Playing With Consistency Inconsistency: Jeff VanderMeer Takes Us into Area X

The adventurous Annihilation + the Raymond Chandler-like Authority + the existentialist Acceptance = the engaging Southern Reach Trilogy.

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Publication date: 2014-11

In 2014, Jeff VanderMeer delivers a trilogy of captivating novels. They are set in a no man’s land referred to as Area X, where an enigmatic, untameable wilderness has taken over any sign of human civilization. The Southern Reach Trilogy combines science fiction, noir, military strategy and other genres.

Comprised of Annihilation,Authority and Acceptance, the trilogy allowed the imaginative VanderMeer to experiment with unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives and other literary techniques. As one delves into the dense, layered nature of the plot, one can’t help but get a sense of how the author treats literature as if it is his own playground.

Elegant prose reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges sometimes gives way to inner monologues that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary television series. Other times, VanderMeer tricks us into believing we know what a character looks like, only to pull the rug from under us and challenge our preconceptions as if we were in a socio-anthropology course.

The haunting passages in Annihilation couldn’t seem more removed from the playfulness of Acceptance, and yet VanderMeer wrote all of these books in what seems to be record time. That he created a world so precise that an interactive map comes in handy is admirable, but it’s also gutsy in a time when book series' receive extended lives only to please a marketable demographic.

Did you always plan to write three books about the Southern Reach?

I sometimes jokingly call the Southern Reach a “collapsed quartet”. I wrote the first one while laid out with bronchitis contracted after intensive dental surgery. A dream of a tower leading into the ground, with living words on the wall and something below, came to me in the middle of the night. Then in the morning,I had the character of the biologist and the entire story set out in Annihilation, give or take a few elements.

I wrote Annihilation in five weeks or so—in part because all I did is wake up, write, and then fall back to sleep by early afternoon. These were very concentrated writing periods, and during the middle of that process, about week three, I had inklings of a larger story arc. By the fourth week the full outlines of the Southern Reach secret agency and the backstories of the characters and the secrets behind Area X had suggested as many as three more novels.

By the time I finished Annihilation, I kept being unsure of only one thing: three or four? In the end, it was three because the second novel, Authority, kept eating up plot. This is always a good sign, because having things fall back into themselves that way means there’s less chance of writing novels with padding or too much digression.

Were the final products anywhere close to what you originally envisioned?

The question of whether the final results matched what was in my head… well, what was in my head kept shifting, and the “street level” view of characters and situations when you begin to write, say, the second book in a trilogy, is very different than viewing things from on high and from far away. Sometimes every scene you write will cause a ripple effect of small changes throughout the rest. So the larger story arc looks fairly similar to what was in my head but, thankfully, at the ground level things changed quite a bit in the process of writing.

This is also a good thing. I would have been alarmed if actually writing the novels hadn’t changed them, so to speak. And then there were elements like the psychologist’s letter in the first novel that I knew had significance and resonance but I didn’t know exactly how that would play out by novel three until I was in the thick of it.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Wizard of Oz when I read the Annihilation. We have characters identified only by their profession, going on a search towards something that never truly fulfills them. Was there any L. Frank Baum in there? Or were you influenced by the film?

No Baum, though that’s an interesting idea. As noted in the novel, the Southern Reach has a very specific reason for why they’ve been stripped of their names. But there’s also a secondary effect; that, along with the lack of physical descriptions, means the landscape around them encroaches more, has more physicality than they do. And that in part creates the feeling of unease on the part of the reader. I like the idea of characters who the reader forms a view of from what they do and say and, in the biologist’s case, what they think. That’s the essence of who people are, anyway.

In Annihilation, we have what feels like an old fashioned adventure story, Authority is very noir and Raymond Chandler-like in its introspection (you even give a clue in the first book, when you write “A biologist is not a detective, but I began to think like a detective”), while Acceptance is flat out existentialist. Can you comment on your relationship with genre? Why did you make each of the books so unique in its style?

I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction writer. Full stop. I’ve also always been an eclectic and omnivorous reader. By the time I was 18 I was devouring writers like Angela Carter, Thomas Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vladimir Nabokov, John Brunner (specifically Stand on Zanzibar), Samuel Beckett, Deborah Levy, and would go off on binges of mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, mainstream realism, and a lot more. But it never even occurred to me to think about genres until I was some way into publishing short stories—when the market forced that thinking on me.

Before that, I’d written poetry and in poetry there are no such genre divisions. So “genre” didn’t come naturally, and I think that was a good thing for me personally. I believe I have my own unique voice, for better or worse, but in terms of style I’ve worked very hard to acquire the technique required to be able to pivot, to be able to come at something from many different angles.

The point of all that, though, is to better reflect the character’s perspective. If you work in just one style you have to more or less be at the same distance from each character you write about for that to make any sense. Flexibility is about serving characterization—finding the best way to inhabit the character.

For the Southern Reach, the characters dictated the style as did the situations, but also this seemed like the best way to tell the story anyway. I could have written two more novels more or less like Annihilation, with higher stakes each time. But, frankly, that would have bored me and although readers after Annihilation may have believed that’s what they wanted, I’m really humbled and happy that so many have found pleasure and satisfaction in the way the narrative changes and expands.

You give women very important roles in the political hierarchy of the Southern Reach and they’re usually the ones who subjugate men around them, which I thought was fantastic. How did you become interested in writing such strong women?

I have always known strong women. I don’t know how else to say it. My best creative writing teachers were women—Denise Standiford in high school, and then also writers like Meredith Ann Pierce and Enid Shomer were kind enough to mentor me. The creative writing department at the University of Florida when I went there wasn’t for me for a number of reasons, and so I also received a clandestine writing education from Jane Stuart, a novelist and also the daughter of the well-known regional writer, Jesse Stuart.

Jane was an English professor at the University of Florida, not in their creative writing department. But she was kind enough after hours to critique my poems and stories and then discuss them with me in her office. She was a wonderful person and helped my writing immeasurably.

And my friends and family and fellow writers—so many strong women, so many I lose count. How could I not reflect that in the fiction, when the opportunity presented itself?

I’m also really happy that readers have taken Grace Stevenson, the assistant director of the Southern Reach, as I intended: a hard-edged, honest person whose hostility toward the main character is based on a number of honorable principles. There’s also the specifics of a situation.

For example, in Acceptance I know many people may have thought the character Control would have more agency. But the fact is that the situation is such that of course Ghost Bird has the upper hand, because she’s in her natural element. (Without giving too much away.) The main thing is that although the author has some control over how things are “spun”, the situations and scenes play out in an organic, immersive way.

This isn’t message fiction. I’ve no patience for the didactic. None of these characters is supposed to be just one thing. But fiction should reflect something of the world we live in.

How hard was it to keep track of all the characters that move in and out of this world?

Not at all, really. Again, without giving too much away, I had a lot of fun playing with consistency inconsistency. In Authority, for example, Ghost Bird is trying to find herself, so in almost every scene her personality is a little different. There’s a great freedom in being able to show the range a single person might have in terms of intent, mannerisms, attitude. But the key, again, was the texture and style of each voice. As long as I had that right, all of the rest of it was easy. Or, easier, at least.

Annihilation has an Asian lead character, Authority a Latino and Acceptance has a gay man as protagonist. Were you trying to make specific points about embracing diversity? Were you predicting what will become of America?

This is America, and it’s always been America. Past, present, and future. To some extent it happened naturally as soon as I had an idea of who the four women in Annihilation were—and also because in envisioning the Southern Reach I was thinking of various government agencies I’ve come into contact with, and people I’ve met there.

It also occurred because at a certain point I began to think of these novels as being specifically about the United States, and certain aspects of our institutions. There’s a rather high component of real-life experience in these novels, despite the weird elements.

Nothing was particularly scripted, but in thinking about the implications of the expedition all being women, certain things became clear about the narrative, at least to me. That said, you ponder the implications of your character choices.

Control in Authority is Latino and I did believe that as he made his up the ladder in the organization known as Central that he would encountered at least some casual racism. And with Saul in Acceptance it was very important to me that his relationship with his boyfriend be a loving, nurturing one. It was also important for me that his beliefs as a Christian, and his family background, not reflect a kind of knee-jerk “evil preacher” approach, which has become such a cliché, even though I am myself an atheist.

Did you stop to think about how much Hollywood would want to change these characters into regular Caucasian heroes? Will you have any input in the film adaptations?

I don’t have any input, but I certainly don’t hope that happens. But I’m also on record as saying that I understand the vagaries of casting. So long as the general diversity of characters persists and the actor in question fits the role, I’m okay with that. For example, without naming names, there’s an African American actress who would do a good job with a role that in the books is Asian American. Still, I would hope they get as close as they can.

I can’t help but wonder how much of your fantastic Wonderbook influenced your structure for the Southern Reach Trilogy. Do you ever use it as reference when you’re stuck in your fiction works?

Ha! That’s a great question. In fact, I did refer to the section on characterization a couple of times while working on the second and third novels. It helped jog my memory on something.

Also, of course, there are excellent essays by other writers in Wonderbook, which I also re-read. There’s no such thing as a point where you stop trying to learn thing or get a new perspective on what you think you do know.

Another great help was my wife, Ann, who is an award-winning editor. While working on the novels, if I was ever stuck on a scene, I’d talk it over with her and get her opinion. She’s the only person I can do that with—if I try to talk about a story in progress with anyone else I get writer’s block and never finish.

* * *

Above illustration by © Eric Nyquist, courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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