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Our Man In Ambergris:
An Interview With Jeff Vandermeer

An interview with Nick Gevers
May 2002

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His recent books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). His publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his fiancée Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

He is doing a chat Thursday night, June 13, 2002 at 7:00 p.m. EST at RevolutionSF.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Excerpt City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

City of Saints and Madmen
City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris
The Exchange
Dradin, In Love
The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris
The Book of Lost Places
The Book of Frog

Jeff VanderMeer is one of the most remarkable practitioners of the literary fantastic in America today. His is a stylish, penetrating form of surrealism, with a deep emotional resonance; for all the elaborate formal tricks he plays, for all his flamboyant mastery of varied narrative voices, his work is profoundly felt throughout. He speaks from the inner recesses of the human mind and soul, and he speaks with uncommon power.

Long a maven of the small presses -- his leadership of Ministry of Whimsy Press has set high standards in that field, as in the series of Leviathan anthologies he has co-edited -- VanderMeer now seems poised for a big breakthrough into the mainstream of both genre and avant-garde fiction. His series of stories set in the eerie metropolis of Ambergris has been assembled in two editions of City of Saints & Madmen -- the Cosmos paperback (2001), which contains the magisterial central novellas "Dradin, In Love", "The Early History of Ambergris", "The Transformation of Martin Lake", and "The Strange Case of X", and the Prime hardcover (2002), which adds to these a wealth of further material, including "King Squid" and "The Cage". City of Saints is dazzling, likely a classic, and is earning wide recognition as such; with further novels and collections forthcoming, VanderMeer is certain to be a central figure in Fantasy and SF in the years ahead.

I interviewed Jeff VanderMeer by e-mail in May 2002, shortly after the hardcover of City of Saints became generally available.

As author, critic, editor, you've long been a champion of a special kind of fantastic literature -- stylish, surreal, opulent, grotesque, esoteric. How did your taste for this originally develop? What is the fundamental aesthetic of the fantasy you advocate and write?
I had a surreal childhood, growing up in the Fiji Islands, a tropical paradise, balanced by being asthmatic and with sometimes intense allergies and a dysfunctional family life. To my mind, beauty and horror or alienation were intertwined almost from the beginning. In Peru, once, in bed, on oxygen, very sick, I looked out of my Cuzco hotel window, set against a mountain side, and saw two hummingbirds mating on the wing. It's at moments like that that you begin to believe in visions. Ever since, I have looked for the surreal -- sudden beauty, beauty in the service of liberty -- whenever I can, because I believe these moments are the closest we can get to God or something spiritual. I don't believe in fantasy as fantasy at all, but as a kind of hidden reality pre-existing in our world.

The fundamental aesthetic of the fiction I advocate and write is cross-pollination: of forms, of genres, of techniques. I can think of no other way to produce "beautiful mutants" (the title of a great short novel by Deborah Levy, by the way). In terms of the word "fantasy," it's a combination of things, especially the lessons of "practical surrealism" exemplified by one of my biggest influences, Angela Carter. Carter wedded surrealism to a coherent plot line and she wrote like a raging inferno in human form. There are sentences in her novels and short stories that literally catch fire on the page when you read them. As for the other elements, they are difficult to articulate: uniqueness of vision and the ability to articulate that vision in stylistically interesting ways. To be profane, to be transgressive. I admire Steve Aylett, for example, for stripping away much of the dross that a writer accumulates in acquiring a style. There's a need sometimes, a passionate desire, for words not to be necessarily written; if only, like music, you could "write" in a way that conveyed itself directly to the reader's emotions and intellect, without need of words. And, although I'm answering this question in a somewhat round-about way, I guess I want literature that takes the top of my head off, that exposes me to a mindset, a sensibility, that on some subconscious level invests images with resonance, with meaning. This is perhaps a more sensible way of saying what I said before about Carter: the words actually seeming to burn on the page. Thematically or plotwise, I'm not looking for any particular type of fiction.

Your great fantastic creation, the city of Ambergris, is now magnificently embodied in the hardcover omnibus/collection City of Saints & Madmen. How did the concept of Ambergris first occur to you, and by what stages did it evolve?
The short novel/long novella "Dradin, In Love" came first, in 1993 -- inspired by a vision that had me waking up after midnight and typing out the first six or seven pages at the computer. The rest of the novella filled itself in easily in terms of the setting. I didn't write any more Ambergris material until 1996, when Dradin, In Love was published as a book by Buzzcity Press. I then wrote "Early History", "Transformation", and "Strange Case" in quick succession, between 1997 and 1999. I wish I could tell you how it evolved, but I can't. Each piece built on the next and in terms of the setting, I just made sure I immersed myself in odd facts about the real world and then placed them where appropriate in the Ambergrisian firmament. I will say that writing "Strange Case of X" freed me up to think of Ambergris as separate from me. It's just a mental trick, but when I write Ambergris stories now, I feel as if I am just channeling the place.

Unusually for a fantastic secondary world, Ambergris boasts only a modicum of overtly exotic nomenclature -- the characters' names are often conspicuously Earthly. Why did you decide on this form of understatement? How closely does Ambergris's history map on to our own?
I have shamelessly used bits of Byzantine, Venetian, and English history in the Ambergris stories. I noticed the Byzantine habit of using a common first name, like John, with an uncommon last name, like Abrasis -- the Greek influence -- and just applied it throughout the Ambergris stories. Sometimes the names sound like something out of Dickens or Melville or Peake, sometimes a little more exotic. But that pairing of the familiar with the exotic or bizarre pretty much describes my approach to the Ambergris material. Case in point: Dradin's search for a job, which is a very normal, mundane thing, but which leads to extremely bizarre scenes. Or, in "The Cage," excerpted on SF Site, where the main character fluctuates between experiencing events of simple domestic life and events of almost unbearable horror. I believe that the world is balanced between such extremes. We may go through life for long stretches without remembering this and then lose a loved one or be acted on in a way that makes us realize that our tidy view of the world, our expectations of it, exist at a different level from the "reality".

The four basic novellas in City of Saints (the contents of the shorter trade paperback text) are remarkable: intense, Borgesian confections, written in quite a variety of styles. What inspired, for example, the striking painterly prose of "Dradin, in Love", and the farcical pedantry of "The Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek"?
I believe that, in some third-person accounts, each word should be invested with the viewpoint character's personality. Dradin is feverish and in love. Everything should appear to him to be hyper-real, almost exaggerated, thus the style. The farcical pedantry of "The Early History" is just part of my absurdist outlook on institutions and formality. I wrote that essay in the firm belief that history is largely a fiction, at the very best a subjective agglomeration of almost-facts. It seemed important to have a lot of humor in a story where I was asking the reader to ingest footnotes, for example.

The hardcover City of Saints contains all manner of astonishing extras: the cover is a short story; one tale is partly told as a bibliography; another section is encrypted; and so forth. Why all this experimentation, this Oulipo-style elaboration?
I'm not fond of the Oulipo movement because it seems to me the Oulipo-eans would say to themselves "I'm going to write a novel without the letter 'a' in it" and then do that without asking themselves, "Is this appropriate for the story I'm going to tell?"

When I write a story, the story comes first and the experimentation comes second. The form must fit the subject matter, the character, the themes of the story. Case in point, "King Squid," one of the new novellas in City of Saints. It is written as if a monograph about squid, complete with an annotated bibliography. Did I sit down and say to myself, "Wow -- it would be neat to write a story as a scientific monograph with an annotated bibliography"? No. I created a character, Frederick Madnok, who had a number of secrets and a need to conceal them that conflicted with a need to confess. Madnok chose the form of the story, and it just happened to be a fake scientific monograph with a bibliography. (It's also humorous -- I rarely subject the reader to a non-traditional narrative device without making sure there's a funny aspect, because I'm not sure I'd want to read something experimental that wasn't also at least partially funny.) And by contrast, you'll note that the other major new novella in the hardcover, "The Cage," is told in a very traditional way -- again, because that particular story and that particular character required it.

The encrypted story also has to do with concealment, with a dual need to reveal and hide, and thus mirrors "King Squid" in some ways. The encrypted story can be deciphered by referring to the first four novellas in the book -- the number series in the encrypted story maps to words in those novellas. What is the point of such an exercise? First, it's important to the frame/plot of the new material, which is all contained within an "Appendix" section that opens with a letter from one Ambergrisian to another listing and providing context for each story found in the Appendix. Second, the reader gains the experience of actually writing the story, word by word. The effect of decryption is also to slow the reading of the story, making each word have more weight, an effect usually specific to poetry. The sting in the tail of the decrypted story frees the reader to take over the author's role on a permanent basis, as well. The intent is to liberate the reader from the author's manipulation, in a sense.

The encryption also creates another, very important effect. If I encrypt the word "of", where I take that "of" from in the first four novellas is critical. I could take that "of" from the middle of a horrific Festival passage in "Dradin" or a contemplative artist passage in "Transformation of Martin Lake". If I wanted to create a comment on that particular sentence in the encrypted story, I could take the "of" from a particularly ironic part of the meta-fiction "The Strange Case of X". In all cases, the word, when decrypted, inherits the emotional resonance of its original context in one of the first four novellas. This, in essence, creates another layer to the encrypted story. To a lesser extent, the context of the word in the encrypted story also changes the context of the word where it appears in one of the first four novellas. What it comes down to is this: creating a new experience for the reader. (Of course, should the encrypted story be as long as it is if I want readers to decrypt it? Probably not, but the frame, the plot of the Appendix, also demands that it be of a good length, even if the encryption nearly killed me. And any reader can get a copy of the decrypted story from me, so even if it might seem needlessly difficult, no reader is forced to engage the text at that level if they don't want to. Some days, I'm not sure I want to.)

As for the story on the cover of the City of Saints hardcover edition -- it serves a number of purposes. Any good cover is supposed to introduce you to the book you are going to read. In this case, that introduction just happens to have a written component. But it also harks back to illuminated manuscripts and the idea of the book as artifact. I wanted to write a vignette into the cover for all of these reasons. The reader can accept the story as existing at the level of design and not read it, or they can accept it as an introduction to the book and read it. Either way, it adds to the pleasure of the book.

There are numerous hints in City of Saints of Ambergris's fictiveness, or perhaps the reverse; the focus is the mysterious mental patient, X, the author of parts of the text. Who is X really? Is he, in some sense, Jeff VanderMeer?
There's a long history of writers writing themselves into their texts. Sometimes this is for humorous reasons. Sometimes it is to add a personal touch to the story being told. In other cases, the author is trapped in the text to further establish the reality of that text. If an author's creation can figuratively seem to become separate from the author, so that the author merely "reports" on that creation, then it makes sense to me, thematically, to experiment with how the author's creation can seem to literally become independent of the author.

We suspend disbelief when we read, but, at base, we still know we're reading a book. The purpose of including self-conscious elements in a story is not always to disrupt that suspension of disbelief, but to say to the reader: Okay, as the author, I'm not going to pretend that you don't know you're reading a book. Given that, I'm still going to make you suspend your disbelief. Vladimir Nabokov -- along with Carter, my favorite writer -- does this wonderfully well in a story called "The Leonardo", where he tells the reader at the beginning of the story: "This is a story. This is made up." And then proceeds to tell a story so engrossing that the reader forgets that it's not supposed to have any weight because the author has already revealed the wires and gimcrack machinery behind the curtain. This technique allows the reader to enjoy the story, but also provides an extra jolt, an extra electricity. It attacks the idea of there only being one level of reality in a story.

City of Saints contains much detail concerning disturbingly intelligent squid, and even more ominous hints about the gray caps, the sinister "mushroom dwellers" who live below ground. Why this apparent obsession with, er..., physically unpleasant creatures? Are the squid and gray caps somehow the same phenomenon?
Gray caps and squid are definitely separate phenomena. I find squid to be fascinating, complex, and quite pleasing from an aesthetic point of view. A squid is a sophisticated creature with many attributes far superior to human beings. For example, although I can blush from embarrassment or whatever, I can't so control my skin that I can change the color and pattern of it at the drop of a hat. Neither can I use one of my eyes as a flashlight like some squid can. Nor can I automatically neutralize the effects of nerve gas when they come into contact with my neurons. Of course, I'm also not likely to wind up in the stomach of a sperm whale like Giant Squid do, so there are certainly trade-offs. But in terms of looking for the alien in our own backyard, you can't do much better than squid. (I would note that it's Frederick Madnok, resident of Ambergris and supposed author of "King Squid," who makes claims for undue squid intelligence. I think it would be necessary to confirm these claims independently before taking them too seriously.)

The gray caps, on the other hand, I can't comment on. I'm not sure they'd appreciate it.

One loose piece of Ambergrisiana that didn't make it into City of Saints is "The Exchange," your truly weird production from last year -- a short story packaged with a candle, dried mushrooms, and other oddments. What's the background to that experiment in multi-media? Can we expect further such curios from "Hoegbotton & Sons", your otherworldly publishing company?
"The Exchange" did not fit the story arc of the new material. The purpose of that experiment was just to manifest an actual artifact from Ambergris in the real world. Every fantasist creates objects, physical things, specific to their fantasy world, but very few actually go about creating them. I thought it would be fun and interesting to do so.

Eric Schaller, my artist collaborator, and I are currently discussing a few projects. One possibility would be to create an issue of Burning Leaves, the pseudo-Decadent journal mentioned in the hardcover (and bring in a few other writers for the sake of tonal variety). Another would be to produce actual Ambergris honey mead, with the appropriate label and back story of the brewery. We will probably do both -- I've already opened up discussions with a micro-brewery to produce the stuff. The point of these projects would be to further expand on the multi-media aspect and to experiment with the idea of "found objects" from a fantasy world. (And, heck, also just to have fun. The fun element has to be there in any project like this to make it worthwhile.) However, it's unlikely that Hoegbotton & Sons will produce many more projects of this nature. Just as I'm pretty much through with meta-fiction after the hardcover, I'd hate to begin repeating myself and wind up making products that don't teach me something in the process of creating them.

You have some more Ambergris fiction in the pipeline, don't you? What direction will the city's history take next? The gray caps can't be up to any good...
I'm working on two novels and a long novella: Shriek: An Afterword, The Zamilon File, and "Fragments From a Drowned City." I wouldn't say these were traditional in any sense of the word, but they don't use meta-fiction as a device. I think if I extended the meta-fictional ideas any further, they'd snap like dry twine. These new works instead expand narrative possibilities -- in an Ambergris 500 years in the future of the current work. In this new Ambergris, the gray caps have reclaimed the city and human beings lead a marginalized existence in an Ambergris full of intrigue and spies.

Next year, Prime Books publishes your novel Veniss Underground. You've written about "Veniss" previously, of course; what should we expect from the novel-length treatment?
Veniss Underground is a far future baroque fantasy, one part Portrait of the Artist as a Raw Nerve End of Envy, one part hall of mirrors, and one part balls-to-the-wall action-adventure story. Like most of my fiction, it's at base about love and death. How far can love be pushed? Is there such a thing as selfless love? What does it mean to be seen through your lover's eyes?

It's told in three parts -- the first section first person, the second section second person, the third section third person. From the points of view of the three main characters. It's part Blade Runner noir and part Grand Guignol. I can't write anything more intense than the sections set under the city in the Third Act, which were inspired by visiting York Cathedral in England in 1994. I hope people like it. It's very different from the Ambergris material. Oh yes -- it also includes intelligent, sarcastic, kick-ass meerkats.

Finally: in late May 2002, you're marrying Ann Kennedy, editor of The Silver Web. Your honeymoon plans don't possibly include a stay in a Hoegbotton Safe House during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid in Ambergris?
Let me put it this way: my Beautiful Monosyllable will hit me, and with good reason, if I let Ambergris intrude on our honeymoon... We will be in Vancouver, but I plan to stay well away from the water and from any underground sections of the city.

Copyright © 2002 Nick Gevers

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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