Jeff VanderMeer is a New York Times-bestselling author, editor, and critic, known as one of the pioneers of the New Weird movement in speculative fiction. VanderMeer has published over ten novels, including the Nebula and Shirley Jackson Award-winning Annihilation, the first entry in his Southern Reach series, which has been translated into over thirty-five languages. In 2018, Annihilation was adapted into a feature film by Paramount starring Natalie Portman.
A special twentieth anniversary edition of Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel, Veniss Underground, is being published on April 11, 2023, which includes five bonus stories and a new foreword by Charles Yu. Veniss Underground takes place in the future metropolis of Veniss, where biological material is recycled into art and a terrifying darkness lies hiding in the labyrinthine world beneath the city.
We recently had the honor of discussing with VanderMeer about Veniss Underground, the Southern Reach series, and more.
[GdM] Congratulations on the twenty-year anniversary of your first novel, Veniss Underground. What made you decide to revisit the story?
[JV] MCD/FSG and Picador US had been releasing the rest of my backlist in new editions, like the Ambergris Trilogy, and I’d also been getting more and more involved in environmental causes while writing novels like Hummingbird Salamander that are very direct about ecological issues. When I went back and read Veniss, it felt like it sat comfortably between the direct environmental message of Hummingbird Salamander and the lyrical, experimental one of my novel Dead Astronauts. So, a reissue felt relevant, and also given the actual 20-year anniversary of initial publication occurs during April, which is also the month for Earth Day.
[GdM] How did you originally conceive the idea for this novel and how did it evolve into its final form?
[JV] I wrote the first part, from the point of view of a failed poet/writer, Nicholas, and then mulled the implications of that—sold that part to Interzone under the title “Quin’s Shanghai Circus,” which is also the title of a novel by the little-known US writer Edward Whittemore. The novel contains a scene of a slaughter of circus animals that is deranged and terrible and also one of the more unique and visceral scenes I’d ever read. Somehow, to me, it dovetailed with the biotech themes of my story and also the idea that in the far future even obscure works from our time period might wind up being the inspiration for things in that future. Then, once I realized characters in that first section would be their own viewpoint sections, I had the rest of the novel.
[GdM] The foreword for the new release of Veniss Underground is written by Charles Yu. How did he become involved in the project?
[JV] Charles and I have known each other’s work for quite some time and I’ve always loved how he weds formal experimentation with great emotional intensity. Even when he’s meta, he’s not abstract. Veniss structurally, going from “I” to “you” to “him,” and how those pieces fit together has some sneaky experimentation to it, and I thought the book might appeal to him. He was kind enough to say yes and to have some very interesting things to say about Veniss.
[GdM] Charles has a great quote in the forward, “In Veniss, a reader can see in VanderMeer’s first novel many of the preoccupations found in his later work, the conceptual DNA of a larger project already present, pluripotent stem cells that will go on proliferating for years into many more books, many more beings and worlds and ideas.” Looking back 20 years later, do you find this to be true?
[JV] Yes, definitely. As a writer who has always grown up surrounded by incredible biodiversity and lush habitat, one thing I bring to my fiction is an understanding of how the natural systems of the world are vital—and part of that is always trying to see things from a nonhuman as well as human perspective. This permeates my view of biotech, as well.
[GdM] The diverse narrative styles in Veniss Underground are particularly effective at building emotional connections with the three point-of-view characters, Nicholas, Nicola, and Shadrach. How did you decide to employ first-, second-, and third-person narration across these three perspectives? Did you encounter any particular challenges among these three narrative styles?
[JV] I once read a novel with sixteen different first person points of view, and it exemplified for me that sometimes varying perspectives can be the most effective way of creating characters that don’t merge into one another. Nicholas is definitely ego driven and thus “I” seemed appropriate. The realities of Nicola’s situation demanded second person, while Shadrach’s quest through very strange realms felt like it needed the ability to visualize more that third person affords. Far from creating challenges, deciding on this approach solved all sorts of problems and felt very natural.
[GdM] Veniss Underground is known as one of the defining works of the New Weird movement. How would you describe New Weird today? How has it evolved since the original publication of Veniss Underground twenty years ago?
[JV] Someone once said it was a moment more than a movement, and similarly, for most of us associated with New Weird, we were just passing through, caught in and lifted up by that moment, but we weren’t “New Weird writers.” I’ve certainly gone back and forth on how I feel about the term and sometimes looked askance as new generations discover it and redefine it without knowing the history. But at the same time, more than most “movements” I think “New Weird” as a term simply helps, even now, to make clear a certain visceral yet also cerebral approach to some liminal place that otherwise has no name. Should it keep finding a name and losing that name? Or remain nameless?
[GdM] Veniss Underground features meerkats in a variety of forms. When did your fascination with meerkats begin? Does this relate to the etymological connection between meerkats and your surname?
[JV] [laughs] No, it has no connection to my surname, which means “of the lake”. I just find esoteric mammals fascinating and loved their little communities. But it was funny, because I first saw a photo of them without wider context and thought they were five feet tall. Half-way through writing the novel, I saw a video and realized “oh crap—they’re tiny!” And that’s the why large ones in Veniss are described as biotech combined with other animal genes. One reader called Veniss “Saw meets Meerkat Manor” when the novel first came out, which also kind of cracks me up.
[GdM] How has your process of writing evolved since the publication of Veniss Underground? If you could have given yourself one piece of writing advice at the early stages of your career, what would that be?
[JV] My advice to the younger me would just be: Keep doing what you’re doing, exactly the way you’re doing it. Which is just to say that I’ve always written what’s personal to me and what I’m passionate about and I can’t write any other way. I’d be writing even if I never got published. I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky to find an audience for books, like Veniss, which, after all, features a disembodied wise-cracking meerkat head superglued to a dinner plate. There must be a lot of timelines where that kind of gig doesn’t pay much.
[GdM] You are known as a passionate environmentalist and have been dubbed “the weird Thoreau” by The New Yorker magazine. You have even restored a natural ecosystem to your own Tallahassee backyard, which now features remarkable biodiversity. Which animals and plants have you been most surprised to discover in the VanderWild?
[JV] Seeing both gray and red foxes has been great, but also the amazing diversity of insects. I can’t keep track of all of the kinds of bees, butterflies, and wasps that now find this place home. And it’s all because of planting so many native plants, each of which has evolved over millions of years to be the host for as well as sometimes food for equally individually evolved insects. That’s what you lose when you clearcut a place, build on it, and then replaced the habitat that was there with generic lawn and some crap myrtles you bought at Home Depot.
[GdM] You clearly find much inspiration in the infinite complexity of nature. Do you feel that your connection and appreciation of nature impact into your writing? And if so, how?
[JV] It’s hard to quantify because when you’re surrounded by something your whole life and feel like you’re part of it, not separate, how do you analyze the impact? It’s just there. Mostly, I guess I have always understood the intrinsic value and personhood of the nonhuman in our world and not understood how we could work against that in so many self-destructive ways. This is the world, not the built environment of parking lots and strip malls. If we give up an idea of the world the way it actually works, we doom ourselves, too. So this is one urgency that drives my fiction, along with the curious fascination with just how complex and amazing Earth is when we don’t destroy parts of it for no particularly good reason.
[GdM] We are very excited about Absolution, the upcoming fourth entry in your Southern Reach series. What can you tell us about this newest installment?
[JV] I’m letting it build organically and slow, driven by so much we don’t know about the Séance & Science Brigade in the first three books, the role of Old Jim in it all, a prior clandestine biological mission not related to the Southern Reach, and a sudden waking vision of white rabbits appearing all over the forgotten coast 30 years before the border comes down. That’s all I can really say at the moment.
[GdM] How do you develop the concepts for your new books? Do you tend to start with the world or the characters, or perhaps with a general theme?
[JV] When you’re a beginning writer, you try to accumulate technique so you have as many different ways of writing a novel as possible. You stop and start a lot and figure out your process. These days I still work hard on continuing education as a writer, but the writing process has definitely changed, in that I spend a lot more time thinking about a piece of fiction before I write it. Over time, I’ve come to realize I’ve written too early before, but never too late. As a result, I tend to write fewer drafts and to know exactly the moment to take notes and scene fragments and begin to write a draft in earnest. It’s always about the viewpoint of the character wedded to some initial situation and image or relationship to landscape. But I also have to know the ending, or some approximation, before I start.
[GdM] Do you have any news about the upcoming TV adaptation of Borne? How does the experience of adapting a book to TV compare to that of adapting to a feature film?
[JV] All I have to say is the team at AMC and the folks now involved in adapting Borne are amazing and there’s been significant progress. The option was just renewed as they get some final pieces in place. But the treatment I’ve seen is incredibly faithful to the book while deviating in ways that make sense for the change in medium. I’m so excited to share more, but that’s all I can really say for now.
Interview by John C. Mauro and Beth Tabler
Read Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer