Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy
Jeff VanderMeer will be at Powell's City of Books in conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch on Thursday, May 11, at 7:30.
Jeff VanderMeer's Borne
is an astonishingly beautiful book about relationships, survival, and attachment in a world racked by climate change and flooded with refugees. Set in a ruined, post-apocalyptic city which has been decimated by the “Company” and its bi otech creations, it's one of the most moving and intensely human books I've read this year. It also includes a gigantic, lethal flying bear named Mord. As he demonstrated in his earlier work, including the highly acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy
(the first volume, Annihilation
, is set to become a movie next year), VanderMeer is remarkable at crossing genre lines to create gorgeously literary speculative fiction, or surreally beautiful sci-fi. Borne
is the story of Rachel, a young woman with a somewhat mysterious past; Wick, her lover; and Borne, a shape-shifting, highly intelligent creature who becomes like a child to her. Colson Whitehead raved, "Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy was an ever-creeping map of the apocalypse; with Borne
he continues his investigation into the malevolent grace of the world, and it's a thorough marvel." And in a starred review, Publishers Weekly
explained, "VanderMeer…has made a career out of eluding genre classifications, and with Borne
he essentially invents a new one." We were blown away by this utterly unique novel, and are thrilled to choose it for Indiespensable #66
How did Borne, the organism, first come to you? Was it in the form Rachel finds it in at the beginning, as a sort of sea anemone/houseplant, or was he more like what he becomes later in the book?
It came to me like it was in the beginning, in part because I don't think it was ever separated from Rachel's memory of growing up on an island.
That image of it looking like a marine creature, a small sea anemone that's closed up or something — the reason it was so powerful to me, and why it started the novel, is because of the fact that it was attached to Rachel's point of view and then that expanded out into what her life had been like before she came to this very ruined and very desert-like city.
I had that image for a long time, really. But I knew that the relationship between Rachel and Borne was going to be like mother and child to some degree. So it took a while getting distance from my own experience of being a stepdad to write some of the other parts. [Laughter
] I know it gets very dark, but the earlier parts where Borne is basically growing up — like anything in life, to make it into fiction you have to have enough space to translate it, to bring in your imagination, everything else. That's how it all went.
And of course there's also a giant bear. [Laughter
The parenting aspect of Rachel and Borne's relationship, especially in those early days that you were talking about, is so much fun. I love the playfulness in terms of his development of language and how he's learning at the beginning there. How did you think about that aspect, about his development of language in particular?
I realized early on that I had a certain freedom in that, having helped to raise a child and also seeing that transition to teenager, where you have kids who are very mature in some ways, in the way they speak, and then very immature at the same time because they're in a transitional space. I realized that, with Borne, I could be inconsistent in a way that was actually good for the novel, for the reality of it.
Then, of course, I still had stuff that my daughter, Erin, would say. There's a scene in there where Borne points to a weasel and says, "Long mouse." We were actually walking around this residential lake, and Erin saw a ferret and said, "Long mouse." That stuck with me. She would say things like, when she grew up, she wanted to be a scientist of crayons, and all those usual things that kids say that are unfiltered and interesting and seemed to fit.
It didn't make it into the book, but there was a time, since my wife is Jewish and I'm not, where Erin — because I was giving her very imaginative responses to things where she was actually asking for information, and I was giving her BS — actually convinced me there was such a thing as a Hanukkah bear.
She gave this whole 20-minute spiel about the constellation, and all this stuff that you could see in the sky. The next time I went into the synagogue, I said to the rabbi, "Oh, how about that Hanukkah bear?" It embarrassed the crap out of me. [Laughter
I have very fond memories of those early scenes in Borne
because it brings back all of those memories. My grandson, Riley, is the same way. He knew about the book while I was finishing it up. He was nine at the time, so he was trying to help by coming up with ridiculous things. That was pretty funny, too.
As you mentioned, an important part of the book is Rachel's past life and her earlier memories of growing up on the island. Did that draw from any of your memories at all? Those are some really beautiful and vivid passages.
Most of the island stuff is from growing up in Fiji. My parents were in the Peace Corps. I've wanted to write about that for a long time, but there's a certain distance that I think you need to take as a writer when you've lived in a place but you're not from the place.
I see her island background as quasi-Fiji, but I don't specifically mention it, in part because of the kind of novel it is, but in part because I wanted to not be quite so specific, but still get in some of the things that I remember.
Like anything in life, to make it into fiction you have to have enough space to translate it, to bring in your imagination.
For example, she remembers being on an island where there was a botanical garden. That's the botanical garden in Suva in Fiji. I wanted to get a lot of that detail in there. I've never been able to write about Fiji in any form before.
The closest I've come is the glowing starfish in Annihilation
that the biologist sees, which is actually something that happened to me. I got lost on a reef late at night, which is ridiculous, but it happened. I was seven. I saw this huge glowing starfish that oriented me as to where the shore was.
There are moments of the natural world like that that have gotten into things in fragments, but this is the first time it's been a little more direct.
Both this book and the Southern Reach trilogy, which are all that I've read of yours, are so fascinating about and fascinated with the natural world, biology, ecology, and botany, sometimes even on a really cellular level, which I love.
When I'm describing your books to people, that's one of the things I feel like I come back to, because I think it's really unusual. What's your interest in those subjects, and how do you think about the way it comes through in your fiction?
It comes through very naturally. In my earlier work, it's more like me trying to come to terms with the fact that I never had a place that I considered home. I'm using very, very fantastical settings to use stuff that's secretly autobiographical, putting it in combination.
These later books, it's more overt, the autobiography. Part of that comes out from the fact that I come from a family of scientists. My dad is an entomologist and research chemist. That's why he was in Fiji, studying the rhinoceros beetle invasive species. He studies fire ants now.
My mom was a biological illustrator for a time before computers replaced that job. My stepmom is one of the leading researchers on lupus in the world. My daughter now, she's actually a sustainability consultant. She wrote part of the World Wildlife Report that just came out on sustainability. I'm the least educated person in my family, which is hilarious.
So I've always been surrounded by this stuff and been fascinated in part because I've been living in environments where I’m very close to nature, but then I’ve also been exposed to a scientific background because of who my dad is and some of the work that my mom did.
Also, just the fact that I think a lot of life on earth seems very beautiful, but also very alien. I like to examine it because I think it's important and because it's sometimes underappreciated.
The biggest difference for this book and also, of course, the Southern Reach, is simply the landscape, the fact that I'm writing stuff that's more overtly autobiographical, in some ways, but still with nature elements.
That's interesting — I think Margaret Atwood
's father was also an entomologist, and you've both written about biotech in your novels.
She's one of the few authors who I think does really interesting things with it, too.
What was the genesis of this world — the landscape, the city, the Company?
There were some proto-stories that were me satirizing the corporate culture that I was embedded in when I had a day job. I've been a full-time writer for, I think, 10 years now, but before that, I had a series of day jobs that often were like Lord of the Flies
with middle management. They were very dysfunctional.
When I started thinking about Borne
, I took some of that stuff in the form of the Company that's in this ruined city that's leaching off the edge of the city and leaching off its resources.
There are a lot of horrible things that happen in the book, but I do see it ultimately as a hopeful novel.
I thought that there was something very powerful about the idea of taking the situation that occurs now, where you often have places where the natural resources are mined out to be sent elsewhere, and the local populations suffer as a result. This is one of the effects of capitalism that is really quite horrifying and bad, and to apply that to more of a post-apocalyptic situation, and more of a Kafkaesque kind of situation — that was initially what I thought of.
Then I thought about the idea of what I would call “life in the broken places,” because there are places that are even quite urbanized or industrialized that have more biodiversity than you might think. Once I had this ruined city and this Company, I thought, What lives in the cracks of this place, and how might it have agency?
There's a story in the backdrop of biotech and little creatures — that have their own stories that come to the fore towards the end of the book.
The broken places, like the vacant lot that the biologist visits in Annihilation
Exactly. I was thinking about, What if that lot was really my focal point in this new novel?
With Southern Reach, I went as far as I felt comfortable going with ambiguity and with a set of characters who just cannot connect. A lot of them have real trouble connecting with the world and with each other.
, I wanted to write something that was more about connection and about the messiness of relationships, but the fact that some of the best relationships are messy, and that if we really love someone, we're willing to go through that, so to speak.
I wanted to have this epic stuff going on in the city, but I wanted the relationships to be very personal and hard-hitting in that regard.
I think that absolutely is what comes through. The relationships between Rachel and Borne and Rachel and Wick are really moving. This book made me very emotional. That wasn't necessarily what I thought it was going to do going into it, but I think there's a lot of genuine feeling and tenderness in those relationships.
Hope is hugely important to this story. I wanted to write a story about, how do you survive in this very broken situation in terms of the environment and the city? One way you survive is by how you commit to your relationships.
There are a lot of horrible things that happen in the book, but I do see it ultimately as a hopeful novel. It's just I think I need to be realistic about what the post-apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic situation is like.
I felt very comfortable with these characters. I could have written in Rachel's voice for a long time, more than I even did.
The book seems be, on some level, about loss. It's the loss of some of those individual relationships, but also the loss of the world. Rachel is in mourning for her family, but also for what has happened to their world, which I think she realizes the more she tries to describe it to Borne.
She had been in survival mode for a while, but it seems to me like she’s coming to terms with those things.
Absolutely. Those were some of the more interesting and harder conversations to write because it's like, how do you tell your children about the messed-up place that you left them? Borne's innocence is very useful, I think, in terms of the way he asks questions, and the way he makes Rachel question and think about the world in general.
Rachel comes in as a very suspicious person. She survived by being suspicious. She survived by not trusting people, and yet Borne gets in under those defenses. In a way, it shows something good about Rachel, because she still has the capacity to trust somebody. Even with everything that goes on in the novel, she continues to have the capacity to trust.
It's shown really as a strength, ultimately, I think, to be able to do that — to be careful, obviously, but also to trust people.
I was really struck by one passage when Borne is protecting Rachel from the Mord proxies, when she's hiding inside him while he's pretending to be a boulder.
That's a crazy sentence to say out loud. [Laughter
I was in a situation no human being had ever been in and a situation that human beings had experienced for thousands of years. In one world, I was cocooned inside a living organism that still defied explanation, that was, no matter how I loved it, a mystery to me. In the other world, I was inside a cave trying to hide from a wild animal. The depths of the familiar and the unfamiliar were colliding.
I wonder if you had anything to say about that passage and those ideas. It also occurred to me that, although Rachel may not realize it, her first example is also the situation of every unborn child, too.
That's true. I think that's a pivotal scene for me because it's the first scene where she really has to rely on Borne. It changes their dynamic a little bit.
When I thought about what kind of novel this is... yes, it's in a realist mode in some degree, but it's also fabulist. It has a huge flying bear in it. You can see a scientific justification for the biotech, but it's also living in that Moebius
zone. You think about this, and then you organically write, but what does that mean in terms of what you can convey?
To me, it was like, what are the situations where I can convey what it's like when your world is completely jolted and turned upside-down? We see that occurring right now because of climate change in various parts of the world, where people's whole worldview is being changed almost overnight sometimes, as people get displaced and everything else.
So the challenge was, with the fantastical elements, to make them serve that purpose. I can think of a situation or two where, depending on how things turn out, I could wake up one day and it could feel like there's a giant bear, an inexplicable thing, that's terrorizing my world. Yes, it's metaphorical, but it gets at a deeply physical sensation as to how disorienting it is.
And then you're right. I didn't even think about that, but there is a birth thing going on here, in a way.
You have to trust your subconscious when it tells you that a flying bear makes sense and that things will accrete around that.
Also, I had fun with the tactile element of it. The fact that, while he's pretending to be a rock and she's inside, he gives her the anchor of actually pretending to have a phone come out of the side of him so they can talk, so maybe she'll feel a little less disoriented. [Laughter
There's a cohesion to this world that is just amazing, which includes Mord, the Mord proxies, alcohol minnows, the dead astronauts... There are all these very specific elements that exist within and add up to and create this larger vision.
You've done that in your other books, too. How do you do that kind of world building? How do you balance the specific things that can sound absurd on their own?
I learned a lot from writers like Stepan Chapman
and then also Angela Carter
. Angela Carter has a great novel called Nights at the Circus
with a woman in the circus who seems to be able to fly, and Carter never explains it.
I've always loved that moment. When I read that, it was such a revelation. In certain kinds of fantasy, you don't have to necessarily explain. Now, I do actually wind up explaining the bear, but it still speaks to the fact that you have to have a certain amount of fearlessness.
You have to trust your subconscious when it tells you that a flying bear makes sense and that things will accrete around that. What I realized with this book, as opposed to the Southern Reach, is that the Southern Reach has an accretion of detail in a totally different way. Here, I wanted it to be a little starker, in part because of the desert setting. There are a lot of different elements, but they're in stark relief against a more barren landscape. Some of the stuff just came to me.
That botanical garden I was talking about in Fiji was hugely influential, even on Wick's swimming pool that's full of biotech, because that botanical garden, you'd peer over the edge of the wall of it, and there would be these eels going through the mire, and all kinds of other creatures that you couldn't figure out what they were.
A lot of that is still autobiographical on some level. It's just a matter of, does this seem to fit this climate, even, and how much is too much to put in? It built up organically, and I trusted myself not to overfill it with stuff.
There's Wick's swimming pool, and then there's, of course, the biologist's childhood overgrown swimming pool in Annihilation
. Was that inspired by the botanical garden, too, or did you have another swimming pool?
There were overlays, because I think it was a little bit the botanical garden, and partially when we were living in Gainesville, Florida, after we came back from Fiji, we had an overgrown pool in the background. Of course, I glommed onto that as a substitute. So I'm sure I was thinking of that one as well.
So why a giant flying bear? [Laughter
] Why did Mord take that form?
Ever since I read Shardik
as a kid, the Richard Adams novel that has a terrifying bear in it, that image has been in my head. I haven't reread that book since I was a kid, in part because I want to preserve my memory of it from reading it then, because it was so amazingly ferocious, that bear. It just had been in the back of my head.
When you find out the backstory of the bear, it makes a lot of sense with regards to the Company building. When I first put it in there, it was like, what does this mean? It was all this story and plot I created around it, and a fairly interesting story, I thought, about how this creature had come to evolve, and how it became despotic. It became fascinating to me.
In fact, I had to be really careful not to do a series of scenes that were power shots of this giant bear, like you might see in a superhero movie or something. [Laughter
] The bear standing here, the bear flying down here.
Once the bear actually had a personality, character, and was so entirely embedded in the rest of it, it came to me also to symbolize the ways in which the situation had gotten away from the Company. A literalization as well of just how it had overreached in its ambition, and thus failed, because the thing that it had created had come back to destroy them, and then coincidentally, was destroying the city.
The question of who is a person or what is a person is something that comes up again and again in Borne
. Why is that something that you wanted to explore in this book?
I think that's one of the central issues of our time right now, because we so misunderstand the nature of animals, and we so want to somehow figure out whether they have humanlike intelligence, to somehow then bequeath upon them some kind of measure of more rights than we give them, and we kind of lose the point.
There's that, first of all, that most novels that I read are 30 years behind on animal behavior science. I don't mean to be too critical, because it's a difficult issue. But you'll see authors who will spend weeks studying up on the latest physics, but they won't spend time even reading a Wikipedia entry on what actual animal behavior scientists have discovered in the last few years.
There's also the broader issue of, in times of crisis and survival, what does differentiate you from what we think of as a "dumb animal"? How do you keep your humanness?
There’s also the issue of how much aggression and how many bad traits are embedded in us, because we seem to have a self-destructive impulse at times. It's like at different times when the question is asked, it has different meanings. I thought it was an interesting question to keep asking, especially in a nature-versus-nurture mode, like the novel is from a lot of different perspectives.
There's also this idea of mirroring, of mimicking that comes up both in the Southern Reach trilogy and in Borne
: the foxes that are not foxes, Borne, much of the landscape and some of the people in Area X (there particularly as a way to hide otherness). What about this concept are you interested in?
Some things just come in organically, and then sometimes, depending on the novel, they're stage business. In Borne
, there's a lot where it's camouflage. I'm talking about camouflage and mimicry in a natural-world sense.
I'm also thinking about how you'll see it sometimes even in reality shows. There was one called Faking It
from the UK where somebody in one profession would have 30 days to become proficient in another profession. Half the time, half the battle was if the other profession dressed radically different than the one they were in. Once the person was actually dressed that way, once they took on some of the "mannerisms" of the new job, it was almost as important as the actual skill in doing the job, because a lot of it was dependent on other people's impression of whether you were confident or not.
I found that fascinating. This idea that, if Borne feels, to some extent, like he can just mimic certain things, he can become more human, or he can become more acceptable. The limits of that, but also the interesting permutations of that, are really what I was thinking about with regards to Borne.
In times of crisis and survival, what does differentiate you from what we think of as a "dumb animal"? How do you keep your humanness?
, I think it's maybe a little deeper, and a little more on a surreal subconscious level. It does definitely deal with issues of otherness, and goes back also to the question of what is human, and how do we know?
The Magician is a great character. She is a figure of mystery and dread, but also intelligence, especially after her early conversation with Rachel. How did she make it into the book?
Initially, I thought that if Wick was dealing in bits of homemade biotech, that it seemed likely that other people would be in the city as well. Suddenly, this character just came up in my imagination.
I can't even really tell you where she came from. I just thought that she was a very strong character. You could disagree with her, and you could think her methodology was flawed, but you could also understand that she really thought Mord was terrible for the city, that the Company was actually terrible for the city.
You could sympathize with that, even though she had been led astray by her methodology. I felt not that she was inhabiting the role of the mad scientist, but that she was definitely of the opinion that we could mold the world around us to make it a better place. Sometimes, when you think that too strongly, or it becomes too much like a religion or an ideology to you, then you lose sight of the inhumanness of what you might wind up doing.
I thought it was always interesting when the two of them met because I saw Rachel and her as being a little similar, in some ways, in terms of their strength and stubbornness, but having come to completely different conclusions about what was good for the city.
I heard you had cofounded a speculative fiction camp that runs out of Wofford College in South Carolina, which I thought was really cool. How did that come about?
There was this great guy who was teaching at Wofford, Jeremy L. C. Jones, who was heavily into the idea of Shared Worlds
. He taught a regular class where he suddenly had the students build a world and then write in it. He found it had been really incredibly great for getting their creative juices flowing. He decided to make it into a camp. He called me in to help run it. We have very different managerial strengths, so it was a very good complement.
The first year, we had 19 students, mostly from South Carolina, and it just grew from there. Now we have 60 every year from all over the world. It's been fascinating. I actually learn a lot about world-building from this camp.
It's almost like what we were talking about earlier. You have a 13-year-old who comes in, they have a very different perspective, in part because of their lack of experience. That's actually a real aid, because they don't have the same blinders or filters on. So they'll come at a problem from a really unique angle.
We found two things. Number one, them getting in these groups — having to build a world from scratch, and having to take in biology, other kinds of science, politics, everything else, and then have it expressed in a unique way — makes them into little mini think-tanks, almost, about the world.
They'll talk about climate change in their world, or something like that. The fact that it's personal to them, but not as personal as their most personal writings, frees them up to write in their world, because they have attachment to it. It's not so personal that they get frozen or their internal editor comes on. It's been fascinating.
Actually, long before I finished Borne
, I was reading sections of it to them and getting their reaction. I find that valuable, too. I try not to be self-indulgent about it.
What was their reaction?
The last thing I read for them was the rooftop scene. I was really flattered. I got more positive reaction to that than anything I've ever read to them. They just ate that up.
It's probably because they come at things also from an anime/manga context. In that context, a flying bear is something they've seen before, in some sense. [Laughter
I interviewed Jeff VanderMeer on March 28, 2017.