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Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer on how his next novel is inspired by our dystopian present

Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer on how his next novel is inspired by our dystopian present


The book is part of a new major book deal

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Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Earlier today, Publisher’s Lunch announced that Annihilation and Borne author Jeff VanderMeer signed a “major deal” with publisher FSG for his next novel, Hummingbird Salamander, and an untitled short story collection. The deal is for over half a million dollars, and VanderMeer tells The Verge that it’s inspired in part by his concerns over the state the world when it comes to right-wing politics, climate change, and national security.

VanderMeer earned considerable acclaim for his Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), and his latest Borne, which followed a young woman living in an apocalyptic world filled with strange biotech. Earlier this week, a trailer for the adaptation of VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation hit the web, showing off Alex Garland’s highly anticipated film.

There’s been a growing trend of publishers courting genre authors in recent years. VanderMeer is one of several who have scored major publishing deals for upcoming works. In August, fantasy author V.E. Schwab scored a million-dollar deal with Tor Books for four novels, while science fiction author John Scalzi signed a $3.4 million deal for 10 novels in 2015.

We spoke with VanderMeer about his new book and what’s to come.

You recently announced that you signed a new deal with FSG Books for a pair of books. What can you tell me about your next big novel Hummingbird Salamander?  

I’m incredibly thrilled to be back with FSG for this book and the story collection. We work really well together. On one level, Hummingbird Salamander is a taut thriller set in the Pacific Northwest about a simple act of turning a key in the door of a storage unit, and changing someone’s life forever. The first-person narrator, a woman who gives her name only as “Jane,” has a very minimalist way of expressing herself that is unlike my style for any novel to date.

On another, the novel chronicles the contemporary uncanny quality that has entered all of our lives. It’s a kind of recognition, finally, of having lived in a dystopia for a long time. In a sense, fictional dystopias have been a way of distracting us from the truth of our condition by placing it “over there.” And I wanted to follow a person who, leading a fairly ordinary life, becomes involved in getting beneath the surface of things to the secrets beneath. In an era of the alt-right, alt-fact, and climate concerns as national security issues, the subject matter came to me naturally as a side effect of the research I’ve been doing on climate change in general, because “climate change” as a topic is intricately interconnected with social justice, business practices, government agencies, biospheres, the illicit wildlife trade, bio-terrorism, and eco-terrorism.

The Trump administration has been in office for only nine months. What impact do you see this having on the speculative fiction that’s being written now?

Sadly, if you’re already dealing with environmental issues, it just intensifies the urgency to make sure you get the links between eco-catastrophe and social justice right. Trump lays bare a lot of things already wrong with our society. But he also accelerates the process of it becoming worse, when it could be getting better. I have heard of several authors who just quit working on novels in progress because they either seemed irrelevant or suddenly out of date. Many authors, like a lot of people in general, are dealing with situational depression, and they feel blocked by it. Me, I tend to go at Trump most directly through short fiction like “Trump Land.”

You spoke about how Hummingbird Salamander is set about 10 seconds in the future, and involves things like drone warfare and ecoterrorism. What in particular has inspired this book? 

So many trips to the Pacific Northwest kind of drenched me in sensory detail and a certain texture of both the lush and the gritty, and what excited my senses usually comes out in the fiction. That region had already infiltrated the end of my novel Authority and some parts of Acceptance, which is another way of saying it really spoke to me — as did the record of environmental resistance in that area. And then one day, I had this image of a tall, big, strong middle-aged woman with what some might say is an unconventional body type — an ex-body builder — opening the door to a storage unit and finding inside a taxidermy hummingbird and a salamander.

Immediately I knew this was a pivotal moment in her life, I knew she’d never use her real name in telling her story, that the end of the world was involved, and that the dead woman who had sent her the key also had a story to tell, a mystery that needed to be divulged. From there, I had the whole storyline in my head and something that just happened to have a lot of exciting set pieces, tension to burn, and, yes, moments of dark humor.

Your Southern Reach trilogy and Borne look at the impact that people have on their environments. What do you have to say about climate change in Hummingbird Salamander?   

That it’s here, right now, and transforming us and our environments. We do not control it — as should be clear, despite the deniers out there. But also that this kind of “science fictional” element to our present day creates moments of astonishing beauty and biological complexity, even as they are in fact fleeting. And that we still control our own individual actions and our own individual responses. There is a lot we can still preserve in the moment, and difficult decisions have to be made. The world won’t be destroyed, but the question is whether we’ll have a place in it.

You started your career with New Weird novels such as Shriek and Finch, while the Southern Reach trilogy and Hummingbird Salamander feel like they're tied a bit more to the real world. What prompted that shift for you? 

Our science fictional future has folded back onto us, and we’re living it now in a landscape in which fact and fiction often become confused or blended. At this point in time, in the midst of the slow apocalypse, I feel no need for the distance of even an Area X or a ruined fantastical post-apocalyptic city as in Borne. I’m comfortable living and writing in the present moment. Every day I get up and I fill the bird feeders and put out fruit and other food for both the birds and any passing mammals. Is that pointless long-term? I have no idea. All I know is that on this day, in this moment, it makes a difference. And I want at least some of my fiction to reflect what I know of the present.

Image: FSG Books

What can you tell me about the collection of short fiction that accompanied this deal? 

We’ve deliberately left it open-ended, but the thought is to include a lot of originals, which may even mean long novellas. I’ve been fairly prolific and writing a lot in that middle range. We’ll let it grow organically so it has cohesion. It’s possible it might include a Southern Reach story, if this idea I’m working on pans out. I’m excited, though, because I’m striking out in new directions in my fiction and the collection will reflect that.

Earlier this week, we got our first look at director Alex Garland’s adaptation of your novel Annihilation. What was that like to watch? 

It’s very surreal and weird, this whole experience, and I’m still processing it. In a context where as the writer of the book, I don’t have any control over any aspect of the movie! On one level, I’m thankful it means more people will read the novels, which are very personal to me. I don’t think there’s as much of an emphasis on environmental themes in the movie, but at the same time, because a percentage of royalties from Annihilation book sales go toward environmental causes, the movie still helps that cause.

I appreciate Garland’s aptness for the visionary and gritty. It is truly an intense and epic film that will leave filmgoers feeling drained by the end, while at the same time readers of the novels have to think of the movie as an alt-Area X, alt-Southern Reach experience. I can’t deny I mourn some of those changes on a very deep level. Also, it is very difficult to experience a film when you’ve visited the set. I have very fond memories of meeting, for example, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez, and then seeing them active on Twitter about the movie. So that all forms an overlay as well, which I hadn’t expected.

Annihilation was imbued with a level of surrealism and flat out weirdness in Area X. How do you think the film does when it comes to translating what you wrote visually?  

Visually, it does an excellent job. There’s a scene involving Tessa Thompson’s character that’s not in the novel that I wish I had written. Getting to watch that scene being filmed was tense and exciting. The texture and the tactile nature of the movie, and the way it uses horror elements, are definitely is faithful to the novel. One difference is I think I see human beings as often irrational and inconsistent in their behavior, actions, and analysis of circumstances. I think Garland sees it mostly the other way around. So there should be some interesting takes online comparing the movie to the book, for a variety of reasons.

Word broke a while back that Paramount Pictures optioned your latest novel Borne. Any updates from that project?  

Not yet, but this has been a long process anyway. I started Borne back in 2007, so I’m patient. I hope they’ll have a screenwriter soon. I know that Scott Rudin Productions is very keen to get started. I’ll also have a bit more to say when it comes to Borne, since it won’t be my first rodeo. Casting Rachel and Wick right will be key. Well, I mean, also casting the giant flying bear. Who can do that role justice? Regardless, the movie option let us fund a year of the Octavia Project and things for our Shared Worlds writing camp, so…