Q&A with Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and in multiple year’s-best anthologies. He writes nonfiction for The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian, among others. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife.
The Southern Reach trilogy, which includes the books Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, is VanderMeer's most recent and perhaps best known project. And in anticipation of the release of book three, Acceptance, we asked Mr. VanderMeer some questions regarding the trilogy and the mysterious Area X. Here are his answers:
MRB: What inspired the Southern Reach Trilogy? Any books, films, or historical events that you can name as direct influences?
JV: Influence is a weird thing in this case, since the real big influence is the natural world and my personal experiences in it. But I would have to say that the nonfiction of Rachel Carson as well as fiction by Michel Bernanos’s novella “The Other Side of the Mountain,” Leena Krohn, as well as Algernon Blackwood in stories like “The Willows.” Kafka is an influence on Authority, along with Le Carre. I’m really not sure about influences on the third book, Acceptance. I can’t think of any, but I’m also very close to it and a lot of influence just settles into the back of your mind in a subconscious way.
It would be wrong not to mention the movie Alien because although often called a horror movie it actually has a very smart script in terms of characters trying to do the intelligent thing but being undermined by betrayal. So I admired the way the main character was portrayed. The early movie of Cronenberg I binged on prior to writing Authority, and I dissected scene-by-scene Kubrick’s The Shining to help with Authority. I also recently saw a German film titled The Wall based on a novel, which would have been an influence had a I seen it earlier. A novel by a Catalan author, Cold Skin, shares some affinities about isolation and lighthouses, but I read it after I wrote the novels.
The Gulf Coast oil spill was a huge influence—just the constant pressure in the back of your mind when it looked like it would just go on forever. It was a scary moment and you couldn’t escape it. I kind of think the Southern Reach series in part started as a way to make sense of that in my subconscious mind.
MRB: What real world locations did you look at when coming up with Area X? Any weird or mysterious places in our world that played a big role in Area X's development?
JV: The wilderness of North Florida, where I’ve hiked the last 20 years. I’ve been charged by wild boar and otters out there, jumped over an alligator blocking a trail, seen dolphins in the freshwater canals, and even a Florida panther once. Also, though, the tunnel/tower in the trilogy is definitely influenced by a tunnel/tower in Sintra, Portugal.
MRB: One of our booksellers compared the notion of Area X "springing from a sliver of light" to the concept of the universe coming from a tiny singularity. Were you aware of such a coincidence, was it perhaps intentional? Can you explain (without too many spoilers) your thoughts or inspirations for Area X's creation story?
JV: One thing you learn if you study any physics is that the boundaries of what’s possible are always changing. It makes the fiction writer’s job both easier and harder. At one point in the novel, the director of the Southern Reach scoffs at SETI, saying “something came in the back door, while we weren’t looking.” That’s just about all I can say. And that might itself be a bit spoilery. Except that the whole series is really about the characters and how Area X affects them. I do think readers get the answers they want in Acceptance, but you also have to recognize that the series is about grappling with the unknown—that there are limits to our understanding.
MRB: I know a number of our booksellers are sad to see the series end -- they want to explore more of Area X's mysteries! Any plans to revisit the world of the Southern Reach and Area X? Maybe with some tie-in novels or short stories?
JV: It’s not out of the question—especially because of the rich and byzantine history of the Southern Reach. I’m also working on a pre-Area X story titled “The Birdwatchers.”
MRB: Going beyond the Southern Reach Trilogy, what's next for you? Can you shed any light on upcoming projects?
JV: I’m co-editing 100 years of science fiction stories—A Big Book of SF, for Vintage. I’m also working on a new novel titled Borne, which is a little bit like a Chekov play in the round, with Godzilla and Mothra fighting in the background. It features a very intense series of relationships but also a huge, floating psychotic bear.
MRB: And now, because no author Q&A is complete without them: Who's your favourite author? Favourite book? Any writers and/or books that have had an influence on your work?
JV: That’s so tough—there are so many. I want to give a shout-out to my dear friend, Stepan Chapman, who passed this year, for his incredible novel The Troika. I learned so much from it that I applied to the Southern Reach. My other favorites include Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov, but it’s hard to talk about favorite books.
Annihilation and Authority are available now, and Acceptance will be released in early September. Contact your nearest McNally Robinson bookstore to place a pre-order or to arrange a hold.
Thanks to Mr. VanderMeer for taking the time to contribute to our Q&A and to HarperCollins Canada for arranging everything.