Earlier this year, we spoke to Jeff VanderMeer about the publication of Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy. Just as Jeff is publishing another instalment every quarter so we here at Bookmunch plan to speak with Jeff about each book to try and understand and question the whole thing as we glimpse more and more of the picture. Here’s us talking to Jeff about Authority, the second book in the sequence:
Peter Wild (PW): Hey Jeff. Here we are again. This time we are talking about the second entry into your Southern Reach trilogy, Authority. But before we get to that, let’s talk briefly about Annihilation. Were you pleased with the reception it got?
Jeff VanderMeer (JV): I’m very pleased—almost overwhelmed by the reaction, which has just been an onslaught, in all of these waves, from different parts of the book culture. It speaks volumes to the reception for the novel that it can find enthusiastic supporters at the Paris Review website, GQ, and also giant pop culture/genre places like Buzzfeed and io9. I was also really happy that places like the Bookworm radio program here in the US and also Laura Miller at Salon—both of whom I’ve been fans of—have been so enthusiastic—and Simon Ings in the Guardian. Also, I was surprised how few reviewers engaged in talking about the novel in a spoilery way. That was a big worry for me. I’m also happy that places like your own Bookmunch, since you’ve known me for forever and a day, have been cool with the new direction.
PW: Aside from the media reaction, what has been the reception among readers?
JV: I’ve heard from so many readers who are enthusiastic about Annihilation and where it might lead. I’ve also been surprised by the number of readers who feel that even Annihilation would’ve been enough—that, for them, the resolution is complete enough. Which tells me that the biologist’s character arc is satisfying. A great willingness there to engage with the mystery but also with the journey. On Amazon, it’s been funny to see the polarized reaction—an average of four stars that’s mostly on the backs of five star or one star reviews. Perhaps because Annihilation is a kind of mimic, just as Authority is. They’re both mimicking certain forms, but delivering something else. And, of course, no book is for everybody. Also, many readers who are artists have started doing related art:
PW: Authority is a different kettle of fish. We are outside Area X this time, in the fabled Southern Reach, and our narrator is John Rodriguez, or Control as he is known, the new Director. Last time we spoke you said the second book answers a few questions from Annihilation and asks a few more. How delicious does it feel to you as a writer to casually drop in a few answer bombs?
JV: Very satisfying. One thing about the speculation in the reviews that there were too many mysteries in Annihilation to be solved is that there were always mysteries split between Area X and the Southern Reach. So right from the beginning of Authority there are all of these surprises that crop up, that begin to suggest that, yes, there are solutions, for those who need them. So it was fairly delicious to do that, to have the freedom in the middle book to organically pursue answers, to include nuggets of exposition where that’s interesting, dramatize where that works. To subvert some expectations and reward others.
PW: Obviously Area X casts a long shadow over Authority – but there are other things going on as well. This is, for instance, probably the closest we’ll ever get to Jeff VanderMeer writing an office drama. There is a lot of corporate politicking going on – and, I’m pleased to say, it’s as compulsive as the more fantastical elements. Does it scratch a particular itch, juxtaposing the one with the other?
JV: I have worked in several places I would describe as like Lord of the Flies with middle management. So the absurdity of modern workplaces, state agencies, federal agencies—the inefficiency, devolving logic, corruption, outright illogic, the ridiculous decisions…sometimes I think none of our institutions could operate without these inefficiencies, they’re so intrinsic to the very nature of our society. There’s also the idea operating throughout the Southern Reach series that the fantastical or speculative cannot exist unmoored from the mundane. Which is to say, a novel full of nothing but miracles is not actually that miraculous. So I have committed throughout to the day-to-day and to the real world as we know it, even if I don’t always name it as such. There has to be balance.
PW: It’s also intriguing to see the return of the Biologist and many of the book’s best scenes revolve around the face-off between Control and the Biologist. She remains elusive, however, hovering just out of sight. Can we expect to see more of her in the third and final Southern Reach outing?
JV: I think of the biologist as the through-line for the entire series, so, yes, readers will encounter her in the third novel. It may not be quite in the context that they expect, but it will happen. There’s not much more I can say about it, though.
PW: John is a really interesting character in that he is quite a tough cookie and yet at the same time we can read about his vulnerabilities (his relationship with his mother, say) without it affecting our belief that he isn’t a pushover. This idea of him as Control, being in / out of control, is something that seems to work tidally throughout the novel. How important is it, do you think, to have this unstable lynchpin in the middle segment of a trilogy?
JV: I don’t know that it was a conscious choice at first: I just knew I’d have a pretty complex or at least complicated character coming in as the new director, and that this character would at least be trying to embody what we think of as virtues in the workplace. He’s done his research. He’s got ideas about what needs to change. He’s willing to try to get the lay of the land. But the point in a way is that even if you are all of the things you think you are, you may still get mired. You may still wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the same time, he is a deeply flawed character and he’s both sympathetic and not-sympathetic. Something I think is true of a lot of the characters in this novel. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s a little messed up. Or almost everybody. I personally think Grace, the assistant director, in trying to hold everything together, is closer to normal than the rest.
PW: And while we are at it – do you think there are very specific rules vis-à-vis the writing of trilogies and, in particular, the second part of a trilogy? Would you agree that the second book is quite possibly the hardest book to get right (in that it has to uphold what has been established by the second book without closing too many doors on what the third book has yet to reveal)?
JV: Before writing the second and third novels I thought for a very long time about what I’ve seen that does and doesn’t work in second and third volumes of a trilogy. What happens with second books is that they tend to seem like a conduit—a tunnel leading between the first and third books, but not in a good way. I wanted my second book to have a definite beginning, middle, and end. I wanted it to define a character arc just like Annihilation, and at the same time I did want it to be a tunnel, but in a different way than I’ve described above. It’s in a sense a tunnel leading Control down, down, down…well, who knows where. It’s not for me to say.
PW: There are some lovely grotesque / odd moments (I’m thinking of say the plant and the mouse in the desk drawer or what lies behind the secret door in the old Director’s office). Do these moments strike you, as they occur to you, in the same fashion as they invariably strike the reader?
JV: Authority was a very immersive novel to write because I was close-in on Control’s point of view throughout. Not on his shoulder with a camera, but looking out through his eyes. And so you have a lot of nonsequential thought, summary, analysis embedded in the forward narrative of themes and a lot of circling back to things. So when you’re writing a draft like that, yes, there were moments where I would be surprised or shocked and then use that reaction in the heat of writing, channel it in to the novel. And, too, Authority has more dark humor and absurdity to it, which creates a different effect.
It was a bit like improve. I knew more or less what Control might discover but not when or how. But I do think the moment with the plant and the mouse is the quintessential moment in the novel, the one that says, “this may not be what you thought you had signed up for.”
PW: The climax of Authority is tremendously satisfying – I ended the book desperate to know what happens next which is surely the point! We’ve now had a book with the Biologist and a book with John – can we now look forward to a book featuring both of them equally? Or are we going off in a completely different direction again?
JV: Readers will follow characters who’ve been viewpoint characters in the first two books and new characters, too. Or, rather, new in terms of not having been viewpoint characters. Acceptance has a mix of first, second, and third person points of view. As the lens opens further to let in more light. All in the service of allegiance to and loyalty the lives of my characters. I’ve gone big and I’ve gone small in Acceptance, so to speak, and that’s all I can say for now.
PW: It’s quite hard – interviewing you about the Southern Reach trilogy and only having read two books so far – to resist asking you about some of the questions I have (about Area X, about what is likely to happen next) – so I’ve boiled them all up to just one: do you think readers are going to come away from Acceptance (the third book) with all questions answered?
JV: No one ever gets all of the answers to everything—that’s boring. But I think readers will have enough answers to feel satisfied—and enough surprises to realize that Authority didn’t give them the full context, either. I don’t think I have written the book readers expect. However, I hope I have written the book that, in encountering, they realize gives them something essential that they cherish just as much.
AUTHORITY: Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, is published by 4th Estate, price £12.99