‘I’ve been absolutely stunned by the kindness of the reviewers’ – An interview with Jeff VanderMeer, author of Acceptance

Peter Wild (PW): Acceptance, the third book in the trilogy, has, seemingly, the gentlest title – whilst at the same time being the hardest of the books. Which isn’t to say that it’s offputtingly challenging and more to say that with the combination of voices and chronology, it feels like you’re really taking the gloves off. Is that how it felt to you?

Jeff VanderMeer (JV): I think Acceptance is a lot more difficult than Annihilation or Authority. Annihilation is just giving in to entropy. Authority just means acting like you’re in control. The thing about structure is that some structures are by the nature of their shape more visible than others, even if you’ve achieved exactly what you wanted to. In a context where all three novels had had multiple viewpoint characters Acceptance’s structure wouldn’t be particularly visible. It’s funny how in the mundane, real world certain structures catch our eye but others we just walk by without noticing. A hornet’s nest has a very complex and interesting structure but from the outside it’s just a drab beige-colored thing hanging from the eaves that we might not even register…until one day the wasps come darting out. Your average house isn’t all that interesting to look at, but we’ll certainly notice one more readily than the delicately veined leaves of the fence of bushes surrounding that house—because the house is supposedly the point. But sometimes a moat or wall is invisible because some traps are meant to draw you in. Authority has probably the most complex structure of all three novels but by its nature that structure is subsumed, part of the substrate. Annihilation has a kind of compartmentalised nautilus shell structure, one that keeps spiralling down and then bringing you up short.  The nature of the past is also deliberately deceptive in the books. The past exists simultaneously with the present in Authority, which is actually much more difficult to do than anything in Acceptance. But then the writer Kristen Roupenian says Annihilation is shaped like a muffin and the other two books like a cronut, which may be perfectly valid since the point of fiction is to do as much baking of the ingredients as possible, without overcooking things. So that a certain shape is maintained. That said, the taking of the gloves off re Acceptance has to do with not wanting the final book of a trilogy to fall into one of three traps: (1) to return to status quo for no particularly good reason, (2) to become unbalanced toward revelation when nothing much matters in a novel if your characters aren’t compelling or interesting, and (3) to have been hinting so much by inference that you forget that at some point you have to show—you have to bring the revelations and wonders to the fore.

PW: Whilst it would have been possible to read Annihilation and Authority out of order, if that was the way you came to the books, the same could not be said of Acceptance. Did you feel a certain freedom in the knowledge that by this point you’d have committed readers on board?

JV: I can only really write the books I want to write, in the way I want to write them. I did briefly consider trying to make Acceptance a closed vessel just like the first two novels, but the overall story arc wasn’t really geared toward that. In other words, I didn’t really plan for Authority and Annihilation to turn out to be equally good entry points to the trilogy. That was just a tertiary effect of decisions made for other reasons. I also had no idea whether or not I’d have any readers for the third volume since I finished writing it before the first novel came out. I will say that with publishers like Fourth Estate and FSG, among others, and amazing editors there was no pressure for the concluding volume to be any one particular thing.

PW: Last time we spoke, around about the time Authority was published, you said [in regards to Acceptance] “No one ever gets all of the answers to everything—that’s boring.” There is a delicious, tantalising quality to the way in which answers gradually get revealed in the book. I imagine that the process of writing was delicious and tantalising too – as the writer, you’ve seen these readerly surprises approaching from some way off. How hard has it been for you to keep a lid on things prior to the great reveals?

JV: Not very hard. One thing that frustrates me in novels is the writer’s need to reveal things through characters who have to make great leaps of logic or be moved around the chess board in such a way as to somehow find out the information. Very few of us ever find out the information. Very few of us ever get to that point of Ultimate Knowledge about anything, not even the mating habits of cahill snails, for example. If you, as the writer, try to follow or map out character arcs that are organic and seem true to life even though nothing in fiction is ever that mimetic, then you hopefully get to a point in a third volume where things pop up as reveals almost by default. Mostly, I was living so much in these characters’ heads I didn’t notice much else. It was only when I wasn’t writing the first draft, when I was out hiking, that I was thinking in structural terms or sequencing terms.

PW: Obviously I’m keen not to spoil the experience of finishing the trilogy for readers who are working their way through it. What has been really heartening so far is the gentle and sensitive way in which the book is being reviewed, as if it was a literary version of The Sixth Sense, with reviewers admitting they can’t say much as that would spoil things. Given the power that reviewers potentially have to let cats out of the bag, have you seen anything where you though, I wish you hadn’t said that…

JV: I’ve been absolutely stunned by the kindness of the reviewers. First of all, the whole enterprise is an encounter with the unknown, which means some things stay unknown. Second, each novel is kind of a cuckoo’s egg or mimic of some form of fiction while not really being that thing. Annihilation trades off of strange expeditions, Authority off of spy thrillers, and Acceptance, certain strands, off of quest fiction. So for the reaction to be so enthusiastic, for so many reviewers and readers to get it and to like it and respond so passionately to it is deeply rewarding. But then you add to that the absence of spoilers, and what that implies, as you suggest, has been really kind of heartwarming.

PW: After finishing the book, I went back and listened to the whole trilogy on audiobook – which was a great experience, particularly as regards the third book (the delineation of voices on the third book really gives the listener a sense of how much of a resolution Acceptance is). I wondered how much involvement you had with the production of the audiobooks. Did you sit in on any of the recordings?

JV: I got to approve the narrators/readers in all three cases. Bronson Pinchot is a genius in my opinion. So glad he was involved. For the director for book three, the decision was fairly difficult. All three possible choices were wonderful, but Xe Sands kind of got into the underlying psyche of the character in an interesting way. And she also had just that little bit of a kind of southern feel to the voice that worked well. I thought the audiobooks were stunning and I usually find it difficult to listen to my work. Although the guy who did Finch was brilliant, too. And as a result, I got to interview Bronson Pinchot for Vulture.

PW: And last but not least, the question we have to ask! What’s next? A big long lie-in or… something else already on the go?!?

JV: I’m working on a novel entitled Borne, which features a huge psychotic floating bear and is a little bit like if you had a Chekov play in the round going on with Godzilla and Mothra fighting in the backdrop. It’s set in a ruined city kind of mid-Collapse, vaguely in the American South.


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