The New Yorker has weighed in on The Southern Reach Trilogy, and I’m delighted they’ve focused on weird ecologies. I also think this may be the first time they’ve had to explain something like “mushroom dweller” to a general audience. Anyway, it’s heartening to see them differentiate Area X from the post-apocalypse subgenre and to bring up Timothy Morton, whose latest book I’m currently devouring. The first Morton I’ve read, and it’s truly strange the parallels and similarities with some of the subtext of the Southern Reach novels. And this all tends to feed into the next novel I’m working on as well.
Over at The Millions, I’ve interviewed the author Richard House–some fascinating answers. Anyone who read my year’s best list over at Electric Literature or my pick of the year for The Globe & Mail knows I loved Richard House’s The Kills–my favorite fiction read of 2014. I also included it in my list of daring books over at FSG’s site, where I wrote:
Richard House’s The Kills approximates the general idea of a thriller but the structure of four interlocking short novels makes the reader work to put the story together. (in a good way) The fact that one of the four novels is primarily thematically linked to the other three creates a unique kind of connectivity, and a situation where the entire shape of the story only locks into place on the very last page of the book. It’s not that The Kills just subverts genre tropes-—it’s not actually operating via those tropes, even in how characters enter and leave the narrative, and yet the ghostly outline of thriller expectations still do intercede on the reader’s behalf. The exquisite tension caused by this ghostly outline, brought to the text by the reader, held me transfixed and admiring as The Kills keeps becoming something different, and something different again.
There are few novels these days that read to me as if the writer understands some of the unique aspects of our modern condition. The Kills is one, Ledgard’s Submergence was another, and The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim (translated by Jonathan Wright) a third. I believe we’re in an era where a lot of what we’ve held to be universal or relevant in literature will begin to seem dated and nostalgic. But not these books.
(The start of it all: At Elliot Bay in Seattle, this February; photo by Todd Vandemark.)
Over on Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Housekeeping site, they’ve posted my year in indie bookstores. I was fortunate enough to spend much of 2015 on the road in support of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and a big part of that was reading at or signing in independent bookstores.
Head on over and check out my notes on Bookmark It, Book Passage, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Booksmith, Book Soup, Chop Suey, City Lights, Elliott Bay, Fountain, Kramers, Green Apple, Housing Works, Hub City, Inkwood, Malaprops, McNally Jackson, Mysterious Galaxy, Politics & Prose, Powell’s, Quail Ridge, WORD, and more.
A special shout-out here to Kathmandu Books for handling the limited edition S.R. chapbook, Subterranean for various kindnesses, and for Borderlands for providing books for the Writers With Drinks event I did in San Fran–one of the best events ever.
(Thanks, Matthew Revert, for the great info-graphic.)
It’s a perennial problem, isn’t it? How to make that dang-blasted book look like something else when you wrap it, because otherwise what’s the point? It can be slathered in wrapping paper that’s covered in three-dimensional rainbow-colored topographical anomalies interspersed amongst Satanic dog-headed kittens and the person receiving the gift will still figure it out.
But don’t despair! As a public service, you can find my preferred method above. I finally admitted to this approach when NYT bestselling author Lois H. Gresh asked the question on her facebook page. Matthew Revert was then kind enough to provide an illustrated version as a holiday season mitzvah.
Of course, Gresh then had to raise some issues that point to a possible need for refinements in this approach. Specifically:
So let me get this straight. I use the Fishomatic to pulverize 12 dead fish. I dump the fish pulp into a 12″-diameter sphere-shaped ice tray (and good luck finding one of those). Then I push the book into the fish pulp. Clearly, a pulp title is best. I freeze. Carefully, I pop the frozen sphere from the “tray” and arrange it in a nest of fish scales. Then I put it under the recipient’s pillow in his/her bed. Oh, wait. That’s The Godfather Method of Wrapping a Gift Book.
This interpretation is a little time-intensive and perhaps limiting in terms of the type of book. And, granted, sometimes I will just strap the dead fish to the book and cover both with wrapping paper and hand that to the lucky recipient–especially if there’s no convenient sea nearby. Her next suggestion, however, may further streamline the whole process…
If I hide the book or toss it into the sea, and hence, the supposed recipient doesn’t know that he has this wonderful gift… then I can save my book money and give him something much smaller and cheaper, such as a pea. Yes, I can hide a pea and feel good, knowing that I intended to give him a book. After all, it’s the thought that counts!
I have no suggestions on how to hide a pea. Nor for wrapping an e-book. But for less avant garde suggestions on book-wrapping, here are a few links.
—Google Image Search (less terrifying than you might expect)
—Pinterest, suggesting disguises that will fool no one (like if you put a fake moustache on)
Of course, you could always just wrap the damn book using time-proven and careful techniques.
Or share your own secret ways in the comments below…
One highlight of my year-long book tour in support of the Southern Reach trilogy was doing a Functionally Literate event in Orlando, Florida. The organizers did perfect pre-event publicity, had their own built-in PR through their own radio show/podcast. They also knew exactly what details to take care of to make my life easier after having been on the road a lot, and the gig itself was impressive as hell. From the venue to the format to the dedicated, extremely large (and enthuastic) audience of regulars–with great back-up from the awesome independent bookstore Bookmark It–Functionally Literate had pretty amazing organization, logistics, and support. (I highly recommend this reading series to all writers and their publicists–I put in a good word for them with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
They also had books they’d published–beautifully designed books, smartly edited, imaginatively conceived, featuring really interesting writers. I got a sampling of them at the hotel they’d put me up at. They all bore the Burrow Press logo. Burrow, you see, is the driving force behind Functionally Literate. And Burrow quickly has become my favorite new independent press.
After only three years and 10 books published, with four more scheduled for 2015, Burrow Press has become a prominent part of the Orlando literary landscape. One recent title, the story collection Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee, blurbed by Laura van den Berg, won an IPPY in addition to being long-listed for the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award and named a Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award Finalist.
Burrow Press seems poised for continued and sustained national attention–especially with its release of the novella on which Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is based. Indeed, you could say that Burrow Press is both reflecting a revitalized Orlando culture scene and helping drive that revitalization. It was energizing to see, and reminded me of ancient days back in Gainesville, Florida, where my cohorts and I founded one of the first significant indies in that city. (Today morphed into Cheeky Frawg.)
With the year coming to the end, and in celebration of the indie press/bookstore renaissance that seems to be sweeping the U.S., I thought I’d interview Ryan Rivas, the publisher and co-founder of Burrow Press. His writing has appeared in decomP, Annalemma, Prick of the Spindle, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and elsewhere.
Mike Allen first made a real splash with his unique Clockwork Phoenix series, which he edited in addition to Mythic Delirium. But he’s an interesting and unsettling writer of dark, weird fiction as well, with a first collection out that’s beginning to get some buzz. Library Journal just gave his Unseaming a starred review. You can buy the collection here. Recently, I interviewed Mike about his work and weird fiction via email.
When did you start writing?
I’ve made stabs and feints at writing since grade school, but it was never a constant thing. For much of my youth I thought I was going to be an artist when I grew up, and I started out college as an art major before eventually figuring out that my passion lay with writing. (Though my preoccupations in art and writing were much the same; see one of my old drawings below as an example, heh.)
What drew you to horror and weird fiction?
There’s a broad reason and a narrow reason, both rooted in morbid curiosity and childhood trauma. The broad reason: I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the dark and the monsters in it. In fact, one of the stories in Unseaming stems from a nightmare I had as a toddler. This part of my nature metastasized permanently in the third grade, when our teacher read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” to us for Halloween, setting off night terrors that bedeviled me for years. Becoming a connoisseur of horror and finally a writer of horror made it possible for me to regain control over my own imagination.
Some of my most pleasurable experiences have been while birding and I love seeing birds on book covers, so you can imagine how happy I was to see this feature on birds on book covers–some stunning designs, including my own Acceptance. Even just in the context of book design you can see how various and interesting birds can be.
Admittedly, I’m a rank amateur as a birder—sans scope, for example, and also sans the patience to stand for hours in a blind. But I kept a birding journal until I was about 14 years old and have always bought and used birding guides. I’ve also always admired the intensity and devotion of birders and the ambition behind the idea of doing a Big Year. For a period of a few years as an adult I hung out with birders and shared their enthusiasms. But our paths diverged when it became clear that I was someone with an abiding love of hiking who just enjoyed bird watching on the side. The two types are not always compatible.
(Two of the Academy’s owls, from the behind-the-scenes tour.)
This year, though, has brought birds back to me in a big way—first because they form an important part of my novel Acceptance, but also because touring behind the novels has led me to birds. Especially owls, and especially the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. There, I was fortunate enough to have a behind-the-scenes tour led by Jill Sybesma and documented by photographer Kyle Cassidy. Chris Urie from Geekadelphia was kind enough to set it up.
First, They come to your neighborhood with a horde of biologists and chemists and environmental scientists and a host of other experts in various fields, to pre-map things. Afterward, you’d put on the device and walk down your street. Everything would be identical to what you’d see with your own eyes…except you’d also see the chemical signals in the air from beetles and plants, pheromone trails laid down by ants, and every other bit of the natural world’s communications hidden from us by our primitive five senses. You’d also see every trace of pesticide and traces in puddles of water of run-off and invisible carcinogens and other human-made intercession on the landscape. It would be overwhelming at first, especially since this would come with simulated approximations of how you might experience these things, still bound by your own puny senses, so you’d have to get over cognitive dissonance.
Once you got used to it, maybe you’d go with more advanced settings. Like, you’d look at the ground and it’d open up its layers, past topsoil and earthworms down into the deeper epidermis, so to speak, until you’re overcoming a sense of vertigo, because even though you’re standing right there, not falling at all, below you everything is revealing itself to you superfast. And maybe then, while still staring at the ground, you’d have an option to regress to simulations of the same spot five years, ten years, fifty years, two hundred years ago…until when you look up again there’s no street at all and you’re in the middle of a forest and there are more birds and animals than you could ever imagine because you’ve never seen that many in one place. You’ve never even seen this many old-growth trees before. You’ve never known that the world was once like this except in the abstract.
When you come back, the game’s over. The initial experience would only last 10 or 15 minutes because we’re talking about a real onslaught of sensory information that requires time to process, followed by longer and more complex sessions. A basic initial session might strip away certain layers of experience for a more gradual immersion over a period of six sessions. By that time, there may be enough of an overlay through the user’s imagination that walking through the same area evokes a simulation of the experience without the equipment: sensory pop-ups in the brain based on the prior immersions.
If enough people play the game right and understand what it means, you, your children, your grandchildren, and your great grandchildren live long lives and everybody continues to be able to have things like electricity, which makes using devices like a future Oculus a lot easier.
Otherwise, it’s just a dead helmet sitting atop of a head full of rotted meat.
[Reddit username JeffVanderMeer; I am that dude.]
(Photo by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
I wrote the short essay below before encountering this blog post about dystopic fiction, this op-ed about useless creatures, and Steven Shaviro’s blog post of 22 short theses. But all three are relevant to the issues set out below. (And in talking about the environment and our relationship to animals, let’s be clear: I’m not making any special claims about my own Southern Reach trilogy.)
The op-ed about useless animals cuts to the heart of our problematic relationship to our fellow animals. The blog post of theses is important because it begins to suggest, on a philosophical and practical level, how to begin to move forward on these issues.
As for the blog post on dystopias, my two cents: It’s become harder and harder for near-future science fiction to be considered cutting edge or paradigm-shifting if it doesn’t on some level or sub-level engage with an aspect of the issues set out below, in my opinion. This may be a different issue than whether a novel is aesthetically successful or works in other ways. However it is worth noting as well that most contemporary mainstream novels with no speculative elements in them do not successfully convey the “science fictional present” in which we live. Which is to say, they could have been written any time in the past 50 years–plus smart phones.
That lack in contemporary realism isn’t great. But the escapism in a fair number of Collapse novels is, to my mind, perhaps more insidious because it trades off our own fears of, well, almost imminent collapse and turns them into somewhat comforting disaster porn. At the same time, this is a difficult endeavor. The instantaneous commodification and coopting of terms like “eco-fabulism” and “cli-fi” by pop culture and culture at large speaks to how difficult it is to find fresh ways to address these issues in fiction that do not immediately lose the shock of the new required for them to infiltrate minds in a meaningful way. (Especially in a context within which the 1970s disaster novels of, for example, J.G. Ballard, still seem more relevant than much current fiction.)
For additional, related discussion, read this “in conversation” piece between me and Karen Joy Fowler.
This past weekend, in addition to a great review of my novel Acceptance and a mention of my next novel in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times op-ed section ran a piece of mine on lighthouses–including our local lighthouse at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. (In other exciting news, Acceptance, which features a lighthouse prominently, appears on the NYT bestseller list next week.)
There was a fair amount of material I couldn’t fit into the article, all of it due to the wonderful writer Kati Schardl, who earlier this year had written up a feature on me and the Southern Reach trilogy for the Tallahassee Democrat. It was because of that feature that I got to go inside of the St. Marks lighthouse in the first place. I’ve reproduced some further words from Schardl below, which gives further context about the lighthouse and the lighthouse restoration fund.
The reaction to the lighthouse piece was very positive, including a thumbs up from the Lighthouse Directory on twitter. I also received a fair number of emails from lighthouse enthusiasts. In addition to Schardl’s comments I’ve reproduced some of those emails, with permission, below. I think you’ll find them of interest. I should note that the opinions expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect my own. – Jeff
Katie Schardl on plans for the St. Marks lighthouse and its Fresnel lens
The Fresnel lens will be professionally preserved in its current condition and put on display in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center while the building itself is restored. The ultimate goal is to relight the beacon, but the lens will first need to be restored to optical quality, which will be costly–there aren’t a whole lot of artisans out there who have the knowledge and expertise to work on Fresnel lenses.
[As for] restoration bringing in too much tourism. It’s a very delicate balance, isn’t it? The paramount concern is to restore the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters in a way that has the least impact on the surrounding environment, and also work within federal guidelines and requirements, since the refuge is a federal entity. There’s currently a moratorium on expanding structural square footage in federal wildlife refuges, so there is no plan to expand the footprint of the lighthouse/keeper’s house with reconstructed historic out-buildings, etc.
However, there will be site enhancements such as new walkways, refreshing the current historic marker, and an ADA-compliant ramp. There will probably be an extra fee charged to tour the lighthouse, once it’s restored, which will help support expanded staffing and maintenance, etc. The staff at the refuge, and the volunteers as well, are very canny and vigilant stewards and, if it came down to it, I think terroir would trump tourism in the long run.
In the end, yes, we hope more people will want to come learn about the lighthouse and will experience the happy side-effect of falling under the spell of the refuge’s primeval landscapes!
It’s my personal belief, as someone who’s been exploring and loving the refuge for 20-plus years, that the more people make contact with those landscapes—breathe the air, walk the trails, watch the birds and wildlife doing their thing, feel the peace of it all—the more people will want to protect a place where that wild magic seeps into the soul. As a refuge ambassador and volunteer ranger, I’ve seen that magic do its work time after time.