For Jeff VanderMeer, the act of writing is only a component of the process—to him, experiences are vital to storytelling. Here, he shares his best tips for discovering the wonder in the world around you.
Photo by Kyle Cassidy
“I’m not a big fan of, in general, saying you have to write every day. But I do think it’s really important if you’re working on a novel or story that it lives in your head every day.”
From a writer as industrious as New York Times bestseller Jeff VanderMeer, such a candid admission surprises me. VanderMeer is the author of the Southern Reach trilogy (including the award-winning Annihilation, made into a movie starring Natalie Portman earlier this year), writing guides like The Steampunk Bible, and dozens of essays and short stories. His pronouncement is distinct from most novelists, who are often keen to cite obsessive work ethic as a key factor in their success.
As our conversation continues, it becomes clear that for VanderMeer, the act of writing is only a component of the process—to him, experiences are as vital to storytelling as time spent staring at a screen. The Florida local is hyperaware that any element in the world around him can feed his tales, from the Gulf Oil Spill to dental surgery to fungus growing in the trunk of his car.
It’s an organic approach to writing woven throughout 2013’s Wonderbook, his acclaimed guide to “imaginative fiction”—reprinted in a revised and expanded version on July 2.
Here, VanderMeer talks the new edition, the symbiosis of setting and story, and persevering through the ups and downs of a writing career.
Most authors label themselves and their work by genre, because that tends to be how it’s categorized in the industry. Do you see an advantage in approaching writing outside of the boundaries set by those somewhat arbitrary distinctions?
I think it’s very much up to the individual. Some writers repeat themselves a lot, which is perfectly fine—you only work in one subgenre; say, heroic fantasy. And so, the label is useful. And then there are writers [like me] who do many different things, don’t repeat themselves. And the label becomes a form of death because you get labeled as something and then you’ve moved on to another kind of book and you’re still being labeled the other thing, which can interfere. So suddenly marketing becomes entangled with your artistic expression in a way that’s not useful.
For Wonderbook, I wanted people to encounter the book as a general writing guide that just happens to default to nonrealist fiction examples, which is something I thought was fairly unique because I wasn’t able to find that when I was coming up. Every writing guide defaulted to Faulkner and Hemingway as examples. And then also, of course, [Wonderbook] has the visual element, which helps in terms of, again, breaking down those mechanical versus organic things. Kind of finding a visual expression for that. And then also, finding a visual expression for this whole genre versus literary thing with kind of an in-between. You know, because it trades off a lot of pop-culture type approaches and comic-book type approaches that I think helps to negotiate that boundary in a way that it makes the boundary disappear a little bit.
Setting plays such an important role in your stories. I think about the Southern Reach books and how the landscape is pretty literally a character unto itself. What techniques do you employ to bring these environments to life on the page?
I think one thing that’s really important to me is that I see all setting as an expression of the character point of view. Even in third person, because when I’m writing in third person, I’m pretty tight in on the character POV, so there’s a lot of interiority. The environment is literally an expression of what the character would see. By thinking about what the character would notice and not notice, you also get a better idea of the person you’re writing about.
In Annihilation, the biologist is a first-person narrator who isn’t really that invested in the “human world” but is invested in the natural world. And so the natural descriptions do overwhelm the narrative in a way that they wouldn’t if she didn’t have that focus. One of the insider jokes of Annihilation is that there are conversations around the campfire, so to speak, that the expedition has that the biologist just summarizes in a couple lines because that’s not what she’s interested in. If I had been writing from the POV of a different character, there would have been fewer nature descriptions and there would have been more other types of things. And then, when you go to [the next book] Authority, you have a main character who is not invested in the natural world at all and has no idea what one bird is from another. Those descriptions kind of go away and you have a lot more of what you might call a “traditional looking” scene.
In terms of the landscape, a landscape is always alive. It always has something going on beyond the characters. Sometimes I literally put myself in the place of the particular setting and think about how it might impact the story in some way. That comes to fruition in terms of me thinking in the Southern Reach books about how Area X would have agency and how it would impress itself upon the characters.
And then there are tactical-level things I think about. There’s a section in the new Wonderbook called “The White Deer Project” that’s exactly about this. It focuses on one little piece of a setting in upstate New York and then asks writers to kind of learn everything they can about that setting. And then [asks them to] try to figure out how to express that in interesting ways through character and narrative.
That leads me to terroir. The term comes from viticulture and winemaking, but you’ve related it to storytelling.
Well, the term is a wine term and it has to do with the fact that there is a complex set of interlocking variables that are specific to each place that wine grapes are grown that are responsible for the taste of the wine and various other aspects of it. I thought that would be really interesting to apply to fiction, to the Southern Reach books, and think about it beyond wine. What are the specifics of this landscape or this area, and how does that manifest?
In world-building you hear a lot about very general topics like culture, society, religion. But this is kind of like building from the ground up to get to that point. So it’s really about getting that kind of tactile feel. The more granular your approach to the background, the more it can somehow shine out through the characters and make them more complex. That’s what I’m always trying to do—get a better sense of character, and get a better sense of how a character is going to behave in a certain context. Sometimes it’s because of a deep exploration of setting.
How can writers position themselves to draw creative inspiration like that from their own experiences?
One way is, in any kind of environment, finding the personal stake in the mundane world that you navigate every day. Being able to see the details of that world fresh, not letting things become invisible because they’re too familiar.
I could, right now, learn a lot more about what’s going on in my front yard in a way that might lead to character, or plot, or narrative. I try to be open to that idea that story is all around us. One way that this happens is just method acting, first of all. You inhabit the character as you walk through the world and you try to pretend that your reactions are that character’s.
The other thing is the incoming [stimuli] from the world. When I’m looking at the world through the eyes of the novel, everything incoming can be translated into the novel. You open yourself up to the world. You’re a receiver for details, snatches of conversations, whatever. But to do that you have to be in a headspace where the novel’s living in your head every day.
You said in the past that travel has significantly influenced your fiction. Growing up in the Fiji Islands and having traveled all over the world, I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit more about that and in what ways it’s had that influence?
Well, I think it’s a potentially fraught topic because you can be appropriative. I mean, just because you visit a place doesn’t make you an authority on it. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re a part of that place. And that’s, I think, why growing up in Fiji—my parents were in the Peace Corps and then also traveling a lot all over the world before I was 10—I turned to fantasy to reconcile that because somehow, instinctually, I knew that I had lived places long enough to know them, but still was not a part of them. And so fantasy, especially fantastical and imaginary cities, allowed me to kind of channel autobiographical elements, but in a context where they were divorced from the original cultural context, for example.
But the one thing I definitely think is that if you’re going to write about a place directly, the very least you can do is get a tactile sense of it. So I’m a big believer in, literally, just running your hands over things in a setting. You know, getting the texture and the feel of it. What are the smells? Just engaging all of your five senses because no place is like any other place. And so that was very helpful. It’s come out at the right distance, I think, in novels like Borne where I write about Fiji but from a distance. Where Fiji is never named, but I can still call on those autobiographical details that are very specific and they add something to the text.
I read that the idea for your next book, Hummingbird Salamander, was born out of your research into climate change. Could tell us a little bit about your research process? For instance, is that a topic you realized was ripe for storytelling so you dove in with the goal that the kernel of the story would sort of present itself to you? Or did you already have a plot in mind and were specifically looking for channels into it?
Well, I’m looking right now at my research, which is, literally, a desk piled with like 200 books on various things to do with nature, and climate change and whatnot. And one thing I realized before Hummingbird Salamander was just simply that I’d already been doing this since the ’80s in terms of talking about climate change in my fiction, more or less. But I’ve not been doing so directly. When I looked at all these books that I’d already read, I realized I had already done all the research.
I completed this research and all I need to do is make sure that it’s current in terms of the facts. But not actually have to absorb anything organically or wait to be able to write this. And also, you always search for different ending points in the story, so Hummingbird Salamander is directly dealing with things like eco-terrorism, wildlife trafficking and climate change because the central mystery involves that. So my hope is it won’t come across as didactic and it expresses things more directly at the same time. But my approach to research is pretty much this: I think about a story for a long time because that gives me the leeway to do the research early on, and then let it become just kind of organic in the back of my head.I want to go back to something you said a little bit earlier about not wanting to come across as didactic. You’ve written a lot of so-called “eco-fiction,” and pieces that look at human’s impact on nature. And many of your stories can be seen as allegory for problems the world’s facing today in different ways. I’m wondering, how consciously do you think about the stories you write holding real-world agency to affect change?
With regard to climate change, I don’t think I can change a climate change denier’s mind. I just think that’s kind of a cult at this point. And you really can’t work against that with facts or fiction. But I can, I think, change the mind of someone who says, “Yeah, I believe in climate change but I don’t think it’s really going to be a problem for the next 50 years. It’s not going to be a problem during my lifetime.” And so, with that in mind, some of these projects like The Southern Reach [series], there’s an environmental message but it’s something that, hopefully, you feel deeply in your body while you’re reading, but your initial entry point into the book is not an explicitly environmental message.
And sometimes I will make sure the game isn’t rigged by having the things that are most environmental said by the characters you like the least. Just to make sure that I’m not bringing some bias in there that is affecting the fiction because I’m trying to get across a message. So sometimes it’s like, I just want this to live in the body. I want someone to deeply reflect on this, if they get caught up enough in the fiction to read it all the way to the end, so that they’re kind of like, not trapped—but it’s more organic, again, in this expression than just simply saying we need to do something about this.
You’ve said that you made every mistake you could make in a writing career. What do you think is the key to persisting through those valleys?
I think in terms of keeping going, taking the long view is really important. I think a lot of times writers make bad decisions because early on, the power differential is so, so off—in terms of your position in the publishing world. And so, when an opportunity comes along, you kind of know in the pit of your stomach it’s not really the right opportunity, but you take it anyway because you feel like it’s the only chance you’re going to have.
The other is just finding ways to have endurance and be bloody-minded about believing in your work. And that takes time, but it also means doing things like putting your work out there and getting the scar tissue of getting a bunch of rejections, and not just folding your tent if a couple places reject your work. Continuing to get it out there because that gives you the valuable mental experience of living in that world and getting used to that. Because that is the default you’ll be existing in. You’ll be getting stuff rejected more than you’ll be getting it accepted.
I realized early on I just wanted to be a writer and I would be writing whether I was published or not. And that’s true today. I would still be writing even if I had never gotten published. And I think that’s really important. It is very liberating to realize—I want to be published, I want an audience, but this is also personal to me and I’m going to do it no matter what happens.