Peter Wild (PW): Hi Jeff, what’s the world like where you are today?
Jeff VanderMeer (JV): The world exists in a kind of glaze of fluctuating heat and cold and humidity, which is the nexus of horror that can be North Florida during the winter.
PW: We’re here today to talk about Annihilation, the first part of the Southern Reach trilogy, all of which is to be published at sort of trimonthly intervals throughout the rest of 2014.
JV: Ambitious much? I’m impressed with Fourth Estate for pursuing this schedule, which reflects a certain amount of thought about the modern publishing ecosystem and, perhaps, the accelerated need readers have to find out what happens next. But for this particular trilogy, too, it makes sense. The devil’s in the details, and since I like a bit of ambiguity it would seem cruel and unrealistic to ask readers to hold the salient clues in their heads across three years. (“Devil” as used herein isn’t a clue about what’s happening in the mysterious Area X , into which the Southern Reach agency keeps sending expeditions.)
PW: I read (in Wired) that the trilogy was initially inspired by a dream (in which you descended into a tower following something that wrote on the walls). Is Annihilation your ‘Kubla Khan’?
JV: If it were, it’d be a Porlock fragment, framed, matted, and placed upon the wall as a reminder of the fragility of the imagination! There are interruptions and then there are intercessions. As I descended into the tower/tunnel, seeing words on the wall, and knowing “something” waited down below, my conscious mind said to my subconscious, “All right—we’re airlifting you out of there!” Because if I’d seen whatever it was I wouldn’t have wanted to write the story. As it was, not seeing it left the room and space for my creative and technical imaginations to have a conference call and get to work on the narrative. And even then, I didn’t have a story until the character of the biologist occurred to me. From there, it was one of the most immersive writing experiences I can remember.
PW: I also read that much of the book was written while you were suffering from bronchitis and that there were portions you later re-read and didn’t remember writing. How unnerving was it to read back over the book in the same way that a reader would?
JV: I’ve thought a lot about this, and the bronchitis played a part in keeping me in that creative state I need to be in—that kind of moment when you just wake up, but before you’re thinking about a million other things. And in that transitional space, extended and preserved by the illness, I wrote long passages of Annihilation. Encoded in that bliss, too: writing about a place, even if transformed, that I knew so well. I’d wanted to write for a long time about the wilderness places here in Florida where I’ve hiked for the past twenty years. So, if you can imagine being in this transitional space to begin with and then being able to relax into the setting, which was effortless in the telling, then perhaps you can see how it wasn’t really unnerving at all, but instead like the most perfect writing environment for me. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t unnerved by the original dream, or that while writing the follow up, Authority, which is a truly haunted book, I wasn’t at times surprised—and, yes, creeped out—to find things staring up at me from the text.
PW: There were things about Annihilation that reminded me of your Ambergris books – moments when I’d find myself nodding or smiling and thinking, ‘ah, that’s very VanderMeer-y’. I’m thinking particularly of the way in which you allude to greater mysteries, raising questions without entirely answering them. Do you have answers to all of the questions raised by the book or are there things that even you don’t know???
JV: In writing novels about the inexplicable, there’s a kind of balance to be had. If it’s truly unknowable in some way, then, no, you can’t have all of the answers, because part of the point is examining how people react and what they do, and how institutions react and what they do, when confronted with…whatever Area X is. But on the other hand, this isn’t a series I conceived of as floating off into surreal la-la land. I love novels like that, but the Southern Reach trilogy exists in a space between, where readers will get some very satisfying answers while the novels hopefully still retain some of the luminous sense of mystery that, for me at least, is why I read. And I’m sure there are things I don’t know, and usually that’s because those are things that readers don’t need, either. For example, we don’t need to know if the biologist likes ham sandwiches.
PW: Let’s talk about Area X – ‘an environmental disaster zone’ with ‘an intangible border’ that has swallowed up or in some way changed eleven previous expeditions (Annihilation concerns the 12th such expedition). I was reminded of the Arctic space in which the movie The Thing occurs (even though Area X is not Arctic). Stripping characters of names and creating an oblique space that has no direct ties to a recognisable place – how much fun is that for you?
JV: The Southern Reach has stripped the characters of names. I don’t think it’s giving too much away, since it’s tucked away somewhere in Annihilation, to say that while there might be some Kafkaesque echoes by using characters described by their function rather than their names, the truth is they’ve found that expeditions sent in using names and using modern communication technology tend to end in disaster. Perhaps it’s something in the biochemistry of the mind, or something even more sinister. But regardless of the reason, the lack of names does mean there’s more focus on the characters’ actions, interactions, and dialogue—and thoughts, in terms of the biologist’s narration. Combined with stripping down physical descriptions of characters, it reflects also where the biologist’s focus is—and it’s on the environment around her, of which the people are just a part. The other effect of doing this is that the descriptions of the natural world encroach on the characters more, since there is no buffer of words on the page in the form of names, in the form of character descriptions.
PW: Our narrator the Biologist has a complicated relationship with Area X – her husband has a connection to the Southern Reach as well. On some levels, Annihilation is her journey to save her marriage (or her memories of her marriage). How do you feel about readings of your books? Do you ever find yourself confronted with an interpretation from a reader thinking, ‘No, you got that totally wrong!’?
JV: I think we have to accept what the biologist says at face value: that her relationship with her husband isn’t at the core of her being on the expedition. Some readers see the biologist as an unreliable narrator. In fact, she’s a very reliable narrator—she just is tricky about what she decides to reveal, and when. She’s also not always interested in the same things as most people. As for “misreadings,” except at the factual level and the extremes there’s probably not such a thing as a misreading. But things I’ve seen that I don’t think the text supports include that the characters don’t have a practical reason for not using names and that the whole novel is a metaphor for the writing process. This last one cracks me up quite a bit—makes me very giggly. Someone should do a literary mapping in which evidence is found for every contemporary novel being some kind of extended metaphor for the creative process.
PW: Obviously there are a few beasties in Annihilation – from the Crawler, to the moaning beastie who the 12th expedition hear at the close of every day. Would you say you were inspired by the likes of Lovecraft or Giger or even comics such as those produced by Mike Mignola – or are these purely products of the darkest reaches of the VanderMind?
JV: I’m not influenced by Lovecraft at all—I find his images inert, with no resonance, and just in general am not a fan. Giger’s pretty “piston sexual” one might say—well-suited for movies, but not really for fiction influence, at least not for me, and Mignola I like quite a bit but can’t say that’s an influence. There’s probably a mulch of thousands of weird stories in the back of my reptile brain from which things like the Crawler originate in part, but also there’s a more serious point to be made here, too. I study nature a lot, and I study many strange animals that often make me think we live on an alien planet. And so, to me, and especially in book three when you see more about the Crawler, it should be clear there’s not really a literary antecedent. I don’t really ever create creatures based on things from other creators. I use the real world as my guide. Otherwise, you end up with photocopies of photocopies most of the time.
PW: The second book, Authority, is due in May and takes us into the very belly of the Southern Reach, the secretive Government agency who oversees the various expeditions to Area X. Authority occurs after Annihalation. Does Acceptance, the third book, also move into the future or do we retreat into Area X’s past?
JV: The third book moves into the future and also gives the reader more insight into Area X’s and the Southern Reach’s past. In a sense, you could say that book three reconciles the very divergent styles and approaches of the first two novels. Authority also has quite a bit of dark humor in it, and Acceptance some contrasting lightness of touch to go with the very serious things going on.
PW: Do you have any plans for returning to Southern Reach beyond the end of the trilogy?
JV: I doubt it. I am kind of fascinated by the agency’s convoluted history, though, so if the opportunity came up to do an interesting graphic novel, I might consider that. But novel-wise, this is it.
PW: I heard that film rights have already been sold. How are the plans to film the Southern Reach trilogy progressing?
JV: It’s one of those things where Scott Rudin and Paramount are the ones to announce progress. All I can say is that they really want to make the movies.
PW: You and your wife Ann have produced a number of anthologies over the course of the last few years. Has the anthologising process changed your working methods at all?
JV: Coediting anthologies like The Weird is a humbling and amazing experience. Although I was an avid reader before, it’s been like a crash course in every sort of non-realist literature you can imagine. It has fundamentally changed me as a writer.
PW: Does the Southern Reach trilogy feel like a ramping up? Do you feel intent on getting your work out to a larger audience? If a person who didn’t normally read fantastical literature were to get to this point in the interview, what would you say to them to try and step outside of their usual reading comfort zone?
JV: Annihilation is about four women on an expedition to try to unlock the mystery behind a seemingly “pristine wilderness.” It’s also about the secrets they bring with them and their relationship to the world beyond Area X…I think the answer to your question is in the simplicity of this summation. These are my first novels set in the real world, and the burden of explanation of all kinds is much less. When you write imaginary world fantasy and you have literary influences, it’s much harder, especially because if you invoke the word “fantasy” most people think “Harry Potter” or “Tolkien” rather than “Borges” or “Calvino”. So although I had the good fortune to be published by large commercial publishers in the past, I must admit talking about this series is liberating. For example, I was on vacation in California with my wife Ann this past summer, sitting at a bar, and had a few people who are general readers ask me about my books. And there was no barrier to them getting what it’s all about, and being interested. But I’ve also been really grateful and appreciative that prestige imprints like Fourth Estate, FSG, and all of the rest have loved these books. I don’t think I’ve given anything up, but more have gained something.
PW: Last question (for now!): when you started writing Annihilation, did you know it was going to become a trilogy or did it mutate and evolve as you were writing?
JV: Originally, I thought it might be four books, but there’s always a point at which things either start expanding or contracting—elements pushed forward into another book or pulled back into the current one. It just naturally became a trilogy over time, due to the needs of the story.
ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer is published by 4th Estate, price £10. It will be followed by ACCEPTANCE in May and AUTHORITY is September – and we’ll be speaking again with Jeff as each subsequent book is published.