Friday, May 5, 2017

Jeff VanderMeer Volumes Talk

Last week, I got to catch Jeff VanderMeer speak again, this time hosted by Volumes Books at the illustrious Chicago Athletic Association.

This was part of the official Borne tour, with a few readings from the novel and then a quick Q&A with Chicago author Jac Jemc.

For some chunkier notes, I'd suggest checking out my scribbles from VanderMeer's talk at DePaul. However, still much of note at this event, so I wanted to record a few things:
  • Borne is the titular character (a shape-shifting tentacular dude), but there was also much discussion of Mord, the giant flying bear that terrorizes much of the novel.
  • Discussion of the VanderMeers' cat, Neo (aka "Massive Attack"), and his influence on both Mord and Borne.
  • VanderMeer had brought along a rather large and delightful woodcut of Mord smashing/settling into a building; credit to Theo Ellsworth for its creation and discussion of the "reverse Spinal Tap situation" that led to its large size and complicated transportation needs.
  • Discussion of Mord's history, including appearances in other stories (The Third Bear), presidential campaign, children's poetry, and Twitter account.
  • Where The Southern Reach was influenced by the uncanny, Borne more influenced by Moebius or Jodorowsky.
  • Quibble and counter-quibble about venomous vs. poisonous snakes, the latter of which appeared in Area X. (With venomous snakes, they bite you and you die; with poisonous snakes, you bite THEM and you die).
  • Interesting comment about the need to have a contrast in post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels—need to have some kind of joy or brightness—"It's untrue to not document that as well".
  • My ears really pricked up for some discussion about viewpoint control and setting-conveyance. "There is no such thing as setting, only the setting that the character sees." Very nice. (This is sounds quite similar to the "third person intense internal" approach to setting that Cherryh has talked about).
  • Jemc praises some of the deft viewpoint control later in the novel—a particular passage in which things "zoom out" enough for the reader to get an appreciation for where Rachel's speaking from (and its limits).
  • In talking about viewpoint and also in how fans create art about a work, VanderMeer talks about "leaving room" in fiction, for exploration, for different angles or interpretations.
  • Jemc briefly starts trying to flesh out a fascinating-sounding analogy where the written text is the genotype, but the read text is the phenotype. I'm rephrasing a bit here, but that sounds to me like a potentially quite useful approach.
  • More discussion of fan art, unexpected intersections (like that True Detective/Southern Reach crossover), and back-and-forth between VanderMeer and visual artists, including a forthcoming work, The Strange Bird, that comes partially out of Borne and partially out of work by and conversation with Scott Eagle.
  • Parenthood and how raising a child influenced the novel, including Borne's identification of a ferret as a "long mouse", and how "The Hannukah Bear" wound its way into Mord's DNA.
  • Brief comments on other upcoming work, including Hummingbird/Salamander, which sounds like an ecoterror thrillerish kind of thing, and This World is Full of Monsters, described as "an alternate universe version of Area X".
  • In questions, VanderMeer answered that there is no real relation between Borne and the crawler from the tower/tunnel: both just come out of studying weird biology.
  • Comment about names in the Southern Reach during the writing process: "every time I tried a name I knew less about them".
  • Borne & The Southern Reach as "ostensibly less experimental" than his earlier fiction.
  • Much praise for FSG and their MCD imprint, helping these works find readers.
  • Bits about Room 237, the documentary about The Shining, and the question of whether some things are continuity/set errors, or intended uncanny/weird bits.
  • "The end of the second season of Hannibal was useful for Borne."
  • Mentioned some anime as an influence on Borne as well, but I didn't catch particular titles. (Tentacular creatures and giant monsters are certainly not strangers to the genre.)
  • An ill-fated Chia Boar cover to Annihilation.
  • "Working against the category you're in can be really useful."
  • Talked about how his anthology work plays out in his fiction—The Southern Reach partially a result of the "sedimentary compression of that much fiction that fast".
  • Asked "why all women" in Area X, and again with a female lead in Borne, VanderMeer says it was organic, but also a statement—getting away from traditionally male-dominated representation. However, he was also quick say "don't be too happy about stuff you should already have in quantity." Nice acknowledgement of what Think Galactic has called Whedonitis, where male creators are over-praised for stepping over very low bars with regards to sex/gender issues, rather than looking at whether standards in the system are changing. (Also throws me back to a comment Neal Stephenson made in a talk way back, oddly—his kind of genuine bewilderment at why people would praise him for including "strong women" in Seveneves)
  • Praise for Jemc's forthcoming book, The Grip of It. VanderMeer notes that it takes a lot for a ghost story to impress him, but this one did the trick.
  • Very fun talk! We had book-clubbers in attendance from Weird & Wonderful and the Chicago Nerd Social Club. VanderMeer also gave a shout-out to some of the local independent bookstores he'd been visiting. Check out Volumes for more cool events—they have Cory Doctorow in town this weekend, and host a lot of bookish shindigs. Both the Chicago Nerds book-club and the Bad Grammar Theatre genre open-mic just moved to Volumes, actually.
I highly recommend Borne! I've let my review-writing slip a little here, but you can hear some extended thoughts on that on our next podcast. Also, if you're not in Chicago, you might want to check VanderMeer's tour schedule to see if he's coming near you.

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