You walk into a coffee shop. A stranger hands you a key. And suddenly you’re plunged into a world of animal traffickers, rogue taxidermists, eco-terrorists and at least one pandemic. This is the roller-coaster ride that is Hummingbird Salamander, the new novel from Jeff VanderMeer, the Tallahassee, Fla., author who’s carved out a surreal, slick and sometimes sick space in the burgeoning literary genre known as the New Weird.
Already a critical favourite thanks his 2014 sci-fi thriller Annihilation – the first entry in his Southern Reach trilogy, which was turned into the acclaimed 2018 Natalie Portman thriller – VanderMeer just might achieve household (or, Weird Household) status with Hummingbird Salamander. The novel reads like a conspiracy thriller laced with magic mushrooms, and is so colourful and propulsive that it is little surprise Netflix has already snapped up adaptation rights.
Ahead of the novel’s release next week, VanderMeer spoke with The Globe and Mail about imagining the end of the world.
You’ve said that Annihilation came to you in a dream. Did Hummingbird Salamander arrive via the same subconscious muck? I experienced a few nightmares myself while reading it.
Every once in a while I just can’t remember the origin story. I recall the first lines of the book – “Assume I’m dead by the time you read this. Assume you’re being told all of this by a flicker, a wisp, a thing you can’t quite get out of your head now that you’ve found me” – coming to me, somehow. Immediately after, I had the image of this large, physically imposing woman holding this tiny little piece of hummingbird taxidermy, and that suggested the entire character of Jane, and everything that comes after it.
The novel was announced in 2017, but it is unmistakably part of our contemporary pandemic reality. Is this prescient coincidence, or did you pivot while writing?
It always took place post-Trump, or after Trump was elected, and wrapped in the collective trauma of that, and the worsening climate crisis. But the way that I write is I hike, think about them in the moment, get the characters and scene fragments and bits of dialogue down, then type it up into one document in chronological order. So that process helped this book because while the majority of it was written in 2019, I was finalizing it in the spring of last year and still doing edits into August. That’s what allowed me to get at those feelings of the pandemic – paranoia, claustrophobia – in there.
What are your thoughts about current art that directly addresses the pandemic? Is it too soon?
It’s a balancing act that has to do with the individual person’s talents. I happened to have this already in place, and have the right layering to find something useful. Other writers are different in finding their way in. I’m always trying to write something that hopefully applies to the current moment, but if you read it down the line, it has something that’s meaningful, too.
In the press notes, you said this novel was the result of realizing that “we were living in a dystopia for some time.” Are you a pessimist? Are we getting out of this dystopia any time soon?
The pessimism/optimism thing boils down to me being pessimistic when we’re not dealing with the full issue and full facts in front of us. When we try to deflect. In Florida, we have these solar farms coming in, but which are destroying natural habitats. Green tech is being delinked from environmental issues in distressing ways. That’s the kind of thing that worries me more than, say, a climate-change denier, who isn’t going to help in the first place.
Hummingbird Salamander is written from a woman’s perspective. It’s not the first time you’ve done that, but I did feel that gender, or gender roles, were more directly confronted here.
It’s a process. I’m hugely indebted to my wife [publisher and editor Ann VanderMeer], who worked for a long time in male-dominated workplaces like Jane does. She had immense input in how I wrote those scenes. It’s about keeping in mind that an experience can be like yours, but also not. Focus on the individual character and what they are like, as opposed to something more general.
In a lot of ways, this novel is your most accessible. Does it fit into the “New Weird” canon of fiction?
I had a friend who said, “This isn’t very strange.” And I said, “Good!” But then I asked them to describe what happens in one scene and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s pretty weird.” The telling of it is more straightforward and the structure is more straightforward. But I’ve done this before, too, in a more noir way with [2009′s] Finch, which is a homage to the thriller/mystery genre. Hummingbird Salamander is combining aspects of what I learned from writing that book, and the Southern Reach books.
Now that you have that much more distance from Alex Garland’s version of Annihilation, what are your thoughts on how that adaptation worked?
It’s weird because I love [Garland’s FX series] Devs, and I love his body of work and the surrealism of the last quarter of that movie. But at the end of the day, it’s such a radically different adaptation, and it changes things about the characters and has no environmental subtext whatsoever. These are things I can’t get past. Not that I’m bitter about it – it’s just the way it went. And I’m grateful that the movie brought so many more people to the books and gave me the platform to talk about environmental issues. It’s hard to say it was a negative experience. Just a very different one from what I was expecting.
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer is available April 6 from McClelland & Stewart
This interview has been condensed and edited
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