"People can be in their memories a kind of resistance against the dominant narrative": An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
Author Jeff VanderMeer’s newest novel Borne (FSG, out April 25th) has been named one of the most anticipated of 2017 by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and others. Colson Whitehead writes, “Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy was an ever-creeping map of the apocalypse; with Borne he continues his investigation into the malevolent grace of the world, and it’s a thorough marvel.”
VanderMeer’s nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the Atlantic.com, and The Los Angeles Times. He has also lectured at MIT, Brown, and the Library of Congress. His body of work has prompted The New Yorker to name him “the weird Thoreau,” and Paramount Pictures has acquired rights to both Borne and the Southern Reach books. The first of these films, based the trilogy’s Annihilation, is slated for release next year.
VanderMeer discussed Borne and his other work by email with me recently.
Charlotte Wyatt: Thanks so much for the opportunity to read the new book! I’m a huge fan, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this novel. I love the way place and identity together become a primary concern from the first page.* The first communication Borne offers to Rachel is the scent of the ocean, a reference to the tidal pools of Rachel’s youth. You’ve spoken about the role of place in your fiction, like St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge in Florida and its influence on theSouthern Reach trilogy. Borne is set in an unnamed City, though you offer some tantalizing details about where and how it came about, and the appeal of anonymity “amongst all the wreckage of the Earth....” Can you talk a little bit about this urban (or post-urban?) landscape, and why you chose it for this story?
JV: I find more and more in my work that certain kinds of distance or anonymity help me to better realize a character or place. This kind of crystalized to me listening to Ottessa Moshfegh talk about her story “The Weirdos” in which she said when she tried to attach a name to the boyfriend that the name brought certain preconceptions with it about who that person was, so she left him nameless. Like, some names would immediately confirm he was a jerk, for example, and she wanted her story to be more subtle than that. And something similar happened in writing one of the novels in the Southern Reach, Annihilation, where characters are just known by their function. It helped me see them more clearly and know them better. Names got in the way.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that leaving the City nameless and even casting doubt on where it might be located made me see it more clearly and also because Borne is the opposition of the Southern Reach trilogy in the style of it. In the Area X books, people fade into the texture of the prose and the wilderness. In Borne, I wanted the people and animals to stand out in stark relief from the setting, and even in purposefully calling the biotech company The Company played into that, especially because I wanted to explore the end results of a situation we often find today—where some multi-national corporation comes into an area, sucks out the resources, destroys the environment, and none of it helps people locally.
CW: One problem I find myself talking to other writers about, especially poets, is the question of anthropomorphism. Namely, how “personification” risks implying non-human life cannot be considered “persons” unless given a human voice and mode of perceiving the world. This is not only a theme in Borne, but is pervasive in the Southern Reach trilogy. Rachel recognizes Borne has senses beyond her own, and while these are key to certain moments in the story, they also fuel Borne’s concerns about personhood. Why did you grant him a sensory perspective so different from Rachel’s and Wick’s?
JV: Unfortunately, I feel that pushing back against anthropomorphism in terms of animal behavior science actually kept that field from recognizing animal sentience for a long time because they didn’t want to attribute intentionality to certain behaviors. And this then became propaganda, a foundational assumption a lot of us seem to have: the less sentient a creature is, the more okay it is to exploit or kill that animal. Personally, I reject that paradigm entirely. We are so ignorant of life on Earth it is painful sometimes. There are juncos on the branches outside my office right now, flitting up and down from seed on the ground, playing amongst themselves, competing for the seed, perhaps even beginning mating rituals. I don’t really care how intentional they are in human terms or how useful they are to human beings. I just know that a junco in the moment is a marvelous creature and deserves our respect and attention like all living things. And I’m mostly thankful for my own intentionality in being able to appreciate the beauty that is a bird in flight. We need, really to also ensure our own survival, to be more mindful of how complex and limitless the world beyond our selves is and cherish that.
As for giving Borne extra senses, I’ve explored this idea many times in my fiction, because if you study any science and perception at all, you realize how limited we are with our paltry five. So I’ve always tried to get beyond the human gaze by imagining what other senses might be like, most notably in my novel, Shriek: An Afterword. But it’s all part of showing how Borne is different from human beings and how having different senses would change your perception of the world in vital ways. Often, Rachel and Borne aren’t quite communicating the way Rachel thinks they are. Take the juncos outside my window. You don’t even have to think of other senses, like possibly having a sense of Earth’s magnetic fields. You can think just of the fact that they perceive the world vertically not horizontally and that they have certain strata of the sky they prefer to inhabit. That by itself creates “alien” perception and I try hard to imagine what that is like. Imagine what it is like for a dolphin living in the ocean, with a sensitivity of skin to water, what kinds of communications occur and mannerisms are conveyed that are beyond our ken. There’s a whole subject for media theory just in the bodies of animals.
CW: And speaking of perspective, why did you choose Rachel, a female refugee, to tell the story of Borne?
JV: I write the characters that come to me naturally, and more and more they are women. I’m less and less interested in a male perspective, to be honest—and the trend continues with the next novel, an ecological thriller, Hummingbird Salamander, is narrated by a middle-age female bodybuilder. Rachel just came to me along with Borne, the first scene where she finds Borne entangled in the fur of the giant bear that terrorizes the city. And as soon as Borne smelled like the sea to her, I knew she came from an island nation.
But in Borne everyone is a refugee, which I thought was an important point to make. We think of “refugees” as “other,” really—they’re not us—which is just so wrong. But in the City everyone’s come fleeing somewhere else or brought there by the Company. A lot of the demonization of refugees that isn’t just plain racist comes from this idea of them existing in a separate space somehow. We want to think it can’t happen here, and thus we perhaps even unthinkingly put up a wall or a difference in perception that’s harmful. I thought that Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West tackled this whole issue so beautifully, with the portals to the West. Just a simple little speculative element that illuminates the situation with such grace and humanity.
CW: I’ve heard you speak a little bit about structure, and how understanding the shape of a story can come early in your process. In Borne, mystery is crucial to the character arcs and ending, and Rachel tells the reader as much from the opening section. Could you tell us how much you knew about your characters’ backgrounds and histories, and about the City’s origins, when you set out to write the novel? When did you know how it would end?
JV: This is probably the most organic novel I’ve ever written, in that so many things came to me unbidden and of a piece. So it’s hard to untangle where one thing came into focus as opposed to some other elements. I think that’s because I always knew that the two “monsters” of the novel might be on some kind of collision course. Where complication came in, that I very much welcomed, it was in the form of a rival to Wick in the City with regard to selling biotech—the Magician. But she was there in the first scenes, too. It’s just that what she meant and what her point of view meant didn’t come to me until a little later. The exact progressions of Borne’s education also weren’t clear at first. Wick’s secrets I knew would in part be based in vulnerability and I just went with that. But it was always my intention to have a very personal story play out against an epic backdrop and the challenge in that case is to make sure the third act doesn’t come to seem like a CGI-laden blockbuster or something—that the personal is very much the anchor instead. I also must say that in addition to taking onboard lessons from Moebius and Jodorowsky, that some of the things the TV show Hannibal did in the end of the second season were highly instructional in terms of how you reveal things to the reader.
As for the very end of the novel, I knew that only in the moment. It was a very cathartic moment—I just wrote those last scenes so deeply in the voice that I hardly knew I was writing them, the aftermath, and I didn’t revise those scenes much at all.
CW: I like the way you use the term “organic” to talk about structure, especially in light of the talk you gave at the University of Houston last month. You used the term “hyperobjects.” [Timothy Morton’s term for “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions, they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.”], and the example you gave was global warming, but in Borne, the designation (or denial) of “personhood” strikes me as a hyperobject in and of itself. What it means to be a “person” permeates (or to use another word from your talk, “contaminates”) every level of the novel and interacts with questions of ecology, civilization, and morality. Could you talk a little bit about how, as a writer, you cultivate this kind of contamination in your work?
JV: One way is simply taking the leap to expose myself to the thoughts and analysis of people in other creative fields and in the sciences. I’ve always tried to do that, but the process has accelerated since Annihilation came out because it’s been formalized—getting invites like the one to the University of Houston, from the art department, for example, or getting invited to DePaul to speak on Earth Day, and doing formal presentations on storytelling and climate change. I meet philosophers, musicians, artists, biologists, and others who come at the issues from a different perspective, and that creates contamination in my own work. It permeates. And I don’t mean in any specific way—I always credit a specific reference or influence—but in general, how I look at the world, which means that incoming stimuli is transformed. Even that junco on the branch changes in its essential nature from some new perspective I’ve taken on board.
But it always means finding the right delivery system, so to speak, for the right ideas. In Borne, it’s, well, Borne and the little animals that seem to be in the backdrop but are more important than that. In the novel I’m working on, Hummingbird Salamander, it’s even more direct because the novel explores eco-terrorism, the illegal wildlife trade, and other topics from a contemporary, here-and-now perspective. The very nature of the mystery in that book allows me to directly grapple with issues that would have seemed preachy or didactic in Annihilation or in Borne.
CW: Maybe a flipside of “personhood” is the problem of nature versus nurture, or culture, and where a line can be drawn between the two. I’m thinking of moments like Rachel’s reflection on her relationship to Wick: “Were we symbiotic or parasitic?” The question is further complicated by the presence of biotech and the actions of the Company, and how the “nature” of “created” life might be defined. A New Yorker profile of your work used the phrase “hidden continuity,” which is altered via Wick’s biotech, for example, with memory beetles that help his clients escape into other people’s memories.
JV: Wick’s biotech seems to me a literalization of what we do all the time when we escape via other media—when we project ourselves onto characters in TV shows and in movies, for example. To want to be someone else, and as we see many examples of in real life, you can sometimes become someone else just by pretending to be. Sometimes all it takes is a change of clothes. I’m fascinated, too, by what’s intentional and what’s not, in terms of recent studies that show some things we take to be from conscious thought not being from conscious thought at all, just that we retroactively rationalize it as being a conscious decision. This speaks to your prior question about animal sentience, because if we are less intentional than we think, but a bee, for example, might be slightly more intentional than we think, then suddenly the gap between us and animals, which was always artificial anyway, becomes much reduced.
But, yes, nature-versus-nurture is explored in the novel, except that it’s totally skewed by the fact that Borne may be created biotech, with the “nature” part reinforced by his “made” existence. The significance of nature versus nuture is thus a very different thing for Borne than for Rachel or for Wick, where they may have more ability to reinvent themselves…even as in the background all kinds of other things are reinventing themselves as well. I’d also say that I’m not entirely sympathetic to the decisions Wick makes and in a different context than the one in Borne, there could easily have been different outcomes relationship-wise.
CW: That makes perfect sense. And speaking of reinvention, I know you’ve talked about this elsewhere regarding your other work and literature in general, but I wonder if you can speak to the elements of speculative or fantasy fiction present in Borne. Time, place, and giant flying bear aside, you have an antagonist who calls herself the Magician, and a protagonist, Rachel, who dissociates from her life by becoming a “ghost” in different scenes. Neither of these terms are used in the strict definitions fantasy or horror fiction might historically give them, but I couldn’t read either word without considering how they have been used in other books. Can you talk about why and how you choose to engage (or subvert, or repurpose) ideas from so-called “genre” fiction?
JV: Just like I think of the Southern Reach trilogy as an uncanny fiction disguised as science fiction, in terms of tone and texture and whatnot, I think of Borne as really fabulist fiction that’s also science fiction. But then I also believe if biotech became part of our every-day lives it would not seem science-fictional. Any more than a smart phone does. But the Magician kind of puts on airs by calling herself that—to suggest something magical about what she does with biotech, which is also a way of sustaining a cult to counter-balance the cult of the Company. And it does get at the idea of gene manipulation being a kind of organic “magic” or something that perhaps has ramifications beyond what we think.
I see Rachel’s dissociation as what has happened to her before that part of the novel, the trauma, truly catching up to her. We often handle something or think we do but then some later crisis pushes the emotion from the prior thing out into the open. So it is a coping mechanism, but also in a sense if the City is ruined and its life seemingly over then the people who inhabit such an urban corpse are, in a way, ghosts. Hauntings in physical form of the past, because the past still lives within them. People can be maps. People can be in their memories a kind of resistance against the dominant narrative. And in that sense, too, the City being anonymous allows the characters to stand out in stark relief.
CW: And, I can’t help myself—I have to ask about the “astronauts.” Each of their appearances is striking, but the first image, half-buried or planted in the ground, will stay with me forever. What can you tell us about them?
JV: It just came to me in a flash and then I had to decide if they were really astronauts and what people thinking they were astronauts meant in terms of the story—in a sense, people in the City thinking they’re astronauts is a kind of hope about the future or perhaps about the past. But I knew it was a potent image and had some symbolism and so I felt it deserved to enter the story further.
Artwork by Kayla Harren
CW: Finally, your presence in the writing world goes far beyond your own books—you help run a writing workshop every summer, do lots of reviews and interviews (thanks again!), you and your wife Ann VanderMeer have edited several anthologies of stories and make up VanderMeer Creative, and you’ve written the great, unique craft guide Wonderbook. I’ve often heard publishing referred to as its own ecosystem, and I wondered how you see yourself within it.
JV: I started writing early and had poetry and stories published in my early teens, and I also always just had this idea in my head that writers were people of letters, so to speak. That you were part of a community and you should also write nonfiction and support other writers, and so it all comes out of that. But also, I guess, on some level it could be considered selfish, because I receive so much back in terms of inspiration and energy from all of these endeavors. It is a continuing education, and as long as you keep yourself open to other people and to other forms of creativity, it enriches your own creativity so much. I love this space and I cherish it, and it feels like a gift.
CW: And, really finally, your books have generated a lot of fan engagement, especially in the form of visual art. (I’m thinking especially of an amazing photograph you posted online, of a park bench in northern Florida’s St. Mark’s refuge where someone had written the text from the Tower in Annihilation!) The film version of Annihilation is set for release later this year, and the rights to Borne have already been acquired by the same producers. While these responses to your work are on vastly different scales, how do you see your role as an author as your stories are assimilated, changed, and given back to you by readers?
JV: Sometimes I don’t engage with it or look at it, if I’m still working on fiction set in a particular “world.” But otherwise, I embrace it and use it. Often, art, for example, created by fans, winds up in limited editions or later editions of a work. I feel blessed that I’m writing fiction that allows space for reader imaginations to engage in such ways. So that too feeds back into my own creativity and is yet another gift.
Jeff VanderMeer returns to Houston on May 22nd, 2017, to read from Borne at Brazos Bookstore.
* You can check out the first page and the whole first chapter online at Granta, here.