Jeff VanderMeer is the award-winning author of Finch, Wonderbook and many, many others, as well the co-editor of The Weird (and many, many others). He is, in short, one hell of an author with incredible taste. We're delighted to host this (abridged) discussion of Jeff VanderMeer's Authority - an interview by Rick Kleffel, originally recorded for his Agony Column, and for his radio show on KUSP in Santa Monica, California.
A huge thanks to them for allowing us to host this terrific interview - touching on monsters and bureaucracy and monsters and humor and movies and monsters (monsters!). You can download the full audio here.
Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novels, Annihilation and Authority, are part of the Southern Reach trilogy, with the concluding volume, Acceptance, coming out in September. The series features a strange, pristine wilderness called Area X where mysterious things have been happening. The series has received a ton of praise (including a review here by Andrew Liptak).
Annihilation chronicled the twelfth expedition into Area X. In Authority, out now, John Rodriguez - "Control" - is brought in to clean house as the new director of the Southern Reach's secret agency after thirty years of failure to solve Area X.
Jeff VanderMeer: I'm glad you saw that.
RK: I really like the sense of humor. It's very low key but I really loved it. It made me laugh a lot. Also, I think you have a great spin on spy novels. I think that that is really outstanding. It's very nicely done. Talk about spy novels and weaving those kinds of themes in because they work perfectly. I mean secrets, what more do you need?
JVM: Authority is basically an expedition into Southern Reach, just like Annihilation is an expedition to area x, and I have to say that one of my favorite novelists of all time is John le Carré, and I think that his best work is just absolutely brilliant in terms of the way that he brings to bear a certain interiority of character. You're really there with the person, but also paranoia and secrets and what people would disclose and not disclose, which is something you find in an ordinary life too, but the stakes are higher. There's a spy novel for that. In fact, I think somebody, I can't remember, described the second book as being like House of Leaves meets John le Carre or something, in terms of the tone of it and whatnot.
Yeah, so I had a lot of fun with that. I had a lot of fun with the idea of this director coming in and having to make sense of this dysfunctional organization. Of course then, the major thing is deciding what details would he be discovering that are basic, that the reader needs to know, and which ones are less interest to the reader and just can be summarized. Really, it was all about exposition too. It was like, "Is this a scene? Are a bunch of rabbits jumping into the border—is that a scene or just a throwaway line?"
I had a lot of fun also with non-sequential things, seeing how much a scene can fit that isn't happening in the present moment but still isn't [self-consciously] visible to the reader. The other thing I really had a lot of fun with—the paranoia, and this goes along with the spy novels in a way is when I had day jobs, often we would deal with government agencies or pseudo-government agencies. You go in and the level of tech would just be all over the place. You'd have modern laptops but they'll be accessing a DOS system. It's like having a sixteenth-century cathedral next to a skyscraper.
It's the same thing in these government agencies, and then also seeing sometimes, without naming names, a kind of level of dysfunction, an environmental protection agency where the land people don't talk to the sky people who don't talk to the water people. Their databases are all separate, that kind of crazy stuff. That actually tied in a nice way to the spy stuff because John Rodriguez aka Control goes in there and he does all the stuff you're supposed to do, but he's trying to solve the wrong problem, so that disconnect is where some of the humor comes from, that and his disbelief at some of the stuff that's going on.
RK: Well, I really like the character of the assistant director.
JVM: She's one of my favorites too.
RK: She is just great. Talk about creating this person who is like somebody we've all had the unfortunate experience of having to work with.
JVM: Grace Stevenson is basically holding [down] the fort for the former director. As far as she's concerned, any kind of interference with that is a problem…I think you're halfway through the novel, but by the time you get to the end, [you] have a slightly different perspective on her because [at first] she naturally seems like the antagonist because of the fact that Control is supposedly the protagonist, but there's a lot more going on in the scenes that you need to know, and from her perspective this is just the latest dumbass that's been sent down to try to take over and do stuff, and here she is trying to deal with the managing of the day-to-day. This is my perspective for her character, and here's this dumbass who's come in asking all these stupid questions, and she has to deal with that.
She also has to try to remain true to what the former director's vision was and all this. Then in Acceptance, you get another view of her, and, again, your perspective on her changes. There is a lot of humor, and ultimately, there's some pathos too in that conflict between the two. I thought it was really important to commit to not just the mystery that's going on, but the actual reality of what would happen if you came into this situation.
RK: It seems to me too that you have a good handle on organizations and the fact that most organizations are notable for their disorganization.
JVM: A lot of what happens, I don't even necessarily mean this in a bad way because it seems to work…but inefficiency seems to often be [the norm]…It interested me that we pride ourselves on being run by logic and all those things, yet absurdity and inefficiency seemed to be byproducts of our supposed logic and efficiency.
RK: The so-called efficient human world, it mirrors the natural world and being shot through with bits of alien insanity.
JVM: Yeah, well I mean going back to the parasites and what-not, you have worms, fluke worms, that have a crazy lifecycle where it's almost one of those weird diagrams of a machine with the marble going through all these chutes and stuff. It's like this shouldn't make any sense whatsoever. We find out that sunfish have a symbiotic relationship with albatrosses, that there are certain triggers between them…all those things are just amazing and hint to the complexity that we still don't have quite a handle on. The thing that cracks me up the most is I worry about…where I get into a little bit of quantum type stuff in there, that it would get out of date, but in fact, over the last year, things have just gotten more nuts in terms of what scientists think. What's going on? I'm safe.
RK: One of the things too, for me, when I read a book like this, I have to admit that there's a certain payoff I want and that's monsters. I have to say you provide those in a very peculiar and very enigmatic way. They're not like anything else we've ever encountered, and I think that's really, really important, so I'd like you to just talk about maybe your history with monsters and how you see this book in the evolution of your own deployment of them as a literary device.
JVM: I think I almost always see something other than a monster, first of all. That may be one reason why they are effective when they are effective. Even in the Ambergris books with the grey caps, the mushroom people, even though it may not be obvious in the books, I have a sympathetic reading on them to some degree, given the context of what's going on there and some of the things that the human beings did to them. When it comes to these books, again I have obviously all the information in my head and I have a back story for them that I think has the same effect. It's not just that these things are monsters. They're also beautiful… There's something about them that is vaster, just like the world itself is vaster than we can comprehend, and that's actually a good thing.
That is something that is humbling but also satisfying, that there's this thing beyond that we can't quite grasp all of... Also, I'm a big huge science fiction fantasy horror movie buff, and ever since Alien, I feel like we've been getting replications of the Alien movie over and over again in different contexts until it's become meaningless. I have worked very hard to try to think about what it means to be monsters. There's a scene you haven't got to in Authority yet where I think it all comes together in such a way that… Well, it's tough. It's tough to talk about these books without spoiling them.
RK: What I think you're getting at here is one of the reasons I really like the monsters. Now, generally, when people use the term monster, they mean something like the shark in Jaws, which is essentially an eating machine. To me, that's pretty uninteresting, no matter what the physical aspect of it may be. You've got the same thing that velociraptors in the Lost World or even the alien in Alien…When I first saw that—I've grown to like it—when I first saw it, what is this? They are locked up in a spaceship, it eats them all up. This is dull. This is dull. Show me something interesting.
I like my monsters to have character, and that's I think the difference here, and what you've done is to not just give the monsters a character like making them Jim Bob the repairman with bug eyes, but to give them a character that is in keeping with their own alien nature, and that is a difficult job.
JVM: They have to have a texture. That becomes a little clearer later in Authority, but texture's really important and I did feel a lot of textures actually. I actually went out and petted a lot of strange things… I know that sounds weird, but without the texture [it doesn’t work].
Even though I may have a back story for them and maybe they sometimes stand for something else, they have to have a physical presence. I think China Miéville said the same thing, where my monsters are not stand-ins for something else. Foremost, they have to have physicality and a uniqueness, and then they can stand in for something else so they can have subtext...
RK: One of the things that I think interests me most is that in order to get these people into [Area X], there's a lot of talk about hypnosis. I'd like you to talk a little bit about hypnosis yourself. Have you ever been hypnotized?
JVM: No I haven't, but the thing about hypnosis is you can't make someone do something that they wouldn't do…but there is also the suggestion that Southern Reach is doing a lot of conditioning of people behind the scenes, a lot of brainwashing and whatnot. There's some other thing I can't really talk about. I can’t ruin the books, but I also thought it hinted at a modern suggestibility because I think you can hypnotize people through social media these days because people are much more likely to repeat, receive ideas now than they did even 20 years ago…You have people who are more or less under a magic spell, and for a while, they're taken over by this idea or this suggestion that's been put into their head and they act on it.
RK: They are colonized...
JVM: Yeah, this is the colonization coming from the Southern Reach side, rather from the Area X side, so I had a lot of fun playing around with that.
RK: Social media [as] what were the subliminal messages; we don't even need subliminal messages.
JVM: They're all subliminal.
RK: They just throw them right in your face.
JVM: Then there are also things in there that just happen by chance. Like, one day I got into my car and there was a mosquito smashed on the inside of the screen, the windshield. I had no idea, I don't remember smashing it, and how it got there and I was in [the middle of] this [weird] framework. Control is going through the agency trying to figure out what's going on so I just wrote a scene where he sees a smashed mosquito on the inside of the windshield and he gets all these paranoid ideas about the assistant director having done it to send a message. By then, I think you're far enough down the rabbit hole that you don't know whether Control might actually have a point or whether he's getting paranoid.
RK: I’d like you to just talk about your sense of plotting in these books because I think it's really unique and that's one of the things that makes them really fun to read.
JVM: It all comes out of character, but I would say this: that from doing, especially Finch, the last novel…and then reading all the weird stories [for the anthology The Weird], I learned that you didn't necessarily have to put something where it is expected to be put, and so in both Annihilation and in Authority, the plotting comes out [by] putting the thing where it most needs to be, even if it's out of sequence. Especially in Authority, I think the protagonist is guarded in a different way than the biologist, so that allowed me to plot it in a different way. [Laughter]
Sorry, I know this shouldn't crack me up that much, [but] there are times when he'll turn the corner and that scene will end, and then later, he'll report what happened to his boss and that's when [you’ll get that scene]. Sometimes, that's the maximum moment of tension, and if plot is sequencing things in the right order for maximum tension, then him being nervous about reporting to his boss is sometimes a better time to tell you a story than just when it happened. Although I do joke that Authority is my novel about transitional spaces, just like Annihilation is transitional nature spaces, because a lot of the scenes take place in parking lots and corridors, which shouldn't theoretically work but are meant to increase the tension.
RK: Well to be honest, in the workaday world, a lot of work gets done in corridors, parking lots, doors, hanging out in front of offices. A lot less gets done in the office… Also too, one of the things that works for you really well is the close perspective and that's a very interesting technique and I've seen that used before, but I think the way you use it is interesting and it helps the speculative nature seem more true.
JVM: Right, because Control especially is continually trying to figure out what's going on so you get his interior thoughts half the time, and that allows me to vary things, which is important for the plot too. Sometimes, you get a lot of interior thoughts. Sometimes, you get the exterior stuff that's going on, but I can move in and out. There's a certain level of interiority within the whole time, though, that's actually fairly hard to maintain. That takes a lot of revision and going back over the structure and everything else. The other thing about the plot is I literally thought to myself, "Well, what would a supernatural novel look like?” [It isn’t] a supernatural novel but [I was] still using those strokes and those effects... that's why it has different sections titled incantations, hauntings, and things like that.
JVM: Then also from a very close study of, this will be blasphemy, but Kubrick's The Shining, which I absolutely loved… I thought how about translating some of those effects into this dysfunctional agency. Part of this is a sense of unease there, which again all ties into the characters and planning everything else, is that… the continuity is deliberately not correct in places. There're spaces that don't match up. There's things like that, and that’s to help create that sense of unease.
RK: Now, it's been said somewhere that these [novels] have been bought for film. I'm wondering how you envision that being done exactly.
JVM: Well, it's Paramount Pictures and Scott Rudin, and they're very good at turning novels into screenplays and movies. I actually think I don't mind if they change it because I would change it if I was doing a movie… Probably what I would do [with Annihilation], and this is just my vision, you would have to establish a voiceover if you wanted it, if you wanted that narration still. You would have a shot from over the [marsh] reeds, just going towards a lighthouse and that would be interspersed with the biologist's interaction with her husband without you knowing if there's something strange going on here. Eventually, the reed scene would cut to base camp and you'd see the expedition members introduced to them, and then it would go along [from there].
I didn't do that for the book because that didn't make any sense for the biologist, who she is as a character, but movies are not a first person experience really. Visually, I think they could do some really cool things with it. Thirty years of Southern Reach history also lends itself to basically pointing out whatever you want, so they can basically take that book and say, "Okay, this thing really works schematically. This doesn't." They can mix and match. I don't have a problem with that. I really would be surprised and not necessarily happy if they stuck with exactly the structures of the books.
Thanks again to Rick Kleffel and Jeff VanderMeer for allowing us to host this transcription. You can download the full audio here.