Jeff VanderMeer grew up in the Fiji Islands and has had fiction published in over twenty countries. His books, including the bestselling City of Saints & Madmen, have made the year’s best lists of Publishers Weekly, LA Weekly, Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. Considered one of the foremost fantasy writers of his generation, VanderMeer has won two World Fantasy Awards, an NEA-funded Florida Individual Writers’ Fellowship and Travel Grant, and, most recently, the Le Cafard Cosmique Award in France and the Tähtifantasia Award in Finland. He has also been a finalist, as writer or editor, for the Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, IHG Award, Philip K. Dick Award, Shirley Jackson Award, and many others. The author of over three hundred stories, his short fiction has appeared recently in Conjunctions, Black Clock, Tor.com, and Songs of the Dying Earth, among several other original and year’s best anthologies, and Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub. He reviews books for, among others, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and the Barnes & Noble Review, as well as being a regular columnist for the Omnivoracious book blog.
Charles Tan: Hi Jeff! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Let’s talk about your short story collection, The Third Bear. What made you decide to use “The Third Bear” as the title of your collection and your opening story?
Jeff VanderMeer: One motif of recent fiction has been monsters of sorts, and “The Third Bear” is perhaps the purest expression of that exploration. The bear in “The Third Bear” also shows up in another story in the collection. And, I have a nonfiction collection coming out called Monstrous Creatures, in which my essay “The Third Bear” is a centerpiece, so it seemed to make sense in terms of dual explorations, through fiction and nonfiction, of some of the same things. More than anything, though, I feel “The Third Bear” is uncompromising and represents the collection as a whole. I didn’t really want to ease the reader into things this time.
CT: What was your criteria in selecting and deciding the order of the stories?
JV: I wanted to show progressions and commonalities of theme or style. For example, “The Situation” with its biotech is followed up by a Dr. Moreau-type tale. A story about trying to find something that can never be found is followed by a story about wanting to be lost. I tried to also vary the length where possible. For example, the longer “Errata” and “Appoggiatura” couldn’t really go back to back. “Appoggiatura” didn’t feel like a story that could have anything come after it, so it’s last. It has the finality of “The Third Bear” but also an openness to its ending. Some, like “Shark God vs Octopus God,” are placed as palate cleansers.
CT: “Quickening” is one of my favorite stories in the book. When was this story written and how did it find a place in the collection? In line with this, do you think every short story collection should include “new” material?
JV: I wrote it over a couple of years, actually. I got pulled away to other projects, and so when I taught Clarion South in 2009, I gave a draft to the students and said, “Here, while I’m critiquing your manuscripts, critique one of mine.” In part to show them that the process of critique continues even after you’ve got some books out, and to show critique isn’t personal, but also to make it come alive again in my imagination–as it turned out I hadn’t gone far enough in the story, and stopped short because I wasn’t sure I wanted to go where I needed to go. Their comments were useful, but the symbolism of giving them the manuscript–letting them rip it to shreds if necessary–was also great in terms of getting distance. There’s also a red-haired girl who serves up lemonade near our neighborhood, and seeing her made the main character come alive when I was getting ready to revise.
I don’t think all collections should include new material, but when you can, it’s a nice bonus for your loyal readers–the ones who will buy the collection whether you have something new in it or not.
I’m curious about what you most enjoyed about the story. It’s flummoxed a few reviewers who seem to think it must explicitly serve up its own meaning by the end.
CT: “Errata” and “Appoggiatura” for me are ambitious stories in the sense that they combine elements from a larger whole (the stories in Argosy and the words used in Logorrhea). What made you decide to aim for such a goal?
JV: I’d say in “Errata” the Argosy excerpts are a nice layering effect in the plot but not essential to the drafting of the story or its execution. In “Appogg,” the words are prompts that provided a constraint–how do I brainstorm using these words to form vignettes but also create a larger whole. Sometimes a constraint is a great thing–it can force a writer to push beyond their normal limits. For me, “Appogg” is the apex of what I can do in a piece of fiction. Readers who fixate on the prompts or the origins of the story will miss the point. “Errata” has the challenge of being metafiction but also wanting to be entertaining in a traditional sense. So it’s meant to be playful. “Appogg” is playful in parts, but I wanted to do a kind of Robert Altman-type approach applied to fiction. But it takes a re-read to get all of the connections, so I’m really trusting the reader to see that it’s not just a bunch of parts.
But I don’t do structural experiments just to do experiments. In both cases, the form is essential to the effect. Readers should always give the writer the benefit of the doubt in that regard. Do I want to write things I don’t find entertaining on some level? No. So when I encounter a formally experimental story from a writer, I trust that they’re going to take me somewhere interesting, and I don’t withdraw my generous support until something seriously throws me out of the narrative. I think all readers should be generous in that way, because what you’re really saying is, “I’m okay going outside of my comfort zone” and that you’re willing to go somewhere different. And maybe you’ll be surprised how much you like it if you don’t resist it.
CT: You collaborated with Cat Rambo for “The Surgeon’s Tale”. How did the collaboration come about and what was the writing process like?
JV: That’s a very interesting question, because it happened when a section about a severed arm that I meant for “Appogg” wouldn’t work for that story. I had to cut it out and start over because it didn’t serve what I was doing. When I did that, I had this fragment of about fifteen hundred words that I still thought was kind of cool. Cat and I had known each other for a bit, and I asked her if she’d like to collaborate, and sent over the fragment, along with a few notes. She came back with a fleshed-out draft, which I added to and changed in places. I sent it back to her, she did the same, and eventually we had a full story. You can still see the connection to “Appogg”–there’s a section where a doctor talked about a withered arm. I enjoyed working with Cat, and we’ve talked about collaborating again.
CT: A lot of your stories in the collection strikes me as urban fantasy (in the sense that it’s the fantastical set in an urban setting). Would you say this is a fair description of your writing (at least in the case of the stories in this collection)? What is it about cities that fascinate you?
JV: I’m not sure I really think of the stories in The Third Bear as particularly urban. Some occur in cities, but others like “Errata,” “Third Bear,” “Predecessor,” and others don’t. I don’t set out to explore cities, but the idea of strange cities does fascinate me a bit, like the elusive floating city in “Three Days in a Border Town”. Cities are useful to define the limits of a setting, I suppose, but I’m not wedded to them. “Urban fantasy” also doesn’t mean the same thing it did five years ago.
CT: How different or similar is releasing a short story collection versus a novel or an anthology?
JV: It’s a lot easier if you’ve got novels out, that’s for sure, because you’ve got a readership some percentage of which will pick up your collection. I’d say that releasing a story collection, the emphasis is different from the publisher. For one thing, they really need to get those library sales, and they sometimes have to be creative in getting attention for the book, since novels will naturally get more attention. Definitely, the publisher expects to sell fewer copies than on a novel. This doesn’t mean readers don’t like stories, though. They just have a smaller natural audience.
Also, a story collection is a chance for re-evaluation. The most popular stories in terms of reprints and awards have been “The Third Bear,” “Fixing Hanover” and “Three Days in a Border Town.” But the two stories I think deserved as much attention, “The Situation” and “Appogg,” got none. So this is a chance for readers and reviewers to encounter them again. And then some stories, like “Finding Sonoria,” appeared in smaller magazines and got lost initially for that reason. A collection also solidifies in reader’s minds what you’ve been up to in the short form over a five- or six-year stretch. People tend to want you to be just one thing, so for awhile I’ve been, in turn, a writing life book guru, a novelist, or an anthologist. Now I’m that guy who writes short stories again. It’s been a big kick to get so many blurbs from creators I admire, too. To have Mike Mignola, Cat Valente, Junot Diaz, and others genuinely get into the collection has been wonderful.
CT: How did Tachyon end up publishing your short story collection?
JV: I know and trust Tachyon, and I wanted them to do it. Jacob, Jill, and the rest of the Tach-pack are real professionals.