JEFF VANDERMEER

The amer­i­can au­thor talks gi­ant bears, biotech and bird feed­ers...

SFX - - Brought to Book - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Kyle Cassidy

the be­gin­nings of his nov­els, says Jeff VanderMeer, come to him as “a kind of flash of in­spi­ra­tion”. For his new book, Borne, this took the form of see­ing “a wo­man find­ing a dis­carded piece of biotech en­tan­gled in the fur of a gi­gan­tic bear”. Grad­u­ally, as his “per­spec­tive panned out”, VanderMeer be­gan to see how this wo­man “lived in a ruined city of the fu­ture, and that the bear could fly, and that she lived with an am­a­teur bio-en­gi­neer named Wick”.

Wel­come, if you haven’t en­coun­tered his work be­fore, to the kind of glo­ri­ously strange world that VanderMeer has been con­jur­ing up for more than 20 years now. “Borne is about life in places we think of as bro­ken, if we think of them at all,” he says. “Places that are ren­dered in­vis­i­ble by our un­will­ing­ness to en­gage with them.”

If this sounds ex­otic, part of the in­spi­ra­tion for Borne, no­tably in its ideas about ecol­ogy, come from close to home. VanderMeer lives in Tal­la­hasse, Florida. His back­yard is a haven, which he de­scribes as “very wild and not a wilder­ness but not re­ally an ur­ban space, ei­ther”. It teems with life. In con­trast, near his home lies the I-10 in­ter­state, “a slaugh­ter zone for an­i­mals”, and a “pol­luted stream” dot­ted with hold­ing ponds that are reg­u­larly “razed” by their own­ers. Yet even in these un­promis­ing lo­ca­tions, life en­dures – VanderMeer has seen beavers, muskrats and wood storks, “which are a threat­ened species”.

A CHANGE OF CLI­MATE

Sim­i­larly, in Borne, a book named for the crea­ture that grows from the biotech lead char­ac­ter Rachel dis­cov­ers, life some­how clings on. This idea of get­ting by against the odds ex­tends to the hu­man pro­tag­o­nists too. More than this, even in the direst sit­u­a­tions, the book sug­gests, we can do good.

“I wanted to ex­plore a story in which char­ac­ters are try­ing to con­nect, try­ing to be their bet­ter selves, de­spite so much about just sur­viv­ing in this cli­mate change-wracked city get­ting in the way of that,” VanderMeer says. “That’s the true mea­sure of hero­ism – to keep on when times get rough, while not giv­ing in to baser ideas about ex­is­tence.”

Which, in the times we live in, can be tough. Since the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, VanderMeer’s col­lec­tion of bird feed­ers has grown from two to 27, “be­cause that’s my stress re­lief ev­ery time a bit of news freezes me up”. Things have reached the point where “feed­ing the birds and chang­ing their bird bath takes a solid hour”.

If his yard is a place that grounds VanderMeer, his life hasn’t al­ways been so set­tled. As a child, VanderMeer lived in Fiji, where his par­ents worked for the Peace Corps. Here, he read Bri­tish chil­dren’s clas­sics, and Fi­jian and In­dian comics, “mixed with Tintin and As­terix as par­tial in­flu­ences”. He had a Bri­tish ac­cent un­til he was ten.

“My par­ents also took travel vouch­ers from the Peace Corps and we spent nine months trav­el­ling back around the world be­fore wind­ing up in New York, for two years,” he says. “It was the best thing they could’ve done – get­ting ex­posed to so many dif­fer­ent places and cul­tures. It did mean when I started to write se­ri­ously I didn’t at first use re­al­is­tic set­tings be­cause I had been in places just enough to get a sense of them but not enough to have felt I lived there. It didn’t seem like I came from any­where in par­tic­u­lar.”

FAN­TASY FUEL

As a writer, he started out as a poet, which is at the very least an un­usual route to find your way to fan­tasy fic­tion, let alone to be­ing a writer closely as­so­ci­ated with the so-called New Weird. Not that VanderMeer seems un­duly both­ered. “I’ve al­ways had a foot in both camps, which is largely why I ig­nore the whole ques­tion of lit­er­ary ver­sus genre,” he says. “I find it harm­ful to cre­ativ­ity and cross-pol­li­na­tion of ideas. It’s more about stak­ing out ter­ri­tory, on both sides, and iden­ti­fy­ing ei­ther work or peo­ple as ‘one of us’ or ‘not one of us’ and not re­ally see­ing the words on the page clearly.”

Any­way, the huge suc­cess of his South­ern Reach tril­ogy means he’s re­garded as a main­stream writer. Did the books’ suc­cess – and these are un­com­pro­mis­ing nov­els – sur­prise him? Noth­ing in pub­lish­ing sur­prises him, he says: “I once had to pull a book be­cause the book binder didn’t like the ti­tles of the sto­ries in the ta­ble of con­tents and thought that page should read more like a poem... just for ex­am­ple.”

The first of the nov­els, An­ni­hi­la­tion, is be­ing filmed by Alex Gar­land as his fol­low-up to Ex Machina. VanderMeer hasn’t been in­volved with the movie, but vis­ited the set on lo­ca­tion and at Pinewood. “I was kind of blown away that Tessa Thomp­son and Gina Ro­driguez had clearly read and en­joyed all three nov­els,” he says. “I was def­i­nitely im­pressed by the stills I saw and how they’d au­then­ti­cally re-cre­ated North Florida wilder­ness in Eng­land.”

Which al­most brings us full cir­cle to a life spent writ­ing, pub­lish­ing, edit­ing and teach­ing be­cause, “I be­lieve in pay­ing things for­ward, some­thing Michael Moor­cock re­in­forced for me early on, when he was in­cred­i­bly kind to a writer go­ing through hard times.”

There’s time for one fi­nal ques­tion – why a gi­ant despotic bear? “A gi­ant ele­phant shrew would’ve been ridicu­lous…”

Borne is out now from Fourth Es­tate.

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