Jeff VanderMeer is a three-time winner, thirteen-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award. His most recent books are Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction and Annihilation, which is the first in his new Southern Reach trilogy. With his wife Ann, he has also co-edited several iconic anthologies, most recently The Time Traveler’s Almanac and The Weird.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host discusses various geeky topics.
Your new book is called Annihilation, and you’ve said that it was inspired by a dream. So tell us about that dream.
It was quite an experience, because it was one of those dreams where you don’t actually know that you’re sleeping, everything seems ultra-real. Basically, I was walking down this spiraling staircase in a tunnel, and noticed that there were these words on the wall that were kind of glowing. As I looked at them close, I realized they were made of living material, and eventually that they were getting fresher, like whatever was writing them was very close by. And then I saw a kind of shimmering light below, around the corner, and realized that if I turned the corner, I was going to see whatever it was. At that point, some part of my subconscious writer brain was like, “Okay, that’s enough. We do not need to see this thing because if we see this thing we’re not going to write the story.” So I literally felt like my subconscious was coming over and saying, “Hey, Jeff, you’re in a dream. Let’s get you out of here.”
I woke up, and I immediately wrote the dream down, then fell back asleep, and in the morning I woke up again and immediately went to the typewriter, I mean . . . [laughter] the computer, and wrote the first few pages. I was in this kind of altered state anyway, because I had had rather severe bronchitis, so all I could do was get up in the morning, write for a few hours, and go to sleep, and then repeat that process.
If I ever found myself typing on a manual typewriter, that’s how I would know I was having a horrible, horrible nightmare.
I do sometimes actually type on a typewriter, but . . .
I also read your book on writing, Wonderbook, and in that book you write, “Dream logic usually isn’t story logic. Dreams can be inspirational, but you can’t usually transcribe them and come up with a story that makes sense to anyone but yourself.” Could you just talk about that process of taking a dream and turning it into a workable story?
I have plenty of dreams that don’t become stories. I had a dream once about Los Angeles being ravaged by giant, fire-breathing dinosaurs—which I guess makes them dragons—that I never turned into anything. But basically it’s that there’s something there that then expands outward, and the mind begins to fill in the logic of it. There would be no story without the character of the biologist in Annihilation, and that little bit of dream is really just the kind of catalyst for all the rest of it. The other catalyst for it was really the fact that I have become so enamored of the wildlife and the wilderness of north Florida where I hike a lot, and so I’ve been wanting to write something with a setting that was like that for a while. That kind of combined in my imagination with the dream bits, and then the character came to me, and the situations that the character was in, and then I knew that I had a story.
You refer to the protagonist as “the biologist,” and that’s because none of that characters in Annihilation have names or physical descriptions. Could you say why you decided to take that approach?
Well, it’s just purely a precaution on the part of the expedition. They’ve discovered over time that modern tech and using names are clear pathways for whatever the thing is that’s in Area X to basically corrupt and eventually destroy the expeditions. So that really isn’t a Kafka-esque kind of thing that I’m doing there; that is something that is actually a practical application, but then that allows me, especially in also the second and third books, to kind of have some ruminations in there about what names mean and what functions names have—and the way that we draw a lot of information about characters and whatnot from their names, even though the name doesn’t really convey anything about a person’s character.
The other thing that you mentioned, the physical descriptions, that was because I felt that it kind of was in line with the lack of names. It also created this interesting effect whereby they were totally defined by their actions and their dialogue and their interactions, first of all, which I think kind of had a clarity to it, at least while I was writing it; then secondly, it put them at a different remove from the landscape around them, and considering that nature is so important to the novels, I thought that was useful. So, in a way, not giving them physical descriptions, but having physical descriptions of the things around them creates a different effect.
You mentioned Area X. Could you just say a little bit more about what Area X is?
Basically some unexplained event—unexplained at least in Book One—has caused an area of very remote coastline to suddenly become kind of set apart from the rest of the world, and there’s more about it in the second book, but there’s actually kind of an invisible border with an access point in it that kind of comes up around Area X, and over the last thirty years, the Southern Reach, this secret government agency, has been sending in expeditions with varying degrees of success, trying to figure out what’s going on. As you find out in Book Two, this has had really interesting effects on the secret agency itself, because if you can imagine something that even with turnover personnel and whatnot has tried for thirty years, unsuccessfully, to solve a problem, you’re going to have some devolution of command and control going on in that situation.
You’ve said that Area X was roughly based on the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in Florida. For people who haven’t been there, could you just give an idea of what it’s like and how that informed the setting?
Basically, it’s a series of transitional wildlife, or biospheres, in a way. You walk out there, and at first it’s kind of like normal pine forest, and then that transitions to kind of cypress-y pine, swamp forest, which is my least favorite part because it’s actually very creepy. It’s very much a kind of black water situation with just still water, and kind of a stillness and a watchfulness, and then that eventually becomes the salt marshes and the reeds and the canals and lake area, and then eventually that becomes the beach and the seashore, and there is an old lighthouse out there as well. It just seemed like a natural setting.
One thing about the novel that was so great was that I could relax into this setting. My prior novels, I’m creating the setting from scratch because they’re all set in imaginary worlds, and here I could kind of relax into it. It’s never said that it’s north Florida in the books, and I think that that kind of specificity would be wrong for these books, but that was the inspiration in all of those details. A lot of things that are in the book happened to me, like being charged by a wild boar. I’ve had to jump over an alligator out there. I’ve seen a Florida panther once out there, which was amazing. So it’s just an amazing habitat and a very rich, fertile setting for something.
I’m just curious, what is it like being charged by a wild boar? Like, what happens?
In our case, it charged us from a very long way away, and it could have smelled us, but we really have no idea. We had no idea as we were watching it charge toward us whether it had recognized us or not, and I was out there with a guy who had told me he was ex-military, so we’re standing there with a god-awfully long time to think about what we were going to do about this boar charging, which is not something I would have expected if you told me I was going to be charged by a boar. So I took out my little gutting knife, which is very useful if you want to stab something that’s already gored you, and my friend had his walking stick, which he was twirling around like nunchucks, which was not inspiring any confidence in me whatsoever.
And we just had this very casual conversation—because we couldn’t really run because there was water to both sides—about this thing that was like the size of a very large German Shepherd charging towards us. We finally got to a point where I said, “Have you ever had this situation before?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, what did you do about it?” He said, “Well, I was in a tank at the time.” I said, “That helps not at all.”
Eventually, about fifteen feet away from us, it veered off into the water, which was kind of funny because it hadn’t occurred to us that boars could swim, so we never had this thought that it had an option other than to gore us. So that’s actually in the book. Although the strange thing that happens at the end of that scene obviously did not happen to us.
Annihilation is just an incredibly creepy book. Do you have a specific approach you use to make a book feel creepy? Or do you just sort of play it by ear?
I think there’s stuff in the book that’s creepy to the biologist, and then there’s stuff that’s normal to the biologist that is creepy to the reader, so there’s those two different kind of levels. I think I thought a lot about pacing. There’s a lot of things I learned from the last book, Finch, and from reading for the various anthologies, and there was a time where I didn’t want to write novels for a while, so I was working on a lot of dead edits and editing other people’s novels, and I learned a lot about pacing. So some of the unease comes from the way the reveals are dropped in there, and the way it keeps curling back to the past, and the fact that the biologist is kind of an unreliable narrator, so there are kind of these layers of unease, and different types of unease working through it.
Then I think there is also the fact that I love the natural world, but there are moments when you’re out there alone when obviously you have these . . . there have been moments out there when I’ve actually been lost, like in a thunderstorm, and not known where the heck I was, and so I think some of that comes through, too. Just the nature of the book, of being in an expedition, isolated, that also doesn’t know at a certain point if it can trust the information it’s gotten from the very people who have sent them in there, and not knowing if that’s for their protection or because something else more ominous is happening.
So it’s kind of a layering of different kinds of dread that I think kind of converge, but the pacing of the book came very naturally to me, I think because of studying all these other books before it.
This is a very short novel by contemporary publishing standards. I wish most novels were a lot shorter—I really appreciate that.
Thanks. I think for this—I mean the second novel is 95,000 words and so is the third, but they don’t have kind of the . . . I think for an account like this, which is purportedly the journal entries of this biologist, I think longer would be a huge mistake.
You mentioned that you were sick with bronchitis while you were writing this. Were you in a feverish state of mind at all? Did that affect the story at all?
It gave me a weird clarity, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because it was impossible to become fragmented. I was so tired that I hardly . . . I didn’t get on the internet. I couldn’t do anything else. All I could do was work on this thing and sleep, so none of those usual things I have to guard against and would still seep in sometimes anyway, were an issue.
I actually heard you say that there are scenes in this that you don’t remember writing.
[Laughter] There are a couple of scenes.
What’s an example of a scene you just read now, and you’re just like, I don’t even know where that came from?
Probably parts of their initial expedition into the tunnel, and it may have been because I was taking parts of that from the dream as well, but there were parts of that that I just didn’t really remember. I would go back to the computer the next day and be like, “Okay, I wrote that. That’s interesting.” Then every once in a while I’d be like, “I wrote that, and that definitely doesn’t belong. That is going. That was bad, whoever that other person was who came to my computer and wrote that.”
You mentioned in the dream that some being was writing this text on the wall. In your dream could you read the text, or did any of that come out of your dream? Or did you have to invent that after the fact?
That was actually the creepiest thing for me—that those words were actually in my head after the dream, and I wrote them down along with the other stuff when I woke up that night, and they have not changed since that point. I have been very superstitious about editing them. It’s kind of bizarre to me that they make a strange kind of sense.
In Authority [the second novel of the series], there’s a fairly long section of this kind of writing. How much of that was from the dream?
I think everything except like the last sentence or so.
I needed a little extra, and I felt really weird about adding the extra, but hopefully it sounds the same as the rest, but pretty much all of that. That’s why it was so strange.
Just to give the listeners a sense of how it goes, I have a section of it here I could read. Or if you have it at hand, could you read like the first sentence or so of this . . . ?
Actually, I have Authority here in fact, so I could probably . . .
I have it. It’s page ninety-six.
Ninety-six. One second. Here we go, “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner? I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives, while from the dim lit halls of other places, forms that never could be, rise for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen.”
When you look at that now, do you have any idea where that came from? Does it echo anything you’ve read or anything?
It really hasn’t. Then I thought, “Well, you know, it probably is from the mulch in the back of my reptile brain from reading, like, old Galaxy Magazines and Weird Tales and whatnot.” That part is probably from that mulch, and I couldn’t be absolutely sure if I went back to those if I wouldn’t find some little echo of that either. I think that’s probably where it came from. I have no other guess.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the sequel, Authority? I saw you say that you wanted to write a “supernatural novel without a supernatural element.” Could you talk about that?
You have the Southern Reach agency, which has become kind of degraded, like I said, over thirty years, and my thought was that, in a way, it’s haunted. They’re all haunted by this place that they’re trying to explore, and so that was kind of like my guideline for what the mood and atmosphere of the novel was going to be. They were going to be haunted by something that wasn’t supernatural or they were going to be haunted by their memories and haunted by what they hadn’t been able to accomplish. That really was part of what I set out to do.
So I was thinking, “What are the tropes of supernatural fiction?” I went to, and this is going to be blasphemy, I know, but I really love Kubrick’s The Shining and the specific effects he creates in that movie. There’s some great stuff he does. Like, there’s a TV in the center of a room with no cord coming out, and of course that’s possible now, but it wasn’t then. And there’s all these little details he put in there that really enhance the sense of unease because you can’t quite identify at first look why something is wrong. So I was like, “Well, that’s an interesting technique.” Like, for example, in The Shining, and this may be a continuity error, the carpet, the pattern of the carpet is going one way in one scene, and then in a later scene it’s facing the other direction in the same hallway. That’s an incredibly effective kind of almost subliminal thing to do to somebody, to a viewer, in terms of making them feel like something is wrong, but not quite knowing what it is. So I thought, “How can I translate some of those effects?” And so that’s what I did with Authority.
It’s also in part based on when I had a day job, I had a fair amount of interaction with government agencies. I was always fascinated by the fact that even in modern times, you would have agencies that would have DOS-based programs, and databases, and all kinds of mixes of technology, almost like when you go into a modern city and you see a sixteenth-century cathedral next to a skyscraper. So I really also was interested in exploring that. I also have worked for some fairly dysfunctional companies, so I have had some experiences that I thought would be of interest. Authority has kind of a streak of dark humor running through it, especially, I think, if you’ve ever been in any of those kinds of situations in organizations.
Yeah, working for this place just seems like an absolute nightmare. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it does seem like the work environment is scarier than the supernatural threat.
I think that’s actually true. Having had co-workers and myself commiserating in various situations, it does take that kind of a toll. These toxic work environments are incredibly stressful, and I think the more we learned about how stressing out affects the body and everything else, the more that those psychological things, and even kind of slightly dysfunctional workplaces, are really affecting people’s health and are much more kind of dangerous than we think about, so that’s kind of just amplified, in a way, in Authority.
Are you a fan of horror writers who do workplace horror stuff? Does Thomas Ligotti do stuff like that?
Yes. I adore Ligotti’s workplace stories, which I believe are also based on personal experience. I think there’s one called “My Work is Not Yet Done,” and although I didn’t really draw on that directly or anything, I’m sure that was in the back of my mind a little bit. Those are great stories and well worth checking out. I think that’s one of his great triumphs, actually, is that going from being someone who was supposedly so influenced by Lovecraft, he eventually moved out of that influence, moved on to other more interesting, I think, influences. But also then managed to take some personal experiences or whatever and create some very modern horror of unease using that setting.
Some people have suggested that these books are influenced by Lovecraft. To what extent do you think that that’s true?
I understand, in that Lovecraft is shorthand for talking about weird fiction to some degree. Where it bothers me is just that the approach to style is completely different, and the approach to nature is completely different. I’m fairly convinced that Lovecraft could see the long shadow of a mouse on a wall and run screaming from the room, let alone be out in a wilderness area and enjoy. So his approach to nature, to me, is that it’s not separate from the Old Ones and stuff, that that’s all manifestations of it, in a sense, in his indifferent universe. And in Annihilation you have nature which is just going along merrily in Area X, and doing whatever it will, and then whatever is also in effect there and subverting parts of nature and affecting the expeditions.
I don’t know if this is a spoiler, but it’s mentioned in Authority that some members of the Southern Reach feel that maybe Area X is less polluted, or that it’s not polluted at all compared to the outside world, and maybe they have some sympathy for Area X?
Yes, that’s kind of the dilemma amongst the scientists. At the same time that this is happening, the world is ecologically collapsing on the outside, so the issue is to what extent is it important . . . “Is it more important for human beings to survive, or is it more important for the planet to survive” is the issue as framed by some of the people in these books. I tend to not want to definitively answer that question as the author; I prefer to just kind of put characters in conversation about it. It comes up again in Acceptance in various other ways, but it is an issue, and one thing that I think is really important. The question that science fiction and fantasy can ask in some ways better by getting some distance is “what is it to see the world without the human gaze, or to try to get beyond it.” You can’t really get beyond seeing things through human eyes, but in the attempt to try to do that, you may get somewhere kind of interesting and some new perspective about the natural world.
I read Annihilation, and then Authority, and then Wonderbook, back to back, so I noticed that in Wonderbook you mention an author named Hsyu, and there’s a character with that last name in Authority. I was just wondering if it was that old tuckerization or something?
Oh yeah, Hsyu, Jennifer Hsyu. The one thing about Authority is, every once in a while I just like to . . . basically you’re right, it is. It’s a combination in Authority of a couple of people that I know, and not so much to try to kind of conjure up their attributes. I just every once in a while will do that. Not with names that people will necessarily know, because I think then it becomes kind of like fan fiction or something. Like, Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness is full of references to Clarke Ashton Smith and whatnot, things like that, which I don’t think really helps the atmosphere. But it does help me sometimes as an anchor, and I can’t tell you exactly why, but it does help me with the characterization every once in a while.
Could you just say who Jennifer Hsyu is and what she does?
She’s a writer out of San Francisco who was in our Clarion class of 2010. She has published some short stories in the fantasy field and is working on a novel right now.
It was announced that the Southern Reach trilogy film rights were bought by Paramount. What’s the current status of that?
I think basically they’re figuring out the form of what the movies might be, because there’s a lot of different ways you could go, especially considering that, in Authority especially, you learn that you have thirty years of secret agency history here. So you could go with the structure of the three books, or you could go with something that uses the three books as the base material for something else that explores all those nooks and crannies that aren’t explored in Authority—how the Southern Reach has been dealing with Area X. So that’s really where it is right now. They need to read Acceptance and then we’ll go from there.
Cool. So you’ve also been involved with the Shared Worlds Writer’s Workshop. Could you tell us about that?
Seven years ago, the director of Shared Worlds, Jeremy L. C. Jones, contacted me and brought me in on this amazing project. I’m now co-director of Shared Worlds, which is a teen science fiction/fantasy writing camp out of Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Basically, every year we get sixty-plus kids from all over the world who come to Shared Worlds, and for the first week of Shared Worlds, they get in groups of ten, and they create their own fantasy or science fiction world. They have help from Wofford faculty in various aspects of biology, and politics, and everything else, so they can have those resources to draw on.
Then, in the second week, they write stories set in those worlds. We find it’s very effective for a couple of reasons. Kids who are thirteen to seventeen don’t always know exactly what they want, and so by the end of the first week they have a good idea of whether they really want to go into writing, or if they like gaming more, or they like illustration, and so we have some resources for those things, or if they want to stick with the worldbuilding. But they do get to do that in a story the second week.
It’s really effective because they have a personal stake in it because they built the world, but it’s not so personal, like their own personal writing, that they feel uncomfortable sharing it or get blocked writing. Then, at the end of the second week, they get a critique from a professional writer in a one-on-one session. By critique, I mean something fairly general, because a thirteen-year-old with their first story, you don’t want to have to do a Clarion critique of. That doesn’t make any sense at all.
For about ten years, I’ve been involved with the Alpha Young Writer’s Workshop, which is a similar teen writing workshop, and I face that same issue of how tough to be on the students. The critiques are one thing that I worry about a lot, but even just telling them what their economic prospects are for writers, like, how blunt do I want to be about that? I want them to be forewarned, but I don’t want them to just come to summer camp and have their dreams crushed.
It’s kind of funny, because I find most of the students that we get seem pretty savvy about it from the Internet. I remember one one-on-one session with a thirteen-year-old girl where I said—we keep most of the emphasis on the craft of writing, and then at the very end we talk a little bit about career, because we don’t want a thirteen-year-old focusing on having to submit stories and stuff, but I remember that she said, “Well, I know writing is a tough career to choose, so probably I’ll go into English or history as a major in college, and I’ll either go into some technical writing thing or I’ll be a history professor, and I’ll do that for maybe twenty years, and then maybe eventually I’ll be a full-time writer.” I think pre-Internet, you wouldn’t have necessarily found that. Or we might just be getting particularly savvy kids, because I know forty-year-olds who don’t have that much insight into what a writing career is. But, yes, words carry a lot more weight to teenagers, and so we’re very careful.
One thing we’ve found with Alpha is that the students who apply are overwhelmingly female. We have about twenty stories, and usually there are one or two boys—I think we had four one year. Have you had that same experience with Shared Worlds?
I think it’s more like usually 70/30 or 65/35, but it’s definitely a lot more girls. I don’t know why that is necessarily, but that’s usually how it skews.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that most of the years that I’ve taught there, I knew most of the books that the students had read. I would ask someone “Who’s your favorite author,” and they would say, “You’ve probably never heard of this person, but Lloyd Alexander,” or something, and I’d say, “Dude, I’ve heard of Lloyd Alexander, come on.” But now I actually haven’t heard of most of the authors they’ve read, because they’re all these YA authors, and the YA stuff is really segregated in a way from the adult fantasy and science fiction. I just wonder what sort of impact that will have on the sense of science fiction and fantasy as a community.
My experience with Shared Worlds is that they raid every single section of the bookstore, and most of the kids we get are actually not going to the YA section. They’re going to the adult fiction section. So I don’t necessarily see that trend. The other trend I hear people talk about a lot is the next generation is so invested in ebooks and whatnot, but most of our kids don’t even use laptops to write. Some of them do, but they do a lot of drafting still in longhand, and they read physical books. I don’t know, really, that we can extrapolate, especially because we’re also dealing with, as you are, the ones who are the really heavy-duty readers and the not necessarily typical. I don’t necessarily see a YA trend. I tend to recognize most of what they’re telling me they’ve read.
Let’s talk about some of your author projects coming up. I saw you have an anthology that you’re working on called The Time Traveler’s Almanac.
That’s coming out in March. It’s co-edited by my wife, Ann. It’s a hundred years of time travel fiction collected in one massive volume, and it has everyone from, of course, Asimov to people you might not expect. One thing we found when looking at past time travel anthologies, compilations of reprints, we found that they were fairly conservative, and so there was a lot of room to put stuff in one volume that hadn’t been in conversation in quite this way.
Could you give some examples of some sort of out-there time travel stories?
I don’t have that book in front of me, but there’s a guy who has a story called “Loob,” of all things, a writer from the ’80s who wasn’t very well known at the time, but it’s a very interesting story involving witchcraft and time travel. I think the main thing is that we have a lot of stories that we were able to fit in because we also have a fantasy and horror sensibility, not just SF, and so we’re not that interested in the logic of how you build a time machine or having the details behind it, but just more in is the emotional resonance right, or had the implication been set out correctly. Karen Heuler has a story in there that I think is a great story, and it’s a great story because it’s about someone who time travels to get a better deal on an apartment in San Francisco, so she’s renting the apartment in the past, and then she travels to the future to her day job. So things like that.
It doesn’t always have to be the fate of the world is in the balance. There are some very interesting things you can do. We have Geoffrey Landis and people like that who are known for having written classic stories. We have Dean Francis Alfar, a great Filipino writer, who has a story in there about a kind of time travel magic shops that’s really cool. It’s a great mix of stuff from all over the place.
One thing I noticed reading Wonderbook is that there were quite a few references to Finnish authors. I was just wondering, do you have some special connection to Finnish literature? How’d you come across all these Finnish authors in particular?
They actually have a really vibrant science fiction and fantasy community that they’ve worked on very hard, and as a result they have a really, really strong support system, and as a result they have a higher than normal percentage of really great writers per capita, in a sense. But also back in the day, in the ’90s, when I was starting out and writing fairly surreal stories, I was having some difficulty placing a lot of them in U.S. markets, so I turned overseas, and had a lot of stuff out in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, and one of the places I did have stories out was in Finland, and then we just kind of gradually grew a relationship, and then that relationship extended because of the fact that the Finnish government is great about giving out translation grants, so we got some translation grants for the publishing company that we run, Cheeky Frog, and so it’s just kind of a synergy that’s grown up over time.
What are, say, one or two Finnish authors that people should go check out?
I’m terrible on the pronunciations as they themselves will point out whenever I’m there, but of course Tove Jansson, who did the Moomin comics, but also The Summer Book is an amazing book for adults that is on the fringe of fantasy. It’s set on an island and is about the relationship between a granddaughter and her grandmother. The creative play that they engage in is kind of reminiscent of some of the things set out in Wonderbook. Leena Krohn, whose Tainaron is just one of the most amazing works of twentieth-century fantasy, about this woman sending back letters from a city of intelligent talking insects, and it’s both kind of a parable and it works on the surface level as well. There’s The Quantum Thief author (Hannu Rajaniemi) whose last name I would completely annihilate if I tried to say it, from Tor. There’s a writer, Leena Likitalo, who had a story in Weird Tales, and was just a finalist for the Writers of the Future contest, who is an up and coming talent. And, gosh, there’s a few others, too, and they’re all in this Finnish anthology that we put out, called It Came from the North, last year in ebook format.
Do you have any other projects that you’re working on that you’d like mention? Anthologies or things like that?
I’m finishing up the last stages of the last edits on Acceptance, the last novel, which is pretty funny because—as you know from having read Authority—there’s kind of a manuscript in there, that’s kind of a weird manuscript written by one of the people at the agency, and I’m actually going to be in a bed and breakfast right next to a lighthouse on the coast of California with my own marked-up manuscript doing the final edits. It’s just a little meta.
Beyond that, I’m working on a novel called The Book Murderer, and then another one called Thorn, which is a little bit like if you had Godzilla and Mothra fighting in the background while a Chekhov play was going on in the foreground, so we’ll see how that works out.
And The Book Murderer, could you give a little capsule description of that?
It’s literally about a guy who has this obviously deranged plan to try to destroy all the books in the world, which he knows is futile, but he’s into quixotic quests. He does all kinds of things, including trying to interrupt writers’ thought processes and stuff so they won’t write as much, and in some cases, trying to steal manuscripts that have masters of edits on them that haven’t yet been photocopied so he can totally mess with writers. There’s a scene in there where there’s a fight between him and this community college teacher who had not yet photocopied her manuscript, and they’re fighting it out in the parking lot because he’s trying to get away with it. At one point, he goes on a book tour to shadow an author as the assistant to learn more about the enemy. It’s kind of satirical, although it gets a little more darkly psychological by the end, and it does allow me to tell, in disguised forms, a lot of stories about book culture.
In Wonderbook, you mentioned an upcoming project called The Journals of Doctor Mormeck. What’s the status of that?
I’ve got about 55,000 words of that, and that’s another novel. Between finishing Finch and finishing Annihilation, I worked on these three different novels, and for various reasons got pulled off of them, but The Journals of Doctor Mormeck is kind of an alternate universe/parallel universe kind of thing involving the journals of a sentient mountain out on a remote planet who is being used by the angels, who are real but they’re actually like an alien species, to spy on various versions of alternate Earth where something terrible is going to happen. He spies on them through things like luna moths, and through flies that are actually transmitters, and whatnot. It’s a very kind of out there science fiction epic.
Is that a challenge having a mountain as a protagonist?
So long as he’s just writing a journal—well, he has avatars, so one of his avatars is actually send back to Stalingrad, an alternate Stalingrad during World War II, and so that gives me some latitude, too. He’s able to kind of bud off parts of himself as little expeditions.
Do you have any short stories or anything coming out?
No, I’ve been so focused on the novels that I really haven’t been doing much short fiction. We will have a feminist sci-fi anthology coming out next year from PM Press. There are some stories I want to write, but mostly I want to finish up Acceptance because I want to spend most of my time thinking about the book tour and kind of relaxing from writing for a while.
Best of luck with the rest of the book tour, and thanks so much, Jeff VanderMeer, for joining us on the show today.
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