Books 1 and 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy, ANNIHILATION & AUTHORITY (out May 6th) are two of my best reads of the year so far, and I’m thrilled to welcome Jeff VanderMeer to the blog! He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the series, and more!
Jeff, I adored ANNIHILATION and am in awe as to how you managed to pack so much awesome into a relatively slim volume, but, all gushing aside, when did you the idea hit you for The Southern Reach Trilogy, and was it going to be a trilogy from the very beginning?
I’d wanted to write about the places I’ve hiked here in North Florida for a long time, and so I had that in the back of my head. Then I was laid up with bad bronchitis and had a dream about a descent into a tunnel with living words on the wall and the next morning I had the character of the biologist in my head along with a lot of the other elements. About half-way through Annihilation, according to the notes I’m looking at now, the outlines of a larger story began to appear, especially as I began to do more research on agencies like the one I modeled the Southern Reach on, and especially the Séance & Science Brigade mentioned first in Authority. There’s a great shot from the mid-1950s of members of the S&SB taking all kinds of readings at the Coral Castle near Miami that was one spark. (http://coralcastle.com/). In my novels, the S&SB is still around for decades after, whereas in real life they disbanded almost as quickly as they came together in the fifties. Still, that was a spark, too—the idea of the dual exploration of the rational and un-rational, and the ways in which the two tend to merge more than we think.
At one point, I thought it would be a quartet, but Annihilation cannibalized part of the later story, and then Authority did the same thing, so it wound up being perfect as a trilogy. This is a process that often happens when I’m working on related novels.
The book takes place in Area X, a lush, green, overgrown landscape where things are just a bit “off.” Since the main character is a biologist, there are quite a few passages about flora and fauna, particularly her fascination with tidal pools and the organisms that dwell there. Did you do any specific research for the book?
Not really—it’s all pretty much autobiographical, and the result of growing up in a family with a research chemist for a father. There was an overgrown pool in the backyard of a house in Gainesville, Florida, where our family lived from about the time I was ten. I once got turned around at night on a reef off-shore in the Fiji Islands, and oriented ourselves by the light from a giant starfish—and the school I went to in Fiji was right on the beach, so tidal pool exploring was kind of a usual thing. My wife Ann and I also not only hike a lot in North Florida, but all over the world. Some of the Rock Bay stuff is the direct result of taking the treacherous road (in rain and fog) to Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island as well as spending a few weeks on the Western Pacific Rim near Tofino, also on Vancouver Island. Other parts from hiking in Northern California. I’ve had a couple of people ask me if Annihilation is influenced by the immersive quality of certain video games, but in fact it’s influenced by the immersive quality of…the world.
What made you decide to keep your main characters unnamed?
That’s a complicated question because it ultimately came down to a lot of interrelated decisions. On the practical side, the expeditions that have used names rather than job function have come to grief, as if it’s an easier way for whatever is in Area X to “hack” human beings. But I also must admit I liked the idea of characters who the reader has to interpret through their actions, interactions, and dialogue—without any anchor of names or physical descriptions. The namelessness along with the lack of physical descriptions tends to embed the characters more into the landscape—the landscape encroaches on them more than it would otherwise, which amplifies the sense of them being totally on their own and isolated. I’m also tired of objectifying or idealized descriptions of women in fiction, and so this served a (purely tertiary) purpose of saying, “What does it matter what they look like?” I imagine some readers will be surprised and have to redraw their mental images of the characters when they learn more details in books two and three, but part of what these books are about is how perspective and point of view affect how we experience even the most seemingly obvious or mundane conversations or acts.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser (or a little bit of both)?
Every novel is different, and I let the text decide how I’m going to approach it. Annihilation was always going to be kind of one long take, with cuts to the biologist’s past, an immersive first-person narrative that I had to experience alongside the biologist, and so there you’re not really plotting so much as going along using an instinctual sense of what will work pacing-wise, although it’s not really instinctual. What it is, is that you’ve written enough novels that your muscle memory of pacing, beats and progressions, kicks in, mixed with echoes of the actual rhythms of being out at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge hiking a particular thirteen-mile trail. That, and a deeper and deeper understanding of the person narrating the account.
Authority has hints of dark comedy to it, and a very different protagonist, whose journey takes place across four parts, which include sections like Incantations and Hauntings. I thought of it as a supernatural novel without a supernatural element, if that makes any sense. What is a haunting when you’re dealing with an agency that has accumulated thirty years of ghosts in trying to figure out what’s going on in Area X? How does that history accrete? So Authority was a bit like doing improv on a movie set within a context of knowing with some precision what scenes need to be written and where they might go. Acceptance was a totally different animal, and one I can’t yet really discuss.
What do you enjoy most about writing and what do you look for in a good book?
I truly get lost in the character points-of-view and the situations, I’m deep into it, and deeply invested, and there’s not much separation there. I write longhand and there’s nothing I like better than going to the Black Dog Café here in town, or to a bench out at San Luis Park, and just getting lost in it, the pen to paper seeming at times to be writing without any participation from me.
What I look for in a good book is a unique perspective, a willingness to be brave and to follow the characters and situations as far as they will go, but also that the person can write. I can’t read books with dead prose or prose that’s too action-oriented at the expense of all else. Which might seem like privileging language over story, but that’s not the case. Language that isn’t alive, that isn’t doing interesting things, can’t support great characters or interesting situations.
You’ve undoubtedly influenced many writers with your work, but who are a few of your biggest influences?
The triad in my early twenties consisted of Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, and an unfortunately obscure American writer, Edward Whittemore. But to that you’d have to add the stories of Ursula K. Le Guin and Rikki Ducornet, the poetry of Patiann Rogers, Italo Calvino, Borges, and a lot more. It’s hard to nail it down. Books like Dune and Stand on Zanzibar were read at the exact right time for them to sink in to maximum effect. Thomas Pynchon’s V was a revelation because of when I read it, as was Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants, and just tons more besides. Tove Janssen’s The Summer Book is amazing and a book I’m still thinking about in terms of how it achieves its effects, but there are dozens and dozens I’m leaving out. The main point being that my reading was, and is, all over the place, and I think that’s a good thing—and it all feeds into the writing.
One novel I should probably single out is Stepan Chapman’s The Troika. Stepan was a friend of mine who sadly passed away earlier this year. We met because of The Troika, which I published in the 1990s through my publishing house, and which won the Philip K. Dick Award. So I’m biased, but it’s a book that by breaking many, many rules about writing fiction proved hugely influential on my own work, and taught me about the value of taking chances. It’s also a novel that is deeply, almost harshly, humane and empathic and poetic.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
That’s a tough question to answer, because many of my favorite novels reward repeated re-reading—like Nabokov’s Pale Fire. For that reason I can’t really think of one.
I’ve asked this question a few times and the answers never cease to fascinate me. You’ve been writing for a long time, and have a long list of major awards to your credit, but what is one of the most interesting/fun/strange, etc. things you’ve learned since becoming a published author?
The strangest thing is how fiction sometimes bleeds into reality. Once upon a time, I wrote a story called “The Festival of the Freshwater Squid,” which was a kind of Twain-like loving send-up of small-town Florida festivals, of which there are dozens. I made up a supposed freshwater squid, the Mayfly Squid, supposedly an invasive species from Brazil, and a festival in Sebring during their off-season, complete with a Mayfly Squid Queen and a parade. When it was published online, I had cephalopod experts email me to castigate me for making their job more difficult, given the complexity of categorization of real squid. The local Sebring newspaper eventually interviewed me about “the situation” since despite clearly marking each page as fiction there had been, shall we say, some confusion. The apex of this came a couple of years later when a BBC wildlife program producer emailed me to say she and her team would be in the Everglades anyway and were willing to come up to Sebring to film me walking along a lake there, talking about the Mayfly Squid….I was sorely tempted to do it, but ultimately my better self won out and I told her it was a fake. A year later, a fisherman from Louisiana left a message on my answering machine asking if possibly the Mayfly Squid had gotten farther than Florida, because he thought he’d caught two of them.
Is there any other news you’d like to share? Will you give us a bit of a teaser for AUTHORITY?
Authority is as much an expedition into the Southern Reach as Annihilation was an expedition into Area X. It’s a very different novel from Annihilation, and almost twice as long. You learn the answers to some essential questions raised by Annihilation, but new questions arise. John Rodriguez is the incoming director of the Southern Reach, and from page one you learn that what you thought you knew about the twelfth expedition…well, let’s just say you’ll be rethinking a few things. You may also be wondering about the rabbit on the cover. There are 1,999 others inside the novel, and they’re probably emblematic of the tone of Authority, in that they stand for something simultaneously absurd and horrific. I hope readers will come along with me for something Completely Different, and then different again for Acceptance. All I can do is be true to my characters and follow them through to the end of the story. I’m gratified at the initial reaction to Authority, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and the initial reaction from my editor and first readers of Acceptance has been amazing and gratifying to me.
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.
In Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer introduced Area X—a remote and lush terrain mysteriously sequestered from civilization. This was the first volume of a projected trilogy; well in advance of publication, translation rights had already sold around the world and a major movie deal had been struck.
Just months later, Authority, the second volume, is here. For thirty years, the only human engagement with Area X has taken the form of a series of expeditions monitored by a secret agency called the Southern Reach. After the disastrous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the Southern Reach is in disarray, and John Rodriguez, aka “Control,” is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve. And the consequences will spread much further than that.
It is winter in Area X. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown—navigating new terrain and new challenges—the threat to the outside world becomes more daunting. In Acceptance, the last installment of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound—or terrifying.