Much like his body of fiction, author Jeff VanderMeer absorbs the natural world.
He took a moment in the middle of an interview recently, pausing for fuller immersion—“I was just looking down into the ravine we live on here, and there was just such a huge flurry of birds, it kind of blew my mind.”
The natural environment and environmental issues, in fact, might be considered a muse of sorts for the award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author, whom The New Yorker has hailed as “the king of weird fiction” and “weird Thoreau.” St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge near the Northwest Florida writer’s home, for example, inspired Area X in the “Southern Reach Trilogy,” and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had seeped deep into his subconscious as that work took shape—“It was like a thing that you felt, you felt not just in your mind but physically ill in your body, and there was no way that wasn’t going to impact the fiction in some way.”
VanderMeer has long incorporated environmental themes into his writing, but in an age when people are awaking to the realities of a climate crisis, such fiction seems to reflect a relevance that almost transcends literature or art in its approach toward the mission.
“I’ve always been addressing environmental issues from early on in my work,” VanderMeer explained. “It’s just that urgency in the world seems to have caught up with it, if you know what I mean.”
As keynote speaker for the University of West Florida’s STEAM2020 conference, VanderMeer will deliver a lecture Friday, Feb. 14, entitled “This World and the Next: Storytelling and Real Life in an Uncertain Era,” which delves into the role of fiction in addressing the issues surrounding the climate crisis.
“I think we’re all looking for ways to talk about what’s going on that are productive in terms of not just convincing people that, you know, facts are facts, but also trying to figure out the best ways to move us towards the kind of actions and the kinds of policies that we need,” VanderMeer said. “And fiction may be not real, but there’s not real that’s useful and there’s not real that’s harmful. So, what I really try to do is I try to make sure that even in the most fantastical things I write, there’s a factual anchor or basis or some psychological truth that might make someone think more closely about these issues.”
VanderMeer started writing at a young age, attempting reconstructions of “Aesop’s Fables” from memory as a child. He first began incorporating environmental themes around the age of 13.
“I wrote a story called “Disintegration,” which was about a character encountering basically a surreal kind of fantastical version of ecological collapse through invasive species and the whole world kind of dissolving because of that,” the author said. “That’s the first time I remember kind of consciously dealing with it.”
Throughout his career, VanderMeer has written numerous novels—in addition to the “Southern Reach Trilogy,” there’s works like “Borne” and “Dead Astronauts—and won literary accolades including the Hugo, Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards. He has been compared to Franz Kafka and spoken before the American Library Association. His work falls into the sub-genre of fiction referred to as the New Weird, and he appreciates the term—“It’s not a term of the market place or easily commodified and it does kind of embrace this idea, kind of the extremes of the world, the fact that the world is more beautiful than we can even imagine sometimes because we don’t see it clearly.”
But beyond the critical consensus that VanderMeer’s work is up to snuff, his writing has something else—a sense of purpose, a mission to inform its readers on an almost subconscious, cellular level of the environmental realities beyond its story.
VanderMeer believes that fiction is an appropriate venue for the exploration of environmental issues, that it provides “the perspective and the distance to see something clearly” or as the author explained in relation to 2019’s “Dead Astronauts”—“In terms of the storytelling, talking about the stuff, you can’t just use the normal ways of storytelling. It’s impossible to convey some of this stuff. It’s too surreal; it’s too out there; the real world is too out there.”
“I think that fiction can be a laboratory,” VanderMeer said, “to kind of extrapolate or show you things that, again, go beyond fact or show facts in motion so to speak, and I think that can be very compelling.”
The author sees parallels with early scientists who melded with the mythic.
“Scientists actually use to use poetry and fiction to convey their findings,” VanderMeer said, explaining that other scientists used dream states to explore their hypothesis. “And you would have naturalists that would deliver their findings in the form of poetry back in the 1800s, so there’s always been kind of a blurring of those lines.”
And while the author understands he’s not a scientist or environmental expert—“there’s a certain amount of limitation in what I can speak about and what I feel comfortable speaking about”—his focus on addressing environmental themes in his fiction has landed him on the climate-centric speaking circuit.
“At this point, it feels like I have a responsibility to be a responsible advocate for this subject because people now actually turn to me,” VanderMeer said.
At such public appearances, the author increasingly does encounter actual scientists who cite his works of fiction as inspiration in their own professional pursuits.
“I get more and more of this thing where young people come up to me and say, ‘In part because of your books, it really made me want to go into environmental science,’ things like that,” VanderMeer said. “So it’s something that I’m aware of. That is important to me because so often you can’t really see if fiction has a practical impact on people. So any time it does, you have to kind of be aware that that is part of your audience and be kind of thankful for that.”
The author’s success—in addition to bestselling books, some work has been turned into film—also affords him a somewhat unexpected venue in which to have a positive environmental impact—many non-readers have found their way to his Twitter feed, where he encourages people to embrace small-step measures such as re-wilding their yards to attract pollinators and stopping the use of pesticides.
“Weirdly enough,” VanderMeer said, “they’re only coming there because of the fact that the books have been successful, but some of them are only staying because of the nature posts and they don’t care about the fiction at all, which is hilarious.”
This World and the Next: Storytelling and the Real Life in an Uncertain Era
WHAT: A lecture with author Jeff VanderMeer that’s part of University of West Florida’s STEAM2020 conference
WHEN: 6-6:30 p.m. reception, 6:30-7:30 p.m. lecture, Friday, Feb. 14
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.