Giant Bears and Biotech: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

borne
Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

If you’ve read the Southern Reach Trilogy, you’ve been waiting for Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne, the same way you’ve been waiting for Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 — with impatience and ridiculously high hopes. But just as VanderMeer subverted your expectations for each sequel to Annihilation, with Borne he’s written something completely different and unpredictable — not just in terms of the story, but also with regards to language, structure, and point of view.

Yes, there’s a giant, flying, psychotic bear. Yes, there’s a sentient plant/squid/thingy named Borne who is adorable, awe-inspiring, and terrifying, raised by the scavenger Rachel. And yes, it’s set in a nameless future city ruined by climate change and renegade biotechnology. Do not, however, expect an Area X-style mystery explored through multiple, fractured perspectives. Instead, Borne is a Weird requiem for the Anthropocene that uses a Hollywood-style, three-act adventure story to challenge the way you think about nature, science, and the future.

VanderMeer is in Chicago this week (buy tickets here if you’d like to see him), so I asked him about bears, his writing process for Borne, and what he’s working on next.


Adam Morgan: What scared you the most about writing Borne? Which chapter are you most excited for readers to experience?

Jeff VanderMeer: I’m not sure anything scared me because Borne is a more optimistic novel than the Southern Reach Trilogy books, even if it is harrowing. I did care about these characters a lot, though, and I was scared for them, in a sense, because the stakes are so high and the dangers very real.

I must say I hope readers like the rooftop scene in which Borne helps Rachel hide from a bear and I also like all the flying bear scenes, because what’s not to love, in theory, about a flying bear scene? Except, of course, when that bear is fairly psychotic and big as a five-story building. There are a lot of scenes in the last third I’m eager for readers to experience — but the one thing I *am* scared of is spoilers.

Adam Morgan: Of all the creatures at your disposal, why is Mord a bear?

Jeff VanderMeer: Mord is quite a magnificent antagonist and a lot of fun to write. I’ve written about squid, meerkats, owls, dolphins, and several other critters in my work. But this time it was bears and foxes for some reason. I think foxes fit the landscape and I’ve always found them fascinating. As for why a bear…I just got fascinated with them and they began to enter some of my short stories and then this novel. My daughter also once tried to convince me there was such a thing as a Hannukah Bear, including that there was a Hannukah constellation and that influenced it, along with childhood memories of reading Richard Adams’ Shardik (which I have not re-read). But it pendulum always swings with me and animals. My future novels in progress fixate on marmots, hummingbirds, and salamanders.

Adam Morgan: In the past, you’ve said “a lot of [Borne] is taken from life and my family and there’s a lot that’s relevant to our current environmental situation.” Can you elaborate?

Jeff VanderMeer: We have a big ethical/moral dilemma coming up revolving around made creatures, even as animal behavior science is telling us wild animals are smarter than we have given them credit for. Yet we’re about to start lab-producing animals (in some ways we already are). We just can’t ignore this, nor can we ignore the fact that if we don’t change our ways, some creature is going to be vying to replace us at some point. It may be inevitable anyway given the epochs our planet goes through and the nature of evolution. But in addition to that I wanted to examine issues of scarcity and survival and how we carve out a place for the good that is within us, even as we have to deal with the bad. I think that’s very important to our era. How we respond to devastating weather and destabilization because of environmental problems will say a lot about our collective character. Especially in an era when Trump is trying to bring out all the selfishness and hate in us.

Adam Morgan: If all books are in conversation with their predecessors, who is Borne speaking to?

Jeff VanderMeer: I don’t actually buy the idea of all books being in conversation with their predecessors, if you mean that as the main point of a book. But I do think novels can serve, in a tertiary way, as correctives. And my corrective is that I don’t mind optimism in novels, but it has to be earned and it has to be in a context in which the landscape is realistic to some extent. You might say, “But, Jeff, your landscape includes a giant flying bear.” Well, this novel is more in a fabulist mode in that respect, but the ruined setting and the scarcity of resources is very realistic in the context. We are all obsessed with Trump right now, and we are correct to be, but many of us in the United States still see him in the context of a setting that isn’t ruined yet. But that’s not the case in other parts of the world — or, if we’re honest, and don’t ignore the invisible places, our own — and it’s wrong to exist in such a privileged space without acknowledging it. Without saying that as a novelist in my fiction I am going to strive to be honest about the future as well as provide hope.

Adam Morgan: How did the manuscript for Borne evolve over time? What was the hardest thing to cut?

Jeff VanderMeer: All my novels start as some inspiration and idea wedded to character and then I think about them for a long time before beginning to write. So Borne started as this conflict between a giant bear and a bit of made biotech with this character of Rachel as the focal point—someone trying to do good and retain her humanity in the face of so much strife—and then it kind blossomed out into how the history of a city affects its inhabitants and how the things that happen in the past, if not resolved, come back to haunt you, along with all of the environmental concerns.

I had so much fun writing Borne’s dialogue as he evolved that I wrote too much of it and I had to keep cutting it because the scenes went on too long. I hated cutting that material, because Rachel’s conversations with Borne, especially early on, are like my conversations with my daughter or my grandson, and a lot of thing in there are from that. But the evolution in general was just that if you’re going to write epic and personal together, the unfortunate thing that can happen is by the third act it’s like a bad CGI superhero movie and you just don’t give a crap. So I took a lot of time and care making sure the epic and the personal were in balance.

Adam Morgan: What’s next? (Other than the Big Book of Classic Fantasy and your forthcoming YA trilogy.)

Jeff VanderMeer: We do have a lot of projects upcoming, both me and my wife, but in terms of what I’m writing at the moment — I’m working on an ecological thriller called Hummingbird Salamander and the artist Theo Ellsworth is adapting my short story “Secret Life” to the graphic novel format.

FICTION
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
MCD
Published April 25, 2017

Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor, and the author most recently of the New York Times bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and multiple year’s-best anthologies. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife.

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