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The Care and Feeding of the Structures We Build

Jeff VanderMeer • August 25th, 2013 • Culture

Assuming for the sake of argument (because it doesn’t need to be this way in reality) that we must delineate fiction as realistic or non-realistic (read, “fantastical” if you like or surreal or magically real or magically delicious if you really must)… then thinking for a moment from the point of view of someone passionate about nonrealistic fiction…Imagine for a moment any and all organizations or institutions or awards systems that exist in the service of such literature…Wouldn’t you want these organizations and institutions and awards systems to have true interest in true diversity of this kind of fiction?—for example, the same passion for it wherever it might be found around the world and with an appreciation for and delight in how it differs and where it is the same—and to be willing to learn different ways of reading and to become attuned to and aware of different traditions of literature?

For example, too, no less passion for the magically real or the magically delicious if found in mainstream lit journals rather than in genre publications (able to recognize it even in the “wrong” context, not rendered invisible merely by the company kept)…or that in aggregate understand and approve of and actively support the elation of, for example, a reader in one language finding the amazing fantastical stories of some neglected writer in another language, glimpsed in the form of just a couple of tales or even a fragment of translation—this reader whose elation is not really even about the treasure itself but how it suggests the outline of something greater that is still excruciatingly only half-seen, texts time-traveling from the past to the present that help to form a more complete picture and a more complete conversation…

Wouldn’t you want institutions and organizations and award systems that while they recognize and appreciate the center of things also have a sense of stewardship for those most experimental examples of the form that need help to find an audience and that through their adventurousness allow other brave, but not as brave, souls to travel farther than they might? Institutions and organizations and award systems that have the wisdom to bypass tired binary arguments about high and low art, genre and mainstream, that largely ignore territorialism and ideology while correcting for the kind of territorialism and ideology that negate a level playing field and make us all, in a way, more selfish. In short, wouldn’t you want organizations and institutions and award systems that possess in the very syntax of their bylaws the same roving curiosity and passion that make of us as individuals vast and generous and joyful and omnivorous readers?

Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (out in October)

Jeff VanderMeer • April 23rd, 2013 • Culture, News

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(early draft of the cover)

One reason I’ve been so quiet here on my blog is that I’ve been working nonstop on Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. This is the world’s first fully illustrated, full-color guide to creative writing, with many of the images replacing instructional text. Jeremy Zerfoss did most of the art; his instructional diagrams are based on my rough sketches. The remaining art comes from over 30 artists from all over the world. More than 80 writers contributed to the book through sidebar essays, spotlight features, or just quotes in the main text. (I’ll have a full TOC posted closer to the publication date.) There are over 250 images in Wonderbook.

I cannot thank Abrams Image, my publisher, and David Cashion, my editor, enough. They gave me the budget, time, and support to go off and create the entire 352-page book from scratch–overseeing all aspects of the art and design–and to deliver it to them complete. I cannot think of another time that this has occurred, and it may never again. I feel incredibly lucky.

But as we finish up on the book–we’ve turned in the layouts to the publisher, and are just working on a last few images–I thought I’d share some teasers here from the book so you can begin to get an idea of it. I’m not going to post much from the innovative instructional diagrams, but you can probably still get some sense of the scope. Basically, this book is meant to be of use to any beginning or intermediate writer, but its foundation is in the fantastical. Most general writing books use realism as their foundational stance…

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Oxford Exchange in Tampa: Book Haul

Jeff VanderMeer • March 28th, 2013 • Book Reviews, News

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We meant to work all day while still here in Tampa, but took some time off this afternoon to go to the Cigar City Brewery and then Del Rio’s for dinner (a great Cuban place). But before that, we stopped by the Oxford Exchange Bookstore, which was recommended to us by Liz at USF (thanks!). What a great, well-curated, unique bookstore! Definitely worth it. I haven’t bought books in awhile, and I’m sorry to say I splurged. (Well, not too sorry.)

In this first photo, just a few notes. I’ve wanted the Lethem collection for awhile—can’t wait to dig into that. Snow I have in another edition, but the font was just not right for me, so this Everyman edition is a godsend. Weirdlife is about the search for unusual lifeforms. It’s a good refresher as I dive into the second Southern Reach novel, Authority, on a couple of areas of interest.

Peter Nadas’ sprawling novel set during the middle of the last century just was too enticing to pass up—just an amazing-looking book that I’m going to be immersed in, I’m sure. Ann wanted Miss Dreamville and the new Karen Russell collection, so I added on Swamplandia, to give it another go. The Nabokov biography I had to buy since I collect all things Nabokov, including nonfiction about him. This is probably around the 80th book in my collection. Its slant is that there is a lot of politics and whatnot in the backdrop and subtext of the master’s work. To which I say, well, DUH. Too bad a world-class style and verve can blind us to what’s staring out right in front of us.

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Ann also wanted the New American Haggadah, which looks fascinating for a number of reasons. Viola Di Grado’s novel from one of my favorite imprints, Europa, just grabbed me from the first paragraph and I couldn’t pass it up. Similarly, Speedboat by Renata Adler, a reprint from the 1970s, captured me and wouldn’t let me go. It’s from another of my favorite presses, New York Review of Books, which does such a wonderful job of bringing fiction into the world that might not otherwise be in print. Buying How Fiction Works was another case of having an edition where I hated the font. This more portable, better-designed edition I’m already having more luck with. I don’t agree with Wood on everything, but it’s useful to engage with his ideas.

I was so happy to find The Best of Archy and Mehitabel—a lovely set of poems/adventures featuring a cat and a cockroach. Without Michael Moorcock mentioning Archy to me a decade ago I never would’ve discovered these too joyful miscreants. Ann wanted the Book of Nice, which I pointed out was from the same publisher has her perennial favorite Bad Cats. And the Oxford Exchange also has lovely notebooks, of which I purchased two.

The ambiance of the Oxford Exchange bookstore is rather amazing—the curating of the bookstore is eccentric in a meaningful rather than frivolous way. It is on the small side, but it makes the space count, and the selections seemed to hit my sweet spot rather more often than not. The many props, including manual typewriters and card catalogues, lend a real weight to the place as well. Beyond the bookstore is a more general gift store, a coffee shop, and a restaurant. All of it combined lends itself to a great experience—and across the street is the University of Tampa, with its steely minarets and nice river walk. I highly recommend you check out the bookstore if you are in the area.

Lindsay Stern’s Town of Shadows

Jeff VanderMeer • September 25th, 2012 • Book Reviews

Every once in awhile something exceptional pops up unexpectedly—in this case Lindsay Stern’s Town of Shadows, which was published this past month and which I just learned about last week. Stern’s still in college, but the book reflects a mature voice and is of definite interest to anyone who likes the darkly fantastical.

Going into overdrive, our managing editor Adam Mills has interviewed Stern for Weirdfictionreview.com, have posted an excerpt, and also posted a review. Check it out. This is why we get excited about fiction. This is the cool stuff. (Like what you read at Weirdfictionreview.com? Donate!)

Molly Gloss’s Phenomenal “The Grinnell Method” at Strange Horizons

Jeff VanderMeer • September 13th, 2012 • Culture

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“She followed Grinnell’s famous method of note-taking: Her notebook, small enough to slip in her pocket, was an abridged record of bird sightings, cryptic behavior notes in a shorthand of her own invention, quickly-sketched drawings and maps, details of weather and vegetation, travel routes and mileage that would be difficult to remember with precision later in the day. It was scribbled in pencil, and none of it well organized—it all ran together….The Journal, written in pen at the end of every day, would be considerably fuller and neater, her notes organized, sorted out, edited, expanded, with detailed observations of behavior recorded at the back, on separate pages for each individual species. For the Journal, and for Species Accounts, she created a narrative, free of sentiment or much personal reflection—a scientific document, not a diary, but with the skeleton of facts dressed in the clothes of complete sentences, so as to be readable by any stranger looking over her shoulder. All manner of facts might prove important to a student of the future, this was Grinnell’s belief. Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant.” – From Molly Gloss’s “The Grinnell Method”

Sometimes you encounter a story that speaks to you on many levels at once, in which you recognize something very personal. Molly Gloss’s “The Grinnell Method,” serialized (Part 1 and Part 2) at Strange Horizons the last two weeks, is one such story for me. “The Grinnell Method” does many things wonderfully well, but at the forefront is its ability to convey a sense of the natural world in a clear yet lyrical way. I recognize, transported to a different terrain, many of my own hikes at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge here in North Florida. I recognize also those elements of silence, surprise, observation, and strange beauty that one encounters when immersed in that world. The details in Gloss’s story feel personal, they feel lived-in, and they reflect a profound sense of place. These are remarkable achievements that also push back against ideas of false urgency in narrative and the idea of what is or is not interesting in fiction. “Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant,” she writes, and she makes the reader experience the truth of these words. There are so many tour-de-force descriptions that I’ll reference only one and let you read the rest in the story, because that is, in part, the point of the story: “When she came out of the trees onto the bayshore, a great flock of wigeons and pintails flew up in unison against the dark sky, turning so the undersides of their wings caught the seam of sun at the horizon. The tide was out, and her shoes left a trail of shallow pug marks in the narrow strand of bayside beach. Crab molts were thick, and the mud was stitched with the lacy tracks of sanderlings and plovers as well as the spoor of deer, who liked to come down to graze the tidewater marshes at evening.”

What is the story about? It is in a sense irrelevant because of the way the story lives in both the moment and the past; this is not what some call a “plot driven” story, even though that idea comes fraught with all kinds of faulty assumptions. But the details are these: in the early 1940s, a woman naturalist is cataloguing bird and other life in a Pacific Northwest coastal landscape when she encounters an odd phenomenon. This phenomenon appears to the main character in the constrained, narrow way in which it must: to be observed and documented but without a wider explanation. To say the story is not plot-driven and that it contains indelible portraits of the natural world does not mean that “The Grinnell Method” isn’t aware of the era it depicts—exactly the opposite. We are made aware of it abruptly and pointedly from the beginning when she “sat on the dirt like a Jap”—this from the perspective of the young boy who helps transport her gear for her expedition; Gloss does an excellent job of remaining in a place with regard to point of view where she can be tight-in on her protagonist but also open up at times to give us glimpses of other people’s thoughts and opinions. (For example, both a postal worker and a girl who may want to also become a naturalist.)

We are also aware of the role of women in the world—the ways in which her interaction with the natural world are impacted by the world of humans beyond. For example, the observation a few pages in that “Universities don’t mind teaching girls, they just don’t like to hire them”; this in reference to the woman’s attempt to pursue a scientific career as a naturalist. Indeed, throughout the story she conveys the recognition that in order to survive in that world she must be a magnitude better at her job than her male cohorts; thus, the careful way in which the story opens, in which we are presented with her careful observations of nature, the great care that she takes with everything. It is not just the marker of someone good at what they do, but also someone who has to be superb at their job. And this: “Employment opportunities would disappear completely if she were to marry, and therefore she would never marry.” The awful power of this—that this means so much to her, despite the possibility of an impulse for another life—is not undercut by sentimentality. This is just the way things are—and the very descriptions of nature undercut sentimentality, explain the allure of her work; the “backdrop” is foreground in part for this reason.

This immersion in nature from the first page to last is not just about understanding the natural world but also about understanding character: this is the world the woman works in and has developed a deep understanding of. Immersing the reader thus makes it all the more startling, all the more wrong, when the strange phenomenon makes its appearance. It is a feeling of wrongness that permeates the page in a way it would not otherwise. Merging with the sense of something wrong is the way in which Gloss weaves in the past, in the tragic story of the woman’s brother, and his impact on her life. By the time the reader comes to the last pages, the story has added momentum and depth and sense of mystery. There is a thematic, subtextual confluence with the surface of the story that feels unforced and natural.

“The Grinnell Method” will leave the reader with questions about the inexplicable, but all of the answers the story provides are there, in the moment, for readers who understand that some tales satisfy utterly and completely in this sentence, and this one, and the one after that.

(Still, I would follow this woman anywhere, across any landscape, and some small part of me hopes that she will reappear in some future story. I also hope that “The Grinnell Method” receives some awards consideration at year’s end.)

My Novella “The Cage”–Now Available at PodCastle as a Podcast

Jeff VanderMeer • September 11th, 2012 • Audio, Fiction

PodCastle has just posted the podcast reading of my novella “The Cage,” originally published in City of Saints and Madmen and reprinted in at least one year’s best. The story can also be found in The Weird.

I first had the idea for “The Cage” at a bar mitzvah party. I saw a strange-looking cage wedged high up in a corner of a ledge in the banquet area. It didn’t seem to fit. I worried that detail in my mind for quite awhile, not sure what it meant. Then one day we were traveling back from some event on the Florida coast and we passed by the University of Tampa, which is housed in part in an old former hotel. It was after hours, and we walked around that place, which was eerie and somewhat like The Shining hotel in both the decor and the way the silence was watchful. And behind glass, in an exhibit: another cage. At which point, something was sparked in my imagination and I suddenly had the core of the idea for the story.

Atlas by Dung Kai-Cheung

Jeff VanderMeer • September 2nd, 2012 • Book Reviews

My google feed brought me this possible gem today: Atlas, by Dung Kai-Cheung. I’m buying it right now.

Here’s a description:

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections — “Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs” — the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

Much like the quasi-fictional adventures in map-reading and remapping explored by Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, Dung Kai-cheung’s novel challenges the representation of place and history and the limits of technical and scientific media in reconstructing a history. It best exemplifies the author’s versatility and experimentation, along with China’s rapidly evolving literary culture, by blending fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a story about succeeding and failing to recapture the things we lose. Playing with a variety of styles and subjects, Dung Kai-cheung inventively engages with the fate of Hong Kong since its British “handover” in 1997, which officially marked the end of colonial rule and the beginning of an uncharted future.

Japan Times has this review, which reads in part, “The faux-scholarship in this section is beautifully done and is equaled, though in a different vein, in the next part, where we move from theory to The City, an entity approached not directly, of course, but through maps and documents such as Round the World on the Sunrise by John Smith, a chronicle of, among other things, Smith’s movements on Aug. 9, 1907, the day he spends in Victoria. In Smith’s account, with characteristic subtlety, Dung mocks colonial travelers and the memoirs that reveal their odd interpretations of cultures to which they can only condescend.”

Interview with the author here.

Book Murderer Excerpt for Hal Duncan’s Storybusking

Jeff VanderMeer • August 31st, 2012 • Fiction, News, Uncategorized

Hal Duncan, the juggernaut responsible for Ink and Vellum, is storybusking. Go help him out–he’s a great writer. And in solidarity with him, here’s an excerpt from a novel I’m working on, The Book Murderer. If you like what you read, go donate something to Hal.

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Dean Francis Alfar: Read New Fiction, Buy His New Collection

Jeff VanderMeer • August 29th, 2012 • Culture, Fiction, News

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Dean Francis Alfar is an excellent short story writer whose second collection How to Traverse Terra Incognitais now available on Amazon and elsewhere in e-book form. The book comes with blurbs from such luminaries as Hugo Award winners Ann VanderMeer and Lynne M. Thomas, among others.

Not familiar with Alfar? Here’s what you need to know.

Alfar is a Filipino playwright, novelist and writer of speculative fiction. His plays have been performed in venues across the country, while his articles and fiction have been published both in his native Philippines and abroad, such as in Strange Horizons, Rabid Transit, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and the Exotic Gothic series. His literary awards include the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and then Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award. He is an advocate of the literature of the fantastic, editing the Philippine Speculative Fiction series, as well as a comic book creator and a blogger. Alfar is also an entrepreneur who runs several businesses. He lives in Manila with his wife, fictionist Nikki Alfar and their two daughters.

So here’s a proposition for you, since I’m a big fan of Alfar’s work. Below the cut, Alfar is allowing me to post “Enkantong-bato,” his entry from the bestiary anthology Ann and I are editing—totally new fiction, not found in the collection, free for you to read. Exclusive to this blog post and only available here for the next month. BUT, if you read and enjoy it, please do me favor and go buy How to Traverse Terra Incognita. The fact is, you’ll actually be doing yourself a favor!

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Borne: The Balcony Cliffs

Jeff VanderMeer • August 27th, 2012 • Fiction

Another novel I’ve been working on and hope to finish soon is entitled Borne. Here’s an early section, mostly exposition, that I’m not sure will survive intact in the final novel. Borne is set in a kind of post-collapse city.

My relationship with Wick was complicated by more than our sleeping arrangements. It was defined by where we lived, in the ruins of what I had dubbed the Balcony Cliffs. By the time I found the sea anemone, our fates in that place had become intertwined: Wick provided his biotech and chemical deceptions and I provided my talent for building traps both physical and psychological.

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