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Baker's Dozen with Jeff VanderMeer
© Rick Klaw
October 14, 2009

The award-winning author of eleven books and countless short stories, Jeff VanderMeer recently returned to Ambergris with Finch, the final volume of the Ambergris Cycle. The tales follows detective John Finch as he investigates a double murder. Along the way, VanderMeer explores the soft noir underbelly of his signature universe. RevolutionSF editor-at-large Rick Klaw recently sat down with Jeff VanderMeer where they discussed violence, style, music, and mushrooms.

RICK KLAW: The third volume the Ambergris Cycle, is Finch a good access point to the series? Do readers need to read the previous books to enjoy Finch? 

JEFF VANDERMEER: Readers don't need to have read the previous books. I wanted City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch to first and foremost function as self-contained books. That they then interlock to form, on a high level, a larger story is hopefully a delight for readers who have encountered the previous volumes, but, no, it's not necessary.

Also, Finch is set roughly one hundred years after the events set out in Shriek, which also helps make it self-contained. As for whether it's a good entry point, well, it's definitely the most fast-paced of the books. It'll be interesting to see how City of Saints and Shriek read from the perspective of someone who reads Finch first.

What is Ambergris?

To be honest, I've answered this question so many times over the last ten years that I'm going to cheat and crib from the info I gave to Underland for the press kit for Finch:

What is Ambergris?
Once upon a time, on the banks of the River Moth, a mighty city sprang up like no other in or out of history. Founded on the blood of the original inhabitants, the stealthy and inhuman gray caps, and shaped for centuries by the aftermath of that struggle, Ambergris has long been a center of trade and the arts -- and of empire. But now, a hundred years after the events set out in prior books, Ambergris is crumbling under the rule of the gray caps, who have risen up and taken over the city, imposing martial law. Using addictive mushroom drugs, camp internments, and random acts of terror, the gray caps maintain control while building two towers that may change the fate of the city forever. The remnants of a rebel force are demoralized and dispersed. Partials, human traitors transformed by the gray caps, walk the streets brutalizing its inhabitants. Against this backdrop, detective John Finch and his compromised partner Wyte must solve a strange double murder while negotiating a dangerous web of allegiances and secret histories. 
How do you pronounce the word “Ambergris”?

Like the word “amber” and the word “gristle,” leaving off “tle.” Like amber and like gristle, Ambergris is a unique combination of the beautiful and the horrible.

Is Finch truly the last Ambergris story? You drop hints throughout of fascinating story ideas many of which could make entire novels? Why stop here?

Finch is the last part of the Ambergris Cycle, and as such there's definitely a sense of closure. But true closure always comes with a sense of new beginnings, and I'm sure readers will react to the way some doors are closed and others opened by wanting more Ambergris novels. If I ever did return to Ambergris, it would be so transformed as to be unrecognizable.

In a way, that's what I did with Finch, setting it a century after the events in the second book. So I'm not ruling it out, but I've got at least three novels to write before I'd return to Ambergris, one traditional fantasy, one surreal SF, and one mainstream literary. But I'm sure Ambergris will be running through my head in the background, waiting for a chance to manifest again. So, if you're a fan of the Ambergris stories, you'll want to make sure I remain happy and healthy for a long time to come . . . (For diehard readers, I will just say that: the answers to all questions are buried in the first two books, and that it's no accident Sirin shares initials with [REDACTED -- CLASSIFIED].)

With Finch, you employed a different writing style from your previous works, a more minimalistic approach littered with sentence fragments. Why the change? And was it difficult to master this new style?
I always change my style, especially in my short fiction. It may not be as obvious in the first two Ambergris books, but there're definitely changes in style. City of Saints employs several different variations on either a baroque or a typical "weird fiction" style to achieve various effects. Shriek: An Afterword took on many of the narrative strategies to be found in the work of writers like Proust and Nabokov, and that changed the style, as did the voice of the first person narrators.

It's definitely different from City in its approach. Finch more or less deconstructs the styles used in the previous two books by literally breaking things down into fragments that accrete around some central sentence, for the most part. This effect intensifies or de-intensifies based on how close-in on Finch's point of view we need to be for a particular scene. The overall effect is to complement the noir /thriller structure that delivers the fantastical element. In short, we finally get a gritty, street-level vision of Ambergris through Finch's eyes. It still allows for what I hope is mind-blowing visionary fantasy, but in a very different context -- one that fits the character. In all things, style must follow function, and character is function.

As for mastering it, that wasn't difficult because in the final analysis you can go through in redrafting and mechanically cut and splice as you need to, if the mix isn't right. What was difficult was the combining of a new style with a new vision of the city. The novel would've been out in 2008 if not for the fact that it took me so long to re-imagine what Ambergris might be like one hundred years after the last novel -- to extrapolate out from Shriek, so to speak. Which is, in a way, a kind of science fictional thing rather than a fantastical thing. The other key thing was -- if the gray caps were going to finally be in control and speaking to human beings -- what would they sound like, how would they behave? This is one of the things that I'm most pleased about in the novel -- all of my first readers accepted this new role for the gray caps without qualms.

I also had help regarding the style, pacing, and other things related to writing what's meant to be a kind of thriller -- I took on writing Predator: South China Sea for Dark Horse in part because I figured it would be a great trial run for Finch. It would allow me to experiment on a large canvas with cutting scenes in different ways than I had in the past, and with different approaches to pacing. Predator turned out to be hugely useful in breaking down, understanding and internalizing, how prolonged action sequences work, and cutting scenes sooner than I usually would, that kind of thing.

Finch needed to be more violent and visceral than your previous works. Did you approach writing this novel differently than your previous? Was their special kind of research required?
The Ambergris described in Finch has endured decades of war, followed by the gray caps' Occupation, and so it is a much more violent place. I've never been averse to showing violence in my work -- my fantasy is often mixed with the horrific, just as the horrific is woven into the fabric of our reality. As I began to think about real-world models for an occupation, I veered between Nazi-occupied France and our own occupation of Iraq. The combination was enough to provide distance from current events while still allowing me to incorporate them, re-imagined, into the novel. Failed states are becoming more and more common as we reach a critical tipping point when it comes to natural resources and the climate changes, so that figured into it as well -- and dovetails with the whole Iraq and Afghanistan situation.

As for research -- man, the news over the last eight years, the investigative reporting out there, was more than enough. The simple truth is: nothing, no matter how horrific, that one human being does to another in Finch came from anywhere but the reality of the last eight years. There are some brutal interrogation scenes that could easily be transcripts of rendition "interviews" following 9-11. My feeling is that if such things are going to be part of your book, you do a disservice to the dead if you don't show it accurately. It's a little like how I now look at a lot of action scenes after having seen the bath house scene in Eastern Promises -- almost everything else looks fake.

In writing a novel that works at the level of gritty reality, I wasn't interested in glossing anything over. (None of this is to say that Finch is didactic -- it's not. It's not a Message novel in that sense; it's internalized the conflict.) Playing against stuff like this is that John Finch is a truly decent man, for his times, and so even though the novel can be dark, there's a lot of hope in it, too -- because Finch is by the very nature of his actions, by not giving up, hopeful.

How has the initial reaction been to Finch?
Stephen R. Donaldson, Tad Williams, Joe Abercrombie, and Richard K. Morgan all loved it. I'd have to say, though, that my favorite responses have been from writers on the mystery side of things, because many of them were encountering my work for the first time, and their praise meant not only that the mystery/noir elements worked but that the novel does truly stand alone and can be read without having read the other two books. Ken Bruen, Meg Gardiner, Joe Lansdale, and Jack O'Connell all loved the novel. When you have people saying it's the best thing they've read all year or in the last few years, even though it's blurbs, that's a level of excitement that makes a writer's heart beat a little faster.

As for reviews, it's a little too early for more than the library journals, but Publishers Weekly said, “VanderMeer's stark tone is brutally powerful at times, and his deft mix of genre-blurring style with a layered plot make this a joy to read.”

Murder by Death has produced a Finch soundtrack. How did this come about? Whose idea was it? How much input did you have on the soundtrack? 
Experimental musician Robert Devereux did a soundtrack for City of Saints, The Church did a soundtrack for Shriek, so when I finished Finch I started thinking about who might be good for this third volume in the Ambergris Cycle. It just seemed like a missed opportunity for all three not to have associated music.

I'd listened to a lot of Murder by Death while writing Finch, because they have a really noir feel to them -- nicely layered, often aggressive alt-rock with country/Tom Waits/Nick Cave-like influences. So I emailed them and they indicated they might be interested -- and to send them the book. So I cobbled up a bound galley, they read it, really enjoyed it, and said yes. Then it was just a matter of figuring out how to offset their studio costs and making it profitable for them. We hit upon offering the CD with the Finch limited editions and also letting them do whatever else they wanted with the music.

It's now out in a limited green vinyl edition, a 1,000-copy CD version, and downloadable from the internet. I had no input -- I never do, and don't want it -- but they had an uncanny instinct for picking great scenes from the novel and creating music that has depth and emotion and a lovely darkness to it. I just absolutely love it and can't stop listening to it. You can listen here.

After reading your Ambergris stories, I'll never look at fungus the same way again. Creepy stuff in there. What is it with you and mushrooms?

There are many things in our reality that seem fantastical and alien. Mushrooms are one of those things. They're neither animal nor plant yet have characteristics of both, and the biology behind them is fascinating. Fungus exists just about everywhere and is essential to life on Earth. Beyond that, they're fascinating for their potential. Some types of mushrooms can help clean polluted areas. Others have been shown to dramatically reduce cancer rates. As for how I began to use them -- they just organically became part of the story of Ambergris as I was writing the first stories.

 I like the element of colonization common to fungi, and the odd beauty, and the singular yet communal nature of them. The gray caps harness fungal technology, and this gave me an opportunity to create an entire science, in a sense, that it is fairly unique in literature, and underscores the strangeness of the creatures. I do have to say that I frequently get asked if I've done magic mushrooms, due to the surreal visions in the books. The answer is . . . no.

Any chance of other writers contributing to the Ambergris reality? Perhaps an anthology of stories by others?  
The only way that would work for me is the way one of the City of Saints illustrators suggested -- to do an issue of Burning Leaves, an Ambergrisian literary journal. And that would include fiction written as if by writers who live in Ambergris. Sounds tortuous, but I don't really like the idea of making Ambergris a shared world. It's too personal to me. I'd actually see more opportunity for that with my Veniss Underground milieu. 

Are there any plans for Ambergris stories in different media such as film or comics? What would you like to see?
I think Finch would make a great film and a great graphic novel. I would love to make either one of those happen. I also think a story like “The Cage” in City of Saints would make a great graphic novel. Shriek was in part written not to be filmable -- part of the point was to show how memory works, and it just wouldn't work without a screenwriter taking the whole thing apart and re-make it.

You are an active blogger. What role, if any, does the blogging influence/affect your creative process?
Heh, not much. I just blog more when I'm not writing fiction. 

For a while you were an extremely active editor (primarily along with your wife Anne, editor of the Hugo-winning Weird Tales). Are there plans for more anthologies in your near future? 
Heh. For awhile? Did we stop? Steampunk Reloaded is definitely happening. We've got two charity anthologies coming out: Last Drink Bird Head (for literacy) and The Leonardo Variations (for the Clarion writer's workshop). Mapping the Beast: The Best of Leviathan is slated for 2010 as well. We'll be series editors for the Best American Fantasy series starting with volume 4, and there's a top sekrit project that my agent is submitting right now. So, not really out of the anthology business for awhile. But I imagine it'll taper off when I start the next novel. 

What's next for you? 
After the six-week book tour for Finch and for my writing book Booklife, I will being writing and researching The Steampunk Bible for Abrams Books. It'll be a complete text-and-image overview of Steampunk in all of its various permutations. I also have a couple of long stories, a couple of novels, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (out in February, written with Ann), The Third Bear (my story collection in May), Monstrous Creatures (my nonfiction collection, out in June). Then I drop dead.

Win This

RevolutionSF Contest: Win all three Ambergris books and their soundtracks.

Read This

Here's a free chapter of Finch.

The RevSF review of the last Ambergris novel Finch.

Beyond blogging at The Geek Curmudgeon, Rick Klaw regularly writes about pop culture for several publications. He wonders if mushrooms could make him more productive?

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