Jeff VanderMeer is known as one of the major voices in what is called the "New Weird," a hybrid form of fiction that avoids classification and combines elements of sci-fi, horror, surrealism, post-modernism and other elements to produce stories that are often frightening, mind-bending and profoundly philosophical, sometimes all at once.
Born in Pennsylvania, spending his childhood in the Fiji Islands and much of his adult life in Florida, VanderMeer began publishing professionally in the late 1980s, eventually turning out novels like Veniss Underground (2003), Shriek: An Afterword (2006) and Finch (2009), along with short story collections like City of Saints and Madmen (2001).
He achieved mainstream success in 2014 with what came to be called the Southern Reach Trilogy, a series of books set around a coastal zone called Area X that has been seemingly infested by some sort of alien environmental presence. Paramount Pictures and producer Scott Rudin bought the film rights to the trilogy, with the first film, Annihilation, arriving this week from director and screenwriter Alex Garland, starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac (the other two books are called Authority and Acceptance).
A genuinely eerie book, Annihilation has been made into an equally unsettling movie, hopefully paving the way for the rest of the Southern Reach Trilogy to make it to the screen. SYFY WIRE had the chance recently to talk about the film with VanderMeer, whose latest book Borne came out late last year. He is working on both a new novel and some more stories about the Southern Reach.
This is the first time your work has been adapted by a major Hollywood studio. How did this whole process come about for you?
Jeff VanderMeer: I'm a huge fan of science fiction, horror, and fantasy films. I know quite a bit about... I know, for example, Kubrick never was in any way faithful to anything in a very huge, ridiculous way, and things like that. I was more interested and concerned about getting an interesting movie than anything that was necessarily faithful to the books, and having that absolute fidelity.
When Paramount optioned it and they attached Alex Garland, I saw Ex Machina a few months later, and I was really blown away by that movie. I was blown away by the singular vision of it. I was blown away by the fact that, unlike most movies of that kind, the third act held together and was actually even stronger than the first few acts, which is really difficult to do. I also knew I was dealing with someone who would have their very specific views of what they wanted to do with it. Mostly, I was concerned with not putting any roadblocks in the way of how he wanted to do the screenplay.
It seems like the important thing is always to get across the tone or the spirit of the books, without necessarily going page by page.
Right. I think that the movie does that. The visual language of the movie is very faithful, I think, to the books. It's interesting too, because I like the fact there are these points of commonality, and the book and the movie share DNA, but I can still be surprised by the movie myself, as a viewer, which is a nice thing. The movie definitely ties into the book, and vice versa, but I don't think they spoil each other, so to speak. I think of it almost as another expedition into Area X in a sense, if that makes any sense.
Did you talk with Alex while he was writing the screenplay?
He was very kind. He kept me in the loop to some degree, and then at the very beginning, we had a conversation before he wrote the screenplay, about certain acts of translation. For example, the moaning creature in the book actually kind of translates into the bear, and things like that -- things that made more sense for the movie and for what he was doing with it. They're still there. There are all these things that, I don't want to say arre always faithful, but they're definitely what I would call reactions to or created by interacting with the book in interesting ways. We had those conversations.
It was quite funny because initially, just because I find wild boar very frightening in North Florida when I'm hiking, I was very committed to there being a boar in there. Alex was very kind in trying with the boar, but the boar just wasn't working. The boar kind of got cut, and the moaning creature got kind of combined into the bear, which makes a lot of sense for the movie.
Did you ever look back at Annihilation, after finishing it, and think, "Could anyone ever adapt this?"
I always thought it could be adapted, in part because there are all these decisions the characters make along the way, and you just have to map those decisions. If you just bullet point those decisions, which are then embedded in an almost unreliable first person narrator, then you begin to see what the beats of a movie would be. My earlier books were much more surreal and fantastical. I feel they posed greater logistical issues, in terms of, "How many special effects are we going to need?" All kinds of things like that. I did feel like the Southern Reach books were more amenable to adaptation potentially, because of that.
What did you think of the casting?
Well, it's an interesting mix of iconic and new actors, I think. We had a set visit, and I got to have a chance to talk to Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson in particular, and I was just struck by how much fun they were having, and how it struck them that having an all female cast and going on an expedition, it not being a romantic comedy or something, how different that was for them. Also, the fact that Alex was shooting more or less sequentially meant there would be an expedition for them as well.
Then there were things like a scene where Tessa Thompson was in, where I was just kind of stunned, not only by the intensity of her preparation, but that the scene itself is not in the book, but it was so true to the book. I mean the way that she channeled it. I thought that was really quite interesting.
Just before this interview, accusations of whitewashing were made against the movie because Natalie Portman's character in the book is apparently half Asian, and the psychologist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh is half Native American.
I think Alex had talked about this in another interview. I think that as the process of making the movie went along, as they became aware of books two and three, they kind of took that into account in the casting, but really that's a question for Alex I think.
I read that the book came to you in a dream when you were ill.
I had dental surgery, which turns out to be kryptonite for me. I got bronchitis, a bad infection. I was on opioids, but they didn't work. For some reason, they didn't work on me. I started having strange dreams in general. I lost a lot of weight and I just was getting up and then sleeping by noon. One night, in the middle of all this, and this was maybe a year, I think, after the Gulf oil spill, which I think was still kind of swirling around in my head, I had this dream in the middle of the night, of walking down into what I was sure was a tunnel tower. It was very realistic. One of those dreams you don't think you can get out of. I noticed that there were words on the wall, they were getting brighter. If I turned a corner at a certain point, I was going to see whatever it was.
I'm very convinced that my writer brain decided to airlift me out at that point. If I kept walking in the dream and seen it, I wouldn't have written the book. Seeing it, meant I didn't need to figure out what it was by writing it. Then the weirdest thing is I woke up, I knew I didn't need to write down the dream, that I'd remember that, but I wrote down the words on the wall, all 500 of them.
I've never before or since had a dream where anything coherent, text wise, jumped out. Then I just went to sleep and I was like, "Who knows if this is going to be a story or not?" Then I woke up in the morning and I had the character, the biologist, in my head, and the first 10 pages, which are more or less unchanged in the final draft, which is also very unusual. Then every day, even though I was sick, I would get up, I would write for three hours, and then I would go to bed basically. Sometimes I didn't even hardly remember what it was I was writing, because I was in that kind of fugue state.
At the end of that time, which I don't think took more than a month, I kind of had the larger vision for all three books. I handed the first one to my wife Anne and was like, "Is this a novel, or is this just something about four women wandering around a hiking trail that I do in North Florida?" She said, "This is a novel. You should definitely send this to your agent."
So the next two books were in the mix pretty early on.
Yes, halfway through Annihilation, at one point I thought it was going to be four books. It's kind of a collapsed quartet. The funniest thing is I'd just gone online somewhere and had said something about how I hate how people write trilogies all the time, but that I wanted to write one myself. That's just the way it happened. Then of course, some things changed as I was writing them, as they always do. I always had in my head that you would come to realize that some of the characters were meaner than they seemed in the first book, and some of them were more sympathetic.
I understand you've been working on another Southern Reach story?
I'm working on a couple of others very slowly, because I want it to be just organic. It's not a response to the success of the trilogy. It's just simply stories I'm interested in. I always wanted to tell the full story of the first expedition with Lowry. I have a feeling there's a lot of stuff that we don't know yet in the books, that's going to be quite fascinating and kind of explain how the way things happened was probably more certain than you might expect. Then there's also a story set right before Area X comes into being, involving a character named Old Jim, who's in Acceptance, who's kind of more and less than he seems.
Your next book is called Hummingbird Salamander?
Yes, it's an ecological thriller.
What would you like to say about your recently published book Borne?
Borne in a weird way, even though it's a totally different universe, picks up where the Southern Reach Trilogy leaves off, because it's post-apocalyptic. Southern Reach kind of leads you up to the point, and then kind of leaves you there on purpose. Borne is set in a ruined city of the future, and it's more of a mix of science fiction and fantasy. It has a giant flying bear in it, for example. If you do that, you have to really commit to the physicality of that bear, or you're in trouble.
It really is because it's populated with biotech, this ruined city, from a company on the edge of town. This scavenger woman finds this bit of biotech that winds up being intelligent, that she raises as a child, and this has very, very important consequences for her in the city, because it's possible that this bit of biotech was meant to be a weapon, and here she is raising it to have all these values, but its essential nature may be something else entirely.
Did your upbringing in the South Pacific, and then living in Florida, give you sort of a more acute awareness of the environment, nature, and our relationship to it? That seems to be so much a part of your work.
I think definitely Fiji, and then obviously Florida, but Fiji because just as long as I can remember, literally, from my earliest memories of being a child, I remember just being in very, very wilderness areas, walking on very wild and distant beaches, with no one there. There are a lot of scenes in the Southern Reach and elsewhere that are actually influenced by that. I once got lost on a reef at night. My parents' flashlight failed and had to orient myself by this glowing starfish, which transformed into a scene in Annihilation.
I think a lot of what I'm doing, in addition to the characters I'm writing about, is I'm trying to make sense of this kind of mysteriously magical childhood, filled with these moments of transcendence, that were almost always linked with nature to some degree.
It's gratifying to see a book like Annihilation getting adapted to the screen, or even something like Arrival last year. Do you feel like there's something sort of going on in that respect, with sci-fi literature being approached more seriously by film studios and TV for adaptation?
I don't know. I think pop culture in general has legitimized these genres. Oddly, things like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, along with others, have legitimized it within the literary mainstream, so it's the combination of those two things. The fact that a science fiction film can be action packed and can be on that surface level very satisfying, but can also have all these layers and levels to it, it means that a lot of these adaptations are then creating things that are, I think, really interesting hybrids, have really interesting ideas in them. I don't know. It's interesting to me, but it does seem like an explosion definitely.
I think it's also because it is very atmospheric. The Southern Reach stuff is science fiction, but it's using a lot of uncanny tropes. It's mixing the familiar and the strange, in hopefully a ratio that allows you to appreciate it and not get thrown out of the story. I think the movie definitely does a good job with that.
I think a lot of people are going to describe this film as a mind-bender. What's your favorite mind-bending, trippy science fiction movie, that blew your mind when you first saw it?
I think Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Donald Sutherland one. I saw it as a kid basically, and I will never forget the human-faced dog, which has been very influential in my fiction. Another one is Videodrome. Then probably the most interesting one is when I was a kid, traveling back from Fiji, we visited Singapore, and we went to see a screening of one of the original Planet of the Apes movies, with French dubbing and Chinese subtitles. I, as an eight year old, was trying to make sense of this movie without being able to know what was going on. I'm sure that was an influence too.
Annihilation opens in theaters on Friday, February 23.