WIRED Book Club: A Trip Inside the Mind of Jeff VanderMeer

When you’re contractually obligated to publish three books in a single year, you can’t dilly-dally in dreamland. Unless, of course, your subconscious is as weird and fecund as Jeff VanderMeer’s. From its depths spring images of creaky lighthouses and buried towers, great beasts moaning at dusk, and a brightness that grows inside you—just some of the features that haunt Area X, the mysterious wilderness at the center of his Southern Reach trilogy. VanderMeer says Area X is a metaphor, in part, for global warming, but as WIRED Book Club learned during our chat with the author, it’s just as much a window into his beautifully deranged mind.

How did you come to publish three books in a year?

It was the brainchild of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The offer from that publishing house called for doing them all in one year. Having done some innovative things in publishing before, I was all for it. I really liked the idea of getting it all over with in a short period of time.

Did that dramatically affect your writing process?

I had been thinking about the novels way ahead of time and had maybe 30, 40,000 words of scene fragments and character details before I started writing. But I would do things to shorten the process. In Authority, the house that Control breaks into is my house. I physically broke into my house—while the neighbor kid watched, wondering what the heck was going on—and just recorded the experience. That was a way of getting the texture right without having to wait for inspiration to strike.

It also helped that you drew heavily from St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, right?

I’ve hiked there since around ’92. Area X was basically a place I already knew. You don’t have to worry about the setting; you just kind of relax into it.

Did you have to brush up on names of flora and fauna?

Well, even the character of the biologist doesn’t automatically know every species that’s out there. But all the species that are listed are things you find out at St. Marks. You even find dolphins in freshwater canals, because they’ll come in during high tide to feed on fish.

Do you know much biology?

I wanted to be a marine biologist growing up, but I wouldn’t say I had any training in it. My dad’s an entomologist and research chemist who studies invasive species; my stepmom is one of the foremost researchers in lupus; and my sister is a sustainability consultant who works for Edinburgh University. So I’ve been surrounded by scientists my whole life. I was also aided in the fact that I didn’t see the biologist as the world’s best biologist. She was more or less like a lot of us: good at our jobs but with spots where we’re not so great.

Were you thinking these books take place essentially in our world?

I was thinking, like, 10-seconds-in-the-future alternate Earth, in a sense. I kept trying to apply real-world names to things, and it just didn’t work. I needed a certain distance and a universality for this that wasn’t going to work if you say this is North Florida, for example.

Nothing in the books is overexplained—up to and including the central mystery of what Area X really is.

I could have very easily tied off the Southern Reach trilogy in a traditional way, but the fact of the matter is I wanted to explore something that’s beyond human comprehension and requires dealing with the irrationality of the human mind and the irrationality of institutions. It would’ve been completely antithetical to the whole idea to have traditional closure. A lot of pieces to the puzzle are revealed in Acceptance, but no one character has a total eureka moment. And I think that’s very true to the underlying themes—finding a kind of surrogate for the complexity of global warming, which is everywhere and nowhere and which creeps up on us in ways that we don’t quite grasp.

Why did you want to tackle global warming?

There are still people who, even though they say they believe in global warming, haven’t really internalized the idea, because they’ve been protected from its effects. If you live in the U.S. and you’re middle class or higher, you’ve been largely protected from global warming. I didn’t want to have a strong environmental message in the sense of it being didactic. That’s totally pointless; you don’t change anybody’s mind that way. But by getting really close in an interior, you might make people think about certain issues a little differently.

Do you think the ecological themes will carry through to the planned film adaptation?

I can say that [director] Alex Garland has a very specific point of view, and he’s an auteur whether he says he is or isn’t. I think there are surreal aspects of the book that will be magnified in the film, more in your face. But the ecological message is carried through the interiority of the characters, which you can’t really convey on the screen. So I see it as something I can’t control. I haven’t read the screenplay, I have no control over casting, no control over anything else. What I can control is that I have the increased visibility to make a direct difference in terms of talking about these issues to audiences.

Against this backdrop of science, how does the use of hypnosis come into play in the books?

Well, I totally agree it doesn’t work that way in the real world, but I thought the speculative nature of the trilogy allowed me to expand the boundaries of what was possible. My idea is that something they found on the first expedition to Area X enhanced their knowledge of hypnotic technique. I also thought it was a very useful and powerful way to talk about brainwashing. In Authority and elsewhere, I wanted it to be a stand-in for the way that I see people get mind viruses on the internet. A lot of people are hypnotized on the internet.

Would you call these books science fiction?

While they are, in the end, more or less science fiction, the tropes I was trying to subvert are mostly from the horror and uncanny and weird genres. Annihilation has 40 or 50 different tropes from weird fiction. They’re just stacked so thickly—that’s where the subversion comes from. It’s not necessarily that they’re used uniquely; it’s simply the combinations.

What’s the role of religion?

I’m kind of an atheist but also, from hiking and being immersed in the natural world, somebody who feels a sense of there being something greater than oneself. I thought that if i didn’t have a character who was in some way religious, even if he’d fallen out of it, that I’d be leaving out a piece of the human experience.

You’re speaking about Saul, a former preacher, whose relationship with Charlie is so lovely. It’s a gay relationship, yet you never use the word “gay.”

Every writer has a different point of view for how to write that. You have a lot of hand-waving some of the time that I don’t like. Saul’s gay and Charlie’s gay. It just didn’t come up.

And then you have plenty of non-white characters. How did you think about writing them?

All I know is that, when I’m writing a character, I’m thinking about a very specific person. Everything comes out of that. I would also say there’s a difference between me writing about the biologist in Annihilation and me writing about women in society. One example I sometimes give is that I could never write something like Adichie’s Americanah. I mean, I could try, but it probably wouldn’t be a very good book. So when we talk about white writers not approaching certain subjects, it really depends on what distance and what context you’re writing from, and I think a culturally specific context can be very difficult.

Talking about the Southern Reach and the diversity of characters there, it’s really reflective of some of the places I’ve worked and some of the government agencies I’ve interacted with. It was very important to me that this not be like a lot of dystopian, apocalyptic situations with an all-white cast. I really tire of that. I also tire of the Hollywood cliché that the African-American character is good enough to last till almost the end and then gets killed off third from the last. These clichés are not only tiresome, they’re wrong. They’re boring.

Let’s turn to some of the symbolism. Where do these images come from?

I’m a big fan of the surrealist method of decalcomania—which is where they would take an uneven surface and paint over it to see what shapes appear, and then they would emphasize certain shapes and make them into something more logical. Writing is not quite as direct as that, but I do trust my subconscious to give images, especially a charged or symbolic image connected to a character. In the context of something like Southern Reach, you then have to be very careful to not enter a kind of perpetual dream state or perpetuate things that are illogical and turn out to be red herrings. There was a lot of stuff that I cut because it just didn’t make overall logical sense.

Would you agree there’s very obvious sexual symbolism to the lighthouse and the tunnel?

With no disrespect intended, I’m completely an anti-Freudian, and I work very hard to destabilize any of those kinds of readings. It’s the obvious place that people can go, but I don’t really know that it brings much to the understanding of what’s going on.

Then what were you trying to accomplish?

I was thinking more about destabilizing the idea of the lighthouse as a safe place, as a bringer of light, and working with the idea of subterranean areas as often being seen as hiding secrets or being where people hide out who are not part of normal society—things like that. I really thought of Annihilation as a book where, whether you’re going up into the lighthouse or going down into the tower, you’re really going down steps. You’re destabilized the whole time.

There’s also the mouse-washing scene. What is that?

The practical concern with a character like Whitby is that I, as the author, may see him as sympathetic, but the reader may see him as batshit nuts. I wanted to find something that would make it clear that he is still trying to cling to some semblance of humanity, that he still cares. And it just came into my mind: Whitby’s out there washing the mouse. I do have to say when I put the mouse in the desk drawer, I didn’t actually know if the mouse would come back into play. I think my wife said something like, “If you have a dead mouse in a desk drawer in a second book, you have to have something about the mouse in the third.” Also, I’d never seen a mouse-washing scene in fiction before, so it was a little bit of a challenge.

What about Lowry’s phone?

There are all kinds of intrusions of Area X into the Southern Reach. In Authority, all the incidental dialog, in corridors and in the bars, is repurposed from Annihilation. I wanted to convey the idea that the Southern Reach is already contaminated, and I thought the cellphone was an interesting literalization of that.

Why shouldn’t people bring tech into Area X?

I thought it would be really interesting to explore the idea of an entity that finds our advanced tech easier to hack into. Honestly, we see this in the real world. We’re really happy to have refrigerators that are beginning to think for themselves, yet that also means that we’re much more accessible. We’re much more able to be surveilled by our own appliances.

Are there any other Easter eggs you can reveal?

It may be obvious that Control’s mother pops up a bit more, is maybe controlling a bit more than you might think. I would also say look very carefully at, as I call him, Piano Hands Jim, who is not actually what he seems in the third book. In fact, I’m writing a short story that features him as a main character. He’s actually Control’s mother’s man on the spot, way back in the day, for the creation of Area X.

Why do so many characters not use their real names?

I saw Area X as basically being something that was so powerful that you had to try to hide as much as possible going in—which is also why you have to hide or not use your tech. But there’s also the issue of whether the Southern Reach is paranoid—so exasperated and frustrated and defeated that they institutionalize a ritual of doing the unnaming because they’ve run out of any other ideas. So I didn’t mind leaving that open. At the same time, I have a very specific idea of when Area X turns someone into a doppelganger as opposed to an animal. There were rules in effect behind the scenes that I knew the human characters would never figure out.

Care to share?

It’s really about intel. Something has crossed some tripwire of curiosity—otherwise Area X doesn’t give a crap and starts assimilating you into something else. There’s some question as to whether Lowry even came back, you know? You could get really, really paranoid about who came back and who didn’t.

So we have to ask: Would you, if given the opportunity, cross the border into Area X?

That’s a very good question. Depends on whether you’re asking—are you saying right this second or maybe in 2030? I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of people who think of the wilderness these days as being an Area X regardless of whether they see the uncanny in it, and there’s people from North Florida who’ve read Annihilation and feel very at home with this thing. Would I go into Area X? Yeah, I don’t know.

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