PW: This has been quite a year or so for you, with your collection City of Saints and Madmen appearing along with your anthology, Leviathan III, several high-profile reviews, Locus Online listing you as among the field's 10 best short-story writers, and now your first novel, Veniss Underground. Did you quit your day job or what?
Jeff VanderMeer: I can date the beginning of my run of recent successes to winning the World Fantasy Award in 2000 and also to the kindness of Michael Moorcock, who has heavily promoted my work. That, along with the publication of City of Saints, did a lot to bring me to the attention of new readers. I've tried to build on that by attending conventions and doing readings. I still work as an editor at a software company in Tallahassee, but I discipline myself to write every night and weekend. Obviously, it's a lot of fun; otherwise I wouldn't be able to keep up this pace.
PW: Although formally Veniss is science fiction, it, like much of your work, is influenced by the surrealists and postmodernists. Where do you fit in?
JV: I'm not really sure I fit into any particular group. I like to read everything from John Irving to Borges to Angela Carter to Calvino to Cordwainer Smith to A.S. Byatt. I've brought my own worldview to this mix of influences. I believe it's important to create your own vision and let the audience come to you. If you cater to an audience, you often condescend to them.
PW: Prior to your recent sale of City and Veniss to Pan MacMillan UK, most of your longer work has been published by independent presses. Do "indies" give you more freedom?
JV: I believe the gap between independent and large publishers has closed due to aggressive marketing and new technologies. But there were definite benefits in working with an indie on the hardcover of City of Saints, for example. The publisher, Prime, was delighted that I wanted to help coordinate the design. I meanwhile was delighted to be able to produce a totally idiosyncratic and exciting book-as-artifact that I knew would delight readers as well. I don't believe that I could have done that project through a commercial publisher. Now that it's been successful, Pan MacMillan is looking for ways to replicate some of the more daring effects. I don't think you turn off readers by pushing the edge, if you do so in ways that entertain.
PW: You've stated that the themes you're most interested in exploring in Veniss are the power of memory and obsession. Could you discuss this?
JV: All of my work is about love and death—sometimes serious, sometimes cloaked by humor—and Veniss Underground is no different. The future setting allows me to use as-yet-undeveloped technology, such as the ability to view another person's memory, to examine what it means to be human. We're incredibly complex organisms, but we can never get inside another person's head. In a sense, we're all blind to each other. Veniss, in addition to the adventure and mystery elements, asks questions like, What is unconditional love? How does memory function? We paint these highly selective "portraits" in our heads of people, images from the past that dictate how we treat them in the present. As our memories, in a sense, become something separate from us—stored in emails and Web sites—these seem like questions worth exploring. In Veniss, people are driven to the edge of their emotions, their experience, and their ability to survive. It affects them in sometimes wonderful and sometimes terrible ways.
PW: Now that Veniss is in print, what comes next?
JV: I was hoping to actually get some sleep, but no such luck. I'm making revisions to City for the U.K. release. And I'm working on a novel called Shriek: An Afterword. It's a weird family chronicle set in Ambergris, the imaginary setting of City of Saints. It's my most autobiographical work, and it attempts to reconcile the tension in my writing between fantasy and the mainstream literary tradition.