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X Marks the Plot: An Exclusive Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Posted on 13th March 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Today the highly-anticipated film adaptation of Annihilation finally hits UK screens on Netflix. To celebrate, we present an exclusive interview with the original novel's author, Jeff Vandermeer where we discuss the uncanny world of weird fiction, creating a non-human novel and the imaginative legacy of his Southern Reach trilogy.

This week Alex Garland’s much-anticipated adaption of Jeff VanderMeer’s visionary novel Annihilation finally reaches UK screens. Yet, for any readers familiar with the original series, it seems hardly surprising that the source story should have evolved to inhabit a new life of its own. There can be few stories as eerily resonant, as strikingly memorable and as psychologically permeating. 

Spanning three novels – Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance – the Southern Reach series explores the mystery surrounding abandoned coastline of Area X, held in quarantine by a shadowy organisation known as the Southern Reach. As Annihilation begins, a twelfth expedition of five unnamed women heads across the border into a world where the known and the unknown collide in ways at once strange, beautiful and utterly terrifying. What emerges is a series which is both a startling work of science fiction and a highly resonant commentary on environmental degradation and the strengths and limitations of human ambition and understanding.

VanderMeer has already had time to experience the strange ways in which his novels have developed a life of their own in his reader’s imaginations since the first was published in 2014. ‘There’s been this weird thing’, he says, ‘first of all there’s the fact that this deeply personal story has been widely read and then there’s been the overlay of fan art - which has been amazing and has created a different kind of visual resonance - then, over time, the series has really created an imaginative space for readers to bring their own imaginations to the work and now there’s the movie, which is another overlay altogether. Through this whole process, perceptions of the books have changed and that’s a good thing, it means that the books are alive, they’re meant to be re-read, to seem, hopefully, different each time you read them.’

Pulling at the imaginative borderline between the familiar and the new is common ground for VanderMeer but is particularly evident in the Southern Reach Trilogy, which combines innovative ideas with vividly real descriptions taken directly from the landscape of the Florida coastline where the author lives and works. ‘I’ve been exploring these themes my entire career,’ he says, ‘so, to me, the Southern Reach was just a more autobiographical version. I know the landscape so well and so every detail that’s in there, that isn’t uncanny, is taken from first-hand experience.’  

Writing about real observations through the prism of science fiction, allows VanderMeer to disorient his characters and reader alike, to make them observe and consider without the shackles of assumption and preconception. VanderMeer explains how, as a writer, this has added a new perspective to his understanding of the nature of different perceptions of the uncanny. ‘I think that any time you’re writing about environmental issues it’s really important to get the details on the ground right’, he says, ‘but the novel is also more uncanny to some readers than to others. It’s not uncommon to see a dolphin in a freshwater canal at St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge but it’s very disconcerting the first time you experience it because you don’t expect to see it. The actual fact of a dolphin in a freshwater canal is much more uncanny to someone who doesn’t live in that environment. 

‘I don’t necessarily see these things as frightening but I wanted to explore this idea - that’s somewhat science fictional - through tropes and manifestations that are more common to supernatural literature because I felt that’s how it would seem to someone observing it. I was able to conjure up and channel some of those times when I have been out by myself and I felt a prickle of fear or like there was something watching me; those moments when you feel the silence means something.’

VanderMeer is adept at taking readers out of their comfort zone, wrong-footing them just as they begin to find their footing. In Annihilation, the effect of isolating his readers with an outcast exploration allows him to interrogate the idea of environmental colonisation, turning the tables to consider the subtle, insidious, glorious ways the landscape begins to enact changes upon its human inhabitants. It creates a story which also interrogates how we live with and alongside our own environment; a theme which VanderMeer is passionately engaged with. 

‘I think the problem is we don’t actually understand the world around us as it exists and our supremacy is a false supremacy,’ he explains,  ‘which is why we’re in such dire straits right now in terms of climate change and global warming. There are very complex systems out there. The reason we’re in such trouble is that we go against these natural systems, we don’t go with them  and so these books are also saying that we need to re-examine everything, even the mundane details around us; re-examine our foundational assumptions, one of which is that we can be separate from our environment and survive. I don’t actually think that’s true.’

It’s a theme which ties into VanderMeer’s interest, as a novelist, in the non-human. In the Southern Reach series, characters frequently come across alien – in all senses of the word - ideas, incidents and entities, forcing them to confront the limitations of human experience and understanding. It’s a rich source for fiction which VanderMeer believes authors have all-too infrequently tapped. 

‘There’s beginning to be this awareness that there are all these alien life-forms on earth that we don’t understand and that it would be much to our benefit to understand’ he says. ‘It is fertile territory for fiction and it is something that frustrates me because I do think there are some writers who are more willing to spend time researching the latest developments in physics but not interested in researching the last twenty years of, say, animal behavioural science before writing something that includes some aspect of animal life or the environment.’ 

It’s a pattern of observation which he thinks feeds into the continuation of erroneous tropes of storytelling about the natural world which often go unchallenged. ‘I think there are received ideas about animal life and the environment that come from a much earlier time when we were trying to survive in that environment’, he explains. ‘We told tales about that environment that were cautionary or instructional but that aren’t very used to us now in this more technologically advanced time that we live.’

These ideas about the role and function of storytelling feed into VanderMeer’s treatment of language and communication in this series. From a creeping word-generating lifeform, to the mountains of unsifted personal journals the biologist uncovers in the lighthouse, a reader is constantly faced with elements that challenge all the different ways we communicate and highlight the ways in which language can confuse or obfuscate understanding. VanderMeer is clear that by limiting communication to the confines of language, you’re seeing only part of a much wider and more diverse picture. 

‘If you step outside, you’re able to see everything that’s around you – and I mean see as in observe using all of your five senses – you have all the chemical trails left by ants, you have the trails left by various pollutants and animal species communicating with each other. There are all these other kinds of communications going on but we don’t really notice and that’s one thing I wanted to emphasise.  I was also really fascinated by the idea of language as a disease vector, in a sense. The fact that words do matter, even as they sometimes also create miscommunication and confusion, in that they do manifest within the body. There are all these weird ways in which language is not our own.’

It’s an idea that manifests throughout the series in a variety of ways, even to the extent that incidental dialogue in the series’ second novel, Authority, is dialogue repurposed from Annihilation. ‘I also wanted it to have these weird echoes, he explains. ‘I think in the subconscious mind it gives you a sense of unease, some sense of déjà vu that you can’t quite identify.’

This playful pulling at the barriers and limitations of language in these novels extends to exploring the confines and purpose of storytelling itself. ‘In the second book’, VanderMeer comments, ‘you go back to the Southern Reach and they’re trying to understand Area X. So, in a way, they’re creating stories about Area X right there to try to understand it and the very act of storytelling, of the details that accrue in each person’s perspective of it, are, in a sense, what makes it slip through their fingers.’

‘There’s a challenge too’, he explains, ‘in terms of narrative structures. I used to be much more formally experimental but as you delve into themes like this, perhaps trying to show the non-human, you have to find structures and ways of storytelling that are not as formally experimental, otherwise there’s too much strangeness. It’s why Annihilation is stylistically more of a renovation; it’s meant to allow some of the more hopefully unique ideas to shine through in a way that’s clear.’ 

Perhaps most striking of all is the series’ ability to create connections between a reader and characters which distort preconceptions based on gender, age and ethnicity. A key element in breaking those barriers is characters remaining unnamed, labelled only by their function, such as Control or ‘the biologist’. It’s something VanderMeer is clear was an essential part of the creation of the series and for creating the right atmosphere for the novels to develop.

‘Once you give something a name’, he considers, ‘there are things it can’t be. So it’s this slippery thing, you have to name things but once you name them, you may exclude from the sense of what they are, things they actually are. You find this in the language of scientific papers, there’s all sorts of examples where you shift from objectivity to subjectivity as soon as you give something a name. Even the way you phrase something can gesture to the proactive or passive nature of it. 

‘With the biologist, every time I tried to give her a name, I knew her less. Also, having no names they’re more subsumed by the landscape which works for the atmosphere of Annihilation. There’s also the aspect that women, especially in fiction, are often portrayed in very stereotypical ways. In addition to them not having any names I didn’t want to have any physical descriptions, which again fits in well with them merging with the landscape, but also was done for the very conscious reason of wanting readers to encounter them for what they said and what they did – and in the case of the biologist for what they thought – rather than what they looked like or what their name was.’ 

The lack of names in the novel contributes to the sense of the novel’s overwhelming sense of paranoia, as characters search for their own kind of meaning whilst being fundamentally disconnected and distrustful of each other, each individually haunted by past experiences they can’t explain or expunge. ‘All the characters are disconnected’, VanderMeer says. ‘Some of them are trying for some kind of connection, some of them are not. But they’re all disconnected. Coming away from that series, it was almost a relief to write Borne which is all about characters who are trying really hard to stay connected in the face of overwhelming odds and who really are seeking out things like love and relationships.’

With its uncanny, eerie, often outright terrifying atmosphere, the Southern Reach series often feels as much a gothic story as it does a work of science fiction, particularly in the way it juxtaposes the horrific and the sublime. In common with other novels classed as so-called ‘weird fiction’ it’s a composite of disparate and often opposing elements; a chimera which metamorphoses in new ways for each new reader. It’s a style VanderMeer sees as essential to the way he constructs his fiction.

‘Absolutely, no matter what kind of texture or tone there’s always some element of horror’, he says. ‘Even when I’m working in humorous mode, in short stories or in the novel I’m just finishing, there’s an element of horror and that’s because it grounds things or gives them a necessary seriousness but also, I really like a balance between horror and beauty. There are a lot of moments in the Southern Reach where there are things that to some people might be considered monstrous but the character finds the beauty in them or the beauty in the unknown. I think that’s also why I like the term ‘weird fiction’ because it is not necessarily about the unknown and the monstrous being horrific but potentially being transformative or beautiful and I think that’s very important.’ 

Nevertheless, as he moves on from the dystopian, post-apocalyptic territory of the Southern Reach and Borne, VanderMeer admits it’s been refreshing to take a slightly more humorous route. Readers needn’t fear though, his latest fiction is anything but ordinary. He explains he’s currently working on a new YA series, which he describes as being about, ‘a kid who discovers a portal to another world, another earth which is stuck around 1900’ (he also lists amongst its features, six foot tall talking marmots and the ‘the undead head of Napoleon’). Also in the works is a new adult novel, an ‘ecological thriller dealing with bio-terrorism and eco-terrorism and wildlife trafficking’ titled Hummingbird Salamander. He admits, ‘I’m having a lot of fun with it!’ 

Meanwhile, the fact the Southern Reach should be taking on a new incarnation is something VanderMeer is more than sanguine about. ‘The kind of stories I like best are ones where there is closure but there’s a life to the story beyond the last page. It may make you want more but you also prefer that you don’t know everything, because you don’t know everything in life either.’ Like all the best stories, the Southern Reach is a series which leaves space for the reader to inhabit it themselves and where they emerge having found much more than they bargained for. As the film brings a new legion of readers to the novels and the tantalising threshold of Area X, they should come prepared to leave something of themselves behind in its midst.

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