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A Conversation With Jeff VanderMeer
An interview with Matthew Cheney
June 2004

© Jeff VanderMeer
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 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). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which 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 wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

The Mansions of the Moon

John Coulthart
The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
Veniss Underground
Leviathan Three
City of Saints and Madmen
Dradin, In Love
The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris
The Book of Lost Places
The Book of Frog

In a recent issue of Locus, Nick Gevers says of Jeff VanderMeer's new short story collection, "To read Secret Life is to understand radical new possibilities of fantastic narrative. ... Its appearance may well be a landmark."

VanderMeer's stories have been appearing since the late 1980s in a wide variety of publications, everywhere from Freezer Burn Magazine to Asimov's Science Fiction. His poetry and short-short stories ("flash fiction") have been collected in The Day Dali Died from Prime Books. His acclaimed book City of Saints and Madmen collected a series of stories set in the vividly-imagined city of Ambergris, while the setting of VanderMeer's first novel, Veniss Underground, had first been explored in short stories, some of which are collected in Secret Life.

Where did the idea for a comprehensive collection of your short fiction come from? How did your relationship with Golden Gryphon Press begin?

I can't remember exactly how I hooked up with Golden Gryphon, but I know I'd been jonesing to have a collection come out from them ever since I saw the beautiful job they did with the Andy Duncan collection. Given that my output of short fiction has dropped dramatically in the last five years, as I've pursued longer and longer works, a comprehensive collection is well past due. Also, I'd been rather hasty in the early years of my career and often sent work to lower tier markets out of impatience at the long response times of other markets, and also, perhaps, from selling myself short. So there are many stories that not many people have seen but that I believe are deserving of attention.

How did you decide what to put into Secret Life rather than The Day Dali Died?
Marty Halpern at Golden Gryphon gravitated toward the longer stories for Secret Life, leaving the shorter stories with no real home. Several of these, including "Henry Dreams of Angkor Wat," are among my personal favorites -- that one in particular for its surrealism mixed with political overtones. So I asked Prime Books if they'd be interested in a book of basically "flash fiction and poetry." I like them as companion volumes. Maybe ten years down the road, I'll take the best of what's in those two collections and combine it with new fiction, like "Three Days in a Border Town," probably my favorite of my short stories, which will be out in Polyphony 4 soon.

Is "Three Days in a Border Town" an Ambergris story?
It's a story set in the far-far future of Veniss Underground. Even the meerkats and fleshdogs are all gone, existing only as holographs. A series of border towns. Rumors of a vast inland sea, the last above ground body of water on Earth, otherwise, desert. A religion built up around a moving city, technologically-advanced, that few have ever seen. A quest that rises out of that. It's the start of a story cycle that will form a mosaic novel when I'm done.

What makes you decide to use an idea in a story rather than a novel?
It's very instinctual. One thing I've always excelled at is pacing. I generally have a very good sense of how long a scene should last for best dramatic effect. So when I start to think about the shape of a piece of fiction, it's usually obvious, based on how many scenes I see in my head, what length it might be. I don't outline or anything like that -- I find that too mechanical.

You wrote City of Saints and Madmen without an outline?
I did not use an outline. The stories organically accreted one to the next and the overall story structure existed solely in my head and was arrived at as naturally as possible. Many of the Ambergris stories have come to me as if from a dream, in that they often arrive fully formed and I often feel as if I am just dictating something someone else has told me. Now, I do retroactively outline, after I've finished a story or novel. And a retroactive outline reveals the skeleton of the piece to me, and lets me know if anything is out of place -- if the story is missing a rib or something.

Did you write the original stories intending them for the book, or were they things you just happened to be working on?
I can't really write on demand, so it was whatever I was working on at the time. I did take "The Compass of His Bones" as a personal challenge -- the ending of that story had evaded me for ten years, so I sat down and ground it out, and the ground it out again... and the funny thing is, I think the difficulty, the sheer bloody-mindedness it took to excruciatingly find the core of that story served a purpose -- it made the ending of the story much more visceral. I was, on the level of creation, going through what the character is going through, and it kind of gets into the text.

That story's one of a trilogy involving the Incas (and hummingbirds). Were these stories all written at the same time? What was the inspiration?
I was taking a lot of classes in Latin American history at the time, at the University of Florida. The accounts I read in those classes, often first-hand conquistadore accounts, meshed in my imagination with my own memories of Peru and Mexico. Those stories were a result. The hummingbirds come from an occurrence in Peru that I talk about in the story notes in the collection.

You say in the notes to the title story that it started as a short-short you shared with coworkers in the office building you worked in at the time. What made you decide to add more sections? How did you settle on the form?
I wrote more sections to entertain my co-workers, originally. Then I wrote "The Pen" section and it occurred to me that I had a short story composed of vignettes. I liked the idea of interludes for bits and pieces that fit into the narrative but didn't actually tell stories, really. The whole story is one long digression anyway, so...

How much did you revise the stories for the book?
I revised quite a bit, and Marty Halpern helped me focus on that task by suggesting dozens of his own edits. The thing is, when you're 18 or 19, you've got the youthful energy and the stupidity to attempt just about anything, but your craft is still somewhat underdeveloped, so I'd say the earlier stories are the most revised. But there are other issues, too. For example, in a story like "Flight Is For Those Who Have Not Yet Crossed Over," which I wrote when I was about 26 or 27, I was still over-describing characters. The main character's wife is over-described. By which I mean, the reader should meet the writer half-way much of the time, and I'd left no space for the reader to come in and imagine this woman. Not only that, but in the circumstances under which she's described, by a tired husband coming in the door at three in the morning, it's ludicrous to think that he'd stand there and absorb every detail of her. So things like that changed. I wouldn't say there were structural changes so much as very intense copy editing. Some adjectives were cut and verbs or nouns replaced with stronger, more exact word choices. Sometimes a bit of awkward wording would be changed. For the longest time, in "Secret Life," I had a line that read "And wept, for the face she turned up toward him was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen." Which frustrated me, because it was so damn awkward, but it wasn't until revising for the Golden Gryphon collection that I realized all I had to do was delete the word "thing." A one-word change that makes the sentence more invisible for the reader, so they can focus more fully on the emotion being expressed. But I'd be fooling myself if I said that I don't still commit stupid errors at the sentence level from time to time -- and that's why you go back and revise time and time again, whenever you have the chance. Although there certainly are stories where you can destroy the inner life of the story by making things too precise.

How so?
First person narrators should not always write pitch-perfect prose. Sometimes the violence -- physical or mental -- described by a story requires rougher edges. There's such a thing as being too civilized or intellectual in your approach. A rough oil painting is as effective as a precise, photo-realistic portrait, sometimes more so.

A number of the stories take place in settings many of your readers will consider "exotic" -- Cambodia, Latin America, etc. How do you approach writing about a real setting that is outside of your own culture versus an imaginary setting such as Ambergris or Veniss?
I only write, for the most part, about places I've been to. I traveled to many countries as a child, and I supplement that with research, but the core resonance of the real-world settings is taken from my childhood memories. The Ambergris setting is also taken from my childhood memories -- just recombined, chopped up, fragmented, and put back together again. A woman chopping the head off a carp in the Ambergrisian "Dradin, in Love" is from the Chinatown in San Francisco. The women in hunter uniforms trance dancing in that same piece is something I witnessed in Bali.

As for writing about other cultures, I don't know how I do it exactly, but being exposed to some pretty wild things in other countries at an early age seems to allow me to conjure up other cultures. One thing I never do is write about some white guy entering another culture. I think that often leads to condescending fiction. Veniss, on the other hand, is straight out of Bosch land, the most purely fabricated setting I've created. Its psychological truth comes out of the fact I think we're headed in that direction.

In terms of genetic engineering? Economics?
I think we're headed for massive, planet-wide ecological devastation followed by the ultimate collapse of civilization as we know it. Nothing in George W. Bush's agenda or the absolutely retarded propensity of most of us monkeys to buy SUVs and do other things counter-productive to our own survival makes me think otherwise.

Until I read the notes to "The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight" and "Detectives and Cadavers", I didn't realize you had been writing about Veniss since you were 17. How long after these stories did you begin the novel, and what relationship does it have to them?
In a sense, the stories, except for "Balzac's War," exist in a slightly parallel universe in that some of the events/information in Veniss Underground don't support them. But they're close enough. I wrote most of Veniss after all of the stories except for "Balzac's War." The first Veniss story, "Ghost in the Machine," I wrote at age 15 and it's up on Infinity Plus, but it's so removed from the reality of the other stories that I didn't want to include it in the collection. One other story, "Flesh," comes off as a cheap Aliens rip-off without the aliens, so I didn't include that one, either. I always loved the Cordwainer Smith stories and a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin's stranger short fiction, and I think the early Veniss stories were influenced by that. Of course, the first part of Veniss Underground is a send-up of cyberpunk, too.

The first thing many readers notice about Secret Life is Scott Eagle's breathtaking cover. He's done a lot of illustrating for you -- how did you begin working with him?
I've never been able to collaborate with other writers, but I started collaborating with my mother, who is a painter and illustrator, when I was growing up. She would illustrate my stories. Since then, I've enjoyed "collaborating" with artists. I met Scott Eagle through my wife and her magazine The Silver Web, which for ten years published stunning surreal art and fiction (fiction that really needs to be collected in a best-of sometime). I loved how he combined aspects of the old masters with modern technique and collage. He liked my fiction because of its visual aspect -- specifically, that images in my fiction seem to have a kind of charged presence, they resonate. And he has done some amazing work for my books. Just stunning. We finally were able to buy his art for City of Saints & Madmen, and it's just luminous. The quality of the light in that painting is unreal.

You've said you're especially pleased by the critics who have said the book reads as if it were written by multiple authors because of the diversity of subjects and styles. Is one of your goals as a writer to avoid developing (or falling into) a single style?
I think it's important to develop a consistent voice, but to employ multiple styles if you want to be able to tell a wide range of stories. If you're really getting into a character or setting, then the texture of that particular story has to be different than the texture of any other story you might write. For example, "Three Days in a Border Town" and "The City," which is collected in Secret Life, are both set in the desert. A baroque, pseudo-Victorian style would not be appropriate. I wanted a stark, dry style, stripped down, with fewer descriptors. Whereas the Ambergris stories work because they are a confusion of images, these new stories work because the simplified style allows each image to carry a specific weight and to gestate in the reader's mind at a slower pace. Although I repeat myself thematically, I want to keep finding new ways to tell stories that best fit the characters and situations in those stories. And the only way to do that is to be flexible.

What do you do to find new ways to tell stories?
The easiest one is to note the different ways in which non-fiction is structured, the different forms, and then apply one of them if the characters or plot of a story demand it. Other than that, though, it's pretty subconscious at this point. A voice will come out of me, and it'll just happen to be told in an unconventional way sometimes. That is, however, the result of years and years of allowing myself to be open to new ideas on a conscious level. Now, it's just kind of automatic. The downside of all of this is that sometimes I'll think of a story and there will seem to be four or five equally good ways of telling it. Usually when I sit down to write it, though, one dominant method comes to the fore as being the best, for a variety of reasons. And when I say it's subconscious, I mean too that you have to allow yourself to write what your body and your hands want to write -- that you don't edit yourself into conventional approaches by being too conscious of what you want to do. It's not that writing is mystical, but the best writing taps into something not quite rational.

In the note after "Experiment #25 from the Book of Winter" you say that you settled on the meta-fictional form because it was a way to finish a story that otherwise you would have abandoned. What made you decide to do this, rather than abandon it? The form is somewhat reminiscent of "The Strange Case of X" from City of Saints & Madmen. Is there a connection?
At the time, I hadn't been writing much non-Ambergris short fiction and I really wanted to finish the story. I had such a strong sense of anger and frustration at not finishing it that I had to turn it into something. There was no guarantee that it might become something publishable, but I wanted to do it anyway. So I harnessed the anger and it wound up making for a story that I think is better than if I'd finished the original story thread. I don't see any connection to "The Strange Case of X" -- it's just in the same general subcategory of postmodernism. Although it's worth noting that postmodernism translated through fantasy becomes something a good bit more traditional. After all, "Strange Case" reaffirms the reality of the fantasy world.

In your biography on the jacket of Secret Life two forthcoming books are mentioned: a selection of non-fiction and The Zamilon File. What can we expect from these?
Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is an exploration of fantastical fiction through reviews, essays, interviews with writers like Jeffrey Ford, and what I guess could be called "career" pieces, like my tell-all about the making of City of Saints. Each section will be prefaced by a different "convention report," although these are more like New Journalism pieces with the convention at the center of what often becomes digressive and a meditation on many different topics. So the collection will start with "Why Should I Cut Your Throat," a convention report from my first convention, and then end with a convention report on one of the last conventions I attended. I think it will create an interesting effect.

I had thought I'd finish The Zamilon File before Shriek: An Afterword, but it turned out the other way around. Shriek is done now -- a strange family chronicle set in Ambergris -- and Zamilon File, which is a short novel also set in Ambergris, I'll now focus on finishing. I can't describe Zamilon File really, except to say it will take the form of a secret agent file on a particularly troubling espionage case. It will be much more graphics-intensive than City of Saints and much more experimental in structure. It will also contain texts that are encrypted but still make sense on the surface -- stories, in other words, that can be read two ways. A portion of Zamilon File surfaced in the fake disease guide in my disease entry -- most of the journal entry in that entry is in Zamilon File, in an altered context.

I'm excited about Zamilon File because I think it will be one of the greatest adventure/spy stories ever told. Think Burroughs and Alasdair Gray collaborating with Nabokov and a code breaker from World War II. Or don't. Like I said, I can't really describe it properly, except I'm going to have to become a lot better at encryption between now and finishing it.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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