19 October 2011

A Contribution to VanderMeer Studies

My previous post about The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction noted that it is in beta-text mode and so quite obviously incomplete. Among the lacks are entries on either Jeff or Ann VanderMeer. I am not a contributor to the encyclopedia nor am I in any way affiliated with it, but I do have a great interest in all things VanderMeer.

Earlier this year, I wrote a biography of Jeff for Fogcon, where he and Ann were honored guests. (Eric Schaller wrote the biography of Ann, which I hope he will allow me to reprint here, but he's not returning my calls or email at the moment, probably because I suggested that for Halloween he should dress his dog as a character from Twilight.)

I hope the information provided below will prove useful to the encyclopedists and any future scholars. My only goal in life is to be helpful. Jeff VanderMeer will, I expect, deny the accuracy of some of it, but I believe such denials only confirm the truths I am here able to provide to the world...



THE HOEGBOTTON GUIDE TO THE (MOSTLY EARLY) HISTORY OF JEFF VANDERMEER

compiled from notes found in the files of Orem Hoegbotton, including scrawls attributed to Duncan Shriek

edited and embellished by Matthew Cheney


At the tail end of America's revolutionary years, Jeff VanderMeer was born in Bellfonte, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Centre County and part of the State College, Pennsylvania Metropolitan Statistical Area. His birth seems to have caused some consternation at high levels of the U.S. government, but all the files have been classified until 2068; we do know, though, that his parents soon joined the Peace Corps and brought the child with them to the Fiji Islands. After their work there was completed, they returned to the U.S. via a circuitous route that allowed the impressionable young man to encounter Asia, Africa, Europe, Antarctica, and Long Island — experiences that would deeply influence his later fiction.

By late adolescence, VanderMeer was living in Florida, primarily on a houseboat off the coast of St. Petersburg, the fourth-largest city in the state and the second largest city in the Tampa Bay area. VanderMeer's actual activities during this time are unknown, though he has variously claimed that he was working as a merchant of dried squid, an icthyologist, and a decoy for the Witness Protection Program. Whatever he was doing, we know that he was writing, because it wasn't long before his first book, a monograph on herpetology titled The Book of Frog, was published by The Ministry of Whimsy Press, an organization believed to have originated as either a CIA front or the last wish of an asthmatic Czech architect exiled in Miami.

Despite a small print run, The Book of Frog found a devoted cult audience in Florida, though a regional economic downturn forced VanderMeer to abandon his previous employment, sell his houseboat, and move to Gainesville, home to the University of Florida and county seat of Alachua County. Here, VanderMeer posed as a student of transcendental meditation and Latin American political policy while preparing to found a magazine, Jabberwocky. The century was ticking into its last decade, Ronald Reagan was no longer President, and VanderMeer knew the morning in America was about to fade into afternoon — thus, he decided to get serious and put his talents to work in the field of small-press publishing.

Though Jabberwocky lasted only two issues, it published the work of a diverse range of writers, including Kathe Koja, Wayne Allen Sallee, Somtow Sucharitkul, and the award-winning poet Pattiann Rogers. It was a publication well ahead of its time, offering a mix of genres and styles that would later become the hallmark of such heralded publications as Century, Crank!, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. (Speculation that the FBI was involved in Jabberwocky's demise has never been disproven.)

Meanwhile, VanderMeer continued writing, though he was forced to take multiple day-jobs, including work at a discount bookstore in a mall, an experience that would influence his later fiction at least as much as his childhood globetrotting had. 

VanderMeer's literary endeavors at this time were various and eclectic — a historical novella about Senator Joseph McCarthy's last hour of life (Red Flags at Dusk), two children's books he illustrated himself (The Charming Adventures of Torture Squid and The Further Adventures of Torture Squid), three memoirs (The Refraction of Light in a Prison, Fragments from a Drowned City, and A Sudden Dislocation of the Spirit), a contribution to the fields of literary theory and malacology (The Importance of Bibliographies to Squidfiction), an experiment in hagiography (The Drunk But Repentent Life of Cadimon Signal), and a self-help travel guide for anxious masochists (Do You Know Where You Are Now?). 

Most of these works were received well by VanderMeer's growing audience, but his profile was, ironically, most improved when Red Flags at Dusk suffered a dismissive review by the Southern cult writer Maximillian Sharp in The Gainesville Sun. Sharp complained of the novel's right-wing prejudice, of its violent anti-communism, and of VanderMeer's attributing to Joseph McCarthy an obsession with minor religious cults such as the Order of Defecation. Sharp's reputation as a critic ensured that Red Flags at Dusk would be the first of VanderMeer's books to ascend local bestseller lists, because everyone along the Gulf Coast knew that any book Maximilian Sharp disliked was a book worth reading not only with care, but with joy.

It was at this time that VanderMeer suffered a brief, though mysterious and paralyzing, onset of delusional paranoia, believing himself to be a member of the Jesse James / Younger Brothers gang on the way to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876

A young editor and punk musician, Ann Kennedy, happened to run into VanderMeer in the midst of his fiercest delusion, and managed to avoid being trampled as he rode an imaginary horse through the sidewalks of Tallahassee. Kennedy had lived in Tallahassee for some time, enjoying its status as the county seat and only incorporated municipality in Leon County (it is also the 133rd largest city in the United States). She took pity on VanderMeer, who denounced her as a Yankee and an abolitionist, and she brought him to Dr. William Simpkin, a psychiatrist and occasional fiction writer (two fields frequently confused with each other). After three weeks of rest and recuperation, as well as strong medication and fine cigars, VanderMeer regained his wits, and soon wrote works that Kennedy would publish in her magazines The Sterling Web and The Silver Web: "Requiem for the Machine", "Henry Dreams of Angkor Wat", "So the Dead Walk Slowly", and "The Ministry of Butterflies". Kennedy also became enamored of The Book of Frog, which she picked up for $5 from VanderMeer himself after friends of hers in the punk music scene insisted its cover was coated with a mild hallucinogen.

VanderMeer's stories in The Sterling Web and The Silver Web were successful enough that Kennedy forgave VanderMeer for not actually coating the covers of The Book of Frog with hallucinogens (she had, by this point, licked seven copies before deciding her friends were playing a trick on her), and in 1996 she offered to use the resources of her Buzzcity Press to publish VanderMeer's latest novella, Dradin, in Love.

Dradin, in Love was the first of what would be four novellas to form the core of VanderMeer's breakout book, City of Saints and Madmen. It was followed in 1999 by The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, The Strange Case of X, and The Transformation of Martin Lake, the latter of which would go on to win the World Fantasy Award in 2000.

These works introduced the city of Ambergris, a place of intrigue, revolution, and sentient fungus (c.f. the influence of VanderMeer's childhood exposure to Long Island). It was not the only city to sprout from VanderMeer's fetid and fecund mind, however, for 2003 saw publication of Veniss Underground, a novel set in a horrifying, surreal, possibly far-future city — a setting that was the culmination of at least a decade of scattered writings about Veniss. Veniss Underground was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and the World Fantasy Award, and it came in second in the Locus Poll in the category of Best First Novel.

VanderMeer had not confined his work at this time only to fiction writing. He had also continued his efforts as an editor and publisher, launching the World Fantasy Award-winning Leviathan anthology series and running the Ministry of Whimsy Press, which published books by Mark McLaughlin, Jeffrey Thomas, Steve Thomasula, Zoran Zivkovic, Rhys Hughes, Michael Cisco, and Stepan Chapman — including Chapman's Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Troika.

2002 and 2003 proved to be extraordinary years for VanderMeer, seeing not only the publication of career-defining works such as City of Saints and Madmen and Veniss Underground, but also the immensely successful anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases (edited with Mark Roberts, nominated for both the Hugo and World Fantasy awards). At the start of this publishing maelstrom, VanderMeer and Kennedy decided that Dradin was not the only one in love, and in 2002 they were married.

After 2003, VanderMeer continued to issue a tremendous amount of stories, essays, reviews, anthologies, and novels. He continued to explore the city of Ambergris in Shriek: An Afterword (2006) and Finch (2009; nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards); to publish collections of his short fiction (Secret Life [2004], The Third Bear [2010]); to write a media tie-in novel (Predator: South China Sea [2008]), to publish nonfiction books such as Why Should I Cut Your Throat (2004), Booklife (2009), and Monstrous Creatures (2011); and to edit numerous anthologies, often in collaboration with Ann (The New Weird, Steampunk, Best American Fantasy, etc.).

We have not had space here to detail Jeff VanderMeer's work as a teacher at various workshops (Clarion, Shared Worlds, Odyssey), to elaborate on his career as a reviewer for venues ranging from Science Fiction Eye to Realms of Fantasy to The New York Times, to discuss his popular blog, to gaze in wonder at his collaborations with various artists and musicians, or to tell stories of his missions to such picturesque and exotic locales as Romania, Finland, and New Hampshire.

Jeff VanderMeer's oeuvre is like a city, one rich with large and impressive edifices, strange and alluring alleys, all manner of characters, vast (and not always reliable) histories, small treasures hidden in the outskirts, a few bodies buried beneath the concrete floors of abandoned warehouses, a couple of questionable intersections, and a tourist bureau run by saints and madmen. It is the county seat of a place sometimes called October (part of the Fantastika Metropolitan Statistical Area), a city of indeterminate size and ever-metamorphosing population from which no visitor leaves unrewarded, and many seek permanent resident status.

1 comment:

  1. This is the best thing I've seen all day. Thank you sir.

    ReplyDelete