Reaching Beyond: An Interview with Jeffery VanderMeer

Interview conducted by C. Derick Varn, Steven Michelkow, and Marcel Inhoff. Originally published here.

Jeffrey VanderMeer is an American writer, editor, teacher, and publisher. He is is a three-time winner, thirteen-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award, has won the BSFA Award, and has been a finalist for the Hugo Award. He is best known for his contributions to the New Weird as both a writer and editor, and his stories about the city of Ambergris, in books like City of Saints and Madmen. He is also the author of the 2014 series called The Southern Reach Trilogy, which has recently attained some critical acclaim.  He has lectured at MIT and the Library of Congress and helps run the Shared Worlds teen SF/Fantasy writing camp out of Wofford College. He often works with his wife Ann on editing projects, such as the Weird anthology, which is referenced throughout this interview.

I have read more than one reviewer compare your recent Southern Reach to J.G.Ballard’s work. How much influence do you feel 1970s New Wave science fiction writers had on your work in general?

Any time you write something that seems a dystopia involving desolation and nature, then you’re going to get a comparison to 1970s environmental fiction, and in part that’ll lead to the New Wave. Mostly, I studied Ballard for the way he achieves certain effects: compressing or expanding time and space in your mind as you read, for example. That said, I am influenced by the New Wave because they were interested in experimentation in subject matter and in form. They had a rigorous intellectual quality to their work, and they didn’t engage in escapism. All of that is worth taking in as a writer, and enticing to me as a reader. When you think of the commodification of SF/Fantasy, you then think about the last great movement that rejected all of that, and that’s the New Wave. That said, I push back against some of the jaded cynicism and pessimism of some New Wave fiction, because it can be as corrosive to writing something unique or interesting as being too optimistic.

When I read the anthology you edited with Ann entitled The Weird, I noticed that many of the fin-de-siècle and early 20th writers that you see as having a relationship to “Weird” fiction are also writers seem to also have a strong influence on New Wave Science Fiction writers? What literary trends in the early 20th century do you see as influencing both “genres?”

I’m not sure I do. The sub-categorization of category SF/F is so absolute that very little that can influence gets through in established genre imprints. When it does it’s in genres like space opera, which can be delivery systems for very strange things and interesting mutations. Otherwise, it’s less literary trend than individual writers being influenced. Nothing like the nexus or hub that was New Wave fiction.

What do make of the theory that “New Wave Science Fiction” reflected the legitimization of Science Fiction as a literary genre? It has been noted that classic science fiction was often written by people we less of a literary background and more education in the sciences. Do you think this is overstated?

Some like Ballard got uplifted out of SF entirely due to the New Wave, so I don’t think it’s overstated. Iconic writers came out of that movement or moment and they were probably the most compromising of writers associated with a modern literary movement in SF/F.

You included several writers who were explicitly identified as “New Wave” science fiction writers in the The Weird anthology such as Octavia Butler and M. John Harrison. Do you see weird fiction coming form similar social and aesthetic pressures as “New Wave” science fiction?

The first “wave” of New Weird, definitely. It couldn’t help but be given that New Wave authors were embedded in New Weird. It was a strange kind of multi-generational thing with the main reason for a term accreting other than New Wave Part 2 the fact that the newer authors also had their own other concerns that didn’t match up quite the same way. For my part, I was reading a lot of French and English Decadent writers and getting into Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, along with writers like Angela Carter, who had made Surrealism more linear, and Vladimir Nabokov who was very formal about his approach to structure. The Decadent thing is important because it was one wellspring for M. John Harrison’s Viriconium., but a lot of writers who wound up near New Weird also came there from the Decadents first, and Harrison second. The main thing is that New Weird was an attempt on the one hand to reclaim epic fantasy from Tolkien with Peake as the new literary godfather and on the other hand an attempt to revive the New Wave ideal of taking literary influence from both the mainstream and genre, while not being afraid to be experimental at times. I sometimes think that the conduit or intermediary for this was the work of Clive Barker in the short story form and on the film side David Cronenberg. Of course, as with most things this is a reconstruction, a fiction, that is from my point of view only. New Weird is the monster we were all ordered to describe after being led into a dark room, blindfolded, and then given five minutes to interrogate before being led away again. Some of us never even got to shake its hand.

Looking back on it, New Wave science fiction was very openly political. Do you consider the current crop of weird writers to have political underpinnings? If so, how are they similar or different to the New Wave politics?

There’s a certain stylized element of the Decadent underpinnings of New Weird that exerts a pressure to apply the political as window-dressing, if you want to generalize. Because of elements like absurdity and exaggeration, which don’t give a shit about the openly political if they can get somewhere in service of a Greater Joke, if that makes sense. So they might be political along the path to that, but this kind of impulse so totally distrusts ideologies and institutions. The default setting is: the individual must navigate a maze of institutional b.s. and ideological viruses to get to solitary solutions and decisions that at least allow the individual to try to subvert what amounts to a hegemony. So, just speaking for me, the political comes out most overtly through environmental issues, and everything else is absurdism, even as I believe very strongly in individual imaginations and that there is good in people. I don’t think Marxism or Communism are any better than Capitalism—these are all fundamentalist religions based on rigid ideas of what human beings are and can be, even if Capitalism seems kinder at times. Is that position different from New Wave politics? I’d argue that with the exception of a handful, the main movers-and-shakers in New Wave, the core, were in the United Kingdom, and so they had a very specific stance based on opposition to or agreement with the folks in power over there. But also a strong pro-feminist stance, if I recall correctly. Certainly, Moorcock did and does. I don’t know if this answers your question. I can say I don’t think writers have to have political underpinnings. To some extent everything is politics, yes, but when we say that we’re really saying “don’t be lazy in your writing,” which applies to many things.

Do you see academia have an influence on the development of genre? You and many younger genre writers teach literature or, at least, MFA at universities. Does this change new writers? Is there a certain “work-shopped” style to new writers that reflects larger trends? Does the economic situation of the current publishing environment play a role in any of this?

I don’t teach literature. I do teach writing workshops, usually along with my wife. I think the biggest trend we’ve seen, and this relates to your prior question, in the slushpile reading for anthologies and elsewhere, is a tendency to want to apply newly acquired 101 thoughts about racism and diversity in ways that are clunky and obvious. The other is a simple inversion: white people bad, non-white people good. While this means someone is thinking about representation, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of the quality of the story, and you could argue in some cases comes down to fetishizing the Other. Simple binaries are simple binaries. People are more complex than that. I imagine since we’re only about six to ten years into a cycle with so many more international and non-white writers entering the field that this is a natural consequence of adjustment. It is a transitional period, with all that implies.

In terms of a work-shopped style, we really don’t believe in workshops as an ongoing thing. We believe taking one or two is of help to students in general at the beginning of their careers. But we really find bizarre the idea of perpetually going from workshop to workshop rather than eventually taking the training wheels off—although obviously some writers find it works for them. I think the danger mostly comes from staying in workshops too long. As for the economic situation, most people have no real idea of what that is. Traditional publishers aren’t going away, and the self-published e-book option allows for the possibility of revenue that way, too. I don’t think it’s any worse being a writer now than 10 years ago. In fact, it’s probably better than when my first books came out. What is true is that core genre has gotten more commercial, even in the way the covers look now.

Why do you think New Wave science fiction writers were so popular with theorists of post-modernity? Is there a criticism of Modernist literature baked into New Wave science fiction, or do you think this is more of an advertising gimmick?

It’s quite simple: There’s a fair amount of postmodern technique baked into New Wave science fiction. So there’s “stuff” you can pull out and look at, or at least postmodern theorists can look at New Wave fiction and see something the outlines of which they think they recognize. But you do have to understand: I come by my literary theory from the point of view of a fiction writer, and in a kind of amateur-study way. I didn’t study it in college really. So I’m not really the person to ask.

What are the current trends in Science fiction that excite you which see as genuinely new, or, at least, specific to the contemporary writing?

If “CliFi” or “Eco-Fabulism,” both terms I’m not fond of for reasons I can’t put a finger on, become ever more popular without becoming too commodified, we may see environmental SF as interesting or more interesting than what was being produced in the 1960s and 1970s. And by interesting, I mean the philosophical underpinnings aren’t the usual, traditional thing. I do think that in the laboratory of fiction we can begin to imagine a relationship to our natural world and with our fellow animals that isn’t covered by the existing paradigm. And it’s partially fueled by the answer to a single question: What benefit do human beings bring to the biosphere? Since the answer is “no benefit at all” right now, that’s a starting point for interesting fiction at least. Given reduction of carbon emissions is just patching a bankrupt philosophy, we need to find other ways of being on this planet, and we’re not going to find them in Google glass and our other pathetic and bizarrely primitive and destructive tech.

Out of all the rules, suggestions, and guidelines for aspiring imaginative fiction writers you lay out in Wonderbook, what is the one you break most often when creating your own fiction?

Sadly, I have been known to consult Wonderbook while working on a story or novel…I really can’t say, because I don’t know which Wonderbook you’re talking about—the one that subverts its own advice with disruption dragons or the one that is composed of guest essays or the main text or the diagrams. It’s a great question, but one that would take a lot more brain cells to answer than I have access to right now.


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