|A Conversation with Jeff VanderMeer|
|An interview with Clare Dudman|
| January 2006 |
Some books I find I enjoy but I forget them quite soon, they leave just a pleasant vague memory, while other books, like Shriek, stay with me much more vividly. For the uninitiated, Shriek is set in Jeff VanderMeer's invented world of Ambergris (which I first encountered in the award winning City of Saints and Madmen -- a world where spores and fungus have a pervasive and sinister presence). In this latest book, this world is described even more seductively and mysteriously. It is a wonderfully intriguing book with an exciting and original structure which I am sure will win Mr. VanderMeer a whole new troop of fans.
So, just to whet your appetite I asked Jeff to respond firstly to the seven questions and then to some additional questions on his writing in general. I think his answers are a fascinating insight into the life and career of a writer -- it is a difficult business for most of us and what follows gives some indication of the dedication and tenacity involved (for more of an insight into this process see Jeff's books Secret Life -- an anthology of short stories which are quite fascinatingly annotated and Why Should I Cut Your Throat? which is a collection of critiques and autobiographical pieces clearly showing the writer as well as the writing 'in progress')
The Seven Questions
Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters, etc.)
Another time, when I was out hiking and in deep forest, I came across either a jaguarandi or a Florida panther that was life-changing. Because I found I was willing to stand there and fight if I had to, which sounds hopelessly caveman, but I was glad to know that I wasn't a coward in that sense. You can be brave in that kind of situation, though, and be an emotional coward.
Generally, the life-changing events of the horrific variety come out in my dreams. When they enter my dreams and they turn to nightmares, I have to write them out of me or it becomes too much to bear.
I don't know that I can really convey how this affected me, but I couldn't even cry. It was beyond that. I just wanted to scream. Sometimes it is impossible to exist in this world and, for all of the goodness and beauty in the world, withstand the crushing pressure of the cruelty we do to each other and to animals. It's horrific, but behind the horrific is the sadness of it all, because of the lack of necessity of it. It's just dumb, blind, sad.
Six months later, I remember going to bed in a kind of peaceful state. Everything around me seemed to be slow and comprehensible in an odd way. I began to dream. I can't remember the dream, but I remember waking from the dream with an image of the city of Ambergris in my head. And the image was wedded to the character of a troubled missionary staring up at a third story window and falling in love with a woman he saw there. I don't think I was really awake yet. I mean, I had woken up, but I hadn't woken up. There was a kind of energy running through my body. I remember that my fingertips felt weighted, like something was coming through them, as I sat down at the computer. There was a firmness to the keyboard that hadn't been there before. I sat there and very deliberately, without haste, I typed out the first eight or nine pages of "Dradin, In Love," the first true Ambergris story.
I think I recognized even as I was typing, from some calm place, that the setting was a combination of all the places I visited as a child. But mostly I was excited, taken over by this vision, because even though I had to stop after eight pages, there was so much more information running through my head about Ambergris, about the characters. I went to the couch and wrote as much of it down as I could, on little scraps of paper. And in the morning, I took the scraps and continued with the story. What is odd is that I had mono, with a low-grade fever, for most of the time I was writing "Dradin," and so there is a kind of delirious feel to the text that is a direct reflection of my own kind of fatigued state. I also made very few revisions to those first eight pages, which never happened before or since. (As for the plot, it was based on a story a friend told me, about how his father, walking down the street, looked up and saw his future mother in an office window, went right up and asked her to marry him. Which I always thought a little odd.)
The most direct result of nightmare is "The Transformation of Martin Lake." I suffered a kind of trauma, one which also influenced "Dradin," and it began to manifest in my dreams as a shadowy figure behind a door. There was a screen door in front of the real door. The real door would open as I walked toward it and through a hole in the screen door, I would extend my arm. The figure would hold my hand, palm up, and then plunge a knife into the middle of my palm. And keep cutting at it while I just stood there and let the figure do it. It's the most intense nightmare I've ever had and after awhile I couldn't take it any more. I had to do something about it, so I wrote it into "The Transformation of Martin Lake," where it became pretty much one of the central images of the novella. Once I had written it into the novella, I stopped having the nightmare.
But then I started showing the story to a few friends -- some of whom actually thought I was nuts, and some of whom had their sense of reality so altered that after reading the story they were momentarily unsure if they were in the real world or Ambergris. At that point, I realized the story connected with readers and so I included it in my published works about Ambergris. It actually became the catalyst for the whole second half of City of Saints & Madmen.
My parents joined the Peace Corps when I was young and we moved to the Fiji Islands so that my dad could teach Chemistry at the University of the South Pacific and my mother could do biological illustrations of sea turtles and rhinoceros beetles for various naturalists and scientists. We lived there for four years and we spent six months traveling around the world on the way back. I was ten when we came back to the US and the whole experience deeply affected both my sister and I. We got to see things that kids that age don't normally see, have experiences that you usually don't get a chance to have until you're college age: trance dances in Indonesia, Kathmandu, Machu Picchu, etc. It was surreal in the best sense of the word. It's so difficult to go back to seeing the world as ordinary, even in the most mundane circumstances, when you travel like that as a kid. I try very hard to remember that lesson, just in getting up in the morning and looking around our front yard, even. Don't take anything for granted. Don't dismiss anything as something you know too well.
Then we came back to the states -- complete with authentic British accents -- and lived in Ithaca, New York, and then Gainesville, Florida, where I went to high school. I had written poetry for a long time -- I still have a little notebook with a really awful "Oh how I love the sea" poem from when I was eight or nine. But I didn't start trying narrative until the sixth or seventh grade.
In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mr. Welker, had us all writing novels for some reason. And I did all these novel installments about Draco of Lost Atlantis. I also played Dungeons and Dragons briefly, but found I preferred writing stories about the characters to actually playing the game, and so I guess that was influential. At the same time, by high school I was reading a lot of mainstream poetry, founded a national poetry magazine called Chimera Connections (we published a lot of award-winning poets, including work by National Book Award winners), and in addition to reading SF/Fantasy was reading Vladimir Nabokov, Barth, and many others.
Soon, I was writing short stories and had abandoned poetry. I took a creative class in high school and unified the various assignments by sticking a frog in each as a grace note. I self-published a collection based on that work called The Book of Frog. By then, I'd sold work to a number of indie press publications and some literary magazines, mostly on the genre side of things.
Over time, I began to sell to larger and larger publications and I thought I would have a really good career as a short story writer. But then I had the Ambergris vision, started writing novellas, and for ten years had difficulty expanding on my earlier success because the Ambergris material was so different from my prior work. Long story short, I labored in the indie press until 2002, when Pan Macmillan bought City of Saints and Veniss based on their success in the indie press, and from there my hard, long slog has blossomed into commercial press footholds on both sides of the Atlantic and in many foreign languages.
At the same time, Ligotti had read City of Saints in manuscript form. He really loved a lot of things about it, but he recognized the way "Early History" used some of the structure of Pale Fire, and objected to it because he said I hadn't really incorporated the narrator into the story, and therefore a whole level of complexity was missing. I told him, and still believe it, that the whole point of the story in "Early History" is the history (and the humor) and the rest is meant as entertaining window dressing. However, it did get me to thinking about the life of Duncan Shriek and what it means to write an afterword and who Janice Shriek was, etc. Before I knew it, I had about 10,000 words. I told Jeff I wanted to include this mammoth (at that time I thought it would be 30,000) afterword to the main "Early History," which would function both as fleshing out the character and as the ultimate joke: an afterword longer than the actual main body of the essay. However, Jeff had two concerns: (1) he didn't have the space to publish it and (2) he really hated what I sent him. It was very different from City of Saints and it was a little early for anyone at that time to wrench themselves out of that milieu and into Shriek's world.
At that point, the negative feedback didn't matter (and I didn't take it personally )-- I actually incorporated Jeff's comments into the text of Shriek. Shriek at that point was eating the real world in large chunks. It was very clear in 1999 that it was going to be a huge undertaking, that it was becoming organic, that it was coming to a kind of lurching life. Over the next eight years, I wrote Shriek on and off, getting distant from the personal events disguised in it, and learning more and more writing technique.
I'd say it's different because it's less formal and it's also the first real novel I've done. At 130,000 words it dwarfs my other "novel", Veniss Underground, which was only 55,000 words. I am very pleased with it precisely because it is a true novel. And, I think, my best work.
(This interview first appeared on Keeper of the Snails.)
Clare Dudman is the author of two novels: Wegener's Jigsaw (One Day The Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead in the US) and 98 Reasons for Being both published by Sceptre in the UK and Penguin Viking in the US. Her website is www.claredudman.com
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