Tallahassee Democrat
Interview and Review

Weirdly successful

John Irving has a thing for bears in his books. Jeff VanderMeer has a soft spot for squids. In his brand-new collection of short stories, Secret Life, VanderMeer includes a fanciful yarn titled "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid: An Article by Harry Flack." The tale was allegedly first published in The Orlando Sentinel (it wasn't) and claims such creatures as freshwater squid really exist (they don't). VanderMeer delights in blurring the lines of reality, making wild fiction sound like solid fact.

His book City of Saints & Madmen, released in 2002, also included illustrations of squids and a faux, footnoted booklet on the 300th Festival of the Freshwater Squid. "One reader sent me a big bag of dried squid," VanderMeer said with a sheepish smile over dinner recently. "I kept it in the freezer. He probably thought it was a very nice gesture."

Judging from the way his career is soaring, VanderMeer, who has lived in Tallahassee since 1992, may be getting lots more squid from fans. At 35, he's easily one of the top and most prolific fantasy writers (think Franz Kafka rather than L. Ron Hubbard) in the country today.

VanderMeer will read selections from Secret Life on Wednesday night at 621 Gallery in Railroad Square during "An Evening of Magical Realism." It's part of the ongoing Anhinga Press-Apalachee Review reading series. He'll share the stage with Tallahassee writer Joe Clark. VanderMeer, who has given few public readings in Tallahassee and keeps a low profile, will sign copies of his books after the words fly.

Please, leave your squid at home.

Fun with diseases

In 2000, VanderMeer won the World Fantasy Award — a big-time prize in the realm of speculative fiction — for his novella "The Transformation of Martin Lake." He won another World Fantasy Award in 2003 for his editing work. City of Saints & Madmen, a brainy, ambitious, live wire of a book in which VanderMeer explores a bizarre metropolis named Ambergris, ended up on several mainstream critics' best-of lists in 2002.

He served as an editor, contributing writer and ringleader for the humorous, aggressively oddball The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, which was published last year. The book is a fake medical reference that some people have mistaken for the real thing, even though it lists afflictions bearing such silly names as Fungal Disenchantment and Internalized Tattooing Disease. The Lambshead Pocket Guide is a finalist for the esteemed Hugo Award. "I just learned today that Bantam Books just bought the U.S. trade paperback and mass-market rights to the disease guide," VanderMeer said. "That is really good news."

Secret Life," which is being published this week, just got a glowing advance review from Locus, the fantasy-fiction world's equivalent of Billboard or Variety, which stated: "(The book's) appearance may well be a landmark." The Locus rave went on to say: "To read Secret Life is to understand radical new possibilities of fantastic narrative. Bizarre conjunctions of the mundane and the otherworldly; stories told backwards, in bits and pieces, entirely in the form of digressive book excerpts, or as weird correspondences of author and text; dazzling shufflings of viewpoint; curious resonances across dissimilar stories."

Florida State University English professor and fellow experimental writer Ralph Berry (Leonardo's Horse) had high praise for VanderMeer's work. "There are many remarkable qualities to Jeff VanderMeer's fiction," Berry wrote in an e-mail when asked to comment. "VanderMeer's imagination seems naturally drawn to outlandishness, the subjects and predicaments that sane writers take one look at and say, 'No way!' He's not afraid to describe in great detail objects we can't really imagine or to use names that are names of nothing we know. He's a genuinely brilliant, genuinely weird guy."

Maybe it has something to do with Fiji.

Worldly beginnings

"My parents were in the Peace Corps when I was a kid, and we were sent to the Fiji Islands," VanderMeer said. "I occasionally run into other people around my age whose parents were also in the Peace Corps. We always compare stories. They usually get jealous because their parents were stationed in some country in Africa without electricity or some miserable place in Latin America. We lucked out with Fiji." He lived in the South Pacific for six years as a boy. "It was pretty much idyllic, just like you'd expect," he said. "The only downside was that I was allergic to everything that bloomed in Fiji."

After his parents left the Peace Corps, the VanderMeer family spent months traveling around the globe — India, Nepal, Thailand, Egypt, Spain, Peru and other exotic locales. "I saw a trance dance in Malaysia and shadow puppet plays in Bali," VanderMeer said. "It was just magical, one big sensory overload after another . . . I know that had a lot of influence on my work."

Back in the United States, VanderMeer's father, Robert K. VanderMeer, an entomologist who specializes in the study of ants, took a teaching job at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"It was quite a shock after Fiji," he said.

Painterly fiction

The VanderMeer family soon headed south to Gainesville, where his father found research work at the University of Florida. His mother, Penelope Miller, is a painter who remains one of his main inspirations. He gleaned ideas about writing from watching her work in her studio. "Just the whole idea of how painters texture things, how they lay on paint, are things that I actually applied to the way I start stories and novels," he said. "I'm always trying to find what kind of texture I want to bring out in a piece."

Other artists gave him the idea that he should never commit to just one style of writing, stating that "a writer should be like a chameleon," willing to change with the material. "Chagall, basically, did the same thing over and over again," he said. "But Picasso would be all over the place. I like to radically shift styles in my work. I don't have that much time to write, so I want to explore and expand what I can in the little bit of time I do have."

In his teens, VanderMeer wrote 99 poems and got 99 rejection letters. When he cobbled together what he considered to be his first publishable story, he wrote to a "New Age-y" magazine asking about the proper channels to go through when submitting work. The magazine sent him an automatic rejection letter instead. Even his query letter got rejected. "That kind of gave me an idea of what this profession was going to be like," he said.

VanderMeer attended the University of Florida from 1987 to 1990, studying journalism, English and Latin American history. "All I really wanted to do was write fiction — get a day job and write fiction," he said. "I never graduated. After the third year, I didn't care anymore. They didn't have anything to offer me. I was very arrogant."

In '92 he migrated to Tallahassee to be closer to his wife-to-be, Ann, who graduated from FSU. At the time, she was editing an independent fiction magazine called The Silver Web. The two met when VanderMeer began submitting stories. "The first story I sent her at SW was really crap — it was something involving a prom and a magic frog. Very bad," he confessed in an e-mail when pushed. "She sent it back basically telling me it was crap, and then I tried to save face by saying, 'It was a test to see if I should send you some of my primo stuff.' She hasn't let me forget. She's still one of the best editors I've ever known." The two were married two years ago.

Considering his no-holds-barred fiction, some people might think that VanderMeer literally lives in a fantasy world. Not so. His "day job" keeps him solidly grounded in the real world. VanderMeer works at Infinity Software Development Inc. He writes and edits English passages and questions for the FCAT Explorer, a Web site where students can practice taking the state's FCAT exam. The FCAT — Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — measures students' progress as they go through school "It's pretty rewarding work," VanderMeer said. "You get to go out and talk directly to students and teachers. I enjoy that part."

The 'Secret' is out

Secret Life contains 23 stories collected over 17 years in VanderMeer's evolution as an author. They include such disparate works as 1995's dreamlike "The Bone Carver's Tale," set in Cambodia, and the recently written title story, set in a surreal office building where workers form different societies. "Some people have said that the stories in Secret Life don't read like they were written by the same writer," he said. "I like that."

Inevitably, when critics or interviewers begin discussing VanderMeer's fiction, the B-word comes up: Borges, as in Jorge Luis Borges, the legendary Argentine writer whose blend of myth and fantasy brought him worldwide acclaim. "Everyone thinks I'm a big Borges fan, and I am, but not that much," VanderMeer said. "I'm much more influenced by (Vladimir) Nabokov and Angela Carter. They blew my head off when I first read them. When I first read Angela Carter, literally, it was like taking drugs."

This month, he's putting the finishing touches "on a huge doorstop disguised as a book" titled Shriek: An Afterword. "It's a strange family chronicle more in the lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude," VanderMeer said. "It's also my most personal book to date . . . If I can just get the last 50 pages done."

— Mark Hinson, Senior Writer, Tallahassee Democrat, Sunday, June 06, 2004


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