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27 September 2002




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Jeff VanderMeer: Precious Ambergris October 2002

Jeff VanderMeer grew up in New York, Florida, and the Fiji Islands (his parents worked for the Peace Corps). He founded The Ministry of Whimsy Press in 1984, began publishing stories in 1985, and attended Clarion in 1992. His connected “Ambergris” stories have garnered the most attention, including novella Dradin, in Love (1996), a Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist, and World Fantasy Award-winning novella “The Transformation of Martin Lake” (1998); all are collected in City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris (2001, reprinted and expanded in 2002). Upcoming books include far-future SF novel Veniss Underground, non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, and anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (co-edited with Mark Roberts). He lives in Tallahassee, Florida with his wife and daughter.
Photo by Beth Gwinn

Official Website

Excerpts from the interview:

“I went to Clarion in ’92. I really enjoyed working with most of the instructors, especially James Patrick Kelly and Nancy Kress. But mostly it taught me what I didn’t want to do. I think it’s important that you go at a certain time in your development, and be a certain type of writer. I wouldn’t recommend the next Angela Carter to go there. One of my goals was to get into Asimov’s, and I got into Asimov’s. OK, now what? After a while, you stop setting goals like that. You can’t go anywhere looking for validation; you have to find it in yourself. At Clarion I wrote a story called ‘Learning to Leave the Flesh’, which was the exact opposite of everything they were teaching me to do. That story is not very action-filled, but it does have some Ambergris elements, like the River Moth. Then a friend told me his parents met when his father looked up and saw his future bride typing in a third-story window and went up there and proposed that very second. They’ve been married for about 25 years. I thought that was kind of odd, to be honest! I’d been wanting to incorporate that into a story, and I’d been wanting to use the same kind of setting as in ‘Learning to Leave the Flesh’ but make it more muscular and plot-oriented. So one night I woke up around midnight, and Ambergris was in my head, and I wrote about 20 pages of the beginning of ‘Dradin, in Love’, the first real Ambergris story.”


“Another theme running through a lot of my work is the subjectivity of history. This also relates to criticism, people trying to get into the minds of writers in reviews or anywhere else. ‘The Transformation of Martin Lake’ is really all about that — the juxtaposition of this person writing about Martin Lake and being mostly totally wrong, and the narrative about what really happened to him. Lately my theory is that all of history except for dates and places, things like that, is totally subjective in the same way that journalism can be perceived as subjective. That’s another reason I’ve chosen some of these forms. I like to play around with structure and I like to find new ways to tell stories.”


“Sometimes I see world events as being symptomatic of a lack of imagination. And to me (this will probably sound corny) the imagination is the most visible manifestation of a soul or something other than ourselves. So when we play well, when we imagine things well, we’re doing something that is a little bit spiritual. That is part of what makes us human beings. These days our minds seem to be working differently because so much information is being spoon-fed to us. More and more people are sleepwalking; they don’t want to do the work. I include myself in this — it’s easy to fall into complacency. You can’t get from a movie what you get from fiction. First of all, you can’t get your own images out of it. Reading makes you work, but the rewards are greater. It’s not a frivolous activity. It links us to other human beings.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the October 2002 issue of Locus Magazine.


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