Jeff VanderMeer's latest novel, Borne, is getting rave reviews, and he says he's a little surprised.
"I thought for sure there's got to be somebody out there who hates giant flying bears."
That bear — a biotech creation gone rogue called Mord that terrorizes a ruined city where refugees, human and otherwise, survive in the rubble — is just one of the strange and wondrous creatures that populate the vivid world of Borne.
Its narrator, a young woman named Rachel, ended up in the desert city after traveling halfway around the globe with her parents as climate change wreaked havoc everywhere. Now she works as a scavenger for her lover, Wick. A former employee of the sinister Company, whose biotech created Mord and wrecked the city, he ekes out a living making and selling "memory beetles" that help people escape the terrors of the present in a manufactured past.
The story begins as Rachel discovers the creature who gives the novel its title. Entangled in the fur of the sleeping Mord, Borne is "not much to look at that first time: dark purple and about the size of my fist, clinging to Mord's fur like a half-closed stranded sea anemone. I found him only because, beacon-like, he strobed emerald green across the purple every half minute or so."
Borne's many transformations, and the revelation of his true nature, propel this gripping tale of adventure in a dystopian world — a tale that is also a family drama and a love story.
VanderMeer, 48, has been building such arrestingly surreal worlds for years in novels, short stories and other works that erase genre lines between and within the categories of speculative and literary fiction. He has won the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, among others, and is also a widely published reviewer and essayist, as well as an anthologist, editor, publisher and teacher.
His Southern Reach trilogy — Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, all published in 2014 — became bestsellers, and Paramount acquired the film rights. The first film, Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac, is set to be released early next year.
And where does this literary powerhouse make his home? Tallahassee.
"You no longer really need to live in New York to have those connections," VanderMeer says by phone from Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Ann, a publisher and editor, were on one stop of the book tour for Borne: "We've done 19 so far and have 19 to go." (He'll be in Tampa on May 28.)
VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands while his parents were in the Peace Corps. It's an experience that provides many of the details of Rachel's childhood.
"I lived in Gainesville after we came back from Fiji," he says. "Then I met Ann, and she lived in Tallahassee. I've been here since 1992 — wow, that's 25 years. We have really strong ties to the community."
Another draw for VanderMeer is Florida's natural landscape. "I love North Florida, because it has so much wilderness. You can leave the city and almost right away just be in these forests."
That wilderness, especially areas like the St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge near his home, helped inspire the setting for the Southern Reach books. Annihilation is set in Area X, a forbidden zone that has been abandoned by humans for years and reclaimed by nature (maybe).
The lovingly rendered, if creepy, landscape of Annihilation led the New Yorker to call VanderMeer "the weird Thoreau." He says, "These books read stranger to people who don't live in Florida."
But the North Florida wilderness is so wild that, VanderMeer says, it failed its screen test for the film version of Annihilation. "They sent the director of photography to St. Mark's to shoot some tests, and the vegetation was so thick there was no depth perception on screen. So they dressed up a British swamp. It looks uncannily like Florida.
"In a way it's good" the movie wasn't shot on location, he says, "because the wilderness here is so fragile. That area I love is so environmentally sensitive."
VanderMeer says he hasn't been involved in the making of the film, but "Alex Garland has been kind enough to keep me in the loop. I did visit the set and meet some of the cast, like Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. They had read all three of the books, which was so nice — they didn't have to do that. It was a very positive experience."
Borne is already optioned for film, too, and the author says he might be more involved in that project. For the title character, "The CGI will be awesome. And expensive."
In interviews, VanderMeer has said that some of the inspiration for Southern Reach came from a dream he had about a tunnel with writing on the walls. Borne, he says, was conceived while he was wide awake.
"For a long time I thought about how to write about growing up in the South Pacific. We lived there from the time I was about 4 ½ or 5 to about 9.
"This image just came to me of a sea anemone," he says. "You see a lot of strange sea creatures in the South Pacific. It was like a revelation of someone reaching out to pluck it from the fur of a giant bear. I knew that hand belonged to Rachel, and the city just assembled itself around that image. I knew right away that she had an attachment to (Borne) she shouldn't have."
Rachel finds the little creature growing, becoming mobile and eventually speaking, and she begins to treat him like a child rather than salvage, which leads to some of the novel's best comic moments. VanderMeer says, "For the early Borne, I accessed being a stepdad. That line where he calls a weasel a 'long mouse,' that's something my daughter said."
There was scientific and literary research involved as well, he says: "I always want the tactile, physical nature of a character. There's a lot of biology behind Borne. I researched how cephalopods work.
"Mord was influenced by the great bear in Shardik, by Richard Adams. I've read a lot of Angela Carter, and in Nights at the Circus there's a woman who seems to fly. It's never explained, and I love the ambiguity of that."
Mord is a nightmarish creation, but, VanderMeer says, "He has his moments. I actually like bears. I actually like human beings, too," even though he puts them through extreme dangers in Borne.
VanderMeer hesitates to categorize Borne as dystopian fiction, even though the genre is enjoying a surge in popularity.
"I'm always cautious about this topic, because it's become so commercialized," he says. "It's a weird kind of nostalgia sometimes. There are some dystopias that to a real marginalized person might seem kind of nice. You think, hm, that author might be a little too shielded from the real world.
"I'm also wary of that word 'hope.' Sometimes it's code for, 'This isn't as depressing as The Road! You'll like it!' I want hope that's earned."
Borne stands out among recent dystopian novels for its high literary quality, but VanderMeer sees the border between genre and literary fiction as fluid. "I started out editing a poetry magazine. When I started writing fiction, it was very Kafkaesque," he says.
"Earlier in my career I was a much more experimental writer. Now I want my experiments to be under the skin of the story."
He says that genre categories "often devolve into a marketing question. Where does this book belong in the bookstore — on the science fiction shelf? The fantasy shelf? I can see the point of it in the bookstore, but the question is otherwise a lot less interesting than other connections between books."
In the midst of its strange adventures, Borne is very much a book about memory. "Memory is a form of resistance," VanderMeer says. "The only way a better future can be built is if we remember the past. Especially for marginalized people — Rachel's memories are all she has."
Her memories are what keep her human, he says. "Even with a talking squid and a giant flying bear, this is about people who are trying not just to survive but to connect."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
By Jeff VanderMeer
MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
336 pages, $26
Meet the author
Jeff VanderMeer will appear, in conversation with novelist Weike Wang (Chemistry), at 1:30 p.m. May 28 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.
Times Festival of Reading
Jeff VanderMeer will be a featured author at the 25th annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.