Foxes and wormholes and Dead Astronauts: Talking with Jeff VanderMeer about how he writes his audaciously weird novels

Back in December, I interviewed sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer onstage at Elliott Bay Book Company to celebrate the release of his new novel, Dead Astronauts. VanderMeer is perhaps best known as the author of the Southern Reach Trilogy, the first book of which was adapted into the film Annihilation, and he's at the forefront of science fiction right now. He writes books that are environmentally minded and weird and resistant to straightforward narrative — Dead Astronauts, for instance, is a story that involves time travel and weird interdimensional foxes and parallel universes and a giant corporation that's eating everything. VanderMeer's writing voice is so sharp and unafraid and prickly that you might wonder if he would be chilly or impersonal. In person, though, he's a delightful, forthcoming man who isn't afraid to speak his opinions but is endlessly generous with his fans. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation.

I was blown away by Dead Astronauts, and I love that you seem to break every single rule in every single how-to-write guide. First, I want to talk to you about the way that you introduced the characters in this book. I know there's nothing an author enjoys more than hearing someone else read their words aloud, so here you go:

...a tall black woman of indeterminate age named Grayson. She had no hair on her head because she liked velocity...Chen was a heavyset man, from a country that was just a word now, with as much meaning as a soundless scream, or the place Grayson came from, which didn't exist anymore either. Moss remained stubbornly uncommitted — to origin, to gender, to genes, went by "she" this time but not others.

You introduced each of these characters by describing what they don't have, so they each come out of negative space. We only learn what they're not. I kept reading the passage over and over again because I haven't seen anything quite like that. I love the way you did it, but I'm still not even sure if it's technically possible to introduce characters in that way in a book.

Well, I hope it is.

I think that it speaks to the fact that they literally have nothing. They have nothing but their mission at this point. They've become the mission, and so you can only describe them by, in a sense, what they were before but are not anymore, or where they came from — places that don't exist anymore. And so they're both completely cut off and yet completely unified, and who they are is in a way each other.

There is more description, later, of them. But it's true that I like to discover characters over time. I don't like to frontload a lot of information. I want to just give you enough to rope you in. I also think about what the characters themselves, if they were speaking to you, would divulge and not divulge, and I try to be truthful to that.

A lot of this book comes from a nonhuman perspective. And I've seen in interviews that you've admitted that writing from the perspective of an animal is not really possible because you have a human brain. If you're setting out to do something that you know is not possible, does it feel like failing every time? Are you comfortable with the way that it turned out in the book?

Early on, I found Angela Carter and just fell in love with all of her work. And I remember something she said, which was just simply that she always wanted her reach to exceed her grasp, and she didn't care if she fell on her face. That's something I think about every time I write, and it applies specifically to non-human perspectives.

And there's so much that's harmful about stereotypes of animals in pop culture and elsewhere, so I long ago lost the fear of doing more harm, because there's so much harm that's being done already.

But also, usually there's some human interference in the animals whose minds I'm inhabiting. So it's mostly, like, biotech; even the fox had been altered by humans. I feel like that gives me the permission to enter into that mind, and then I just have to find the thing that's personal to me.

So, for example, the fox expresses a lot of views I don't believe in because I'm not a fox. But the anger that the fox feels is something that I feel very purely, and so that allows me the entry point that's human — but then also something that's not human.

If I were to just do a fox's story from its own point of view it would be a 5000-page novel of smells, because that's what foxes rely on. Then you would have to interpret what was going on in the novel just based on the smells that were in the book.

[Someone in the audience shouts "DO IT," and the room breaks out in laughter.]

That's why there are different forms in this book — I started out as a poet and I returned to that a little bit with some of the prose poetry and some of the lyricism. The other thing is that I wanted to be more didactic in certain sections, and the only way to do that was to also be more lyrical at the same time to overcoat it, so it wasn't just writing an essay. I didn't want to just convey information. Information is not a novel.

That's why there's so many different forms in there, is the attempt to do this thing that's impossible, but do some facsimile of it in a way that's honest.

There's a lot of play in the book. It didn't feel showy to me, like some authors who I will not name onstage but will happily name after the reading if you want. Did you feel as though it was breaking the form of a novel at any point? Did you ever have to pull yourself back?

That's a really good question. I was very formally experimental in my early work and I think it served a purpose there, because I was really writing about history. And so the fact that it was formal and not always tied to the emotional lives of the characters made sense.

But ever since, I've tried to make the experiments more and more invisible. So the Southern Reach Trilogy has a lot of experiments that are invisible — for example, a lot of dialogue from Annihilation is repurposed in the scenes that are in the corridors of the Southern Reach — incidental conversation, things like that. There's ways I'm literally trying to use mesmerist tricks in Authority, for example, to hold a reader in a place so they feel uncomfortable but they don't know why.

There was a version of [Dead Astronauts] that was much more experimental. The fish point of view swam underneath two of the other sections, but there was no way to format it where it just didn't feel like a footnote. I did not want that thing where you're going back and forth on the page; I felt like that would be death in a novel where it's already fairly strange and breaking some convention. So FSG [Dead Astronauts publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux] had to retype the entire novel because they had already done it that way, and I would just like to thank FSG for doing that. It was excruciating for them, and I will forever feel guilty. I was trying very hard to make the flow of it and the sequencing of it such that it felt less experimental than it was so that the reader could get into it. Because I really want the reader to be immersed in it, not to be noticing what the experiments are.

In an interview with the Paris Review, you said, and I quote, "I always go back to structure. I think more and more of structure as the scaffolding a writer needs in their mind to write a story or novel." Your writing feels very intentional, but it doesn't feel to me like you're starting out with a structure every time. In Dead Astronauts, for instance, it doesn't feel like you started out with a strict plan. I was wondering if you could just talk about whether you keep to the structure in your head or if it evolves, because you seem like a very organic writer to me.

Well, that's why I call it scaffolding. I start out writing a story or a novel because I have this intense image in my head that has some resonance. It's not symbolic in a Freudian way — I think that's a dead end because it means only one thing — but it's something that resonates and is connected to a character.

And then I have some sense of an ending, and then some scaffolding of structure comes around it, and it may not even be the structure that's actually, finally, the novel. Like for Acceptance, I imagined the structure as as a five-pointed star. In the middle of the star is the biologist's point of view and everything spokes off from that, but if you diagrammed the novel, the actual structure is not that. That is just simply a structure in my head that allowed me to write the novel.

[With Dead Astronauts,] it was a little looser because I felt that there's a remix version of this where you literally just change the order and you have a very different novel, depending on what you encounter first. That liberated me quite substantially in worrying about sequencing. All I had to do was make sure that the structure of each section was correct and then make sure that the order made sense for the effect I wanted to make, while realizing there were all these other wormholes that you could take to read it and have a totally different effect.