Jeff VanderMeer interview: ‘Embracing something you fear isn't necessarily a bad thing’
From wild-boar chases to readers' obsessive theories, Jeff VanderMeer opens up about the Southern Reach triolgy
A line from the opening pages of Annihilation has really stayed with me, “Desolation tries to colonize you.” In writing, did you sometimes feel like you were reveling in the nightmare that inspired it?
I often felt I was writing about hope, really. Hope amid horrors, perhaps—and the horrors are as much on the human side of things as in the mysterious Area X. I always feel that human beings are endlessly complex and contradictory. Almost all of the characters at some point do encounter this sense of desolation trying to colonize them. For a few of the characters, though, this is almost a cleansing thing. It's about discovering that desolation isn't what you thought it was and that embracing something you fear isn't necessarily a bad thing. By the trilogy's end, I hope that line, which has seemed to resonate, has layers to it. And it sometimes depends on perspective. People who hike in North Florida find Annihilation less strange than those who haven't. People who work for government agencies come up to me all the time and say, in confidence, that Authority, with its weird workplace situations, is a very funny book—and it's meant to be, on a secondary level.
Did you know from the beginning you were writing a trilogy?
I jokingly call the trilogy a "collapsed quartet" because at one time I thought it might be four books. Authority ate a lot of plot so the series contracted. But I knew it was more than two books, for sure, and by the middle of writing Annihilation I knew the general story arc. That is so different than actually exploring the narrative from the viewpoint of a character, though, so many details changed as I wrote the novels, and the internal structure was altered a bit, even as the overall story line remained the same.
And, continuing this thread, can you tell me about your writing process a bit? The books are so mysterious and the plot so intricate, particularly in the way you choose how and when to reveal information to the reader. Did you detail out the structures a lot beforehand?
I let each novel tell me how to plan it out. In Annihilation, I instinctually knew the scene breaks, where to put in flashback and where not to. Authority was more like improve—the main character comes in as the new director of the agency exploring Area X, and I had to think of what kinds of situations he'd likely be put in. Then it was a matter of being like a film director telling actors, "This is who is in this scene and what the characters want or need, and the rest is up to you." I provided a loose framework, informed by what I knew Area X was up to, even if the characters didn’t. Acceptance came to me as a kind of figure with arms leading to a central circle, almost like a starfish, and was very tightly structured. I thought of it as a kind of musical composition with recurring melodies and instrumental themes. But it's a great question, of when to reveal information. It should always be when it would naturally happen due to character and circumstance.
I’m from Florida, and I can’t get over this notion that the place creeps into our minds more than, say, Maryland would. How much did the Florida landscape influence Area X?
All my hiking in North Florida, through transitional landscapes of forest, swamp, salt marsh and beach—all of that amazing wilderness—is key to the novels. There's not a secondhand natural detail about the world in any of the three novels. Even down to the part in Annihilation where the expedition is charged by a wild boar: This indeed happened to me. But more generally, here in North Florida, the rate of decay is astounding, the amount of Spanish moss and kudzu and just this kind of fecundity of life. You edit it out in your daily trip to the grocery store, but if you really take in your surroundings, Florida's pretty alien.
You use every point of view—first, second and third—at various points in the narrative. How did you decide which perspective to use in each book or section? It’s really surprising and unsettling when you first use the you.
Annihilation just came to me as a first-person journal account. After that, I had to decide what made sense. In Authority, which has elements of absurdism and office politics, the character John Rodriguez (or "Control") is just taking over as director of the Southern Reach agency. I felt writing his perspective in first person would be too close-in, that he's already being overwhelmed by incoming information, and I needed the distance of third person to make that coherent for the reader. It also allows me in subtle ways to introduce elements, some uncanny, that John only half-notices. In Acceptance, I used third, first and second person because I had more characters’ viewpoints, and it helped make them clearly distinct from one another. It was for clarity for the reader. Second person I used because that point of view is almost like a framing eulogy or epiphany, and second person is very all-encompassing and powerful once you get used to it.
There are a lot of theories about what Area X actually is. Have you read some of them? Would you say there are subtle clues in the books that help explicate some of the mystery, or is it really intentionally opaque and we’ll just never know “the truth”? (Side question: Are you an X-Files fan?)
The funniest thing about the theories is that at one point one character, in fact, does more or less stumble upon the whole truth. But by that point readers have been so trained not to trust theories that many of them don't believe the evidence at hand. And that speaks to the books creating a powerful space for readers. I am in awe of the theories and the fact that most readers pursue interpretations out of a sense of joy in completing the narrative—that they want to participate. When that happens, I hope it means you’ve revealed enough but not so much that a reader's sense of creativity and play can't find purchase.
I am an X-Files fan, most definitely. Although in rewatching some this year, I'm struck by how it's the banter between Mulder and Scully that's the most satisfying thing, more than the uncanny mysteries. And in the Southern Reach trilogy I wanted readers to connect with the characters, to have full character arcs, for readers to agonize with the characters and share their triumphs and defeats and transformations. I'm humbled at just how many readers have a favorite character or characters and tell me about it. Even the assistant director—whom I personally love, but some see as obstructionist—has a lot of fans.
What were some of your influences or inspirations for the book?
It's such a mulch in the back of my reptile brain, it's hard to pull out specific influences. I can tell you that my influences growing up were Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov primarily and that later on Stepan Chapman's underappreciated novel The Troika was another influence. All of these writers taught me that it was best to go all-in, to attempt the impossible because if you do that, chances are you'll get somewhere interesting on the page. I also very much like the first Alien movie and the work of Stanley Kubrick. If you asked me on a different day, you'd probably get different answers, though. I read and watch like some kind of febrile omnivore.
Your background is in, let’s say, heavier genre fiction. Are you surprised that these books were taken by a more literary publisher and have invaded mainstream pop culture? Do you think that will continue with your next books?
It will continue for my next books. I've always had one foot in both camps and have to negotiate what that means—always hiking through transitional landscapes, so to speak. I've never felt comfortable having to choose a side, and I always ignore the disputes that spring up about classification because I find them meaningless and counterproductive. I feel at FSG like I've been understood better than ever before, and I feel like I'm finally home.
How involved are you in the film adaptation?
Movies are so different from books that I'm certainly excited at the team that's assembled for the movie—Scott Rudin Productions, Paramount and Alex Garland—but I'm not all that involved.
Can you recommend a few recent books or authors?
I have read so many extraordinary books lately that I'm so glad you asked me. Mat Johnson's Pym and J.M. Ledgard's Submergence are both wonderful. In fact, Submergence is a favorite of the last decade. Also Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing blew me away with its incendiary and uncompromising qualities. Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, which describes a woman's personal journey through New Zealand is funny, sad and devastating. Finally, Julia Elliott's The Wilds from Tin House is my favorite short-story collection of the year.