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Jeff VanderMeer interview

Jeff VanderMeer is a multiple award-winning much-travelled American speculative fiction writer, author of spec-fic novels like Shriek and City of Saints and Madmen. He blogs at vanderworld.blogspot.com

Q: While acknowledging that spec-fic isn’t monolithic and there are a
hundred different directions it’s growing in at any time, what do you
feel are the most exciting fields of work in contemporary science
fiction and fantasy? What area would you like to see more work in? And
what do you think new writers should avoid?

A: I’m very much against advising new writers to do anything other than to follow their inspiration. What I would say is that we don’t need more paint-by-numbers work in any area of the field. The more idiosyncratic and original, the better, wherever that might take you. As for what I find most exciting–I find the diversity the most exciting. The fact that exciting things are being done in almost every area of SF/F.

Q: Do you feel that practically speaking, writers from countries not
normally associated with spec-fic markets need to emphasize on their
own countries’ myths/folklore in order to provide some kind of
diversity and succeed in the international marketplace?

A: What I don’t like to see, frankly, is the colonization of other countries by the West, especially the US and the UK. It’s not so much that they need to emphasize their own myths/folklore as to not put aside their own unique experience and way of looking at the world because they think they need to adopt an American/European model to succeed. What you don’t want to do is lose your uniqueness.

That said, I also do not believe in any way that writers of one culture cannot use the folklore of another culture. This is, quite simply, silly. A writer’s job is to lie effectively and to empathize and to find a way of making universal our human experience. There is no such thing as cultural appropriation when a writer does something well. All the rest is just bad writing.

Q: Given the importance of location and access to not only current work,
but also events like conventions, in the world of SFF publishing, is
it likely that for countries where evolved SFF markets don’t exist,
it’s the diaspora living in the West that will provide the push for
the birth that country’s speculative fiction scene?

A: There’s a difference between an artistic scene or movement and getting attention and publicity for that scene or movement. No one needs to rely on a diaspora to create original, innovative, and moving work. The important thing is to focus on the work and to create something powerful and important. Then, in the fullness of time, you make people come to you. This is increasingly true considering we live in an Internet age where everyone is just a click away.

That said, I think it is imperative that non-English speaking countries leverage the Internet by creating website for the fiction of their country, with translations into English. There’s no avoiding the fact that English is the language that dominates the marketplace outside of Asia. But I do not believe you have to physically be in the US or UK to be successful. It may be harder, but it is possible. You just have to have people who are PR and market savvy in addition to people producing amazing work.

Q: In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the New Weird, about
speculative fiction writers blurring genre borders. Given that South
Asia doesn”t have a history of much SFF publishing, or a growth curve
through magazines and anthologies as seen in more developed spec-fic
markets, do you think that the way ahead for South Asian SFF lies in
blending speculative fiction with literary traditions that are more
associated with South Asian writing? Is there any particular tradition of South
Asian writing/aspect of South Asian culture/myth/history that you’d
like to see married to speculative fiction?

A: New Weird was an affliction visited upon many of us involuntarily. Labels like that one are at this point simply a marketing tool. There’s nothing about the art of writing the idea of “New Weird” and it connects writers who are otherwise quite different in an awkward way.

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer the second part of your question. Most of my experience is with traditional Indian folklore–in traditional forms and through those marvelous Indian comic books I read as a kid. There’s nothing better in terms of learning how to tell tales than reading those comics of traditional stories like the Ramayana. I loved that. I also very much like Hong Kong cinema. When I think about how I might use Asian influence, I think of combining the tropes of Hong Kong cinema with Indian folklore, except I might be a little reluctant in that case, despite what I said above, because it’s not just a folklore, it’s somebody’s religion.

I also think of modern Asian writers from Japan, China, and South Asia who are creating a new reality for fiction based on experience in Asia, not the West. But, like I said, I’m not the best person to ask. I think influence and writing subject matter accretes naturally anyway–you can’t tell someone what to write about.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most significant events in the world of
speculative fiction publishing over the last decade, and what would
they imply for the future?

A: The rise of the Internet as a legitimate publishing source is very important in terms of narrowing the geographical distance gap between writers and readers. The rise of Print On Demand publishing has huge implications, because if you hook up with the right system, you can gain access to and distribution in the West–and we in the West can gain better access to and distribution in the East. Why? Because more and more POD plants are being built in foreign countries. So, conceivably, one day you might publish a book as an independent publisher in, say, Mongolia, and have it instantly available on Amazon in the US–and printed in a US plant and sent to the customer.

Q: In your own work, you’ve kept away from high fantasy and written
about fantastic cities in a very local sense. What would you rather
see in speculative fiction from distant lands – the epic or the local?
Why?

A: Both, but not in the generic European or Medieval sense. In all fiction, I would like to see as much evidence of the writer’s personal life and experience and milieu as possible–if that’s what the writer wants to convey. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with turning out generic stuff. You have to make a living and you have to enjoy what you write. But if you have a choice, don’t turn away from those things that make you unique and will make your writing unique.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

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