How Jeff VanderMeer Prevents Writer’s Block
“I get superstitious,” says the author, whose latest novel is “Hummingbird Salamander”: “I once had a book sent to me that was disrupting my ability to write a novel because of a superficial similarity between the two. I took that book and dug a hole and buried it deep in the backyard.”
What books are on your night stand?
I chose the night stand for its stalwart qualities and it is currently holding up well under the eclectic weight of an advance copy of John Paul Brammer’s “¡Hola Papi!,” B. R. Yeager’s “Negative Space,” Bernard Rudofsky’s “The Prodigious Builders,” Eley Williams’s “The Liar’s Dictionary,” Rita Indiana’s “Tentacle,” Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Only Good Indians,” Julienne Ford’s “Paradigms and Fairy Tales,” Angelo Maria Ripellino’s “Magic Prague,” Vigdis Hjorth’s “Will and Testament” and Sayak Valencia’s “Gore Capitalism.” I’ll leave it to readers to guess which are for research and which for pleasure.
What’s the last great book you read?
The novel I can’t get out of my head is Audrey Schulman’s mid-Collapse “Theory of Bastards,” with its nuanced confluence of the personal and the epic, the human and the nonhuman. The poetry book I can’t shake is Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s “Beast Meridian,” which takes so many chances, is so, so brilliant, and the lines just burn into you.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Gogol’s “Dead Souls” had escaped me — or, rather, I’d started and stopped reading several times, perhaps unable to reconcile the style with that of beloved short stories, like “The Nose.” But I sneaked unnoticed into the Everyman Library edition recently and, burrowing deep, loved the rich complexity, the wise and barbed exploration of corruption and the absurd irrationality of the human condition.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Some of our most memorable reading experiences have been in bars and pubs, while on the road for book tours. Once, Ann and I followed the distant sound of mysterious music in the heights above Prague only to discover a local beer bar tucked away behind a maze of shrubbery. At home in Tallahassee, I used to love reading outdoors at a local park, but the ecological crash course required to rewild our yard means being outdoors is too distracting now. There are too many good stories all around me — some of them flying from branch to branch. But I do also like to read before drifting off to sleep. And if a book is truly amazing, then I’ll read in the midafternoon for long stretches. But they have to pass that before-bed test first.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
For years, I would recommend Deborah Levy’s “Beautiful Mutants,” but thankfully she’s well known now. Then it was Olga Tokarczuk’s amazing “Primeval and Other Times,” from Twisted Spoon Press, which I discovered water-warped and without fanfare in a book bin in Prague — but thankfully she’s won the Nobel Prize now. So, it’s down to “The Traitor,” by Michael Cisco, a novel that unfolds like a lucid fever dream or some undiscovered Brothers Quay film written by Bruno Schulz and directed by David Lynch. Such a mind-altering exploration of mortality, the supernatural and colonialism. All this and prose that’s on fire, a plot without rivets and a healthy undercurrent of humor.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
The short stories of the new writer ’Pemi Aguda are so brilliant that she has quickly become a favorite. But any list of writers I admire, all for vastly different reasons, would fill a banquet hall. With apologies to the other 127, I will single out, in no particular order: Tatyana Tolstaya, Dasa Drndic, Joy Williams, Daisy Johnson, Catherine Lacey, Tamas Dobozy, Jenny Hval, Forrest Gander, Colson Whitehead, Maryse Meijer, Virginie Despentes, Ottessa Moshfegh, Carmen Maria Machado, Kai Ashante Wilson, Fred Moten, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Marlon James, Philippe Claudel, Rachel Cusk, Kelly Link, Nnedi Okorafor, Kristen Roupenian, Tommy Pico and N. K. Jemisin. Meanwhile, Brian Evenson continues to quietly and in quantity write original and beautifully strange fiction. And, I find Charles Yu a wonder — it’s so difficult to engage in structural experimentation and metafictional play that intensifies rather than deadens emotional resonance.
Ecology and the environment are at the heart of a lot of your fiction. Are there science or nature writers you especially admire?
I’m in a period of flux on this score as I’ve recently amassed a library of 500 books about ecology and the environment, in anticipation of creating an environmental salon out of part of the house. Some of these books are from the library of the naturalist George Schaller (himself a favorite), given to us by his son, our good friend Eric Schaller. So, as I work my way through this treasure trove, my sense of what I might recommend keeps shifting and changing.
However, I have a particular fondness for three books out this year. Barbara J. King’s “Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild” is the most comprehensive exploration I’ve read of the complex relationship between the human and nonhuman, full of great insights and practical information. Daniel Heath Justice’s “Raccoon” is a fascinating and thoughtfully written exploration of its subject in science and culture — and a must-read for anyone like me who is curious about what, for example, Raccoon Mother (our best yard raccoon) is thinking on any given day. Cal Flyn’s “Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape” does a remarkable job of reclaiming lost and supposedly empty or derelict places by showing us how they can still be full of life and hope.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I get superstitious. I once had a book sent to me that was disrupting my ability to write a novel because of a superficial similarity between the two. I took that book and dug a hole and buried it deep in the backyard, which solved my temporary writer’s block. Out of a strange guilt, as if I’d buried something alive, I did try to dig the book up after I had finished my novel, but I never found it.
So, yes, when I have an idea set in my mind — characters, situations, some kind of ending — I will stubbornly refuse to read anything even remotely similar, whether fiction or nonfiction. Instead, I will binge-watch television shows and listen nonstop to music. In short, I’m weird on this question. Once, a friend (but were they?) sent me a bottle of red wine titled Writer’s Block, and I poured it down the drain and took the bottle to the recycle bin immediately, just so my subconscious wouldn’t get any ideas.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I read “A Tale of Two Cities” in the last year of middle school and found it hard going at times, but when I got to the sacrifice at the end, I wept like a baby. The ideal of giving all of oneself for some cause or noble effort, even if we know we live in a world where very little is pure, tends to affect me deeply in literature. Half-doomed causes, large and small, from which some light is rescued, but not in a sentimental way, which has also led me to explore in my own fiction the idea of how even failure can move the needle toward justice. That feels realistic, given the forces and systems arrayed against the individual. And, while I’m not a huge fan of epiphany or ecstatic revelation coming to the rescue of an otherwise dull story, I do respond to those moments when characters sense something beyond themselves that feels spiritual or separate from the mundane.
How do you organize your books?
Poorly, with the eye and tatty grace of a pack rat. The VanderMeer will attempt to create a foundation of books in alphabetical order by author (or subject, if nonfiction), but inevitably piles in no particular order occur around these more organized areas. The VanderMeer, in trying to tidy up, will create more piles and also decoratively strew books across his desk and night stand. Being an obsessive creature, the VanderMeer may mine out a subject and thus a pile or a shelf will for a time have a seeming order simply because of the VanderMeer’s inability to leave a subject well enough alone. Over time, though, he will lose the thread and only years later come across a book on eccentric crayfish names, a defense of wrens or a screed against penguins and wonder by what impulse was this acquired and brought back to the den?
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“I Know How to Cook,” by Ginette Mathiot, perhaps? I periodically bring this massive book out to the kitchen in a wheelbarrow, winch it onto the counter and go through its pages looking for a new experience to inflict upon my wife, Ann. I can make a good chicken Marengo, and a trout recipe, but many of the other attempts are best not replicated or remembered.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My high school creative writing teacher, Denise Standiford, gave me a copy of Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and said I needed to read it. She was right — I didn’t know until then that you could write like that. I felt as if my brain was exploding with each sentence, in the best possible way.
Do books serve a moral function, in your view? How so?
I enjoy books that don’t care if I think they should serve a moral function. Personally, I believe it’s more important that books be laboratories and experiments and it’s up to the reader to be moral. I trust my readers to know that, at times, I’m going to write wickedly and in a messed-up way, about messed-up characters who may behave in an unreliable or suspect manner.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Given a year of strict quarantine because of the virus, there are so many living writers I want to see and talk to, in such desperate ways. But, for that very reason, I’ll restrict myself to dead writers. Personally, I think a dinner party with Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter and Amos Tutuola would be amazing. These would not be the only guests, but I will not name the others out of deference to your outrageous limit.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I’m afraid my answer may be disappointing or just not good, because the past year I’ve abandoned dozens of books as if they were radioactive hot potatoes. Permission to fail in reading texts entire seemed important, given election and pandemic stress. We need to be charitable toward books we don’t connect with for this reason. I’ve been astonished to return to certain books the past month that I thought were slow reads, only to discover that my own pacing was at fault.
I will admit, though, that I am on my sixth chance with “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Every time I start from the beginning again, I manage 20 to 30 new pages of progress. Every time, too, I have some new think-piece about it that changes my perception. Someday I will make it to the end, and I won’t regret it (although, maybe?) even though to say I’m fond of this novel would be a stretch. It’s OK to be bored, confused, frustrated and irritated by a book every once in a while, so long as there’s also something you glimpse in the pages that’s mysterious or new or different. (My parents gave me “The Lord of the Rings” when I was 9, too young to understand all of it, so this has always been part of what I think of as a good reading experience.)
What do you plan to read next?
Since it’s spring, Ali Smith’s “Autumn,” the first few pages of which are already revelatory and liberating.
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