[The Bellowing Ogre] Playing With Monsters: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
Today I am happy to present an interview with The Dancing Bear himself, Jeff VanderMeer! If you are not familiar with his work as author, editor, literate critic, and über-blogger, you should immediately go to his website and poke around. Just be nice to the sentinel squids. His latest publication Monstrous Creatures (for which a review will be shortly forthcoming on this very site!), is a sharp series of interrogations of tropes, genres, and writings that encompass the length and breadth of fantastic literature. Jeff kindly agreed to talk to me about his latest work, as well as the state of play in fantastic literature and his future projects.
[Note: This is a gently edited version of an interview I conducted with Jeff on March 6th. There is a slight spoiler to a forthcoming novella contained herein. We dispensed with pleasantries and got right to the conversation]
The Bellowing Ogre: Monstrous Creatures opens and ends with an elated, perhaps a bit wistful, appreciation of your idea of the monstrous. How has this idea influenced the way you write, and your perspective when viewing the writings of others?
Jeff VanderMeer: I have a hard time thinking of monsters as truly monstrous as opposed to possibly misunderstood. Which doesn’t mean I don’t believe that people can be evil, but that sometimes what we classify as monstrous is actually just looking at things from another point-of-view. I just rewatched The Thing on TV and on the one hand it’s about some humans trying not to get absorbed, but on the other it’s a desperate fight for survival by an alien life force far from home.
When it comes to my own characters and other people’s writings, this comes into play because when writing I don’t write any characters I cannot inhabit fully, even if they’re awful. I have to be able to truly see things from their perspective. And this means my readings of other writers tend toward acknowledging the ambiguous and the ways in which a writer’s views are not expressed through their characters.
JV: That’s fair to say. I think it’s also why I try to avoid those oppositions in my fiction; they don’t feel true to real life. It’s very rare in our daily lives that we come across a strict binary of that type. It’s usually shades of gray, and in our own actions we are consistently inconsistent. This is probably also tied to my view of the natural world, which is to see animals we commonly find weird or alien as beautiful.
TBO: What makes the monstrous so compelling specifically, as opposed to, say, evil or the grotesque?
JV: That’s a very good question. I’d call the grotesque a subset of the monstrous, especially in the context of Decadent-era writers. Evil is just too forthright, too direct, for my liking, and things that are too direct sometimes tend to seem like generalizations or falsehoods in the realm of writing. But I am also a little odd in that I don’t privilege human beings as being the be-all and end-all. There’s a lot going on in the world that has nothing to do with us, but that we label as monstrous.
Perhaps, too, when I think of the monstrous, I think of a compelling scale. I’m partial to mega-fauna, for example, and I like juxtapositions of the large-scale with the personal. For me personally, perhaps it’s because I see in the monstrous a better way of understanding the world, a more complex way. I’m not sure that answers your question.
TBO: I think it does. It situates the monstrous as an interlocutor between common notions of evil and the grotesque, a metaphorical designation that can contain a host of ambiguities, but not privileged ones. And the notion of scale as a factor (for example, Mord) seems like a rich idea to explore. This makes a lot of sense in regards to your fiction.
JV: I also like to play with context regarding the monstrous. It’s not stated outright in my story “The Third Bear,” but the actions of the monster that seem sadistic in that story are revealed elsewhere to be a case of mis-placed context. When that creature is in his proper context, what he’s doing is in no way sadistic, actually.
JV: There’s definitely a core, where I want a monster per se to be a flesh-and-blood creature, and that physicality is incredibly important; but my fiction tends to work off of charged images. Most major images in my fiction tend, just subconsciously, to come with some sort of symbolism.
TBO: Very charged, and very layered. Play, physicality, and a level of subversion all blend into it, it seems.
JV: Of course, this can lead to obscurity. I have a story about the monstrous called “Predecessor” that may be too much of a closed vessel for some readers. I’d say the sense of play is what gives it all movement and the physicality allows the reader an entry point into the reality of the story. I know a lot of people talk about setting in fantasy as helping with suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but so too does the physicality of monsters.
TBO: That resonates for me in thinking about your fiction, quite specifically in the excerpt from Borne [Note: which Jeff kindly allowed me to read in advance], which is from one character’s point-of-view and stays in her head, but is saturated with visceral physicality. It reads on one level like a critique of the usual methods of drawing the reader into the story.
JV: I try to create differentiated voices for first person characters, and some of them are sparser than that, but in this case she is both someone who wanted to be a writer and, as we find out later on, has very specific and important reasons for recording things in detail and as accurately as possible.
Regarding that opening: some stories I like to just start with the most impossible thing and then work back, so in this case a huge floating feral bear. Let’s just get that over with, and if readers are cool with it, the rest is going to seem like a lot less of a stretch. In a sense, the first sight of Mord is the major bit of world-building in this novel.
Tiptree had a habit of just throwing the reader into the deep end and then coming up for air later. It’s a good approach in some cases.
TBO: Right, that sort of immersion into the impossible that shocks the reader’s critical faculties and makes them engage by playing a sort of catch-up.
JV: It probably defines different kinds of readers. Those who go “oooh cool, huge ravenous floating bear!” and those who go “WTF?! there’s a huge floating ravenous bear in my fantasy novel.” Both reactions are legitimate, of course.
TBO: This practice of tackling assumptions head-on in a critical way comes out in both your fiction and non-fiction. Many of the entries in Monstrous Creatures are critical not just of accepted ideas (such as the monstrous) and the practice of making art, but of attempts to structure them. Why do you feel it’s so important to tackle issues and notions from that angle, and what do you think it gives back to you as a writer?
JV: If I’ve learned anything as a writer, it’s that the truth of the world exists in the specific detail and in the rejection of received ideas, to continually be thinking about the world and revising your ideas about it based on what you encounter or seek out. You aren’t always able to do that; it’s a losing battle, but it’s a continuous process that if engaged in will hopefully get you closer to truth. Part of that is questioning the foundations of things like ideas about SF and Fantasy, including definitions of genres and subgenres, etc. Sometimes when you put a label on something, you’ve effectively commoditized it, even though of course we need these labels to talk about certain types of fiction. If these labels were temporary hats we put on just so we could find a common way to talk about things, that’d be great. But a lot of times we then find they’re stapled to our heads.
I’ve always believed in fiction writing as a calling, by which I mean there is something that occurs in the process of the writing that is separate from the end result. The end result is for the reader, but the process is for the writer. And in that process I find a lot that is spiritual to me, and that is why it’s a continual questioning.
TBO: That practice, of continuously asking questions, merges nicely with the idea of play that constantly arises in Monstrous Creatures. What are your thoughts on the state of play in genre fiction, what is working and what is not? How can writers and readers appreciate play without it becoming an ossified paradigm? Or is that a concern?
JV: I think it depends on what you mean by “play.” I ally it closely with the imagination, and when someone denigrates play they sometimes state it in the form of “this was too weird for me” or “I didn’t understand the point of that.” Sometimes that means that is not the ideal reader for a particular writer. Sometimes that means an imagination not anchored enough to structure or a story where the writer has mistaken play to mean that the characters are just there as delivery systems for the strange, at which point you begin to also, on the more magic realist end, hear words like “twee” or “whimsy.”
In this day and age, I think more writers should be less concerned about the underpinnings of their creations–or at least, in presenting logical information about same upfront–and more concerned about getting the characters and the story right. We live in an age where SF/F has permeated the popular culture to the point that readers can accept a lot upfront, and sometimes the explanations cheapen or deaden the visionary or imaginative aspect of the story. Elatedly, we don’t need to answer all questions in a narrative; we just have to answer some of them. This isn’t cheating; it’s more a reflection of the way life is.
As for what’s working and isn’t in genre: endless regurgitations of common tropes like zombies are not working, even as they create the laboratory conditions for some unique material. I think we’re seeing the beginning of a truly extraordinary age for fantasy, in which non-Anglo writers both here and abroad, as well as traditions from continental Europe, are finding a voice in the Anglo world and creating a much richer sense of story. Inasmuch as there can also be a restoration of the natural affinity between fantastical and mimetic fiction, through commonalities like theme and similar world-views, this is a good thing.
I should briefly add that I often feel like the loyal opposition in many of my views. While some may see me as an insider, I have continually felt like an outsider to the core genre. This is reinforced by a sense of fighting the same old battles about translations and mainstream versus genre, now as it was fifteen years ago.
TBO: The question you posed above, about defining “play,” struck me as one that is hard to answer. When I read “Fantasy and the Imagination” (in Monstrous Creatures) I felt a strong sense of play as permission for pretense (as in a sense of permission to engage in make-believe, to embrace the fantastic), for active engagement of the text, and for enticing the performative loosening of the readers’ imagination. It sounds as if you see this happening in some quarters; can you say more about where it appears? I wonder if tension around play and convention powers the longevity of some of the debates.
JV: I’m a strong adherent to the Surrealists’ slogan of “(unexpected) beauty in the service of liberty” especially as later co-opted by Angela Carter in her work and surrealist painters like Leonora Carrington. So I suppose one way in which I find this happening is that the next generations of English-language writers, especially in the US, strike me as being much less uptight about genre classifications and much more likely to follow the Kelly Link model of crossing genres easily and without comment, to accept various influences from all over. Their imaginations seem more multi-dimensional and less likely to fall into easy patterns. As a result, some of what they write seems less structured, perhaps not rigorous enough, but a lot also feels more fluid and original. These are horrible, monstrous generalities, of course, yet these writers seem fully invested in a sense of play.
JV: I’d call it that to some extent, yes. At the same time, some of them are quite comfortable imposing strict and unconventional structure. I’d say too that the popularity of forms like anime and manga create different expectations in the brain, even in transitions or what you show in a scene, and I think you see some of this in their fiction.
We’re also seeing writers come to us through time machines from outside the Anglo world. One of the most versatile, funniest, and deepest writers, the Czech Michal Ajvaz, is of a different generation but only now recently translated in the US. And his work displays everything we’re talking about.
There’s also another transition period in the works: most of the writers whose short fiction I most admire are just beginning to turn to novel-length works. It’ll be interesting to see where we are in another five to seven years in that sense.
TBO: All of that sounds very encouraging. How does all of this become reflected in the projects you’ve chosen as an editor, in the past and forthcoming?
JV: I think there was a period like this in the early oughts, before things got more commercial again, and during that time I was editing Leviathan, which was cross-genre and fairly edgy. But after awhile, it seemed like enough cross-genre magazines and anthologies had popped up that there was no real unique need for Leviathan any more. And I was concentrating quite a bit on my own fiction more than anything else. When Ann and I got back into the editing game, it was at the suggestion of Tachyon Publications, who wanted a New Weird anthology and we thought “who better than a couple of skeptics to edit it.”
That led to projects like Best American Fantasy, which sought to find interesting fantastical work in both genre and literary magazines, and the more commercial Steampunk anthology. That’s probably about as center-genre as we’ll get, but it’s still got some subversive things in it. At the time, when we took it on, Steampunk wasn’t the crazy phenomenon it is now just three years later. The follow-up (Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded) actually goes farther afield.
But the projects that perhaps most reflect what we’ve been talking about are our massive 750,000-word, century-spanning THE WEIRD: A Compendium of Strange & Dark Fictions from Atlantic, which definitely is about the monstrous, and includes work from seventeen different countries and new translations of Cortazar, among others. Also, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, which is a showcase for both amazing up-and-coming and established fantasy talents. It’s also a great anthology because it can encompass both the traditional and the avant-garde. And, of course, we’re doing Leviathan 5, which will focus on new writers and include about 35,000 words of new translations from around the world.
TBO: That’s a variegated list of projects! What links them all, it seems, is that sense of play and drawing from many different writers and sources. Is there more to how these projects come together than that?
JV: Well, there’s chance. I never thought I’d ever be co-editing a New Weird anthology, but we were asked and thought about it and found an interesting approach to the project. The Steampunk anthology was just “the next thing” at the time but became more than that. For The Weird, we were approached by Atlantic because they love this kind of fiction and thought we’d be perfect to edit it. Best American Fantasy, Leviathan 5, and The Cabinet originated with us. But it doesn’t necessarily matter where an idea comes from it; it’s more a matter of whether we can make it our own and can do something interesting with it. The concept of an anthology is often a more analytical project for us, and the passion comes from what we fill it with.
TBO: That combination of passion and analysis seems key to the work you’ve done, to make themes more compelling and find stories that not just “fit,” but enhance the theme. Where does that take you next? What else is coming up or in the works?
JV: I’m launching a line of e-books from my new publishing company Cheeky Frawg Books, which will include what I call story maxi-singles, with one main story, b-sides and demos, and some originals, not previously published, along with reissues of the anthology Album Zutique and the limited edition hardcopy collection Secret Lives. Ann and I are also doing for that line a new anthology series called ODD?, which comes with the tag-line “Is this odd, or are you just too normal?” Writers in the first volume include Amos Tutuola, Hiromi Goto, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Cisco, and Rikki Ducornet, along with translations (Swedish, Spanish, German, etc.).
I also just sold Shared Worlds/Single Vision to Abrams Image. It’ll be a unique, and hopefully definitive, book about writing SF/F and other non-realist forms of fiction, accompanied by over 100 images and sidebar pieces by Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, Karen Lord, Karen Joy Fowler, and more, with $1000 of the advance going to Clarion San Diego and another amount funding three volumes of the book of student writing produced at the Shared Worlds teen writing camp I’m co-director for. A percentage of royalties will also go to both places.
There’s also a collaborative project I hope to work on with Tessa Kum, Minister Faust, and Karin Lowachee, involving deep space, but the details are embargoed for now.
TBO: And what is Borne‘s status?
JV: I’m supposed to turn it in to Subterranean around September. It’ll probably be a maximum of 55,000 words, so it’s a very short novel, like Veniss Underground. UK rights will probably go to Atlantic, since they published Finch. I’m also going to be shopping around a duology called Komodo, which involves giant bears, intelligent komodo dragons, luna moths as communication devices, and angels. . . of a sort.
Oh yeah, and in my spare time I’ll be writing If You Were There; The Top 50 Fantasy Worlds, somewhat in the style of that book The World’s Most Dangerous Places. *collapses*
TBO: I’d ask how you do it all, but I fear it involves beetles in the ear and worms under the skin. Or budding.
JV: Discipline, focus, and a sense of play. Not to mention lots of support from Ann, and on editorial projects she does a ton of work.
TBO: Well, that’s a lot of fascinating works coming our way. It sounds like you’re really living your dream. And giving readers a lot of choices.
JV: It’s got its moments. It’ll be an interesting couple of years.
TBO: Indeed. Thanks so much for talking about it all.
JV: Thanks for the opportunity.
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