Jeff VanderMeer: Area X Debrief

Authors and Editors in Conversation

FSG Originals released all three volumes Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy in 2014—Annihilation in February, Authority in May, and Acceptance in September—in acclaimed paperback original editions. Now the imprint has unveiled plans for their first hardcover publication: a single volume bind-up of all three books that will be known as Area X. As his books finally find their way between inflexible cardboard, Jeff sat down with his editor, Sean McDonald, to talk about the Area X experience from the inside.

Jeff VanderMeer
Barnes and Noble

Sean McDonald: So you’ve finally come out from the other end of this trilogy. Do you feel like you’ve made it out of Area X alive, or are you still inside? How immersed have you been? Are you permanently changed? How does the fresh air taste?

Jeff VanderMeer: No one ever makes it out of Area X—you know that. Longitude and latitude are just a conspiracy to disguise the facts. There is plenty of fresh air in here, though. I’m still immersed, although sometimes I’m not sure if I’m in Area X or in Southern Reach HQ. Not that it makes a difference. In fact, it’s possible this is still part of the dream that started with me walking down into a tunnel-tower one night. If so, it’s turned out to be kind of a nice dream, in the end.

Area X

SM: How did the pace of the publications affect you as the author, if at all? The roll-out, the format? Exhausting? Exhilarating? Would you do it again? Looking back, was the writing itself informed or affected by the publication plan?

JV: I am permanently scarred, like some kind of aging blue whale. It’s exhila-haunting. If only it hadn’t done so well I could already be in hibernation mode for the winter. All I can really compare it to is an intense series of adrenaline rushes followed by flat-out staring-at-the-wall incoherence, followed by more spikes. I don’t know what it’s looked like from the outside, but it’s been the greatest thrill ride of my life. I’m going to have to learn how to do nothing properly again after all of this.
I tended to channel the paranoia and angst from deadlines and pub schedule into the writing—method fiction. Sometimes while writing Authority I would imagine I was the character Control and FSG was the shadowy Central. Why am I missing days out of my life? Why are there these mysterious people goading me with cattle prods to do this, to do that. It must be part of some greater conspiracy. Page proofs? Again? Didn’t I just do this? Dev edit, copy edit. It was like the recurring Alka-Seltzer scenes in All That Jazz, just without the drugs, dancing, and musical numbers. Just me at the typewriter or the computer or trying to project my mind bullets right onto the page by sheer will.

SM: How much did you know about the trilogy when you began? The whole arc? Details? How much did it change as you were actually writing? Were there any special surprises along the way?

JV: I knew the high-level arc by about half-way through Annihilation. That isn’t necessarily as important as knowing what’s going on at the street-level of the character points of view though, so I can’t say I didn’t have some nervousness about how it would all turn out. One special surprise was that about one-third of the way into Authority I thought it might actually be four novels not three. I said nothing about this to you or to my agent because I was afeared of the possible reaction. Luckily, Authority and the beginning of Acceptance ate any of the useful bits of book four. Otherwise you would’ve had to put out the fourth novel Abhorrent in December and that would’ve been nuts.

SM: Are you completely done with Area X—with the characters, with the world you created—or did you leave any unfinished business?

JV: Those cheeky Séance & Science Brigade members seem to deserve a bit more fleshing out, probably chronicling pet projects of theirs not related to Area X. This is just a vague, floating idea right now. I do think a mini-series or TV series devoted to them would be rather cool. Otherwise, I’m working on just one more thing: “The Bird Watchers,” which looks to top out at novella length. It’s set a couple of days before the creation of Area X, from the point of view of Old Jim, a character from Acceptance. Or, as some readers call him, “Old Piano Fingers.” (Shudder.) It involves the S&SB, Central, some rogue biologists, and a whole lot of swampland.

SM: Have there been any reactions to the trilogy that have especially surprised you, gratified you, thrilled you? Have there been any over-the-top fan responses that overwhelmed you?

JV: I’m kind of humbled and thrilled by all of it—especially the fact that there’s already so much fan art and so much interesting discussion of the novels. I think that means I created enough space in these novels for the reader to be engaged and to actively want to be creative in interpretations of events and characters. The best reactions, though, have been the many dozens of readers who have told me that they were profoundly moved in the middle of Acceptance and at the end. Also, those who have been passionate about loving these characters, all of whom are flawed or damaged but still trying their best. (Except for Lowry—Lowry’s just a stone-cold bastard.) I think one fan who dressed up in a costume with lots of eyes and barnacles was rather wonderful. (I won’t give context for fear of spoilers.)

SM: Anything that’s dismayed you? Anything you’ve really wanted readers to catch on to that folks seem to have missed? Easter eggs you’re desperate for someone to find?

JV: I am desperate for someone to notice where else the name of Lowry’s assistant in Acceptance turns up. A few things like that. Nothing’s really dismayed me except for a few people who seem to think the biologist is “defective” because of her point of view. On the whole, I’m really so grateful for the reaction—the level of engagement. Although I’m withholding judgment on an erotic hypnosis site’s review of Annihilation. . .

SM: You spent much of the year on the road pushing the books on people. Any special highlights you want to share? Lowlights?

JV: I mean it most sincerely when I say that what gave me real joy was doing events in so many indie bookstores and just the general upbeat vibe of those events. Everywhere I went, booksellers were excited about the future and energized about their profession and seeming to have a really good year. As for something specific, I can’t lie: doing an event with a live owl in Philadelphia was kinda great, along with the behind-the-scenes tour of the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Area X

The lowlight wasn’t even really a lowlight. In February, I drove down the West Coast and holed up in Mendocino to do final major edits on Acceptance. It was wind-swept and cold and the rain came in at an angle so it knifed you in the eyes. That was like heaven on earth to me. Me, half-incoherent, in a weird bed-and-breakfast place close to a lighthouse, carrying my weird manuscript around with me. . .in which there’s a strange guy carrying an odd manuscript around in the general vicinity of a lighthouse. I’d edit in the afternoons, but I’d go hiking in the mornings, in these inhospitable conditions, cold as heck, lacerated by rain, hiking six or seven miles along difficult coastline. Then I’d go to these little local pubs with stoic locals and get a beer and go out again.

SM: Presumably if the books had come out more slowly, you might have been able to take reader response into account as the trilogy unfolded. Would you have? Was there any relief or special frustration that you couldn’t?

JV: Mostly relief. There were a few things I tweaked for the hardcover omnibus, but I was pretty locked in on the character arcs and letting the reveals of the mysteries fall where they fit most organically in light of those characters. Since I was working toward what I’d call mimicry and renovation, I knew I wasn’t going to be building this trilogy in the usual way. That’s a bit risky but I felt it would benefit the readers the most in the end: that they’d get a fairly unique reading experience. That’s what I was striving for, anyway.

SM: The books are coming out all over the world, and you discussed a few of the various international packages with Entertainment Weekly. Have there been any new editions you’re excited by?

JV: The German edition of Annihilation actually seems to glow in the dark, in a non-cheesy way, and I still get a lot of delight out of the fact that the cut-outs for Authority and Acceptance in the Hungarian edition mean when you pull aside the front cover you’re confronted by the eyes of, respectively, a rabbit and an owl . . . and that’s it. I still have lots of love for the surreal aspects of the Spanish-language covers, too. And the Polish edition of Acceptance they just said, “screw it—cyclops lighthouse keeper with lighthouse,” which actually took some nerve since all of the other covers have been less direct.

Area X

SM: I know you’re a big fan of the original Charlotte Strick/Eric Nyquist paperback designs. How do you feel about Rodrigo Corral’s new US hardcover package—love at first sight or is it still, um, growing on you?

JV: I don’t think the brilliance of the Corral cover is as clear until you hold the hardcover in your hands. I liked it a lot when I saw the jpeg, but the nuances of the shadows and the falling leaves didn’t register until I was looking at the advance copy FSG sent. Then it was like, “Wow—this is audacious.” And it is audacious: an X, with no title or author name. Perfect.

SM: Do you consider the Southern Reach one big book, a la Lord of the Rings, or are they three distinct novels in your mind? Do you have a preference about how people read them?

JV: I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. At this point, it feels like a question for readers to answer. In writing them, I thought of them as three distinctly separate novels. I know that Acceptance can’t be read first or second, but I know readers who have read Authority and then Annihilation and have found it a very satisfying experience—albeit a different one from reading them in order.

SM: Are you kicking back with a delicious beer and relaxing for a while or are you on to new projects already?

JV: The Southern Reach Muscadine Ale created by the Fermentation Lounge here in Tallahassee is almost ready for tasting, so I’m looking forward to that. I plan on taking December off, but to be honest I’m not sure the thrill ride that is the Southern Reach Trilogy is over yet. Every time I think I’m done, something else pops up. So we’ll see.

Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor. 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 writes nonfiction for The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian, among others.

Sean McDonald is the executive editor and director of digital and paperback publishing at FSG, as well as the publisher of FSG Originals.

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