If you aren’t familiar with the work of award-winning writer Jeff VanderMeer, now is your chance to see what the fuss is about. GeekDad is happy to be able to offer Wired readers a PDF copy of VanderMeer’s upcoming book The Situation, courtesy of PS Publishing (cover artwork by Scott Eagle).
VanderMeer and his wife Ann have Geek cred in spades and as parents (and recent grandparents), a mention in GeekDad seemed appropriate. Jeff VanderMeer is a two-time World Fantasy Award winner and author of the brilliant (if somewhat twisted) City of Saints and Madmen, among other works. Ann Vandermeer has an extensive publishing background and was recently appointed Fiction Editor for the historic Weird Tales magazine, in addition to working as a manager in the software industry. Together they recently edited The New Weird, an anthology of short stories by the likes of China Miéville, Clive Barker and Michael Moorcock.
Descriptions of VanderMeer’s work range from dark fantasy to steampunk, squidpunk and, of course, new weird. One of the things that sets VanderMeer apart is his embrace of technology and media. His online presence is considerable and includes a number of web sites, frequent blogging, a short film adaptation of his novel Shriek (including collaboration with pop rock band The Church), his Alien Baby photo project and even a project involving animation via Sony Playstation.
For the VanderMeers’ thoughts on technology, genre writing, the Geek label, LEGO vs. Tinkertoys, collecting frogs, Predator, Myst, Alien Babies and D&D, read the full GeekDad interview with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer after the jump.
GeekDad: You have kids and I understand you are grandparents now?
Jeff VanderMeer: I have a stepdaughter (Ann’s daughter) and so technically I’m a step-grandpa, although it really feels the same to me as being a real one. I’ve known Ann’s daughter, Erin, since she was six.
GeekDad: Was Erin aware of what Ann (and then you) did in terms of writing?
Jeff VanderMeer: Yes, she was. In fact, she used to help Ann with the slushpile back in the day. When she was 10, she asked the neighbor’s mother "What magazine do you edit?" because she thought all families had their own magazines. As for my fiction, she mostly encountered it as a teenager and made a show of not reading it, but then would talk to her friends about it when she thought I was out of earshot. Which was cute.
GeekDad: That must have made for a very cool childhood. Has any of the exposure to writing worn off on her? Any fear of mushrooms?
Jeff VanderMeer: Ha! I think she embraces the strange and the new because of her upbringing. She went to several writer conventions with us and once even met Paul Di Filippo at one. He subsequently wrote a story that featured a character very much like Erin, called Doing the Unstuck, which was a cover story for F&SF Magazine.
The likeness to Erin by an artist who had never seen her but just read the story was pretty close. But Erin has always been creative–playing in a band, helping run a great music store, writing, and all kinds of other things. She used to say things as a child that would crack us up, like calling a ferret a "long mouse.” The only way in which it kind of hurt her is that after Columbine her middle school targeted her as a possible problem because of the way she dressed, even though she got straight A’s. it was a difficult time for her.
GeekDad: In your intro to The New Weird, you describe the history behind the “New Weird” label and the fact that New Weird mutated to become an umbrella genre in some ways. As a writer, you first pushed away from association with the label, but appear to have come to terms with it. Do you see similarities with so-called “Geek”
culture? At first a very specific label with perhaps uncomplimentary connotations, then broadened to encompass a much wider range of behaviors or activities that eventually acquired a certain degree of chic. Not too much chic, mind you, but people began proclaiming themselves Geeks (although they likely did not fit the initial definition) instead of flinching at the name.
Jeff VanderMeer: I think the issue with labels, especially when they’re first created, is that if you’re not the creator of the label but you are identified by the label, you first of all feel as if you’ve lost form of control in naming yourself. Secondly, you feel as if you are now going to be defined forever by that term whether you like it or not. And third, you worry about unintended consequences of being defined by the term. In that sense, I can see a similarity with
Geek culture–also in that New Weird is a bit of a misbegotten literature. It’s both seeking a kind of literary solution to cross-genre SF/F/H and at the same time using influences that, like the
Decadents in the 18th century, are not considered wholesome by some.
And I can definitely see a parallel in that sense of "outsiderness".
As for the umbrella aspect of New Weird–that’s something we’ve tried to address in the anthology by drawing back to a more specific definition while still including all the raucous discussion–there is
NW, there isn’t NW, etc.–so that the anthology can act both as a document of NW and a continued discussion of it. We don’t expect every reader to agree with our definition, and that’s why we put in the dissenting opinions–so there would be a dialogue.
GeekDad: Why might your books, anthologies and magazine appeal to the crowd that hangs out at Wired? I suspect you would have a significant audience in our readership.
Ann VanderMeer: Well, Weird Tales is publishing edgy, urban, sometimes futuristic fiction right now. In addition to appealing to the same kind of pop culture element that appeals to many GeekDad readers, I would think. We’re publishing excerpts from graphic novels and many other "weird" things that aren’t really Poe/Lovecraft-weird, if you know what I mean.
Jeff VanderMeer: I’m always mixing up science and fantasy, whether it’s mushroom tech or, as in The Situation, strange biotech. I’m writing more and more about the contemporary workplace, too.
I think the main thing is, we always approach our projects not from a genre or non-genre stance, but from a kind of where-does-this-fit-in-in-culture generally. We always have a very keen awareness of popular culture, along with high culture, low culture, noir. So our anthos have focus, but also that kind of "mix". I mean, some of them, like City of Saints and Madmen, mix fiction/nonfiction forms, and add in tons of graphics–not quite a graphic novel, but… The main thing is, the internet and the way memes move now, there is no monolithic thing called "genre" or "literary mainstream" any more. There’s all of this fascinating cross-pollinations and collaborations that you never really saw before.
I think that kind of stuff interests GeekDad readers. I think I like to write stuff that can connect with different kinds of readers in different ways. Like, a fantasy reader is going to perceive The Situation
one way, whereas somebody who works in front of a computer all day but doesn’t read fantasy is going to take something else out of it, for example.
GeekDad: And maybe that’s why you attract such a variety of labels (always the labels)… People pick different parts out of your fiction, so to some you’re Fantasy, others call you Steampunk or
Ann VanderMeer: I think people also label Jeff’s fiction as surreal. Or as literary fantasy or "the future of dark fantasy" as someone put it
Jeff VanderMeer: It’s true that I tend to speak different languages depending on where I am, as a result of labeling -and the marketing of the books takes unexpected turns. In some countries they market me to general readers and in others to genre readers. There’s both a risk and opportunity in that. The opportunity is that by jumping back and forth over a boundary I don’t believe in anyway, I get to do all kinds of cool projects which sometimes annoy the gatekeepers, but generally satisfy readers.
GeekDad: You have a novel due for release shortly based on the Predator movies. Predator: South China Sea.
How do you feel about writing a book based on an existing character with an established history? For someone with your scope of imagination, is this limiting, or does it perhaps give you some freedom?
Jeff VanderMeer: I got into that gig because Brian Evenson, who is the creative writing director at Brown University, was doing an
Aliens tie-in novel. I did struggle with the idea at first–I wasn’t sure I should do it, but given that the only constraint in pitching a synopsis to Dark Horse is basically that there be a Predator in the book, I felt like there was enough freedom there from the publisher to warrant taking on the project from a creative standpoint. Any constraint was really more on my end, in that I wanted to make sure that your average Predator novel reader would enjoy the results, without giving up my own identity as a writer. I took as my models, actually, really good action-adventure movies and thought about the book as being kind of a monster flick with bits of James Bond, as choreographed by Sam Peckinpah. And I had no idea how it would turn out. For all I knew, it would be a mess. It was a risk. But I’m really happy with it, happy with what I learned from doing it, and I think readers will be, too. I love doing as many different kinds of things as possible. So following up my literary fantasy Shriek, inspired by Nabokov, with a Predator novel seemed totally natural to me.
GeekDad: Did you get any Predator swag out of the deal?
Ann VanderMeer: He got a signed poster of the cover from the artist.
Jeff VanderMeer: I don’t know if I’ll get any other swag, but
I’m hoping. I’m a total geek when it comes to popular SF/F movies like the Predator series. I love that stuff.
GeekDad: You wrote about the time and effort you put into encrypting a story in The City of Saints and Madmen,
including the difficulty you and Ann had in proof-reading the encrypted story, spending upwards of 150 hours on the encryption process. To have roughly 30 readers mention having attempted the decryption (I have to admit, I wasn’t one of them)… that says highest-order Geek to me. You really should get some sort of recognition for something that painful.
Jeff VanderMeer: I think it’s up to 60 readers, but yes, that does say Geek, I’m proud to say. If attention to detail gives me a pass to the Kingdom of Geekdom, I’m all for it… Although I pity my French editor, who actually re-encrypted it after the translation of the rest of the book was done. And it took him 150 hours. None of the other foreign editors bothered. Predator was High Geek, too, ya know? Because there’s a part where they’re fighting in a ruined temple complex and I was channeling my D&D and gaming background when I was teenager, before I turned to writing.
Ann VanderMeer: He was so hooked on Myst, if he hadn’t stopped playing it, he’d have no fiction to speak of.
GeekDad: You both seem to have embraced technology as well.
Ann works for a computer company, so that makes sense on her part. But
I’ve seen few people who make such extensive use of all media types
(illustrations, photos, film, web sites, blogs, etc..).
Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah–Ann provides the computer experience that sometimes allows me to assess whether I can do a project or not. I love cross-pollination of forms and I love to push myself. Some of these cross-media projects are attached to books I’ve got out, but they’re almost always their own entity or thing, independent of the book, too.
Ann VanderMeer: Although sometimes I find out from his blog we’re going on a trip. He’s got to stop doing that.
Jeff VanderMeer: I get ahead of myself sometimes but, yeah, it’s a great adventure to do things in different media. But I also believe in the model of writer as jack-of-all-written trades, from nonfiction of all varieties, to, in this age, multi-media projects.
Ann VanderMeer: Yeah, sometimes I’m the reasonable one. Jeff has at times gotten himself in trouble.
GeekDad: I was clicking around the VanderWorld web site and came across a slightly twisted variation on the Flat Stanley project- a series of Alien Baby photos, where you had mailed out little green
Alien Baby figures and disposable cameras to various individuals around the world. The Alien Baby in Antarctica was particularly cool… Although Alien Baby at Medieval Times was interesting as well.
Jeff VanderMeer: That was probably the most fun I ever had with a project. I mean the idea of sending the alien baby to the station manager in Antarctica, or sending it with friends to Central
Asia… I dunno, it just tickled my funny bone. My favorite is probably the one with the meerkats sniffing the Alien Baby. The people who run that facility told me its the meerkats’ favorite toy. Sometimes you do a project just because it’s fun and playful, not because it has any practical benefit, although I will say this: almost everybody poses with the alien baby differently, and it does reveal something about them.
GeekDad: Well, when you mention fun, I have to ask about
LEGO. This is GeekDad after all, and LEGO is pretty much a legal currency here. Any experience with it? Favorite sets? There’s an Aqua
Raiders set out now that features a giant squid…
Jeff VanderMeer: I had Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs and I did have LEGO. I tended to make incomprehensible things out of them–weird monsters and stuff missing legs.
Ann VanderMeer: I used to make cities–not just one building, but whole communities.
Jeff VanderMeer: I can’t remember if I liked LEGO better than
Tinkertoys. I grew up in Fiji, and mostly I was addicted to comic books–like, Indian comic books based on Hindu myths. And a lot of out-door stuff because it was so beautiful. If I had LEGO now, it’d be like Myst–I’d never get anything done
GeekDad: Any favorite toys or gadgets around the house? I’m currently taken by a motion-sensing garbage can my wife bought, but apparently I’m easily amused…
Ann VanderMeer: We love Miyazaki movies–we have a Totoro clock.
Jeff VanderMeer: We also have a ton of stuff from Kid Robot. We’re addicted to just about anything Kid Robot puts out.
Ann VanderMeer: The fishing game, war games, puzzles.
Jeff VanderMeer: I just bought a bunch of mixed up monster parts (which you might’ve seen on my blog).
Ann VanderMeer: We also love Invader Zim. Tons of toys for the babies, too.
Jeff VanderMeer: We love Grotesques from the 15th century, so anything resembling that kind of stuff, or Bosch-like, we gravitate to like moths.
Jeff VanderMeer: Oh wait, I almost forgot. I collect frogs. I have a collection of over 400 frogs–wood, ceramic, etc… They’re not really toys per se, but it’s a quite remarkable collection. I wrote a book called Book of Frog, and people just started giving them to me. It’s a little sad for me now, with the steep drop off in amphibian populations.
GeekDad: That’s what we say about Action Figures (not toys).
I refer to them as Royal Doultons for people with imagination, questionable taste and thin wallets….
Jeff VanderMeer: I guess the geekiest thing about me is I have to have a totem animal or creature. So it was frogs, then meerkats, then mushrooms and squid. Kinda moving on to weird bears.
GeekDad: Any bear in particular? I hear "weird bear" and think of those disturbing old photos of circus bears on tricycles…
Jeff VanderMeer: I like odd bears because I always loved the cover of Richard Adams’ Shardik.
That bear looks like a lunatic with flowers in its fur and it looks not just wild and unpredictable, but somehow human. But ever since I wrote The Situation, I’ve had bears on the brain. Another novel I’m working on, Borne, has a bear the size of Godzilla fighting a huge creature that looks like a sea anemone.
Ann VanderMeer: And yet it’s a love story, too. It’d be perfect for Weird Tales, if it was shorter.
Jeff VanderMeer: When we met, it was after she’d rejected a story of mine for a previous magazine, which I afterwards described a
"test" to see if she was a good editor and would reject it. Of course, it was just a crappy story that I didn’t know was crappy until she rejected it.
GeekDad: I was just looking at my page and realized Weird is an anagram for Wired: coincidence?
Jeff VanderMeer: Not at all. If you’re at all wired, you’re weird. And not even new weird.