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Can Fiction Rewild Our Minds?

Can Fiction Rewild Our Minds?

In a time of rapid and drastic change in the world, can stories make a corresponding change in people’s thinking—and their actions?

Area X, the zone of wild transformation at the center of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, has a way of infiltrating, unsettling and altering the minds of the people who read it. He also explored non-human minds in his novel Borne and ideas about eco-storytelling in the revised, expanded edition of Wonderbook, a creative writing guide [republished today by Abrams].

Kate Schapira, a lecturer in English at Brown University, has been thinking and writing under the influence of Area X for three years. The concrete expression of this influence appears in her essay from Essay Press, “Time to Be Something Other Than Human.” Schapira has been offering Climate Anxiety Counseling to passersby for five years in Providence (and environs), where she also lives, writes, teaches, runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and is currently trying to stop a natural gas liquefaction plant. She’s the author of six books of poetry, most recently FILL: A Collection (Trembling Pillow Press, 2016), a collaboration with Erika Howsare about waste. Her prose has appeared in Catapult, The Rumpus, and The Toast.

The two writers talked together about technology, fear, imagination, and what it takes to move beyond the bounds of the probable into the possible.

Area X map--new
A new map of Area X from the revised, expanded edition of Wonderbook.

Kate Schapira: My friend and I were talking about Area X and she referred to it as “an advanced organism” and I thought it’s more like “a powerful, purposeful ecosystem.” We were talking about the way that Area X makes “mistakes.” How do you (if you do) see Area X “learning” throughout the series—or if that’s not a way of thinking about it that makes sense/feels right to you, what does?

Jeff VanderMeer: I always imagined Area X was both of those things, really, in a context where it was intelligent, but just like in some animals, humans can’t understand that intelligence. The parts of it made manifest don’t leave enough clues for our limited ways of seeing. In the movie, I know the director imagined Area X as less intentional, which I thought was more boring. It’s much more interesting to think of Area X as a place so alien that the customs and the purpose are there, but beyond our ken.

KS: So when you encounter something complex that you’ve never encountered before, and it’s also never encountered you before, how do you find the path between destroying it and being destroyed by it? In Annihilation, how did you help the biologist, and Area X itself, find that path—as you wrote, how did she become that person and how did it become that…system? process? set of relationships? It’s clear from the second and third books that destroying Area X, in the way that we usually think of destroying the world that we know, isn’t really an option. But it does seem to me that Area X “prefers” viability, and I also wondered if one of the things that humans can do through our presence is make Area X into something it doesn’t like, or take it in a direction that it doesn’t “prefer.”

JVM: Area X has some sort of default where it creates doppelgangers when it’s trying to understand someone or something better, or if it perceives a threat. If neither of those apply, you just get subsumed into the landscape, more or less. The trick in all of this is that since I only possess a human mind, I have to find ways to suggest a non-human mind while working within that constraint. The one advantage I have in that regard, I suppose, is having “trained” quite a bit to try to convey that, through research but also prior fictional experiments. There’s a similar experiment going on in early novels like Shriek: An Afterword or Veniss Underground. So it’s been on my mind for a long time—this divide we need to bridge, in part for our own survival.

Unlike how the process is depicted in the trilogy, the ideal way to encounter something complex for the first time is to not be hasty. We’ve gone through the process of rewilding our lawn in a semi-haphazard way that has me carefully evaluating the plants that have grown there rather than willy-nilly weeding. This includes reevaluating certain invasive species as non-harmful in the context of our lawn. I keep thinking of a line from Authority about “a circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle.” The idea is that we need to become better at receiving the world around us rather than imposing ourselves and our views on the world. To truly see the world and make decisions about the complex that aren’t inane simplifications.

Too often we carry around the burden of rigid or semi-rigid ideologies that lead us to unquestioned foundational assumptions, like “kill every snake you see,” “sharks are vicious,” or even “otters are cute.” In every case of our engagement with the animal world we bring in all this baggage that obscures useful and ethical decision-making. A lot of it is brought along from outdated folklore and our reptile brains, perpetuated in a modern pop-culture environment through memes. Some of these memes are truly disturbing because they’re put forward as “cute” but actually depict animal cruelty.

In Annihilation there are various factors, one being the biologist’s natural disposition to find beauty in the natural world where others might find ugliness—and to understand that the intrinsic worth of an organism doesn’t lie in applying a human standard of “cuteness,” “beauty,” or “usefulness.” And Area X responds to this in analyzing the biologist and thus defaults to a response it feels is appropriate re: integration rather than expulsion or mirroring or death.

Wonderbook Revised--Jeff VanderMeer
New pages from the revised, expanded edition of Wonderbook.

KS: Yeah, I see the ground-rules. At the same time, I was wary (still am) of reading these books to try to figure them out. That way of knowing, as delightful and seductive as it is, seems to mess humans up and hold us back in these stories, and serve as the source of many mistakes—knowledge as it’s allied to use, control and domination.

I agree that framing it as less intentional is more boring, and also more in line with the denial of nonhuman intelligences. It’s like the thing about birds building nests, or fluffing their feathers out to keep warm: why is that “instinct” but when a bunch of humans build an office complex or put up a tent it’s “knowledge”? This seems at least partly in line with our earlier email conversation about Indigenous ways of knowing, some of which seem to be better at conceptualizing a thinking, feeling, acting ecosystem than the ways of knowing that are more common among people who separate and instrumentalize “nature”.

JVM: I’m wary of fetishizing or generalizing about Indigenous knowledge systems because there’s such variation between communities and tribes. But there are a substantial number of Indigenous knowledge systems that—in a practical, non-mystical, non-Othering way—I’d say are useful to this conversation, that often are dismissed as somehow “just religion” or as part of the general marginalizing and rendering invisible of Indigenous peoples. There’s nothing simple about learning to live within the constraints of an ecosystem, for example, and the material we’re talking about is highly complex and often unfortunately rendered in pop culture and other places in simplistic ways. In part, too, because the Right has been very successful in promulgating the idea of the naïve “treehugger,” of which “hippies” are also considered a part. These judgmental ways of saying the natural world is worthless except as exploitable resource—which, by the way, have been pretty engrained in Western culture since well before the formal introduction of capitalism. All versions of communism at a country-wide level share in this fault, as far as I can tell. So in addition to everything else we either need a new ideology or we need to be better about mixing-and-matching existing ideologies to form a patchwork quilt that is robust and different from what we have now, in terms of policy and view of the world.

KS: Good catch on the need to eschew fetishization and generalization, yes. I’m seeing you push back against the characterization of openness to the nonhuman world, and human continuity with it, as “naive” or “childish” or “simple” when in fact it is difficult to achieve, difficult to endure (in the sense that awe, transcendence, is not easy) and requiring constant flexibility and constant adjustment. I’m thinking of Area X finding a particular “flavor” or set of qualities in the biologist that leads it to try working with her, tasting in her the possibility for integration, and I wonder if there’s maybe a lesson there, a flavor to seek out in existing ideologies—and stories—that is the taste of what we need, what might help us survive? And what is it or what are they, and how do we know and move toward those qualities? Rather than recreating the stories that are most familiar or comforting for us?

JVM: You mentioned in the essay that Authority felt, more or less, like something you already knew. I’m paraphrasing. I’m curious what it was that was anti-revelatory about Authority and what in your experience made it so?

KS: In the essay I mentioned the power dynamics, the bad office culture. But all of those things seem mainly to be part of the narrative in order to show that in the light of the way the world is changing, they are paralyzingly unimportant. Every little power play, every speck of irritation—even Lowry’s bullying, which reads as a remnant or reflex of whatever was once a person—all of this is swept away, in fact and in significance, by the bloom of Area X. I think that that is accurate: in a great change, some things won’t matter as much as they once did, and the more we thought they mattered, the harder of a time we’re going to have. But that wasn’t a new or unsettling idea for me.

It’s apparent throughout the trilogy that what people bring with them into Area X shapes the form that their interactions and transformations take—both literal objects in the sense of Lowry’s little technological implant into the psychologist from the eleventh expedition, and in the sense that when Area X “tastes” the biologist it tastes her potential for integration. Maybe that’s what happens when Control goes back down to the heart of transformation, to meet it and be ended (or ended as himself, anyway)? But Control is a mess and yet what Area X makes of him is also a greater degree of—I want to say habitability, or a more viable transitional ecosystem. You don’t have to answer this because it’s not in the book and I assume that if you wanted us to know you would have put it in there, but…why does it work?

JVM: I’m perhaps a little cynical about Control. I know he’s in a tough spot and he’s also already kind of in trouble because of his mother. So, to some extent, it’s about shedding layers, molting in a way, and trying to find solace in becoming something else entirely, something that doesn’t think the thoughts he’s thought. Because he’s become so tightly wound in his own interiority that he almost can’t see the world. Analysis and administration and management have, paradoxically, made him incapable of a reboot as a human mind. Which is perhaps harsh, and I have sympathy for Control outside of this limited response. So I don’t know if it works. I just think he never has a human thought again, but I don’t know what replaces that or where he winds up. Sometimes people are caught up in something for which they don’t have the capacity—the literal capacity—no matter how they try.

Area X--changes to film
New pages from the revised, expanded edition of Wonderbook.

KS: His reactions are much more familiar to me from both fiction and fact than the biologist’s, and so I was less interested in traveling with him (especially since he’s pumping his feet as hard as he can to stay in the same place). I think the biologist spoiled me, honestly, because she showed me how far I could get—how far you could get us—from the extremely bound, limited, fearful vision that Control is working with.

JVM: I don’t believe human institutions do a good job of grappling with complex issues and so it was important to follow the path of someone who seems equipped to grapple from a purely traditional point of view, but is not, and to be sympathetic to his journey in the moment, while also recognizing that part of the point was to subvert the hero’s journey—specifically, the masculine element of that. There was no other way to write the novel because just as Annihilation through the biologist highlights one point of view about the world, so too does Control. Also, Authority is a deeply absurdist novel. I don’t believe novels need to be written from the point of view of people we’re sympathetic to or that they need to be people who have actual agency, just the appearance of agency—since we often trick ourselves into believing we have more agency than we think. So I was kind of charting a system of thought and culture through Control.

Related: Do you feel that a certain amount of irrationality is hardbaked into human minds? Are we in part in this position now because of literally having minds not equal to thinking across vast spans of time, for example? And what does this mean for how you teach in the climate change space?

KS: I don’t know that I think Control’s problem, or humans’ problem, is irrationality or incapacity per se. I do think many of us reject the unfamiliar, even when others show us that it’s true, because it isn’t like what we’ve known and we aren’t practiced at imagining it. That’s more true if the unfamiliar is also painful.

When I talk with people about climate change, I often invite them to imagine it, and ask what they imagine. Often they haven’t done it. Or they don’t like doing it. But once we see what they imagine, I can ask them some follow-up questions, about how people (human and nonhuman) are living and interacting in that imagined future. I still haven’t read Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, but Roy Scranton gave an interview around the time it came out where he described a meditation practice of imagining your own most fearful death, and I use that sometimes myself to imagine a gutted or depleted world. I don’t do that practice with people at the climate anxiety counseling booth, though.

I also agree that there are cultural patterns at work here. At present in the US we are not in the habit of thinking relationally, of recognizing interdependence. Our stories are stories of individual triumph, and everything else is a necessary condition of that triumph, or a tool, or a reward, or an obstacle. Throw a profit motive and the tools for “resource extraction” on that, and you have the exact recipe that has allowed the fears and desires of a very few people to shape and operate structures that threaten us all. And our failure to imagine how we would remove or hamper those people and those structures, and how we’d live without the ways of being that they’ve built, and how we’d live in other ways, is one reason, though of course not the only one, why they’re still doing what they do. Many of us, including me, fear losing what we have now, fear violent retaliation, fear suffering.

What are some things about the way fear works in these stories that you might want to talk about—especially how you use different kinds of fear to make the story happen, and what you learned about fear in writing its operation in the story world?

JVM: The truth is that there are many things in Annihilation that the biologist doesn’t fear and that I don’t fear that another writer might fear. So, for example, I’m always taken aback at readers who fear the wilderness as a general concept as explored in the Southern Reach trilogy, especially as my depictions of habitats is generally benign or even ecstatic and revelatory in nature. What might be imposed on landscapes in the books can be classified as worthy of fear, but the richness of life going on in those landscapes should not be feared. So for some readers the books are scarier than I meant them to be due to unfamiliarity. Then there’s the fact that I often find the ecstatic or revelatory beautiful even when projected through the monstrous. There’s no delinking the wonder of some of these moments in the books from the horror of them. Which speaks to the idea of horror not being an objective thing but perhaps a measurement of how much of a certain kind of the unknown we are willing to accept as non-monstrous.

Kate Schapira’s “Climate Anxiety Counseling” in Providence, RI.

KS: In the ways that people talk and write about climate change there are also all these narratives of nature as something that “gets” you—like, “There’s going to be more ticks and we’re all going to get Lyme disease!”—visions of the monstrous not just as something that you don’t expect, but as something that may destroy you, or make it appealing for you to destroy yourself or someone else, as in fact does happen to everyone else on the twelfth expedition. But there’s also that fear of loss, not just of what’s normal or familiar, but of the richness and complexity of life that a particular set of human practices are depleting and destroying. The biologist doesn’t express this as fear, though she feels it very deeply; for Control, later, it seems mixed in with his fear of change and not-knowing. This is less of a story question and more of a question about the story’s afterlife in mind and action: are there ways of working with fear, ours or theirs, that writers can use to get readers to pay more of the kinds of attention you wrote about in your answer to the first question? Can stories—like these, or like Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy—give us models of, or ways to practice, learning and paying attention while we feel fear, or to the things and changes that we fear?

JVM: Fiction—the interiority of fiction—the way it lives in a reader’s mind, direct, because the reader creates the story, can make narrative live in the body. I think Lidia Yuknavitch has said something similar. I want my stories to live in the body, to engage with the reader in a way where, hopefully, they’re different at the end, and cannot quite get free of the story. I like this in the stories I read, too. I don’t want to be the same after. So, in that physicality, I find hope for storytelling, more so than any lesson. Although it is related to what you say, because stories can force readers to experience things that they have rendered invisible just simply by describing or naming them. And some aura or residue of that may remain, to transform the post-story world.

Fear and unease live in the intersections of uncertainty and I’m a big believer in using character viewpoints to create differing views of the same events that force the reader to create in their mind what they think the true event or moment was really like. And that means the fear becomes highly tactile and thus more effective, because you’re internalizing it by writing part of the story.

I’ve also explored some ideas about eco-storytelling in the new material in Wonderbook, which has an entire eco-module in there that’s for both fiction writers and science students. Meghan Brown, a biology professor and Hobart and William Smith Colleges just completed teaching the ideas in that module so I’m excited about the ways that fiction can help scientists and how the confluence of fiction and nonfiction in unusual ways can be of use.

Because…is fiction by itself even the best medium? I don’t know. I’d be curious if you think there are hybrid and mutated forms of storytelling that might work best. And if there are stories in this mode that you’ve bounced off hard—and if so, why?

KS: Annihilation definitely did that for me, is still doing that living in the body and haunting of the body, working and rewiring. Other writings that have done that for me have often done it partly through rhythm and cadence, the way they cause themselves to be read—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, which is most like poetry, and Jamaica Kincaid’s essays, and Anne Carson’s novel in verse Autobiography of Red, are three that have done that for me. I mentioned Octavia Butler, whose writing is incredibly physical. And Ursula K. Le Guin, whose stories are often extremely lesson-y, has probably shaped me the most out of anybody, through the way she brings worlds into being.

A form that I’m working with now is a kind of fable seed. I started on this after I read The Great Derangement, where Amitav Ghosh is talking about how the dominant narrative habits of the past two centuries have poorly equipped most people to be responsive to upheavals of a familiar order, or of encounters with things that are hugely unfamiliar. A lot of the counterexamples he cites are epics, folktales, oral tradition stories. No one person is ever the author of a fable, so my thought is to write these fable seeds that I can strew among people I know and strangers, writers and nonwriters, that could lead to fables for our time of change, fables that are unsettling and responsive to unsettlement.

JVM: Poetry is useful because of how it presents or often presents a single moment or string of moments in a complex way, and also because the use of simile and metaphor in a poem can get at things, expose them in a way that fiction can’t. About Ghosh—I’m glad his book is out there, I think it is useful, but I also think he wrote the book without actually reading a lot of fiction. There’s lots of literary fiction that deals with climate change and lots of uncommercial genre fiction that does too, and it’s a shame he renders all of that invisible through creating a hypothesis and writing about it without testing it first.

KS: All of this makes sense to me on the level of writing, and of creating pathways for people to respond. I appreciate that the qualities that make the biologist the center and the guide of this story, and the agent of change in Area X as well as a model for how to be changed by it, are different than the ones that make heroes or protagonists or even just central characters in stories that we’re more familiar with. I don’t at all see them as impossible or unlikely, but they are particular and uncommon, as uncommon as “heroism” might be in another kind of story.

If the way that the biologist meets and becomes part of Area X depends on her being the person she is when she comes in, how can we and how far can we follow her? She even says, “Don’t try to follow me,” at the end of the first book! Obviously these aren’t fables or parables, it’s not a one-to-one relationship of meaning, but the novels together give us a very strong sense that the biologist’s approach to change and way of changing is optimal, optimized, and your responses to these questions reinforce that. In my essay I wrote about her in a complimentary way as a traitor to a particular way of being human, and I stand by that. And I also note that she works hard for a long time to stay human—that she, too, fights the brightness, if only within herself. That feeling of union with complexity is hard for her, too. Given her combination of careful attention, self-protection on various emotional levels, training, priorities—for Area X, is she a replicable experiment? Or is one of her enough?

JVM: I think she forges a path by her example. Even though I’m not sure it’s more than a symbolic example, in the sense that fiction is still fiction and reality is still reality. The translation to reality…I’m not sure what form that would take. Do you have an answer to that? What is the real-world biologist transformation, without that element of the uncanny? Is it about action? Modes of thought? Or…?

schapira time to be cover

KS: OK, so this is THE question. It’s the question of my essay, and it’s the question of writers in general who have a lively sense of ecocide and slow violence and climate catastrophe unfolding, who feel those things powerfully and want to create motion toward a more livable version of the world, but are regretfully aware that they are not going to be offered the opportunity to transform into a multidimensional amphibious whale with lots of eyes anytime soon.

I think—I am afraid—that to transform into a real-world “biologist,” without the uncanny, means a willingness to lose yourself in and for the good of what you love. Maybe that means lying down in front of the bulldozer that wants to build the fracked-gas plant, or turning your life over to reforesting a piece of land. A deep and drastic undoing of self in order to align with others. Acting like a knot in the net of relations, and not like a hero in the sense of a main character. I think to do that, you have to get in the habit of really seeing and feeling your enmeshed place in the world, your scale and also your connections. That’s the beginning of a process that, if you follow it, will lead you to act in ways that nourish and protect those connections. Because so many of us live lives that aren’t set up to let us do that, it will mean a drastic change.

Part of that change is learning to work with people, human and nonhuman. In order to know which bulldozer to lie down in front of and not be the only person who’s lying down in front of it, or to get enough trees planted on that land and know which ones to plant—humans need to get much, much better at coordinating and connecting. So much of the trilogy is infused with and driven by failures to connect—attempts to communicate that take the form of injury, and the way that the biologist and her husband pass each other, just to name two. I feel like this is entwined with, but distinct from, the failures and limitations of knowledge that we discussed before. How do you see connection, or the lack of it—the ability to recognize it or feed it or shape it—affecting the way that people meet change in this story?

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JVM: To my mind, the lack of personal connections makes these characters more invested in solving the problem of Area X, but by the very way they then become obsessed with Area X and mired in it, they lose their perspective and thus are doomed to failure because they’ve become psychologically subsumed by Area X without realizing it. In the biologist’s case, this becomes a kind of transcendence because of the nature of her personality and her particular kind of drive. But, then, most all of us are disconnected at this point from certain realities about the world we live in. So in some ways the characters in Area X just represent a lack of connection to the world, if not other people, that’s fairly common. The kind of connection that if you go into the ecstatic meaning of it, our culture again wants to brush this feeling away as childish or in some way unsound. When, in fact, I feel like the “brightness” one feels at some points when in the non-human world, the world of wilderness, is a true glimpse of the interconnectedness of complex systems on this Earth. But we’re not willing to open ourselves up to it, to receive it, or to trust this feeling, because it’s “not logical,” even when, in fact, we are deeply illogical animals who paper over our illogic by reverse-engineering causality to decisions that were first initiated on a subconscious level (as neuro-science is telling us now).

KS: That question of people’s mental habits and mental capacity came up earlier also. How do we help each other develop our capacity in a way that might allow us to survive? I started having these formalized conversations about climate change because I knew that sitting on my couch having feelings about it was definitely not helping, and I couldn’t think of actions that would be helping. Now that I have started doing some things, just on a local level, I still can’t tell if they’re helping. But I also know that when we talk to another person, we gain the capacity to think and sometimes to feel things that we couldn’t have thought of alone or without that specific person, and I do think that that can inform the actions we take and expand the repertoire of what we imagine. Of course reading works this way too. You don’t need to be able to imagine something in order to do it—as you pointed out, people do things reactively a lot of the time—but I do think you need to be able to imagine something in order to do it on purpose. And for those of us raised with these extractive, violent practices as our dominant milieu, purpose is required in the way that we meet the rest of our world, because what we default to—the easiest, most “instinctual” paths, the cultural habits—are often destructive.

Intimacy of the kind you’re calling for—seeing and engaging with “the rest of the world,” other living beings and systems, in their realities—takes time, and also requires actively letting go or suspending much that we’ve learned. And I agree that that’s essential, would be essential even if we weren’t trying to figure out how to weather this drastic time that we’ve hastened on. It’s just a more whole way to live in the world. That kind of patience is hard for me sometimes, because climate change is an emergency. But the thing that makes us more likely to be changed in a livable way by our encounters with complexity is a process that is slow—which is another thing that the dominant culture trains us to frown on.

JVM: It’s also seen as childish, sadly, to think we can better integrate ourselves with the natural world, to reduce the distance between Nature and Culture and work better with the natural systems of the world, using soft tech rather than hard tech. The default is that the kind of technology we think of when we think of “progress” is ultimately benign, but in its very ingredients of composition it is toxic, to both humans and the environment around us. So all of this is going on in the background when we try to negotiate a kind of truth in our experience of the world.

KS: What do you mean by “soft tech” here? It’s not a term I’ve run into—is it more like practices and less like objects (especially those that are resource-intensive and destructive in the ways you’re pointing out)?

JVM: I don’t know if anyone else has used this term in a different way but I came up with it to refer to organic—literally, made of organic material—technology, perhaps biomimicry, perhaps also more radical than what we think of as biomimicry now, but basically tech that works with the systems of the natural world, not against them. By definition, this would mean using materials that are biodegradable. For example, what if the idea of “automobile” had manifested in a way that started out using wind or solar power and organic “ingredients” in creating cars? Would we then today drive a car to a place, only for it to break down to its constituent parts and “grow” a new car overnight if we needed one to go elsewhere? This sounds bizarre, perhaps, but it’s no more bizarre than what a car is now. We’ve had major failures of conceptualization, of imagination throughout the modern era in terms of what’s actually efficient, what’s actually cutting edge. And we need to try to go farther in a positive direction, even at this late date.

But I’m curious now what your ideal world would look like in terms of technology and our interaction with it, in the context of a healthy biosphere?

KS: It’s an effort for me to separate technology from gadgetry, growth and the obsession with the new, but of course all kinds of things are technologies, just as all kinds of things are knowledge. Is permaculture technology? Is a cold frame solar engineering? I once did a writers-in-the-schools program where one of the first-graders had a piece of cardboard that he could use at his desk as a shield between him and distractions—a perfect piece of technology. So I guess that’s what I’m thinking of: practices united with objects, or objects that facilitate biological practices and processes. Those floating gardens that clean the water they’re floating in.

My inclination with the place of technology in a livable future is to think in terms of degrowth, especially around production, rationing materials like metal and plastic to put toward community designs that would make some of the objects that we currently rely on less necessary, and toward things that we really can’t do any other way. I’m thinking about people I know who use mechanical or electronic assistive or medical devices, for example—certain aspects of their lives could be made more livable through changes in practices and large-scale design, but not everything. But if what we’re looking for is widespread adoption, working with our habits of mind—at least here in the US—seems like it would indicate “making a new thing” or “tricking people into thinking an old thing is new,” rather than “building fewer things, using them less often, and allocating them according to need.”

I know you’ve had a lot of attention in the wake of the movie coming out, some of it exhausting, and you also wrote when we first started corresponding about the ways in which the books have gotten beyond you. If there’s stuff you want to say about what it’s like to make a story that spreads and escapes, I’d be really glad to hear it. That’s what I think I want—to make things that aren’t just stories, but myths that take hold. And it seems like for you, there are parts of it that have been wrenching and tiring as a maker of such stories. Has that shaped at all what you want to make next—how you’re thinking about it and what you’re writing?

JVM: This is a difficult topic because to talk of any of it you feel as if you’re complaining. All of this attention has been immensely positive for the most part, and also directly helps ecological causes because we donate a percentage of Area X royalties to those causes…yet at the same time, for my entire career I’ve been fairly transparent about the process of being a writer and staying a writer. So I’ve tried to stay transparent to an extent. But in that context, yes, it’s definitely gotten beyond me in unexpected ways. I’m intensely grateful for that, but the release of the movie more or less broke something in my brain, temporarily. The incoming wave of opinions, interpretations, misinterpretations (some willful), the amount of scrutiny, the number of questions coming to me through my contact form and social media…all of this is fragmenting. It’s kind of the opposite of taking a hike out in nature. So I have actually gotten to the point where although I usually work on several things each day that for right now I only have the ability to focus on one or two things, until this abates a bit. It already is abating. So, like I said, it’s temporary. But it’s in the nature of the books—the ambiguity leaves a space for the imagination, the movie does the same in a different way, and people respond to that.

KS: This is what’s tricky about ambiguity, because you want to give people the opening to think with their own heads, so they make their own version of the story and are more deeply invested in it in the way you described earlier because of that. But they may not make what you want them to make.

JVM: What is wrenching and tiring is misinformation about objective fact related to both the movie and the books. The game of telephone that pop culture sites play, as opposed to most book culture sites, results in a lot of false information traveling much farther than you’d expect, and then it calcifies as questions which I then have to laboriously untangle the falsehoods from before I answer. I guess the main thing is, I’ve let this all wash over me and if a movie is made from another book, I’ll be a veteran of the experience in a way that I wouldn’t have been if I’d closed myself off.

KS: Can you talk about how writing these books has changed, to whatever degree and in whatever direction, the way you interact with the nonhuman world, and how you live with the knowledge of change in that world?

JVM: I suppose it’s just given me encouragement to keep engaging with these issues, although I would be doing that anyway. But the success of these books and the fact my publisher is committed to my career longterm means I don’t have to worry about doing anything other than what I want to do fiction-wise. And since the late 1980s, I have been engaging with the idea of animal intelligence, biotech, the environment, and climate change. This is the thing I suppose that really gets me—I’ve been writing about climate change since the late 1980s. What does that tell us about both the literary landscape and world we live in? That even today, we’re still seeing op-eds about how, hey, people finally believe climate change is real.


Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
Revised and Expanded
By Jeff VanderMeer
Published July 3, 2018

Jeff VanderMeer recently served as the 2016-2017 Trias Writer-in-Residence for Hobart-William Smith College. His latest novel is Borne, out from MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which Colson Whitehead called “a thorough marvel.” He is also known for his critically acclaimed NYT-bestselling Southern Reach trilogy from FSG, which won the Shirley Jackson Award and Nebula Award. The trilogy also prompted the New Yorker to call the author “the weird Thoreau” and has been acquired by publishers in 35 other countries, with Paramount Pictures releasing a movie in 2018. VanderMeer’s nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the, Vulture,, and the Los Angeles Times. He has taught at the Yale Writers’ Conference, lectured at MIT, Brown, and the Library of Congress, and serves as the co-director of Shared Worlds, a unique teen writing camp. You can contact him at press info at

Kate Schapira is the author of six full-length books of poetry, most recently FILL: A Collection (Trembling Pillow), a collaboration with Erika Howsare. She lives in Providence, RI, where she writes, teaches, co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and periodically offers Climate Anxiety Counseling.


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