Everyone's a Rebel: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
By Cynthia Hawkins
4 January 2010
Shortly after detective John Finch first hustles up five flights of steps and right into the impossible minefield of his next assignment, author Jeff VanderMeer details Finch: "Written on a wall at a crime scene: Everyone's a collaborator. Everyone's a rebel. The truth and the weight in each. Sweating under his jacket, through his shirt. Boots heavy on his feet. Always a point of no return, and yet he kept returning. I am not a detective. I am not a detective."* Finch, unwittingly working for the fungal enemy invaders, must investigate the murder of a human and a "gray cap," an investigation which nudges him into the crosshairs of both sides while he grapples with doing what's right.
The novel is VanderMeer's third installment in his Ambergris cycle, though having read City of Saints and Madmen or Shriek: An Afterward won't necessarily prepare you for the tenor and the pace of Finch. Finch is its own thing—part noir, part futuristic dystopia, part mystery, part thriller—and the list goes on. Finch seamlessly absorbs influences in VanderMeer's trademark genre-bending fashion, and for the task of composing a musical score to be packaged with limited editions of the novel VanderMeer enlisted the help of a band equally diverse—Murder by Death.
"I think what makes Finch unique is that it's not just a run-of-the-mill science fiction book," Murder by Death singer-guitarist Adam Turla recently explained of the pairing on this project. "It's basically like a futuristic film noir. So that's kind of where it made sense for us to come in, and we added the noir quality instead of the science quality. I think that helps with just getting that mood across. I think that's where we did our part."
On a phone interview from the World Fantasy Convention, VanderMeer discussed Finch, the soundtrack, the genre problem, and the art of writing on his own terms. VanderMeer is also the author of Booklife, a writer's reference of sorts for achieving balance and maintaining creativity in a media-savvy, interconnected world.
Cynthia Hawkins: What did you tell Murder by Death when you approached them about this project?
Jeff VanderMeer: I'd always loved their music and had listened to it heavily while writing the novel just like with Shriek, the last novel, I'd listened heavily to a lot of The Church. So it had made sense to approach them. And [I asked] would they be at all interested in doing the soundtrack; we could work out the details of how that would happen, if they were interested. And they said, well, you know, go ahead and send us the book, and so I sent them the book and the two previous books and the two previous soundtracks. Then they came back after reading the book and said, well, here's what we would like to do. We don't want to do any songs with lyrics really, but what we think would be really cool to do is a soundtrack of extended songs where we pull out various elements from various scenes and do instrumentals. I did an interview with them about the process and what I loved about it was that they said the process was different for them because, as their music is kind of influenced by my fiction, it may have given them some different approaches to process. That was cool because it's not a true collaboration. I didn't write lyrics for them or do anything like that, but in that sense of there being a connection or cross pollination, there definitely is.
CH: How do you reconcile the sort of differences that other people might impose between your genre and Murder by Death's music?
JV: I'm known as a fantasy writer. Sometimes I'm known as a literary fantasy writer, whatever you want to call it. Or dark fantasy. These labels, they also shift from country to country. In some countries I'm actually welcomed into the literary mainstream instead of the sci-fi/fantasy imprint. Finch is different from the other ones in that it has a heavy noir and thriller element to it. It has the fantasy setting but the actual plot is definitely, hugely noir influenced. I've always loved noir fiction and mysteries and everything, but also specifically because, before writing this novel, I'd reviewed mysteries for Publisher's Weekly for the last seven years, so by the time I came to write Finch it would just be hardwired into me. I wouldn't have to think about the tropes I was using. And part of that is the style has changed, and the style has changed in that there's a lot of use of sentence fragments, short sentences, not as much description as I have usually used, which also reflects the character of John Finch because that's the kind of person he is. That's how you reconcile it. It's a very different book from anything I've done before, and in the context of what's happening this time, a failed city-state, Murder by Death's music, which is a lot about desperate people and desperate situations—it definitely has a wild-west element to it and the Americana and the country and all that—I thought mood-wise it would fit the novel very well because of that.
CH: How do you feel about the readers' or reviewers' need to put your work in a box, you know, make it fit into a particular genre?
JV: It used to really bother me, and then I realized that there's absolutely no way you can change that. I mean people are going to have their perception of your work no matter what. I mean, you can do things like the way you package your books, the look and feel of them. You can do some things to position yourself, and then you can do other things like, the last year or so I stopped submitting mostly to genre magazines and started submitting to mainstream magazines also, just to open up that side, and have had quite a bit of success. So you can kind of influence it by how you choose to conduct your career, but at the core you can't change how people are going to perceive your work. So I just try to speak to people in a language that they're most comfortable with. When I go to colleges, I'm not really there as the fantasy guy. I'm there as the magical realist or surrealist guy cause that's the language they know. And then, like, here I'm at the World Fantasy Convention and I'm the fantasy guy. And that's perfectly fine. I speak that language. I don't see that as me selling out or anything. It's me trying to navigate this readership that's relatively diverse. And if I fight against that and say, yeah, if I define myself as a fantasy writer then I'll lose part of my audience, and I'm also not just a fantasy writer just as I'm not a mainstream literary writer. I have influences from all over the place. So that's really how I try to navigate it, I partially put processes in place in which I'm deliberately bucking the system on how I'm labeled—and then I just go along with it, I go with the flow. I prefer to be thought of as just a writer, but that's not going to happen.
CH: The idea of the hardboiled detective story for me harkens back to the '30s and '40s, which I've seen inspiring the look of sci-fi films like A.I. and Dark City. What is it about that time period that seems to fit so well with futuristic landscapes?
JV: Oddly enough, I think that works for that because of the romanticism and honestly just the kind of naiveté of that period, as opposed to the rest of the century, kind of plays well against the cynicism of the hard-boiled detective. In some ways I would say that opposition there creates a nice tension, perhaps. In terms of Finch, I was thinking about two specific periods with regards to the setting. One is occupied Paris during WWII. So there is that definite element. I also, in terms of the technology, it didn't make sense for me to have it be too advanced. It's much more advanced than in the previous books, but it's definitely more like a 1940s-type level. I mean there are tanks and things like that but there's nothing beyond that. But then also it's mixed with definite influence of the last eight years and the idea of an occupied Baghdad and all the other crap that's been going on. So the synergy is between those two things. And the mood definitely triggers that period you're talking about with the hard-boiled detective.
CH: It's interesting that you mentioned Baghdad because I was going to ask you: In the same way that we read 1984 now and see elements that come too uncomfortably close to our world, do you ever witness things on the news and so forth that come a little too close to anything you've imagined in your works?
JV: I think it's more the other way around. I really and truly believe that if you don't invest enough personal self into a fantasy novel, then why should anyone care? I mean, all fiction is imaginary, but it's more pronounced when you're reading something about an imaginary place. If you don't put something personal in there, if you're not personally invested in it, and of course as a thinking, feeling person in the 21st century who has been absolutely horrified, and your jaw drops sometimes when you see what's happened, the whole way in which America's imperialism of the last decade has played out, it just can't help but affect your work. The thing is, if I was writing a mainstream literary novel about that, it would be very difficult to get the distance necessary to write about it. It just kind of pops into the fiction. The last one, Shriek had an element of global warming in it. And it wasn't overt. It wasn't something I even thought about. It just got in there. And the same thing happened with Finch, where it's pretty much invested with all this stuff from suicide bombings to illegal interrogations and all that kind of stuff, and, so, it is definitely an amalgamation of occupied Paris during the '40s and the idea of an occupied Iraq. But it's not a direct parallel. I mean you can't say this group is this group and so on and so forth.
CH: Right. Probably the parallels are just enough that it might create a nice tension for the reader as they read your book and then see some of the same things going on in reality.
JV: Yeah, and if you are going to do that, you have to commit to it. There are parts of the novel that are fairly brutal. And that's because I really believe if you have to show violence, you have to show it the way it really occurs in real life. I'm not really cool with comic book violence in novels. I mean the rest of the context of the novel requires it. They're not just on the surface. They're integral to the plot in the end.
CH: Do you ever have any trouble when you're working on writing, say, those brutally violent scenes?
JV: You get to a level where you know what's right for the story, and so on one level it's tough because you're heavily invested in the character. I mean, John Finch is a character whom I was really heavily invested with because usually in my novels there are morally ambiguous people, but the setting this time was so harsh I really felt like my main character had to be someone who was honest and was really trying to do the right thing as a contrast to that. So when I did get to the parts where he is steeped in the crap, so to speak, and there is a lot of violence involved, it was hard from that aspect because it was happening to someone that by that time I'd fully believed in. And at that point I honestly didn't know if by the end of the novel he was going to be alive or not. I don't write that way. I don't plan ahead of time. I need to have it being an ongoing movie in my head as I write it.
CH: What are some of your habits as a writer?
JV: I don't actually have any habits because I don't want to be limited. A lot of times habits are a way of giving yourself permission not to write. Though I prefer to write in the mornings, I'll write any time with anything. So, I try not to get into habits, and when I get into habits I try to break them because sometimes by breaking a habit you get more inspired. Like if I've been writing at home a lot, I'll go out to a coffee shop and I'll write there for a week. Sometimes just a change in location is very good at jumpstarting your imagination. One thing I do advise in Booklife is that we get so ingrained in certain ways of doing things that we really think those are the best ways to write. I also recommend abandoning all fetishes, so to speak, like special kinds of paper, special pens, having to write on your laptop, not writing on your laptop, anything that gets in the way of beginning to sit down and actually write. I write in spurts. I might not write for two weeks, and then I might write 20,000 words in three days.
* VanderMeer, Jeff. Finch. Portland: Underland Press, 2009. pg 3.