Jeff VanderMeer is the author of more than 20 novels, short-story collections, and works of non-fiction. He is best known for the Southern Reach trilogy – Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, the first part of which is currently being adapted for the screen. VanderMeer, who grew up in the Fiji Islands and lives in Florida, will publish a new novel, Borne, this month.
Why did you write your new book?
To explore the complexity of human relationships and hope in difficult times. To capture the messy, contradictory ways in which love inhabits us, and what we will and won't do because of it. With the bonus of a giant flying bear and mysterious biotech and an expression of environmental themes in a way different from the Southern Reach trilogy. To show how life inhabits even the broken and discarded places in the world and how nature is resilient and formidable even when compromised.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
It wasn't ever stated directly, but from my early mentors – writers like Jane Stuart, Meredith Ann Pierce, Enid Shomer and my high-school creative writing teacher Denise Standiford – I was always told through the example they set and their comments on my fiction that I should stick to my guns on what was personal and unique about my writing, and not to compromise on those core elements. In a world where some instructors want you to write like them and others want you to write like the rest of the world, this was a blessing and a source of early strength. This isn't to say, "Don't accept edits and rewrite suggestions," however – I've always had great editors who enhance my work tremendously.
Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?
I would, in this age of privacy concerns, rather be invisible because I believe advances in biomimicry might actually make this possible. Perhaps in the form of some shimmer cloak that refracts light. But it should also learn a thing or two from cephalopods and allow me to strobe moods and communicate through colour. Think of the benefits of suddenly appearing in front of a colleague, with which one has to have a difficult conversation, strobing your comments, and then disappearing again immediately after. Although, I suppose a couple of phone texts might suffice instead.
What's the best sentence you've ever written?
This question seems like a trap – aren't we supposed to murder our favourite sentences as some assurance to the reader that we do not lack vigour, discipline or focus? And even a very plain sentence or an awkward sentence or a sentence fragment may be doing an awful lot of work in an elegant way. But, that said, I am rather fond of this sentence from Borne: "It was all a test as to whether trust could still exist between us, and every time I extended that trust a little further I expected it would be unable to take the weight, or the pressure of my weight on it, and snap."
What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?
I protest! The middle of the book is the most important. The middle. In fact, if only we could do away with beginnings and endings, we would exist in a most glorious state of perpetual mystery, misunderstanding, and suspended animation, always in transit, never reaching our destination. Because when we arrive, it's rarely as wonderful as we thought it would be in our imaginations. It would also take a lot of stress off of writers, allowing them to write many, many more middles than if they were shackled to the deforming idea of beginnings and endings having all the power.