An Interview with Jeff Vandermeer
Posted April 16, 2016on:
Many of you know Jeff Vandermeer for his acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy. The novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance took the science fiction community by storm. These books were weird, they followed no known set of rules, and they were marketed as mainstream novels. And the response couldn’t have been better. Some of you know the name Vandermeer from the countless anthologies Jeff and his wife Ann have edited, including the massive Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, The New Weird, The Time Travelers Almanac, Odd?, and the forthcoming The Big Book of Science Fiction, which lands with a thump (seriously, this thing is 1200 pages!) this summer at a bookstore near you. If you’ve been around a little longer, you know Jeff Vandermeer for his surreal and Ambergris fiction – the novels Shriek: An Afterword and Finch, and the short fiction collection City of Saints and Madmen. I’m a pretty big Vandermeer fan, he’s been one of my favorite authors for what, nearly ten years now? I’ve sought out his short fiction, his novels, his curated anthologies, even the funny stuff.
A talented and imaginative writer and editor, Jeff is passionate about ensuring the next generation of writers and artists have the opportunity to learn about world building, writing, and character creation, and how to make all of that work together. To make this happen, Jeff is the co-director of Shared Worlds, a two week summer writing camp for teens, held at Wofford College. Fictional worlds are created and populated, and then with coaching from authors such as Nnedi Okorafor, Tobias Buckell, Lev Grossman, Daniel Abraham, Nathan Ballingrud, Terra Elan McVoy, and Leah Thomas, the students bring these worlds alive through short stories, artwork, even video games. If you know an imaginative youngster, this is the camp for them. Thanks to a grant from Amazon, critically claimed author Julia Elliott has been named the 2016 Amazon Writer-In-Residence for Shared Worlds. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, Electric Literature, Best American Fantasy, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. Her debut novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, arrived in October 2015.
Shared Worlds, now in it’s 9th year, has been giving young writers and artists the opportunity to grow their creativity for about as long as I’ve been recommending City of Saints and Madmen to everyone I know. Jeff was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the how’s, what’s, and why’s of Shared Worlds, and then he let me dive into fangirl territory. I promise, I only pestered him with a fraction of the questions that I’ve had for him since I first cracked open City of Saints and had my mind blown.
Little Red Reviewer: I know what Shared Worlds is, but my blog readers may not. What’s the elevator pitch? Who is this incredible program for?
Jeff Vandermeer: Well, we’re in our ninth year and the program is for creative teenager ages 13 to 17 who want to write speculative fiction but also may be interested in gaming and other media. Our prime focus is creative writing, but the unique aspect is that in the first week they get in groups of ten and build their own fantasy or SF world. Then in week two they write their stories set in the world they’ve creative. So as you can imagine they learn a lot about writing fiction, but also all kinds of other actions of creation are going on. We love to get teens who are curious about the world and who like to express themselves creatively in a lot of different ways. We often get teens who like to write but also to do art, and they find an outlet through illustrating the created worlds. Now, is that an elevator pitch? Not really. But we’re not really an elevator pitch camp. We’re aiming for immersive, rich, entertaining, fun, and to feed into students’ sense of creative play.
LRR: The students take classes in history, languages, physics, everything they’d need to know to “build a world”. Why is this foundation important to their (or any author’s) world building skill-set?
JV: Even the strangest, most surreal fantasy world has some connection to the real world. The more you know about the real world, the more you can relax into creating credible fantastical worlds. But this also builds into the idea of feeding the students’ general creativity. We get really bright, committed students and we keep them engaged—we keep their imaginations engaged. And in a sense, through the world-building and other things we do, like certain creative writing exercises, they get to experience a wide variety of entrypoints into fiction.
LRR: You’ve got some amazing guest instructors this year at Shared Worlds, such as Nnedi Okorafor and Tobias Buckell, with Ann Vandermeer as the editor-in-residence. As Shared Worlds has grown over the years, has it gotten easier to get guest instructors? tougher? What type of writer is the ideal guest instructor for Shared Worlds?
JV: It’s actually always been easy to get guest instructors. Holly Black’s been a couple of times, Kathe Koja, Catherynne M. Valente, and many more. I think writers remember their own teen years and some wish they’d gotten more encouragement and they want to pay it back, too. And as for the kind of writer that’s the ideal instructor…we’re looking for honesty, openness, a willingness to connect with the students and to want to be of use. We want the lowest possible amount of b.s., if that makes sense and writers who want to help the students find their own path, not impose the path the writer knows on the student. We also want to give the students access to great imaginations.
LRR: Shared Worlds was a part of your inspiration for Wonderbook. Can you tell us a little more about that, and how Wonderbook evolved?
JV: I field-tested parts of Wonderbook at Shared Worlds. I would put up some of the visuals—diagrams and art—and talk about what it meant and have a dialogue with the students about those images. So it helped me fine-tune some of it, and also gave me a sense that the approach was working. What’s interesting to me is Wonderbook seems to work for a lot of levels—all the way from high school through grad school. It’s taught a lot of places. I wanted it to be that way because the writing books I most love allow for that kind of growth. So I hope it will be a good companion for our teens throughout their careers.
LRR: Any funny or surprising stories from previous summers at Shared Worlds?
JV: I just remember the time a 13-year-old handed in a story and I gave her some positive feedback and she told me it was the first story she’d ever written, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Just how big a responsibility it is teaching teens and how important it is to get it right. By its very nature, the atmosphere around the camp is fun, even if it’s very hard work for those of us who help run the camp.
LRR: Shared Worlds is an incredible opportunity for young writers. But I’m far too old to attend the camp, and I don’t have any children who are the right age. Even so, how can I best help spread the word about Shared Worlds and help ensure programs like this continue to succeed?
JV: Donations are always welcome and sharing the link to our site on social media helps a lot. Our director of summer camps, Tim Schmitz, runs a tight ship and we’re very fiscally responsible. But donations—and things like this $18,000 Amazon grant we just won—ensure we can offer as many scholarships to students in need as possible. Your donations help to fund things like our first full-ride scholarship for Navajo Nation schools this year and getting Finnish students to the camp—that sort of thing. At its best, SW is also a think tank for teens from all over the world.
LRR: I know you’ve spoken extensively about The Southern Reach, how it was partially inspired by the landscape of Florida, how the words on the wall were from a fever dream. How long did it take you to put the entire thing together? What was your writing process like?
JV: It was literally like a dream—from start to end, even the second and third books. The way it all came together was so organic and I had so much concentrated time to think about the characters that mostly, in retrospect, it was finding relief from the intensity of the experience that I mostly had to seek. I must also admit that my editor and publisher, FSG, made everything so easy, considering. I just knew through the whole process that I didn’t want to fail the characters. That I’d come up with people I loved very much, even the broken or flawed ones, and I wanted to get that right.
LRR: Did you expect the press and attention for Southern Reach to be as big as it became? I mean, this book was everywhere, you were everywhere (with an owl!), the movie rights got optioned … this series got huge, fast. How did Southern Reach go from “this weird idea would make a great book” to “I’m in a bookstore with an owl”?
JV: I must admit that although I did very well with my prior books, to the point where I’ve been a full-time writer since 2007, and had continued to be published by big commercial publishers . . .I was frustrated because I wanted to reach an even larger audience with the Ambergris books. City of Saints did quite well, but since the series came out from three different publishers, there was never a chance to know whether I’d not reached more readers because of the jump from publisher to publisher or because the books were less commercial than I thought. Finch selling a crapload of copies from, in the US, an independent press, gave me an indication I wasn’t far off, though, and I knew I was moving toward writing novels set in some semblance of the real world. I also thought if I had a shot at being published by a literary mainstream publisher I’d find it easier to reach readers.
So with the Southern Reach, as I told my wife at the time, I really thought it had a chance to catch fire. But only if it came out from a mainstream literary publisher. And thankfully that’s exactly what happened – and also a publisher that turned out to be the smartest I’ve ever seen at marketing and PR. Did I know the series would sell hundreds of thousands of copies? No. But having an inkling up front meant I wasn’t overwhelmed when it happened. I’d also done a 40-event in 60-days book tour in 2009 for Finch and Booklife, so I was pretty battle-hardened already on that score. Spending five months on the road in 2014 wasn’t easy-peasy, but it was easier because of that prior experience.
LRR: What can you tell us about your upcoming novel Borne?
JV: It’s kind of like if Godzilla and Mothra were fighting in the background while a Chekov play went on in the foreground. It’s about a city whose resources have been sucked dry by a multinational biotech corp but it’s more in a magic realist/anime style or approach than hard SF. It’s about scarcity and climate change and how you still find love in the middle of that. The Southern Reach trilogy is about people who just cannot find connection. But Borne is about people who are trying so very hard to be connected.
LRR: I first discovered your work through your Ambergris cycle, and I have recommended City of Saints and Madmen to countless friends over the years. How has your writing process and your outlook on writing changed (if at all) since the Ambergris books? Do you have any plans to return to Ambergris? Was it strange to be done with Ambergris, and is it strange, now, to be done with Area X?
JV: Different kinds of strangeness. I worked on and off almost 20 years on Ambergris, and then it was over. I worked with a burning intensity on the Southern Reach and it was done in two years. But still ongoing because of all the foreign language editions still coming out. So in both cases I had to take time off from writing fiction after. In the case of the Southern Reach it was just as well since I was on the road half the year touring.
I do have an idea for an Ambergris graphic novel. Mostly that format because it’s set 20 years after Finch with various political and military factions in play (Sintra’s a major character) and I want to go in and out of 8 character POVs. I think that’s more coherent in a format like the graphic novel. But I need a pretty unique kind of artist collaborator for that.
LRR: On some random podcast I listened to years ago, Ann was teasing you about “scope creep”, I believe the two of you were talking at the time about The Weird: a Compendium a Strange and Dark Stories, an super-volume that would eventually clock in at over 1100 pages. Later this summer, Vintage is publishing your and Ann’s The Big Book of Science Fiction, which looks to come in at over 1200 pages. What’s the draw to these huge projects?
JV: Once we’d done The Weird, and seen the response, it seemed pretty clear that in the current publishing environment doing one big book was much more effective than doing several individual smaller anthologies. But more importantly, we’d found a niche no one else was filling. No one else was putting in the time and research to do these kind of huge reprint anthologies, with a commitment to including international fiction and translations. And having been through the process once we knew we had the expertise to do it again. So we have. After the SF volume, we hope to do a Big Book of Classic Fantasy and a Big Book of Modern Fantasy. Each would be about 900,000 words and each would bring into English a significant amount of material never before in English. Honestly, we’ve never been risk-averse, so the more leverage we get and the more visibility…the more risks we take.
LRR: Thanks Jeff!