An Interview with
Jeff VanderMeer

Interviewed by Grant Stone

World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer grew up in the Fiji Islands and has had fiction published in over 20 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. He has worked with rock band The Church, 30 Days of Night creator Ben Templesmith, Dark Horse Comics, and Playstation Europe on various projects including music soundtracks and short films. With his wife Ann he is also an award-winning editor whose books include the iconic Steampunk anthology. Current projects include Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for Twenty-First Century Writers and the noir fantasy novel Finch. He currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

Tell us about Finch

It's a stand-alone novel set in my fantastical city of Ambergris. It weds the thriller/noir/spy story with visionary fantasy. In a nutshell, the city's in ruins, being run by the gray caps, a mysterious inhuman race that's long controlled the underground sections of the city. But they're now in control, have moved people into camps, are working on two strange towers out in the bay, and use human traitors called Partials as a kind of security force. Against this background, detective John Finch, conscripted by the gray caps for the token police force, must try to solve a strange double murder. If he solves it, the rebels will probably kill him. If he doesn't, his gray cap overlords probably will. The novel's very much playing with the idea of what happens to an occupied city, what it means to be a detective, what it means to survive in a situation where there's no easy way out. Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard were on my mind as much as Ken Bruen and John Le Carre. And I actually spent seven years reviewing mysteries and thrillers for Publishers Weekly in part because when I actually sat down to write Finch I wanted all of those tropes to be hard-wired into me. And I guess I'm most proud of that aspect of the book: that the thriller/mystery aspects are organically part of the fantasy elements. I think there's a danger when combining those kinds of genres otherwise, of getting stuck in the middle. Of course, the glue that holds it together is Finch. I wanted very much to explore a character who is complex and has a complex past, but whose moral compass isn't in question. Unlike in prior books where the complexity has come from the moral ambiguity of the main character, this novel works because Finch is basically a decent guy stuck in an impossible position in which the stakes just keep getting higher and higher.

You've said you had the initial idea for the novel in 1998. Did you find the story growing or changing over that time?

Yes, most definitely. For one thing, it ate most of a novella I'd planned called "The Zamilon File." Characters like the thugs Bosun and Stark wound up being transferred from that piece to Finch. In addition, since "The Zamilon File" was a series of diary entries by John Finch, the protagonist of Finch, I had this nice foundation for the character. Finch is written in third person and none of the diary material really made it into the novel, but it gave me a good way of seeing the character from a different perspective. It also changed stylistically. Originally, I was using a style very similar to parts of City of Saints & Madmen, but in critiquing part of the novel at the Turkey City Workshop in Austin in 2006, I realized I had a unique opportunity to make the use of sentence fragments get really close-in on Finch's point of view, and that this would also do a much better job of also describing the city. The thing is, in these Ambergris books I've been getting closer and closer to "ground level", and really what Finch needed was extreme ground level to complete that process. I was thinking of film like Dr. Strangelove, where the battle sequences used hand-held cameras. That kind of effect. It was also the kind of style I could telescope in and out with--sometimes more use of fragmentation and sometimes less, depending on the context. I'd also say the spy aspects of the plot developed further as I got to know the characters better. And in one early draft the detective was an outsider come to Ambergris to find a missing girl. In the later drafts, it became clear that the girl was a red herring and not working, and that the detective needed to be part of Ambergris, not new to the city. There were also scenes I wrote from different characters' points of view that then I rewrote in Finch's point of view. The whole novel is in Finch's head, and has to be for the book to work.

Is this really the last Ambergris book?

Inasmuch as it's the Ambergris recognizable to readers, and in terms of concluding a story cycle. I really see City of Saints & Madmen, Shriek, and Finch as one mammoth mosaic novel, with each piece also standing alone. It's not impossible that a much different Ambergris could make an appearance later--like, literally the Ambergris of 500 years after the events in Finch, just as Finch takes place 100 years after Shriek. But it'd be like my story "Three Days in a Border Town," which is set in the same milieu as my Veniss Underground novel but so long after the events in Veniss that it might as well be another setting. I'm not a big fan of repeating myself. But, in any event, even so it wouldn't be for some time. I have a couple of novels I want to finish first, "Borne" and a collaboration with Jay Lake called "The Heart of the Beast".

The Church produced a soundtrack to Shriek and Murder By Death are producing one for Finch. How did those projects come about?

The Church thing came about because I'd listened to their music so much while writing Shriek, so when I knew we were going to Australia I shot their manager an email with our contact info. We wound up sitting for hours drinking and talking on Bondi beach. Just a great group of guys. And the project took shape from there. Re Murder by Death, much the same thing--I love their music, its noir-tinged style influenced me while writing Finch. So I shot them the novel, they read it and enjoyed it, and now they're doing a 20-minute instrumental CD of music influenced by the book. Usually I find that when I'm influenced by music or something else, when I approach the band or writer or whatever, there're common affinities that lead to collaboration. Which I love.

Booklife is subtitled “strategies and survival tips for the 21st-century writer”. How has being a writer changed over the last decade?

I think that—and I say this with regret—that the next generation of writer is going to have to be comfortable with immersion in promotion via the internet. That creates great opportunity, but it also comes with all kinds of risk involved. One of those risks is literally losing your soul to the pursuit of new media tactics that seem like they're getting you somewhere but actually erode your ability to write and fragment your mind. I wrote Booklife because I've been damaged at times by not having balance in my life, and balance between my private and public Booklife. I think it's the crucial issue for writers today: whether not they can switch from tactical responses to strategic responses. As I say in the book, sometimes saying no is the best thing for you to do. Sometimes turning off the internet and not networking is a better career move than being online 24-7. Of course, it depends on how you see writing. I see writing as an art form and a very personal means of expression. If you see writing as pure product, you might not have this problem, but, then, I also would ask why you're even bothering since there are better and easier ways to make money.

Some authors do seem to push Internet promotion too far - you see these Twitter streams that could easily be Amway sales pitches. But for those of us on the other side of the world there’s amazing potential we didn't have before. Do you have any particular advice for writers living so far away from London or New York?

I think sometimes the distance is still seen as a problem—it becomes a psychological barrier more than a real one. I don't believe you have to be in either London or NY, or live in the U.S. or England, to have a successful writing career. The issue is really one of leverage—and leverage is possible from wherever you are if what you've written is good. The traditional publishing model still holds tremendous power, however, so if I were giving advice to writers not living in the U.K. or the U.S./Canada, it would be to find non-traditional ways of delivering creative content. Getting notoriety through podcasts or online comics, for example, may be easier than through novels, unless you do in fact have a contract from a large indie or commercial UK or US publisher. The main point I think is that being creative in multiple areas or across multiple media will help to reduce the issue of leverage when living in other countries. Yes, those Twitter streams become white noise. In fact, the more people use Twitter and Facebook for such purposes, the more they make other kinds of PR through those platforms less useful.

The Internet seems to have produced some interesting new ways of delivering stories - I'm thinking specifically of podcasts and the Twitter short fiction magazines. Do you think we'll ever see the Internet change the basic nature of storytelling itself?

I really hope not, because the trend is fragmentation of attention spans. I think it's completely legitimate to have Twitter stories and the like, but you cannot confuse them for the complexity that goes into a longer story or a novel. Call it a different artform, and enjoy it as a reader if that's your thing, but to compare it to art forms that require much more sophistication and carry much more depth is to contribute to a kind of devolution. One thing I'm adament about in Booklife is testing the new things the Internet gives us. Accept the things that enhance our lives and creativity--and look askance at the ones that do not. Mindless acceptance is the way toward an unfulfilling Booklife.

You write nonfiction and have edited a number of anthologies with your wife Ann. How do these other projects affect your fiction?

They keep me creatively engaged between major fiction projects, for one thing. I can’t go right from one novel to another without recharging. So we try to stagger them to fill those gaps, and we try to only do projects we're either passionate about and find creatively/intellectually interesting, or at least creatively/intellectually interesting. They affect my fiction only in that in putting them together, I find my ideas about what fiction can or should do changing. But I can't think of a particular instance in which my whole view changed—except when Stepan Chapman sent us a stand-alone excerpt from his novel The Troika for Leviathan 1. Reading that, and then the novel, completely changed my view of fiction, and made me understand how much was possible when you ignored "the rules".

So what's next?

Well, Finch and Booklife are out in the fall. My wife and I are now finishing up work on The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, which will include a really cool afterword/interview with Duff Goldman from the Food Network show Ace of Cakes about how best to prepare, erm, Hobbits and unicorns and the like. That'll be out in February of next year. In addition, I believe we're doing a sequel to the Steampunk anthology, as well as a Top Sekrit project connected to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. Along with a coffee table book and a short story collection called The Third Bear, paired with a collection of my nonfiction called Monstrous Creatures.

About this Interview

An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer was published on 14th October, 2009.

Grant Stone is a writer based in Auckland, NZ.