At Home With… Sci-Fi Author Mr Jeff VanderMeer
The trail in St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, 2020. Photograph courtesy of Mr Jeff VanderMeer
A few days ago, the writer Mr Jeff VanderMeer tweeted about one way, at least, in which speculative fiction has failed to prepare us for our pandemic present. “Did any SF novel about pandemics predict the number of article-listicles touting ‘Books to Read to Escape the Pandemic’,” he wrote, “or ‘Books to Read to Face Down the Pandemic’ or ‘Books to Read After Cooking & Eating Your Neighbor While Social Distancing?’ NO, THEY DID NOT. FAIL FAIL FAIL”.
If any writer’s work has prepared us for the fundamental weirdness of reality these days, it is surely Mr VanderMeer’s. From the uncanny, hallucinogenic dislocation within Area X (and of its various phenomena), the world beyond the shimmer in Mr VanderMeer’s incredible Annihilation, and its sequels which make up the Southern Reach Trilogy, to the postapocalyptic oddities in Borne and its spin-offs – including Mr VanderMeer’s latest, Dead Astronauts – his worlds are like prepping grounds for our new mental realities. These are the user manuals we’ll need to hurriedly adopt in order to address the growing climate catastrophe, which is at the heart of so much of his writing.
Mr VanderMeer and his wife, the sci-fi writer Ms Ann VanderMeer, live in a wooden mid-century home on the panhandle in northwestern Florida, near Tallahassee. When he is not writing, or face down during a pandemic, he is rewilding his property (replacing invasive plant species with native ones) and exploring the natural world around him there. We recently emailed Mr VanderMeer to see how life has changed for him during the lockdown (and find out what he’s cooking during the pandemic).
**What, if anything else, about our present predicament seems utterly novel, unpredicted by speculative fiction? **
Most of my Twitter is jokes or nature. But I do think that the “what if” approach to fiction can lead, oddly, to a very narrow or not very granular idea of the future. So that everything accretes around “what if there’s a worldwide pandemic” and all of these absurdities and other surreal elements get lost. But that may also be a function of a writer’s worldview. Which is to say that a realist – whether writing about the present or the future – may not always have the “tools” necessary to really capture a moment or a future moment. That said, I’m sure readers could point to novels I haven’t read that do get some of these things right. Mostly, though, I think it’s that even in catastrophe the full range of human emotions, including humour, still apply, and that’s important for novelists to realise.
**How does your creative muscle respond at a time like this? **
It exacerbates an issue of distance and perspective in the novel I’m finishing up, Hummingbird Salamander, which I think of as set 10 seconds into the future. I always knew that I’d have to find that sweet spot where it feels real to our times, but has the right stance to avoid becoming dated. Part of this is the level of detail. Part of this is the character perspective. But more and more I’m finding that the danger the character is in is because of government chaos and incompetence rather than government order and best practices, for example. So you either have to write stupid to reflect the stupid of the moment, or you find creative ways to use the stupid in non-stupid ways.
**What do you (normally) do for fun? **
I miss the gym right now, because the gym is like meditation for me. It’s not the same working out from home. But I’m a pretty simple person: I like to read, watch TV, garden and hike. I do also, though, get obsessed with particular topics. So, for example, I once spent a year immersing myself in Byzantine history. Once the history of noir fiction. I guess that’s a hobby.
What are your days like now?
My routine is pretty steady. I worked from home already, since 2007, and Ann for the last five years (after we both had day jobs for 25-30 years), so in some ways things haven’t changed. I get up and I do a walk-through of the yard right at dawn. This allows me to see if there’s anything unusual going on, check the new plantings and check the birdfeeders and refill as necessary. Plus, collect the trail cam. Then I come back in, have coffee, check my social media, post photos from the trail cam or videos I shot on the camera the day before, check the news, have breakfast, go write for two or three hours, work in the yard for a few hours, come back in and write or work more, have dinner (every second or third day we try to order out to support local restaurants), watch TV, go to bed early. Repeat. I would say I am checking the news more often and then various stressors last week meant a beer or two a day, which is a dangerous habit for a freelancer, so stopped that.
What are you stockpiling in your fridge?
We’re trying not to become hoarders. But we’ve got two weeks of canned food, for example. Just canned vegetables and some extra fish in the freezer. Haven’t really seen many shortages here, despite the number of folks on various local neighbourhood groups pleading for toilet paper.
What are you cooking/eating/craving?
I’m again pretty simple in this regard: I like scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast, something like a snack for lunch (chicken salad or a couple spoons of peanut butter) and then a dinner rich in vegetables with fish or chicken.
What are you reading that is providing pleasure, reprieve, escape?
I’m reading the mysteries of Fred Vargas. And I’m re-reading Severance by Ling Ma. But I’ll admit… I’m having a lot of trouble reading anything else.
Are you watching anything great?
I’d never gotten into Westworld season two, so we finally watched that all the way through, and despite some hiccups, it was pretty amazing in many ways. Pagan Peak was pretty great. We’re watching season three of Ozark and enjoying it. We love Better Things. We’re waiting with anticipation for the third season of the ridiculously hilarious I’m Sorry to drop. Schitt’s Creek is a comfort. I started watching Midsomer Murders and am on the fence about it. Right now it feels like it’s about a forgotten corner of Westworld.
**What are you holding particularly dear? **
A connection to the ravine our house lives at the top of. A connection to the box turtles and rabbits and opossums and the birds. I get great joy of seeing how my daily work in the yard improves the lives of the animals and the butterflies and bees. That we have so many different kinds of moths this year after spending 2019 rewilding and planting native plants. How many lizards of various kinds.
How has this changed the way you have been thinking about work or life, where you live, about people?
It’s an odd thing. There’s a certain amount of isolation in being a full-time freelancer. But we had been opening our house up quite a bit as a kind of salon, in the sense of having environmentalists over, holding parties for local cultural events like Word Of South and local businesses. To, in a sense, begin to be a gathering point for folks visiting and for folks in the community to meet and talk. That’s been snuffed out for now, and I do miss that. It’s easy to transition to social distancing when you’ve been a freelancer this long, but losing those opportunities to talk to people does hurt.
What are you wearing right now/every day?
Same as always: T-shirt and black golf pants. Really, golf trousers of a certain type are the best. In that I can wear them gardening, for events and just during the day writing. They dress up and they dress down. As for T-shirts, if you’re needing one, I highly recommend Urban Octopus. Great guy out of San Diego.
What have you resolved to do during this downtime/do in the aftermath?
I have to work to support my family. So, I have to keep working on the novels I have under contract. As for the aftermath, just continue as always to push at the local, national and international level on environmental issues.