Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Jeff VanderMeer

I first became acquainted with Jeff VanderMeer when he bought my story, "Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman" for Leviathan 2. Not long after that, he brought me into the (now defunct) Fantastic Metropolis editorial collective, which had its own email list and could at times be lively and far-ranging in its discussions. In our conversation below he characterizes himself as optimistic. I would add another adjective to that: enthusiastic. Enthusiasm and optimism work powerfully together and are of inestimable importance for getting things done. Many people have ideas for projects, ideas for stories. But Jeff is someone who follows through on his ideas, and that makes him an exciting person to know.

Timmi: The subtext of a piece of fiction exerts enormous influence over how a story is read, regardless of the reader’s (im)perception of the subtext or the author’s awareness of the subtext’s presence in the story. When faced with sophisticated analyses of their stories, many writers angrily deny the presence of a subtext, claiming that because they didn’t deliberately put it in the story, it’s not there and must thus the invention of the critics who say that it is. Similarly, many readers resent critics who engage with the story’s subtext, claiming that by doing so they wreck everyone else’s pleasure in the story. When I deliver critiques in workshops, I almost always point out the subtext in the stories I critique because I think the subtext is too important to be left out of any discussion of what a story is trying to do and whether it is effective in what it is trying to do. Beginning writers are almost always surprised (and sometimes unpleasantly so) when I do this. In peer workshops (like Sycamore Hill and Rio Hondo), though, quite a few of the writers are fully aware of their stories’ subtext. I’m wondering, Jeff, what your take on subtext is, generally, as well as in your understanding of your own work. Do you avoid thinking about subtext at the time of composition? When, if at all, do you become aware of its presence in the stories you write? And what—if anything—should we be teaching beginning writers about not only the role of subtext in their stories, but also how it is produced and its possible technical uses for the conscious writer? And finally, in your opinion, is it possible for a writer to be too conscious of what they’re doing?

Jeff: I hadn't thought about it this way, in terms of teaching beginning writers about subtext. I think this is because I tend to want to help them with the story at the level at which it fails, and usually it fails at a much more basic level than the subtext. However, having thought about your question, it will probably change the way I teach in future, even though I don't believe a writer's awareness or lack of awareness of subtext makes much difference in their writing. If there's a more specific subset of the context--say, something clichéd about the gender relations in a story, or underdeveloped; for example, a male writer who has allowed all of the female characters to populate the story as caricatures or typesthen I would of course talk to them about that, as a flaw in the story. But it's interesting to think of talking to them generally about subtext, to see if making them aware of it is useful.

Inasmuch as subtext is related to theme, I don't think about it much when writing. I learned a long time ago that theme and image come to me naturally, almost subconsciously, and that what I need to do as a writer is nurture this aspect of myself by doing the most mundane things: taking care of my physical and mental health, not get too stressed, etc. Then it's effortless.

In another way, I do monitor the subtext. After I write the rough draft, then I go back and I ask myself what I was trying to do with the text--what do I want to emphasize, bring to the front, de-emphasize, etc. And during this phase, I will try to look at the subtextas an outsider. I will try to look at it from someone else's point of view. What would a woman think of the character dynamics? For example—and knowing that this is a gross generalization. Ten different women might view the same female character in vastly different ways. But the point is to look at the story from another perspective of some kind. What is the subtext of the story? Is the subtext as complete as the surface of the text? Why or why not? Are there places where the subtext has broken the surface and needs to be subsumed?

As for a writer possibly being too conscious of the subtext, this comes into play with what I'd call political correctness. At a certain level, a writer is a complex bundle of prejudices and lack of prejudice, and if you try to go too far against your own nature, you tend to steal the power of your work. Sometimes, as in the case of someone like Philip K. Dick, you just have to take the bad with the good, because they're so inextricably bound together: a chemical, not a physical, reaction.

Timmi: Has quitting your day job and going the literary freelance route impacted your writing life? Is it better for your writing, or worse, or just different? Could you talk, please, about how you came to take such a major decision?

Jeff: My day job workplace situation had devolved over my last year there. It was becoming more corporate. I felt many of the personalities I had to deal with were dysfunctional. A few I felt were borderline sociopathicor, perhaps, situationally made to seem sociopathic by the contortions of the corporation. In other words, the unnatural and illogical demands of the corporation were beginning to warp personalitiesmy own included. Eventually, it was less painful to not be in that place than to be there. The result is a different kind of stress. I have less financial security and knowing I only have X-months of income at any one time can freeze me up, although since my wife Ann has a day job, I have some safety net, even though I have to pay my half of the bills. (I'm being open about this because I think writers need to think about and understand the psychological trade offs.)

For a long time, I thought I needed the day job, that I needed that financial certainty to write. But the fact is, I don't. I am much more of a loner than I was forced to be with an office job, and I am generally less stressed and more productive now. I have written more short fiction and more creative nonfiction in the past year than ever before. I enjoy the work. I find that I no longer am cranky in the mornings, because I can write. All those missed opportunities to write in the mornings when I had the day job. I would gladly live a life of poverty if necessary to continue to have mornings to write. At a certain point, especially as you get older, you realize the trade-offs. You realize that if you're not careful the regret will outweigh the joy. And I can honestly say now that this is not the case for me.

Timmi: Are you conscious of gender issues while you are in the process of depicting male characters?

Jeff: I am always conscious of gender issues when revising. I am wary of being conscious of them while writing the rough draft. I want my subconscious to control the process, even if I don't like the person I see in the text. Beginning writers are always told a lie, a convenient lie, a lie to protect them. This lie is that you are not your manuscript. To some extent this is true, in that many writers are much shittier human beings than the ideal expressed in their fiction. But you really are your manuscript, and you have to accept at the rough draft stage that how you view the world is going to be in your manuscript, should be in your manuscript, or, really, what is it we're reading you for? Why should we care?

This is all by way of saying, I then go back and look through the entrails. I ask myself if I'm working with stereotype, and if so, what does simply playing against stereotype do to the story? Also, if it's a first person narrator, what do the gender issues as set out in the story tell us about that narrator? And did I do it deliberately or is it a mistake? The point isn't to make it politically correct, but I do think a male writer writing about both male and female characters should be testing those characters to make sure they are as fully-realized and original and unique unto themselves and each other as is necessary for the good of the story. I don't know if enough writers do this kind of testing.

Timmi: What are you working on now?

Jeff: Honestly, this will sound strange, but I'm working on how I view the world and what I think the future of the world is. I'm essentially an optimistic person but see the future of the world we live in as somewhat bleak. For this reason, I am reevaluating what kind of fiction I want to write and who I want my audience to be and what the value of fiction is in a world that might have collapsed in another hundred years. Art should exist for its own sake, for the pleasure of the writer as well as the reader, so the questions don't really have to be answered, but I think I will begin to tackle some of this in my fiction anyway. Baby steps at least. "The Memories of Others" is a new story I'm working on that deals with this issue. Another story that's mostly just for fun is "The Three Quests of the Wizard Sarnod," which is for an anthology of Jack Vance stories. In addition, I am working on a failed-consumer-state novel called "Borne" and the next Ambergris novel, "Finch," among several other things. I am having fun being various.

Timmi: Thanks, Jeff. This was fun. Let's do it again soon!

For more about Jeff and his work, visit his blog, Ecstatic Days.

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