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