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Books ‘I wanted to haunt my own novel’: Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer has won the World Fantasy Award three times and been translated into 20 languages. The Globe and Mail said of Annihilation, the first book in his new Southern Reach trilogy, "it is so riveting, destabilizing and utterly strange that the new wonders it introduces compel you more than any simple answer could." The last of the trilogy, Acceptance, comes out in September.

Why did you write your new book?

I wrote it to put the fear of God into people about the way that their most treasured institutions and government agencies actually operate when nobody's looking (or even when they are). I wrote it to inflict upon readers mysterious dead mice, undying plants, and the immortal lines, "Megalodon mad. Megalodon not happy. Megalodon have tantrum." But I also wanted to capture some sense of the contemporary American South, the texture of it, without calling it the South, to get a little distance from it. You know, draped in kudzu. I wanted to write a novel that mostly takes place in corridors, hallways, doorways, parking lots, and other transitional spaces so as to spawn the new category of Transitionpunk. I wanted to haunt my own novel, but not using a ghost. I wanted to cross a spy novel with a non-supernatural supernatural novel and see what happened. So that's how Authority came about. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope that comes through, too. That and a dark sense of wonder and dread. Coda: We're all losers because one day we're going to die, and we all aspire to more.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Vladimir Nabokov's sentences are my favorites because he can do much with them and span so much time and space in just a paragraph because of that. People think of him as a kind of literary trickster, a magician. But in fact he was no such thing. They weren't tricks, and those sentences have depth – they lead somewhere with emotional resonance, to dark places filled with loss and yearning and the most human of obsessions. Who else can inform the reader he's telling a fictional story, assemble the elements self-consciously right in front of you, as in The Leonardo, and then make you forget just a few paragraphs later that there was ever an author involved? Nabokov was in the back of my mind while writing Authority because of that ability to make sentences do a lot of things but in my context I had to do them in plainer language to fit the character. The aim was to make many of the sentences in Authority perform feats of misdirection that were also acts of characterization and of time travel.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

I have to make it two pieces of advice. The first was from my high school creative writing teacher, Denise Standiford. She said, "Go read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber." The second was from the poet Richard Wilbur when he came to the University of Florida while I was going to school there. He said, "Do anything but be a creative writing major. Take classes in every subject you can possibly think of, and learn as much about as many different things as possible and then go out and write." And that's what I did, after I'd read everything Angela Carter ever wrote. Coda: Worst advice was more of a statement, from a writer who will remain anonymous and was making hand gestures at the time, "You're down there and I'm up here, and once you're up here, you too will have a Porsche."

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

I've always wanted to live in Venice during its heyday, or in the Byzantine Empire during some of the bright spots – not the spot when they had a civil war over differing theories of theater. Or, during the reign of Saladin. Really, though, any time period without much disease, death, war, apocalyptic upheaval, or cruelty. Where people were treating each other fairly. Sooooo … um, uh … hmmm.

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

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Sure, why not!

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I never had much use for Of Mice and Men. I also never much cared for Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land, or, as I call it, What The Hell? Oddly, perhaps, given that it was forced down our throats like cod liver oil in middle school, a classic I should hate, A Tale of Two Cities, I actually remember quite fondly. Something about the essential sacrifice involved. And while on the subject of required reading in school creating loathing, hatred, and disdain, the exception came in high school, during which I had a pretty with-it English teacher my junior year who gave us options like John Barth's The Floating Opera and Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Coda: In the same class, I gave a rant about the poem Potato by the aforementioned Richard Wilbur, delving deep into the idea of a "potato collective unconscious," perhaps because I thought the title really said it all … eventually, I was told to stop.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Mostly, it's the characters I'm fairly sure I couldn't create – the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, for example. Or, both the grandmother and the child in Tove Janssen's The Summer Book. Ifemelu from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. Solomon Gursky, too. Nobody too goody-two-shoes. Nobody too Hannibal-Lecteresque.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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But there are so many! I yearn to be a Moomin and live in Moomin Valley. I also would love to be the devil's cat in The Master and Margarita – or Totoro, a Luck Dragon, the Jabberwock, the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or perhaps even … Bunnicula.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

When will your decades-long literary feud with Will Self finally come to an end – and does he know about it?

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