With Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation released earlier this month, the Finch author has rapidly gained praise for his rich worldbuilding. In the first installment of the Southern Reach trilogy, an expedition of four women (an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist) journey into the mysterious Area X, a land where nature has reclaimed what civilization built. Though VanderMeer is best known for his collection of fantasy short stories, City of Saints and Madmen, in our interview he insists that Area X was inspired by the “wondrous weirdness” found in nature, not a sci-fi novel.
Bookish: Annihilation is written as the biologist’s journal, so the reader knows that the narrator is writing the story, rather than thinking it, speaking, or in some other way expressing the events. What are the pluses of choosing the diary medium?
Jeff VanderMeer: I can only speak as to my own intent, and the readers decide whether it worked. But, for me, it tends to help quite a bit in terms of perspective, since this particular journal account is written up after the events described. So there are moments of tension created by allusions to things that will happen later, and that also allows for a bit more layering and depth.
Bookish: And the minuses?
JV: I suppose the minuses are on the side of constraint: We can only know what the biologist knows, but more than that—what she chooses to tell us. There are a lot of things most people are interested in that she couldn’t care less about. But this constraint is a plus in the context of the entire series. The idea is that if a reader comes back to Annihilation after reading Authority and Acceptance, you have an even better sense of how reliable the biologist is, and how much she really knew.
Bookish: Did you envision Annihilation as the first part of a trilogy from the moment you started writing it?
JV: No. The way it works for me is, when I’m about halfway through writing a novel, I get a sense of whether there’s more story there or not, and what kind of closure the novel at hand will have. About halfway through Annihilation, the story opened up; in exploring the characters (about whom I know a lot more than the biologist can know), I realized I had a much bigger story to tell. Since Annihilation is the biologist’s story, that gave me some freedom to tell her story and to give some resolution on certain mysteries but leave others—things the biologist couldn’t possibly know or discover—for the next two books.
The amount of story is directly related to character, not to so-called reveals, because revealing a mystery is something you could do on a slip of paper inside a fortune cookie if you wanted to. So it was the characters that dictated it, and some realizations about the Southern Reach, the secret agency that runs the expeditions, that dictated “trilogy” as opposed to single novel.
Bookish: The story seems so big. Can it be contained in three novels?
JV: That’s a very good question. I’m always looking at what portion of the story I’m conveying to the reader and what happens off-stage. What is dramatically interesting and what’s just a throwaway line or two. In Authority, which focuses on the Southern Reach, this was the constant question: What do I summarize and what do I show. So, in determining what was most interesting [when] not dramatized—because exposition can be thrilling in small, jewel-like concentrations—I finally had a sense of how many books.
That said, I originally thought it would be four books, until I had a good street-level idea of what was going to happen, at which point it contracted. But the second and third novels are both about 100,000 words, which means the whole series is about 75,000 words longer than I thought it would be. I also find it a little ironic that it’s become a trilogy because I’m adamantly against the idea of, just from the get-go, saying, “This is going to be a trilogy because there are so many trilogies out there, and publishers expect it!” Here, it just happened organically.
Bookish: The locations in Area X, its monsters, and its growing sense of madness will thrill H.P. Lovecraft fans. How big an influence has he been on your work? Were there any other authors or works that inspired you?
JV: Honestly, Lovecraft has had zero influence on me. Until editing an anthology of that kind of fiction a while back, I had never been able to finish much Lovecraft fiction except that Dexter Ward story. I would say that if I had to assign influence, I’d prefer readers seek out Michael Bernanos’ classic, amazing novella The Other Side of the Mountain or Leena Krohn’s brilliant Tainaron, or the nature poetry of Pattiann Rogers. These three creators have very unique and interesting views of the natural world and human beings’ place in it. Everything else, on the speculative fiction side, just arose from the mulch of decades of reading in the back of my reptile brain. In addition, I go off and study mushrooms and plants and the natural world, and the true wondrous weirdness of that influences my work.
Bookish: The narrator—who we know only as “the biologist”—never refers to anything specific from our real world: no places, no people, no news. However she uses the brand name “Band-Aid” several times. Is this a clue as to what reality Area X exists in?
JV: This kind of cracks me up—and it’s great that you picked up on that detail. Especially since, alas, there is a great need for bandages in this novel! Honestly, sometimes it’s just hard to come up with the generic equivalent, but also I suppose it’s a clue that there is a real world beyond, even if the biologist isn’t much interested in it. Yet she must still engage with… Band-Aids! No amount of aversion to pop culture and advertising can stop the infiltration… Maybe we’ll find a way to flense that in the next edition.
Bookish: Can you tell us anything about the next installment? For instance, will it be someone else’s journal?
JV: If Annihilation is an expedition into Area X, then Authority is an expedition into the Southern Reach, the agency sending in the expeditions. If you can imagine an agency that hasn’t yet solved the mystery of Area X over 30 years, and how that agency might devolve and how it might take up strange rituals and be deformed by its very mission statement, then you have some sense of where this is headed. It’s a third-person narrative from the point of view of John Rodriguez, the incoming director of the Southern Reach. In addition to his mission, he has to untangle 30 years of previous research and weird videos from Area X, along with dealing with agency politics. Readers will also, from page one or two, learn some surprising things about the twelfth expedition—all of this in the context of the distinct sense that time might be running out.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
JV: I have to go with the first one I ever frequented, while in high school and college: Goerings Bookstore in Gainesville, Florida. I loved it. It had a rich and wide sense of what literature was, and they also even carried my first, self-published book, The Book of Frog, when I was 17, along with the literary magazine that I published.
Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and in multiple year’s-best anthologies. He writes nonfiction for The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian, among others. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife.