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Sporting everything from fungus-based gadgetry to ruminations on the nature of colonialism and urban space, Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris Cycle has quietly become one of the great achievements of fantastic literature in the ’00s. Not that it’s been entirely quiet: The Cycle’s third and presumably final novel, Finch, was recently released, and it comes with the option of a soundtrack crafted by gothic Americana band Murder By Death. Finch’s predecessors, 2002’s City Of Saints And Madmen and 2006’s Shriek: An Afterword, were also soundtracked, the latter by Australian legend The Church (whose members also provided the voiceover for a short film based on the book). VanderMeer—whose 2003 standalone novel Veniss Underground is also required reading for fans of literate, macabre fantasy—surprised even the most accepting fans of his eclectic style with Finch, a sparse, noir-inspired detective story set in the fictional yet eerily resonant metropolis of Ambergris, a war-torn city-state built on a foundation of genocide and deadly secrets. While on a cross-country book tour, VanderMeer spoke with The A.V. Club about the genesis of Finch, his love of music, and how even the most iconoclastic fantasy writers can’t escape Tolkien’s towering shadow.
The A.V. Club: Each book in the Ambergris Cycle has been a bit of a surprise, but Finch especially so. What spurred the hardboiled noir element of the book?
Jeff VanderMeer: I always knew the third novel would feature a detective. The whole parameter of the story, I wasn’t quite sure of. What happened was twofold: First there was a draft of Finch that totally screwed with me, because I realized afterward that it was more or less a pastiche [of the hardboiled genre]. I felt like I was 13 years old again, and mimicking The Lord Of The Rings or something. [Laughs.] So I had to put the novel aside for a while and think of a different approach. I started thinking about things like Dr. Strangelove, one of the first movies that had the idea of a handheld camera over someone’s shoulder, like in the scene where they’re invading the base. I thought, “What’s the literary equivalent of that?” On the one hand, I steeped myself in the tropes of all this noir mystery; I reviewed mysteries for Publishers Weekly for years, so by the time I got to Finch, it was all hardwired in my brain. But on the other hand, I wanted to use that handheld-over-Finch’s-shoulder idea to give a street-level view of Ambergris.
AVC: In a sense, that brings the Ambergris Cycle full circle. The first Ambergris story, “Dradin, In Love” [from City Of Saints And Madmen], is a street-level story from the character’s perspective.
JV: Absolutely. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but the thing about Dradin, he’s supposed to be someone who’s never been in Ambergris before. The city has changed so much in the 200 years since between “Dradin” and Finch, it’s almost like another introduction to Ambergris.
AVC: You mentioned being wary of lapsing into pastiche. Were there any points while writing Finch where you felt it might be unavoidable or even desirable?
JV: When I finally got on the right track with Finch, I didn’t think consciously about what I was doing. Again, a lot of the noir influences had been hardwired into me at that point. I think John le Carré is a huge influence on me; I think he’s a really underrated writer simply because he writes bestsellers. There’s also a whole Philip K. Dick-inspired category of detective fiction with a science-fiction or fantasy element to it.
AVC: Murder By Death has a blurb on its website about making the soundtrack for Finch, and the band members mention how Finch reminds them of Blade Runner.
JV: To be honest—and this is kind of heretical—I don’t actually like the Dick book [Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?] that Blade Runner is based on. But I love the movie. It’s a very textural movie, and to that degree, I’m sure it’s mixed in there as an influence on Finch. It’s not so much that I get influenced by movies a lot, but I do pull a lot of techniques from directors, Ridley Scott and Nicolas Roeg and people like that. I’ll pull out a technique of theirs and try to translate it from film into fiction.
AVC: Finch’s prose is a departure from the lushness of previous Ambergris books. It’s much more sparse and staccato. Was that a challenge?
JV: For one thing, I tried to be flexible. The prose may be staccato, but there’s a variation to it. It was very hard to maintain a consistency. I just tried to get rid of unnecessary words, but when I read it aloud, there was actually a meter to some of it that I hadn’t expected. [Laughs.] I was a poet before I got into fiction, and I think some of that crept in there. Some of it’s good, and some of it’s bad, but I think it mostly works.
AVC: The updated prose style also fits the fact that Finch takes place a hundred years after the book before it. Ambergris is a wholly fictional place, but in Finch, it feels roughly equivalent to a city on Earth in the 1940s. That’s unusual for fantasy, which is more often set in a fictional medieval or Renaissance world.
JV: That’s exactly the time period and setting I was going for, occupied Baghdad or occupied Paris in the 1940s, more or less. I was very conscious about that. At one point, there were actually zeppelins in the story, but they just didn’t work. I kept fiddling with the level of technology and tried to make sure it would still work within the framework of Ambergris. It’s roughly the 1940s, so tanks and telephones exist. I also had to figure out the gray caps’ technology, which is often a bizarre parody of human technology. The gray caps don’t quite understand humans, so even when they’re trying to provide something for the detectives—like Finch’s gun or the memory bulbs—it comes out weird. It’s functional but gross.
AVC: That kind of weird, organic machinery seems to echo Brazil or David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch.
JV: For years I’ve actually keep a running journal of fungal technology ideas. I always wonder what would happen if it got lost and someone found it. It doesn’t make much sense out of context. They’d probably think it was some mad government project. [Laughs.] But, yeah, Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam, especially Brazil, are huge influences on everything I do.
AVC: In addition to cinema, music is a big influence on your fiction. You’ve commissioned soundtracks for Shriek and Finch. How and why did those come about?
JV: A guy named Robert Devereux, who’s an experimental musician out of Pittsburgh, actually did a soundtrack for City Of Saints And Madmen. I liked the idea, because that book wasn’t just text; it also had a lot of illustrations. It just made sense to bring in a third dimension. When I did Shriek, I just figured there should be a soundtrack for that, too. I’d been listening a lot to The Church’s whole back catalogue while writing Shriek; in particular, the intricacy of the guitar work really evoked the mood of that book. I was going to Australia to work on the short film of Shriek, so I decided to send them an e-mail asking if they’d be willing to meet with us. On my last day in Australia, they said, “Come on down to Bondi Beach, and we’ll hang out.” After about five minutes, we found out we had almost the exact same taste in literature. [Guitarist] Marty Willson-Piper actually had a copy of Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita with him at the time, and we spent a good six or seven hours just bullshitting around. Then they decided they’d be willing to do the soundtrack to Shriek. It was originally going to be a soundtrack to the movie, but they changed it around to become a soundtrack to the book.
AVC: Why the book instead of the film?
JV: The movie was never meant to be as, um, experimental as it turned out. There was some miscommunication. The first cut that I saw was almost entirely pictures of clouds. [Laughs.] So we went from there and tried to get some live scenes and whatnot. It’s an interesting piece. Honestly, though, I don’t know how I feel about it at this point. It was popular when we showed it in Berlin, which may or may not be a good thing.
The Shriek trailer, including The Church’s voiceover and music:
AVC: Were there other bands you were considering asking if The Church hadn’t panned out?
JV: Just some of the other stuff I was listening to a lot at the time: The Black Heart Procession, Three Mile Pilot, Spoon. When it got to be time to think about a soundtrack to Finch, I thought of Murder By Death. I’d listened to some of their instrumentals, and it seemed like it’d be perfect. I didn’t even approach anyone else. They said, “Well, send us the thing,” kind of dubiously. But they liked it.
AVC: You’ve put fictional bands in your books. For instance, there’s a musical group called The Ravens playing in a bar in City Of Saints And Madmen.
JV: The Ravens were actually modeled after The Kinks; The Ravens was the name they actually had before they became the Kinks. The Kinks are my favorite band, but it wouldn’t have sounded right if I’d written them in there literally.
AVC: There’s also an unnamed band playing in the background in a scene from Finch, and your description bears an uncanny resemblance to Murder By Death.
JV: Yes, I know. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that just synchronicity?
JV: It wasn’t intentional at all. But what’s really hilarious is, after reading that part of the book, Murder By Death only used instruments that are mentioned in that scene for the soundtrack. They were so awesome to work with, I can’t even tell you.
AVC: Some authors say they can’t listen to music while writing, but you go so far as to include extensive playlists in your books. Finch’s, for example, is five pages long. Where did your relationship with writing and music come from?
JV: I see music as an aid. It overcomes my internal editor, especially when the music evokes the character or the mood I’m trying to build. I listened to some of the hardest-sounding Afghan Whigs stuff from some of the scenes from Finch, but at the same time, I listened to the soundtrack to the film Ulysses’ Gaze, which is beautiful and mournful. The music I listen to while writing is really scene-specific. It’s just a great motivator, a way to put myself in the mood.
AVC: There’s a wide range of artists on your playlist for Finch, but it does seem to focus on a lot of dark, theatrical, even decadent music: Nick Cave, The Dears, Pleasure Forever.
JV: There’s also a lot of gritty Americana type of bands. I actually have a lot of Britpop on my iPod, too. Muse is on the list in Finch, and they just crack me up. They sound like if Radiohead had a child with Mannheim Steamroller. [Laughs.] They’re ridiculous, but some of those songs I just can’t get out of my head. That’s almost a guilty pleasure.
AVC: So are you a frustrated, would-be musician?
JV: [Laughs.] I have to tell you, if I wasn’t a writer, I don’t know what I’d be. Probably a marine biologist or something. My singing ability is zilch. I was playing a game with my wife Ann [VanderMeer, editor of the horror magazine Weird Tales] where you have to hum a tune, and each note of mine sounded exactly the same. What I envy about musicians is, they have this more direct relationship with the audience. They don’t have to go through words. Sure, the lyrics count, but they go more immediately into your brain. There’s so much more work you have to put in as a writer—not just with the actual book, but how it’s packaged and everything.
AVC: Is your multimedia approach to making fiction an attempt to reach beyond that?
JV: I think it started because of the art side of things. My mother is an artist, and I have a strong visual sense. I almost always choose the cover art for my books. I’ve learned that the more I collaborate, like by having someone do a soundtrack to one of my books, the more I see my own work differently.
AVC: Even eight years on, the post-9/11 theme still pops up in a lot of books. In Finch, you’ve got twin towers being built by the occupiers of Ambergris—and the terror comes from their gradual construction rather than their sudden destruction. Was this an intentional allusion?
JV: I have to say, there’s something about Ambergris: For me, these books only come to life when they reflect the real world. The fact of the matter is, though, it’s an unconscious thing for me at this point. It wasn’t until I had finished the first draft of Finch that I realized that element was in there. The torture scenes, the details of the occupation, those were intentional parallels. But the towers weren’t. As soon as I recognized it, though, I tried to draw it out. I was wondering myself, though, if my brain was also conjuring the Two Towers from The Lord Of The Rings. [Laughs.] It gets all kind of muddled together and then comes out. The one thing I always come back to as a writer, what I consider my bedrock, is a lot of charged images that appear in the text. That’s one of them.
AVC: How blatant are you trying to be with a political or social message?
JV: I have a real problem with institutions in general. Finch and especially City Of Saints And Madmen skewer all different types of establishment. I like delivering a message, but what I find interesting is providing those details in a different context. Then the readers can make up their minds what it means. Everyone in Ambergris has to make some kind of compromise; when you set up that kind of situation in the real world with ordinary people, people’s lives become political. It becomes personal.