style, because the things that are happening are so startling. The middle section involving Old Jim and the Séance & Science Brigade is more in the style of parts of Acceptance and Annihilation. The third part is the story of what really happened on the first expedition, and it’s just out of control—a total head trip and in a totally different style.

Did you have a hand in selecting the writers who wrote introductions for the reissues of the first three books (Karen Joy Fowler, N.K. Jemisin, and Helen Macdonald)?

They were writers I recommended who I really love, and writers who I really respect in terms of how they express themselves. It was a dream to have these three write about the series.

So you know that in her introduction to Annihilation, Karen Joy Fowler writes that the Southern Reach series is at four books “and counting.” Are you done with Area X?

That’s a good question. Absolution could be considered a prequel, even though it also covers part of the time period covered by the first three novels. And then also, without giving too much away, it could in some ways be considered a sequel. It’s a very sneaky book. And in that context, there are some ideas I’m kind of developing as another self-contained story. There are some ideas floating around. But I don’t know.

Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix.