American author Jeff VanderMeer has been called “one of the most remarkable practitioners of the literary fantastic in America today.” His work includes the Southern Reach trilogy, Shriek: An Afterward, Finch and most recently Borne, which itself has been optioned by Paramount Pictures.
Dubbed, the “King of Weird Fiction”, he’s famous for a hybrid style of writing which doesn’t confine itself to genre classifications. Common themes you’ll find in his books are postmodernism, Eco-fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction.
VanderMeer’s writing has earned him 11 literary awards including the 2014 Nebula Award for his book and subject of a new feature-length film, Annihilation which is being directed by Alex Garland. Annihilation is the first part of the Southern Reach trilogy which also includes Authority and Acceptance.
We spoke with Jeff about the Southern Reach trilogy, working with director Alex Garland and what it’s like seeing your work on-screen. It should be noted that Jeff was kind enough to grant us this interview in spite of living in Florida and having, like many, to deal with the hurricane’s aftermath.
Hello Jeff, thanks so much for doing this.
Of course, not a problem.
I have to imagine there’s was no way when you were writing Annihilation and then The Southern Reach trilogy that it would be turned into a film? Is that fair to assume?
The only thing I did know is that once I decided to write about stuff set in some version of the real world I knew it would be a lot easier to find readers if that makes any sense. I was kind of chomping at the bit to get to Annihilation or something like it. When I first finished it I thought it was possible that I had something that wasn’t even a novel so I handed it to my wife and asked, “is this just about 4 women wandering around who like to hike?” and she said “No, hand it to your agent.” Certain things about film are just about luck, like it turns out my editor knew a producer and happened to hand it to him. So, no I never really thought it would be a movie.
But like you said, it was a conscious decision to write about something set in the real world?
I wanted to write about Florida for some time and that desire crept into my sub-conscious. I kept telling myself each night before bed that I wanted to write about Florida, I wanted to write about something more directly set in the real world.
Certain things or certain words conjure up Florida. Humidity, thick heavy air always reminds me of Florida so reading through the trilogy definitely puts you in that space whether your thinking of Florida or not.
Yeah right, well I didn’t name it Florida, its more just small town south. I thought it was best not to pin it to a map.
Well the danger of naming a real place, as the reader have a preconceived notion of what that place is about, the history of the area, etc…and that’s whether they’ve even been there or not.
It’s seems like a strong theme throughout the trilogy, the building blocks of life. You’ve got intelligent beings but not necessarily conscious ones and inorganic and organic beings living in inhospitable surroundings. Is that something that interests you beyond writing?
We’re reaching a point with gene splicing and stuff like that where in ten years it won’t be out of the question where you’ll have kindergarten classes creating little creatures. The things that are happening about blurring the difference between animal, art and product in a way that if we are honest with ourselves we already genetically modify dogs to be companions so we’ve already been involved in biotech for a long time on certain levels. There are a lot of ethical and moral questions that come along that aren’t being asked or being considered seriously because it’s wrapped up in a loop of profit and commodification. The wider issue of climate change and what we’re doing to the environment and what it’s going to mean if we have an environment that’s changed not just by invasive species but by actual biotech that we’ve created that’s getting out there.
One of things that I wanted to ask about which relates to this subject is cause and effect. Causation is a theme that is very present in your books, especially the Southern Reach trilogy which sometimes is just witnessed through the biologist and observation.
There seems to be a lot of cause and effect that’s invisible to a lot of people. Even cause and effect in everyday life-like a truck driving down the road spraying for mosquito’s with a substance that likely isn’t legal anywhere else but the States. You see a lot of people not understanding that we are part of this ecosystem, a series of systems that are there for a reason. We have hurricanes that may or may not be increasing due to climate change but the natural barriers that were in place to shield systems against storms are no longer there. We do a lot of things in the name of business, the government makes decisions that work against our better interest in the long run.
So is “Area X” from the trilogy your reaction to what you see going on around you? A subconscious biological terra forming system?
When I first came up with it I didn’t know there was a wider story there or not. I was half way through Annihilation before I realized there was a wider larger story there. It was at that point the intent was to do four books and now it looks like there still might be. Area X can stay this enigmatic thing that people test themselves against, where I as the author can only ever know what it is. That also included thematically what are you talking about? But eventually I realized that I created Area X subconsciously to protect an area of the coast that had been threatened by the Gulf oil spill, so it was extrapolated from the threat of the oil potentially never being cleaned up.
Sometimes you draw things out after the initial inspiration that you didn’t see at first and that’s also when you see that something has more life to it than you originally thought.
How soon after the release of Annihilation did you find out it had been optioned?
The process actually started before it came out. I couldn’t talk about it right away because it was optioned prior to release. Talking about the movie, the most nutso part of the movie was after visiting the set was coming back I get this package in the mail, it was an Annihilation backpack from the set and a copy of my book signed by the entire cast. It’s very surreal to write about a backpack in a book that you don’t even know if it’s going to get published, but several years later someone sends you in the mail a physical manifestation of the thing you wrote about, it’s very strange.
Talk about the first time you spoke with or met Alex Garland or when you heard he was the one who was going to direct the film?
I’m really a big fan of movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Trainspotting, etc…he’s been involved with those films in some fashion either as a writer or producer. I knew he’d be bringing in talented people who had made lean, interesting and intelligent movies on a variety of subjects, so there was that aspect. The second aspect was the first contact was over the phone where he asked if I wanted to be involved or know what was going on or not be involved at all. I chose to be involved, in terms of receiving information, you don’t have any control over what you’re receiving but at least you know what’s going on. So he kept me in the loop and was very kind in general.
The same time I knew he was going to have his own unique vision of what should happen in the movie. I knew from Ex Machina that he probably had a more of an idea of human behaviour being more rational than I do. So that’s a big difference between the film and the book. I met him on set for the first time in London and at a location outside of London. He’s a very earnest, focused person and of course I met him while he was in the middle of trying to make this film. So he’s much more focused I’m sure then he would be as if he was just at home watching TV.
Garland, while still early in his career, is known as a bit of an auteur in the sense he likes control over every aspect of the film. Did you feel he handled the material with the right amount of respect? You were aware he would have his own take but at the same time are you happy with his perception of the novel and the understanding of the characters?
I don’t know if it’s a happy or unhappy thing, I also feel like I’m too close to the material. You have to remember this is literally is about the place that is the most personal to me in my entire life, the place that I hike in North Florida. So there’s no way I can separate myself from that. There’s two things that could’ve happen, they could have shot it here and made a crappy movie potentially or one that overlays my actual memories of reality. Or created an alternate expedition, so I almost think of the movie as being a story of a different expedition into Area X than the one chronicled in the book, in Annihilation.
Talk about the experience of seeing the rough cut of the film…
Yes, which is hilarious. We had a meeting with the Paramount executives ahead of time. Then my family and I saw the movie and it’s completely without context because there was no trailer or review, it’s a very strange experience watching a movie this way, with no context around you. Plus, when we saw it, it was late lunch time so we come out of theatre with absolutely nobody around, the whole floor at Paramount was deserted. There was nobody waiting to hear what I thought of the movie and it was surreal because it was such a nerve-racking experience.
Were you anxious going into seeing the rough cut?
Sure. Garland was very kind, he asked for my notes on the rough-cut and I gave them and he said he was going to take most of them. Which, he’s under no obligation to do that so that was very nice.
So where do we stand with the other chapters of the trilogy because Garland mentioned he wasn’t even aware that was two more novels?
I think he was focused on the one, just making that one a complete story. The novels are such closed vessels that it doesn’t really ruin anything. Despite the changes that he’s made I could see with very few tweaks them being able to make something like Authority though I think that probably what would happen is some of the bureaucracy stuff would be condensed and more of the spy/espionage element would come out more.
If Annihilation is successful, Paramount is fully within their rights to just make Annihilation 2 basically if they wanted to, they don’t have to do more of the Southern Reach. In my head it would be really awesome at some point to have a series or mini-series that’s just basically about the Southern Reach and those 30 years and the weirdness and everything else. But that’s just a dream I have, it’s not under development or anything else.
Great, well I won’t keep you any longer so I really appreciate your time and good luck with the future projects.
Of course thanks so much.
Paramount Pictures Annihilation comes out February 23rd, 2018
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland (adaptation), Jeff VanderMeer (novel)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac
Here’s the first trailer: