Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd, Soul Sand.
Jo Reed: That's author Jeff VanderMeer describing the plot of his novel Borne, which is one of the newest Big Read titles. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Jeff VanderMeer is a prizewinning author and former NEA literary fellow whose work eludes genre classification. Speculative fiction? You bet. Science fiction? Yes. Fantasy? Well, he won the World Fantasy Award three times. Eco-fiction? Definitely—the New Yorker has named him the “King of Weird fiction.” But however you classify it, VanderMeer’s work is utterly his own and absolutely fascinating. He first became a best-selling author with his trilogy, The Southern Reach, which consists of the books Annihilation, which was adapted into a Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman, Authority, and Acceptance. VanderMeer is a prolific author—writing short stories and non-fiction as well as novels. He followed the Southern Reach Trilogy with Borne, a moving, thrilling literary page turner that one reviewer wrote reads "like a dispatch from a world lodged somewhere between science fiction, myth, and a video game." In 2019 Borne was among the new books chosen for the NEA’s national community reading program, The Big Read. Which is how I got to speak with Jeff VanderMeer, who took me through the very interesting process of how the idea for Borne came to be.
Jeff VanderMeer: You know, I grew up overseas. I grew up on an island, and I had always wanted to use some of that experience. And I also wanted to–after this other “Reach” series, which was very much about pristine wilderness—to write about environmental themes in an urban setting. And so, really, the way I work is that I put these ideas into my subconscious and I say, “These are the things I want to do eventually. Help me do them.” And then I just don’t think about it a while. It’s like I’ve just put it into a place where it’s gonna germinate. And so one day I had this sudden image of this woman reaching out, again, to this kind of glowing sea anemone-like creature that at first I thought was in amongst some seaweed like it was in a tidal pool. And then I realized it was actually the tangled, matted fur of a bear. And then I realized it was a giant Godzilla-sized bear. And then I realized that the bear could fly, and the bear just flew off and kind of blew my mind while I was thinking about this.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Jeff VanderMeer: But then there was this woman who was left pulling this thing back towards her, and I realized that she was somebody who had grown up in the South Pacific and had been displaced by climate change. And I realized that the thing that she was holding was actually intelligent. It had been a made creature. And so all of these things suddenly took on a life of their own, and you know I kind of literally just went to bed after this kind of revelation. Then when I woke up in the morning, as, again, happens with my subconscious, I had this ruined city in my head. I realized that the biotech in her hand was just the tip of the iceberg, that this whole city was littered with the products of this company, which had basically mined out the city for its resources and was still there on the edge of the city like a blood-engorged tick still kind of having a malign intent, and that all of this would—would come back to a very personal story about Rachel and this creature but also a more mind-bending larger story arc about this place and about this company.
Jo Reed: I want to sort of take this step by step by step, and the first is on a very basic level, I want you to describe what biotech is—for people who might now know.
Jeff VanderMeer: Right. Well, biotech is kind of any human interference with animal life, and many of us will remember as our first encounter with it, stories of cloned sheep or the mouse with the ear growing out of its back, and things like that are happening more frequently as we become more adept at altering life in general at the cellular level. And so one possible future is a future where we do more and more of this manipulation. It is, of course, something that on a lower level we’ve been doing for years because—or centuries because we modify plants. We modify animals by selective breeding, so that’s kind of like a very low-tech version of biotech. But in the future, we will have the ability to completely create creatures and hybrids of creatures, and I think that this is something that speculative fiction is really adept at dealing with, which is to say that I don't think there’s really been enough ethical and moral thought about what we’re doing and why and whether it’s actually right to manipulate animals the more we learn about how intelligent they are and how complex. And so that wedded with the climate change and environmental issues is really what drives Borne and made me think of this as a possible future even at the same time that, you know, I’m dealing with it in kind of a science fantasy way. There’s a giant flying bear in the novel, <laughs> so it’s almost more in that magic realist vein in some ways than it is a pure science fiction vein.
Jo Reed: Well, I was going to ask you about that later on, but we can certainly talk about it now. To me, Borne seems very much like a combination fantasy and science fiction, using tropes from both and being completely convincing in both, but being neither one nor the other.
Jeff VanderMeer: Right, and–and I thought, how do I tackle this, and how do I tackle it from my character’s perspective. And, of course, my character, Rachel, is a scavenger who has many, many skills and is very intelligent, but she is not a scientist. She is not someone who creates biotech. So, to your ordinary person, you know, you can't describe how a smartphone works and what the intricacies of it is, and so it’s not that it’s magic but it’s not really science fiction, so to speak, you know, even if it was something that didn’t exist yet in the context of Borne, and the same thing with the biotech. I mean there is a reason for the flying bear, although I always really appreciated Angela Carter’s Night at the Circus where she has a woman who flies in a circus, and she never tells you whether it’s using wires or whether it’s actual magic or something. But the point is that sometimes you can get to a better psychological distance if you’re not using just pure, straight on reality and if you’re not having to tackle or have to explain to the reader how this works in kind of realistic science fictional detail. And so you can get past that. You can get past that to a point that may seem more purely futuristic because oftentimes those descriptions are about a novelist in the present day who cannot really imagine a place from a future character’s perspective because a future character wouldn’t dwell on the details of that any more than in a contemporary mainstream novel you’re gonna find five pages about how a smartphone works.
Jo Reed: Exactly. And that could be also why I often find science fiction very, very cold.
Jeff VanderMeer: Hmm.
Jo Reed: And I certainly didn’t find that with this novel. Those books I find that aren’t, I really like, but that is always the thing that tends to put me off about that. And I wonder if that imagining the emotional life of people in the future is—is part of that difficulty. I don't know.
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, I mean I think it really is an issue for each individual reader as to how much of the kind of the “information” you can assimilate and enjoy. I mean there are certainly writers who are very good at what I would call science fictional exposition, where it has kind of a magical life of its own and it’s a delight to read. But for me personally, it always has to be about the character viewpoint and being very internal to the character. And—and also not using inert information. I really hate that. I want everything in the novel to be alive on some level, and so one of the delights of the novel and I think one other reason why it works, I hope, you know from what readers have told me, is that the city is the setting, but the biotech is in a way the setting. You know, the city is very much alive even though it’s broken. And so, so those elements, those other strange animals and stuff become part of how everything comes alive. But, yeah, I definitely am always very tight-in on character interiority. That’s why the style of my books changes so much from book to book, because it’s always based on the character. And until I get that right over the first few pages, I can't, I can’t proceed.
Jo Reed: Well, interesting you should say that, because I’d like to talk about four of the five named characters in the book, and beginning with Rachel, who’s our protagonist and our narrator. She’s our guide through this book. We see the world through her eyes. And, you know she’s an incredibly rich, resourceful, and altogether admirable <laughs> character, I think.
Jeff VanderMeer: Uh-huh.
Jo Reed: I’d like you to tell me about her and what went into her creation.
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, you know, I often create characters with various shades of gray, and I very rarely have true full-on villains. And in this case, the more I thought about Rachel, the more I thought that she was a direct, honest person who always tried her best, and that I had enough characters that were not that way that actually if she wasn’t that way, which I also thought was just true to the person I’d imagined, that the book would be very destabilized, and in the end it would be very nihilistic and not about anything, if you know what I mean, and so I just tried to follow that. I just—It was just as simple as this is what Rachel will do because Rachel is direct, because Rachel is honest. And it’s true that she does kind of withhold some information in a couple of places, but in her defense something about her wanting to be more psychologically honest about what she’s telling. And then, you know, at a certain point, you may realize that the place from which she’s telling the story is not quite in the moment, anyway, so she’s had some perspective on it. This did create some decisions that were endemic to the novel’s structure, which is to say, she suffers a great trauma in the first third of the book. And I really hate books where someone experiences a trauma and then a few chapters down the road there’s no impact. And so there’s this section that could be seen as floating, which is really her dealing with the trauma. That means that the book’s structure is actually affected very, very much so by this character. And she is one of my favorite characters that I’ve created just because she has a kind of honesty that I can get behind. I can get very cynical about directness and honesty in the world we live in, but Rachel makes me very uncynical.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I would agree with that completely. She lives with Wick—my mind really changed about him through the course of that book.
Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah, he’s meant to be a very ambivalent character, and I understand people who don’t like him at the end. You can interpret his behavior in a lot of different ways, and I tried very hard not to pass judgement on him one way or the other and not to lead the reader as to how they should feel about him, and so I’ve gotten a lot of different reactions. I also wanted this thing that I don’t see that often in what you might call post-apocalyptic fiction, which is complications of relationships. Post-apocalyptic novels tend to simplify things down to right wing militias against non-right wing militias or—
Jo Reed: Yes, yes.
Jeff VanderMeer: —things like that, and I thought—
Jo Reed: Yes, yes.
Jeff VanderMeer: —I haven’t really seen a messy interpersonal relationship in this kind of novel. And so one of the pivotal—
Jo Reed: Right, that’s fraught.
Jeff VanderMeer: That’s fraught. I mean one of the pivotal scenes for me in the novel is where Rachel and Wick just have a drop-dead argument, all about all the personal crap that’s wrong in their lives. And it was very important to me to have that in the book because I think that it’s wrong when we suggest a future in these kinds of disastrous situations that doesn’t portray the full range of human emotions, because all of this stuff is still gonna be happening.
Jo Reed: And—and then we have our flying bear, Mord.
Jeff VanderMeer: <laughs>
Jo Reed: And to call him just a flying bear makes him seem so much more benign than he is, because he is a terrible, ferocious creature who our feelings become, again, you know, a little softened as we learn about his history.
Jeff VanderMeer: Yes, considering where he comes from. But, then, also, I see Mord as being just as honest as Rachel, just in a different direction. Like, he’s always exactly who he’s going to be. There’s no artifice to him. <laughs> And so I think one reason that the reader may warm to him a little bit even though he is horrible is that consistency compared to the inconsistency of some others. But I, I have to admit, I field tested Mord over many years while I was writing Borne. I used to change my Facebook profile icon to a snarling bear and pretend to be Mord in all caps. And it was very instructive about social media, because people would start responding to the bear and be upset when the bear said that it was gonna tear their head off and <laughs> things like that, even though it still said Jeff VanderMeer on it. But I actually field tested his voice so by the time that I—I wrote the novel, even though he doesn’t ever speak in the novel, I had a really good sense of his character. And I, I really wanted to preserve a lot of very bear-like tendencies and get the descriptions right but also kind of get across that he’s this unique character. And to me, he also has this symbolism that’s beyond the physicality. You have to get the physicality right and then the theme hopefully comes along, which is to say for a lot of us with climate change, it’s really hard to imagine that moment when we’re dislocated from everything, and to me, it is literally like something as inexplicable as a giant, psychotic, flying bear appears on the horizon, and your mind kind of breaks because you just don’t know how to deal with that. And I think there are people in the world who have already had to deal with that with regard to climate change. And so although in some ways Mord comes out of a Miyazaki movie or can seem weirdly psychotically cuddly, he’s also a very serious character in that way.
Jo Reed: And, then, there’s Borne, and you told us where the idea of Borne came from, but I wonder, were there any creatures that you thought of that inspired the character of Borne?
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, I mean I have studied squid, cuttlefish, and other invertebrates for a very long time. I mean some of my earlier novels I thought—and they were fantasy novels—what is the weirdest creature on earth, the one that seems like it’s kind of alien? You know, those kinds of lifeforms are really interesting to kind of extrapolate or to bring into a non-realist point of view because they already bring that with them. Squid are very much shape changers. They have a lot of unique, interesting attributes, and so squid was definitely one of those things I thought of with regard to Borne. And, then, also certain kinds of plant life because plants are more active and alive than we give them credit for. They just move so slowly—if we say the motion of plants, <laughs> it’d be quite fascinating to us, and we’d begin to think of them as more, you know, not like people but that they were more like animals, so to speak. So I was thinking of those two things together, and then that was wedded with the early Borne before everything <laughs> goes bad. I was very much thinking of the conversations I used to have with my stepdaughter when she was trying to learn about the world. And so there was a point at which my stepdaughter saw a ferret, and she didn’t have the word for it. And instead she pointed at it and said, “Long mouse.” And so that detail is in there because Borne sees a picture of a ferret and says, “Long mouse.” And so I think that imbues it with this personal aspect, which then the imagination is added to it. But I don't think Borne exists without those conversations that I had with my stepdaughter, at least the early Borne.
Jo Reed: Well, the early Borne, you emphasize so much those childlike elements of him. Obviously we’re seeing him through Rachel’s eyes, which also emphasizes that. But what I found so interesting is you have him repeat her name when he speaks to her
Jeff VanderMeer: Uh-huh.
Jo Reed: And one thing that it did help me do was hear his voice. There was something about the repetition, the way he would say, “Rachel,” and always include her name that just crystalized him for me.
Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah, and the voice is not in any way my daughter’s voice, just some of the words, some of the exchanges. But, yeah, I don't know—
Jo Reed: No, I didn’t think so, <laughs> yes.
Jeff VanderMeer: —how that crystalized. I really don’t know. But from the very beginning as soon as he spoke, I knew how he spoke. I knew he had this repetition of her name in a way because she’s his anchor to the world, so he keeps reestablishing that anchor in a way by saying her name. But there’s also other reasons that he says her name, because the one thing I had to try to convey, too, and I don't know how well I conveyed it, is that as innocent as he is at the beginning, he has so many more senses than she does, and he may not even be existing totally in the same time and place as. He may simultaneously be experiencing something else, as inferred in the novel. And so a lot of those benign conversations including one about culture versus nature and a misunderstanding of words, I feel like he’s trying to, with the limited vocabulary he has, tell her something else, something else he’s experiencing. And he has this frustration of he doesn’t know the words to use and his mind at that point in terms of the amount of information he has, and it isn’t complex enough to totally convey it. And so there was, there was the delight as a failed poet in trying to make the words do two or three things. I think in novels they have to do two or the things. In poems they have to do five or six things. And then there was also the delight in the fact that as he became a teenager, Borne is trying out so many things that he’s learned that his voice doesn’t have to be consistent. And as a novelist, this is like the best thing, because it’s like you can play around and he can have different tones, and you don’t have to worry about reconciling them, and you can just have fun with it. Usually you’d be like, oh, that line doesn’t make any sense, but with Borne as a teenager, it does.
Jo Reed: Yeah, of course. Yeah, of course.
Jo Reed: Islands play such a large role in this book, both real islands and metaphorical ones. I mean, we talked about Rachel’s origin island, the island she came from. And then Balcony Cliffs, where Rachel and Wick live, is an island of sorts unto itself, and the company is an island as well. They’re obviously the metaphorical islands. But underlying that, I think, are connections and characters that are trying so hard to connect.
Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah, it’s very different from the Southern Reach Trilogy. There was supposed to be kind of a tension between the fact that they’re all trying to connect with this thing, Area X. Even as in their personal lives, none of the characters can connect with anybody else, <laughs> so that results in what I would call even with some of the humor in the second book a colder kind of feel. And, then, Borne is more like this over-the-top, more dramatic thing that then is wedded to these personal relationships where it’s very important to characters even in the midst of chaos and societal collapse to connect, maybe more so, because it’s one of the things you can actually control. And so that’s the way I saw it, is that even if the world is dying around you or you’re in the middle of this titanic change, you can at least preserve something of the way things were through how your relationships are with other people. And so I think there’s that on the general sense, and then there’s the fact that no matter what, no matter what you think about Wick, he’s still trying. He is really trying in his way with his constraints to make that relationship work, and it’s important to him. And the same thing with Rachel. And I think at the end of the day, if you value that relationship by the end of the book, it’s because they try so hard even when they have every excuse not to.
Jo Reed: And the back of the paperback edition, on a funner [sic] note—
Jeff VanderMeer: <laughs>
Jo Reed: —you include a bestiary, which is so fabulous. <laughs> Can you tell me what went into the making of that and why you decided to include it?
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, it’s kind of funny, because I think Borne was just meant to be this thing that because it’s overflowing with this hidden life has overflowed in terms of what I’ve written since. So I was supposed to just deliver, like, a short story to my publisher, FSG, you know, to connect it to Borne. And instead I created this bestiary because I have a habit of doing kind of metafictional things anyway, but also Eric Nyquist, who illustrated that, I knew he did really great strange beasties, so it kind of galvanized me. But, you know, as an amateur biologist, which is to say someone who wanted to be a marine biologist but didn’t have the capacity to sit down for chemistry classes and whatnot <laughs> and just looking in tidal pools, I really do like coming up with descriptions of creatures. And some of them riff off of real creatures. Some of them are completely out there. Like there’s a kind of biotech called autonomous meat that’s <laughs> really kind of terrifying.
Jeff VanderMeer: It’s kind of like just like bait to bring the scavengers out so they can <laughs> themselves be eaten by others. <laughs> And—I shouldn’t be laughing about that. But, then, also, you know, I loved having like a mythology of silverfish, by which I really mean I think we’d call them more house centipedes, which are very maligned even though they’re actually very good for houses, <laughs> and most people just want to kill them on sight.
Jo Reed: They’re very creepy looking, Jeff. You have to admit.
Jeff VanderMeer: Oh, I like them. I think they’re actually very cool <laughs> looking.
Jo Reed: Do you?
Jeff VanderMeer: But I don't have—
Jo Reed: But I am, and I mean and I am queen of the “Don’t kill it, don’t kill it.”
Jeff VanderMeer: <laughs> I don't have many of those “ick” factors. The only one I have is cockroaches because they used to borough into my ears while I was asleep in Fiji.
Jo Reed: Oh!
Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah, so I can't really deal with it. That’s probably where the memory beetles came from, because I probably thought of them as being something—
Jo Reed: I bet you’re right. <laughs>
Jeff VanderMeer: I didn’t even realize that until just now. But, anyway, so that was a lot of fun, and, but it also led to other stories. I wrote a novella called “Strange Bird” that FSG released, and I just wrote a novel called “Dead Astronauts.” So the thing just keeps spiraling out stories. And there were things in there that had a resonance or a symbolism that made my imagination want to know more about them without like killing the symbolism, if you know what I mean. So all these stories like add to the canon without explaining everything in every detail.
Jo Reed: Right. Okay, I want to talk a little bit about your background, if you don’t mind. You grew up in the Fiji Islands, and you come from a family of scientists.
Jeff VanderMeer: Uh-huh.
Jo Reed: So you sort of come to this natural world and its varieties very honestly.
Jeff VanderMeer: Right. Well, um my dad taught at the University of South Pacific. My family was in the Peace Corps, and that’s in Fiji. And he’s always studied invasive insects as a research chemist and entomologist, and so he was studying the rhinoceros beetle while he was there. And so we would go on these field trips to very wild, unspoiled places even though where we lived was, like, literally right near the beach and also wild and unspoiled, so I was very much always surrounded by wilderness. My mom was a biological illustrator. She had to give that up because computers do that now instead in terms of modeling. But she would do sea turtle drawings. She did stuff for various sea turtle experts, for fairly famous bird naturalists, things like that. Even my stepmother is one of the world’s leading researchers on lupus. Our daughter is now I would say arguably at the forefront of sustainability consulting in terms of what she’s doing for Singapore and the City of Charlotte and several other places. My sister is involved in gorilla studies and is the sustainability expert for the University of Edinburgh, which is just to say that there’s a ton of people around me that kind of made some form of science or biological inquiry just kind of be part of what I knew in addition to all the wilderness places. And then moving to North Florida after that was kind of an extension of it, because this is a very wild, biodiverse place as well, and so it just accentuated that process.
Jo Reed: And when did you begin to write, or how did you come to a career in writing?
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, that’s actually kind of funny, because it was, again, through animals. Like, I was an avid birder as a kid in addition to writing really crappy poetry. So I kept these birding lists in Fiji. I mean it’s an absolutely amazing, rich place for birds because it was a volcanic island. So it even had mountain peaks where you would get a little bit of snow in the so-called winter. So I would keep these birding lists, and then eventually at the same time I was reading, like uh, “Aesop’s Fables—” my parents read to me a lot, so they would read me a lot of William Blake, for some reason. So things like—
Jeff VanderMeer: —“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” and other things. But, anyway, so narrative began to infiltrate the birding lists, in a way, which is that I at one point got bored of just listing birds, and I would start to write little “Aesop’s Fables” about different birds. And then from there, the bird journals basically became journals of my first short fiction. And then there were other formative things, like instead of taking raises, my parents took travel vouchers. So when we finally did come back from Fiji, we spent six months traveling around the world when I was nine, which is just perfect for that. And at the same time, they gave me “Lord of the Rings” at age of nine. And what I will tell you about reading the “Lord of the Rings” at that age is you don’t understand most of it. <laughs> But in the mysterious, your imagination begins to take hold. So in a weird way, it was actually better than if I understood it, because I wanted to begin to create stories I could understand out of what I didn’t understand. And so I think those are the things that all kind of led into it. I would also say <laughs> on a more serious note that I had extreme allergies in Fiji, so there was this weird juxtaposition of pain and beauty because the place was so amazing. And my parents were also going through a divorce, so there’s all these juxtaposition of things that shouldn’t belong together that kind of got jolted together and I think fused to make me a writer.
Jo Reed: Okay. You had to have had day jobs as you were, you know—
Jeff VanderMeer: Yes. <laughs>
Jo Reed: —getting your career together as a writer. Tell me about some of your day jobs.
Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah, um. <laughs> I’m trying to see what I can say and not say. Maybe the most fun I had was actually leading up a team that created content for the FCAT Explorer. The FCAT’s the state standardized test. And so we would create all these amazing little English passages that students would be tested on online as a model for the actual test, a way of practicing. And so that was a lot of fun and taught me a lot about narrative, because you have to compress so much into so little space. And what you learn there, of course, is it doesn’t matter what topic it is. The only thing that will make it not boring to the student is if the person writing about it is passionate about it.
Jo Reed: And when would you do your own writing?
Jeff VanderMeer: That’s the thing that’s quite funny, is that when I became a full-time writer in 2007, I realized that the fact that I had to write in the morning and at lunch and sometimes in the evening had made me misjudge how long it took me to write a novel. <laughs> I mean I had one novel that took me 10 years to write because I just wrote it at lunch every day. <laughs> And so you—you learn a certain amount of patience. It was very valuable because I would have to hold a novel idea in my head for a very long time, and I would have to like, keep that flame going, you know, even if I couldn’t write in a particular day. So I learned really that the most important thing was to always have the novel in my imagination every day, to be thinking about it every day and writing down little notes and never, ever to not be near a piece of paper and a pen. So I would say that my entire career I have never not written down an idea that’s come to me, and I think that’s why they keep coming, because my subconscious knows I will at least write it down even if I lose the piece of paper. But, yeah, it’s been very interesting adjusting to full-time writing, and it’s more or less the same process in a sense in that I think about something for a very long time before I put it down on paper. And then by the time I put it on paper, if I’ve thought about it enough, it doesn’t take very long to write.
Jo Reed: When you look at the trajectory of the books that you’ve written, do you have themes that you see that you return to again and again?
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, one is the value of those interpersonal relationships and the value of love, which can seem very saccharin, but in the context in which I usually put it <laughs> it’s maybe one of the saving graces of some of the novels from being too gloomy, because I think it is something that’s very important and very human. The environment, too. I mean even my first novel, Venice Underground, was very much about climate change, and that was back in—I started writing that in the late eighties. So the environment, how we view animal life, these things have—have always been there, and they’ve just kind of I think reached critical mass in the sense that they’ve intersected with the world’s concerns more and more, and I’ve found more and more I think complex and interesting ways to maybe express them and more various characters. Like when I first started writing, I was writing characters I think that were very much like myself, as I think you do as you’re kind of learning all kinds of craft. And I think starting with Annihilation and even before that, I’ve been able to hopefully successfully inhabit a wider range of characters.
Jo Reed: Borne is a Big Read book, added to the Big Read library. Tell me what your thoughts are about that.
Jeff VanderMeer: I was just blown away by that. I was really, really quite happy to be in the amazing company. And, then, the other thing is when things like this happen, it’s really great for my continuing education because I get these book lists and I may not have read everything on them. And so as a voracious reader, it’s like, oh, great, now I can dive into this. Or even just saying, “Wow, I’m so thrilled that Lab Girl is on there because I love that book.” So, no, and everyone’s been really great. I also love the interaction behind the scenes when it’s with really creative, interesting people.
Jo Reed: And what are you looking forward to?
Jeff VanderMeer: Well, I’m looking forward to the conversations. I always am interested in the dialog. One of the cities that’s adopted the book is Tallahassee, my hometown here. And so one thing I’m looking forward to is the fact that the themes fit in with some of my core loves, which is to say the St. Francis Wildlife Rescue Association, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. It’s a great opportunity to interact with the community and celebrate the amazing animal life and things that we have at the same time we can talk about science, we can talk about—well, hell, we can even talk about parenting. <laughs> But mostly, you know, it’s also reactive. It’s like, what do the people who did the grant, what do they want to talk about? What am I gonna learn from the people that I come into dialog with? And, and so to me, it’s gonna be an amazing interdisciplinary experience. I always love that. I always love it when it’s not just me talking to other writers or just going to a writers’ conference but people in a lot of different disciplines.
Jo Reed: How much do you interact with readers now?
Jeff VanderMeer: A lot. I’m on social media a lot. I’m completely off the internet when I’m working on a novel, but otherwise I’m usually on Twitter and Facebook, and I get a lot of feedback. There’s a lot of—especially for Borne, as you might imagine, there’s a lot of fan art, and a lot of fan art by professional artists.
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. It cries out for it.
Jeff VanderMeer: <laughs> Yes. And there may be fan fiction, which I encourage. I don’t read it because usually I’m still thinking there might be some additional fiction I’m gonna write, so it’s for their and my protection, so to speak, <laughs> but I do encourage it. There’s a lot of music based on Borne. I mean it’s—you know, that’s the one thing about social media, is if you use it right and you express an openness to sharing what you’ve created and to have something come back and create enough space for people’s imaginations, what you get back actually influences the work. So some of the Borne fan art has influenced the next books, “Strange Bird” and “Dead Astronauts.” So there’s this wonderful synergy going on, and I hope to continue that on an even grander level with the NEA Big Reads.
Jo Reed: Well, Jeff, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time. Thank you for writing this book.
Jeff VanderMeer: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.
Jo Reed: That was Jeff VanderMeer. He’s the author of the novel Borne—one of the recent editions to the Big Read library. You can find out more about Borne and the other Big Read titles at arts.gov.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple if you like us, because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Jeff VanderMeer writes fiction that defies classification—it has elements of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and eco-fiction, with an attention to language that literary fiction would envy and a voice that is utterly distinctive. VanderMeer’s novel Borne, which is a recent addition to the national community reading program NEA Big Read, is a case in point. Borne is a post-apocalyptic novel about a woman and the mysterious creature she finds in a city broken by a biotechnical company and terrorized by a five-story-tall flying bear. It sounds crazy, but it is a compelling, moving page turner that looks at the connections creatures make, or try to make, with one another. It’s an unpredictable cautionary tale—quite an unlikely combination. But so is VanderMeer. He spent a good part of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, immersed in the natural world with his parents, an entomologist and a biological illustrator. He was enraptured by the biodiversity of the islands and became an avid birder, which led him to writing. He remains immersed in the natural world and entranced by life in all its forms while living in Northern Florida, where he spends a great deal of time hiking through swamps and parks. In this podcast episode, we hear about it all—from Fiji to Florida. VanderMeer talks about his singular creative process, the themes he returns to in his work, his interactions with readers, and his excitement about Borne and the NEA Big Read program.