Interviews

Absurd, Alluring Escapism in “A Peculiar Peril”

Our interview with Jeff VanderMeer about his new YA novel, "A Peculiar Peril."

Everything readers love about Jeff VanderMeer is on full display in his first novel for young adults, A Peculiar Peril. Even for an author known for creating some of the most memorable and important worlds in contemporary fiction, his newest journey into the alt-Earth known as Aurora is remarkable. Horror and humor blend. Characters such as Napoleon’s head, Charlemagne in giant moth form, and a talking marmot named Crikey McBitey all share a stage. Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Lambshead and friends embark on a search for the animate and all-powerful Golden Sphere to save Aurora, and we are treated to a truly engrossing adventure.

But perhaps the best praise I can offer is that at a time when I needed an escape more than anything, A Peculiar Peril gave me that feeling of reading my first fantasy novel as a kid. 

In the interview below, VanderMeer and I discuss his process in writing his most ambitious world yet, reimagining our relationship to the natural world, and the role of fantasy during uncertain times. 

Michael Welch

What inspired you to venture into young adult fiction, and what different approaches — if any — did you have to take when writing specifically for this audience?

Jeff VanderMeer

I’ve written a lot of fantasy — as a teenager, I discovered Patricia McKillip and authors like that and wrote a lot of unpublished pastiches. My first trilogy was the Ambergris Cycle, set in an imaginary fantasy world. So, in that sense, this is returning to my roots. This time, with a fifteen-year-old protagonist, I tried to conjure up all the feelings I had as a teenager reading fantasy fiction. I also tried to create a character that channeled, in part, what it was like for me as a quiet, animal-loving teen who had grown up in Fiji with a British accent and who often got chastised by my U.S. teachers for using British spellings. I know from my own reading as a teenager and from helping run the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp that teens appreciate complex, rich storytelling that they can get lost in. Something big and bold and yet also deeply personal. Oh, yes, and fun. I had so much fun writing this.

Michael Welch

Though Jonathan Lambshead is presented as the hero of this tale, the novel is structured more as a collage of narrators, ranging from antagonists such as Aleister Crowley to the powerful entity of the Golden Sphere. Did you start with this structure in mind or did some of these perspectives emerge as you began to build the world? 

Jeff VanderMeer

I always envisioned the novels as an ensemble cast, featuring a wide range from sincere, earnest genuinely good people to villains, buffoons, and everything in between. I have always liked fantasy novels that keep opening up and give you more than one perspective. Especially with the challenge of presenting an alt-Earth in the form of Aurora, this seemed wise. But also the most fun! That’s, to me, one of the hallmarks of the Misadventures of Jonathan Lambshead. Things can get dire and even grim, but there’s also a lot of comic relief and goofiness. It helps that magic is so wild on Aurora. I had a lot of fun with that.

Michael Welch

The world of Aurora is filled with so many memorable and strange characters, including the head of Napoleon and Charlemagne in giant moth form. Which character excited you the most? Which was your biggest challenge?

Jeff VanderMeer

I must admit to being fond of Napoleon’s head, especially as that character experiences some of the greatest growth across the novels. But, to be honest, I had lots of fun writing all of them. I admit to being gleeful about Charlemagne depicted as a giant moth, much as I am gleeful about William the Conqueror as a giant eel. But that said, there’s even with the surreal touches at the story’s core Jonathan and his friends trying to do the right thing — as well as secondary characters like Jules Verne who find themselves in bizarre situations but are, I think, highly sympathetic. We can relate to how they try to get out of predicaments. Oh wait— Crikey McBitey, the talking marmot. That’s one of my favorites. 

Michael Welch

I noticed in addition to fantasy, we see elements of horror, spy fiction, and political intrigue interweaved throughout. Were there specific genre tropes you wanted to lean into or move away from? 

Jeff VanderMeer

Some of my prior novels like Annihilation are about turning inward and showing a small part of the total picture. But in the Misadventures series, readers encounter a whole, rich other Earth. In that kind of situation, I love to layer in the complexities of a world through the different character viewpoints. There’s war afoot and the usual behind-the-scenes scheming in times of war. So I took advantage of that to convey a lot of different things, with the through-line of the search for the Golden Sphere. I hope this conveys a real richness of plot and a lot of surprises! 

Michael Welch

What role did humor play in your writing process on a book you warned on the dust jacket is “not normal?”

Jeff VanderMeer

Ha! FSG Kids has been so great — they asked if I’d write the dust jacket copy and they actually used what I wrote. Which I thought was important, to convey that there is a lot of absurdity and humor of various kinds in the books. The very nature of Aurora’s magic, which often has an Alice-in-Wonderland logic to it, meant humor has a role. But also there is a lot of humor in the buffoonery of some of the characters and also the ways in which characters misunderstand each other. Given such a rich and wide world, I had a lot of opportunities to be funny for a change. And, also, the nature of Jeremy Zerfoss’s amazing illustrations helped me in this regard, as some were finished before I’d finished writing the novels!

Michael Welch

Animals and the natural world play an important role in this novel, serving both as characters with agency and, for the cast of antagonists, as weapons. How do you see the ecological system of Aurora responding to our own? 

Jeff VanderMeer

With all due respect, when I read the Narnia books I never understood why the talking animals traded a fascist, totalitarian White Witch for a constitutional monarch. I didn’t understand why they didn’t boot them out, too, and form their own government. So that informed part of how animals are portrayed and then thinking of Aurora and what wild magic would mean and what old magic would mean…it was clear animals would play not just a supporting role but a central one. This allows me to make a statement about how we perceive animals in our world, too. Especially since Jonathan Lambshead is a nature-lover and a gentle soul who respects the wilderness and animals.

Michael Welch

What role do you see fantasy playing in the era of advancing climate change and our ongoing health crisis, particularly for a younger reader?

Jeff VanderMeer

A lot of times, we need some distance from current events to get perspective on them. My prior fantasy series included commentary on the climate crisis and also on the U.S.’s disastrous policy of engaging in foreign wars. I couldn’t have written about those things directly at that time. But putting them in an imaginary world was the filter that allowed me to say something useful about those topics. In Lambshead it’s perhaps more indirect, but even just the point you made about how animals are portrayed speaks to a different future for us, one in which we recognize that a healthy world requires us to renegotiate our relationship to animals and the natural world. And inasmuch as the Crowley of Aurora is an egomaniac who makes decisions based as much on wounded pride as any facts…that seems pretty accurate to the real world, too, unfortunately. But, you know, escapism in this era is also okay, I think. We need that, too.

Michael Welch

This is the first volume of the Misadventures of Jonathan Lambshead series. Do you see yourself continuing in YA fiction beyond that?

Jeff VanderMeer

I know better than to predict what I’ll do next. All I can say is that for now, the four-book two-volume set of Misadventures is all I see being set in this confluence of our world and Aurora. But I never know for sure.

FICTION
A Peculiar Peril
By Jeff VanderMeer
FSG Kids
Published July 07, 2020


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