Ann and Jeff VanderMeer Talk Classic Fantasy, Fearsome Ducks, and Dead Astronauts
Live from the Miami Book Fair with Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode, taped live at the Miami Book Fair, writer Jeff VanderMeer and editor Ann VanderMeer talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about editing The Big Book of Classic Fantasy anthology, historical understandings of fantasy, editing beyond Anglocentrism, and the significance of animals in fantasy compared to literary fiction. Jeff VanderMeer also talks about his newly launched novel Dead Astronauts, the future of genetic editing, and how to write about animals.
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Readings for the Episode:
The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer · The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer · The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer · Dead Astronauts, by Jeff VanderMeer · Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer · Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer · Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer · Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer · The Bestiary, edited by Ann VanderMeer · The Sisters of Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Ann VanderMeer · The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann VanderMeer · Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne and Dead Astronauts Are Heading to TV, Tor.com, Dec. 3, 2019 · Hans-my-Hedgehod: A Tale from the Brothers, Brothers Grimm · Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov
From the episode
Part I: On the Big Book of Classic Fantasy
Whitney Terrell: So when we were talking about this show, Jeff, you mentioned this weird story by the Brothers Grimm called “Hans-My-Hedgehog.”
Jeff VanderMeer: [Laughing] Yes.
WT: Which you have committed to saying is a favorite of yours.
JV: We both have, yes. In fact, the anthology is dedicated to Hans-My-Hedgehog.
WT: You want to tell us why?
JV: Because you’re looking at the classics and you don’t want to reprint the Grimms’ Red Riding Hood. You want to find something a bit offbeat. And so, first of all, I thought, “Oh, this is a cute story about a hedgehog.” And we’re considering it and reading it over and over again. And then I finally realized this is batshit. This is completely nuts. And yet it has an earnest, straight-faced demeanor to it that makes you buy into the idea that it’s not. That the things that are happening in are completely normal. And so even now when I read it, I burst out laughing, which is one reason that Ann’s reading it, not me, because I just dissolve into laughter over the story, which is probably too much build up for the audience. But that’s the other thing about fantasy, is that if you buy into things like talking animals and how cute they are and everything—you can buy into a lot of strange stuff before you realize you’re really, really out in the woods.
AV: I think this story is a perfect example of the type of fiction that we were looking for, because the fantasy stories that we’re looking for—strange and wondrous things happen and yet, life just goes on and people don’t even consider it. “This is the way it is.” And so this story gives you a glimpse of that.
I’m just going to read an excerpt.
“Once upon a time there was a peasant who had money and land enough, but as rich as he was, there was still something missing from his happiness: He had no children with his wife. Often when he went to the city with the other peasants, they would mock him and ask him why he had no children. He finally became angry, and when he returned home, he said, “I will have a child, even if it is a hedgehog.”
Then his wife had a baby, and the top half was a hedgehog and the bottom half a boy. When she saw the baby, she was horrified and said, “Now see what you have wished upon us!”
The man said, “It cannot be helped. The boy must be baptized, but we cannot ask anyone to be his godfather.”
The woman said, “And the only name that we can give him is Hans-My-Hedgehog.”
When he was baptized, the pastor said, “Because of his quills he cannot be given an ordinary bed.” So they put a little straw behind the stove and laid him in it. And he could not drink from his mother, for he would have stuck her with his quills. He lay there behind the stove for eight years, and his father grew tired of him, and thought, “if only he would die.” But he did not die, but just lay there.
Now it happened that there was a fair in the city, and the peasant wanted to go. He asked his wife what he should bring her.
“A little meat, some bread rolls, and things for the household,” she said. Then he asked the servant girl, and she wanted a pair of slippers and some fancy stockings.
The reason why we connect with animal stories is that we share this planet with them, and yet, they’re so strange and alien to us.
Finally, he also said, “Hans-My-Hedgehog, what would you like?”
“Father,” he said, “bring me some bagpipes.”
When the peasant returned home he gave his wife what he had brought for her, meat and bread rolls. Then he gave the servant girl the slippers and fancy stockings. And finally he went behind the stove and gave Hans-My-Hedgehog the bagpipes.
When Hans-My-Hedgehog had them, he said, “Father, go to the blacksmith’s and have my cock-rooster shod, then I will ride away and never again come back.” The father was happy to get rid of him, so he had his rooster shod, and when it was done, Hans-My- Hedgehog climbed on it and rode away. He took pigs and donkeys with him, to tend in the forest.
In the forest the rooster flew into a tall tree with him. There he sat and watched over the donkeys and the pigs. He sat there for years, until finally the herd had grown large. His father knew nothing about him. While sitting in the tree, he played his bagpipes and made beautiful music.
AV: There’s a lot more to that story. But do you understand the beauty and the wonder and the horror and all the things that are in that story? Just that little tiny piece? That’s why we had to dedicate the book to Hans-My-Hedgehog.
WT: So that’s going into development with Disney? Is that going to be on Disney+?
VVG: No. Even better. It was on TV in 1987. You can go on the Hans-My-Hedgehog Internet spiral that I did. And it’s really weird. It was an episode of Jim Henson’s “The Storyteller.” So I read the preface of the story, and then I of course went immediately to see, what on earth did this look like? I shouldn’t have done that before bed. Because Hans-My-Hedgehog is fey in the best way. Very fey. And it was funny, because the whole time I was reading the anthology, I kept thinking of Labyrinth, and so it of course made perfect sense that Jim Henson would have adapted Hans-My-Hedgehog, who is this amazing animal character. I know one thing that the two of you said—there’s a lot of animal stories in the book, and this is not the usual animal fable. I feel like it’s almost the fiction answer to the improv game of asking ridiculous questions, and then you have to say yes to everything. Oh, but what if the hedgehog has bagpipes? Of course, go on, go on with the story. And so at every turn, it just goes somewhere that I don’t expect.
JV: And I loved it so much that I, in my young adult novel coming out next year, have an army of seven thousand hedgehogs riding roosters, but they’re giant, and that was actually very complex to make plausible.
VVG: I’m sorry my facial expression can’t be on the show. The roosters are giant? The hedgehogs are giant? They’re all giant?
JV: They’re all giant.
VVG: [laughter] So, Whitney—
WT: I think it’s all good. I don’t know what your problems are.
VVG: They’re not problems, as much as an inarticulable question, but, I mean, what is it that you think makes an animal story awesome?
AV: Well, I think the thing about animal stories and the reasons why we connect with them is that we share this planet with them, and yet, they’re so strange and alien to us. I mean, have you ever really looked at an aardvark? Seriously. So, we ascribe all of these human qualities to animals, and they don’t behave like humans. They behave like the animals that they are. And yet we still are just in wonder about what they’re thinking, what they’re doing, why they’re doing this, why they’re doing that.
It reminds me of this episode of “The Kids in the Hall” that I once saw years ago, where one of the comedians comes on stage with a Jack Russell terrier. And he talks about “the mammal with whom I live a lie.” And I just thought that was the most perfect way of describing what it’s like, when I think about how I live in a house with a cat. People have these connections with animals, and they want to write stories about them, because that’s how we connect with the world, by telling stories.
JV: And I think that we tried very hard to use the animal stories because we had so much material that we could choose from that dated well, that actually were before their time in terms of rejecting the Disney stereotype, for the most part. So some of them are strange, because they’re actually better mimicry of animal behavior than your normal story, because we’re used to animals in fairy tales acting like humans half the time.
I tell students to choose against type all the time when they’re writing about people, right—make the trucker enjoy romantic fiction.
Part II: On Dead Astronauts
JV [reading from Dead Astronauts]: The monsters were gone; they had passed the first trial. Yet it was different than before. More difficult. Each of them felt that, in some hard-to-define way.
“They will track us.”
“They will always track us.”
“The duck with the broken wing?”
Sometimes it took longer, but true: The duck with a broken wing watched their approach from a dusty pool in which a dark smudge was all that remained of water. More reptilian than duck. Saurian. Teeth. Semblance of a duck. But only from afar. Up close, all that registered was monster. Sometimes they called it “the dark bird.”
WT: Thank you very much. [audience applause]
VVG: Can you talk a little bit about how you create such a scary duck? How you created it and maybe why you created it? I mean, I’m a Donald Duck fan and a Daffy Duck fan and maybe even a Make Way for Ducklings fan but I don’t think I’ve ever read a story that had a terrifying villain duck.
JV: You just mentioned some of the creepiest ducks in existence.
Well, I like the idea of camouflage and disguise. And so this duck is alluded to in my prior novel Borne. And there are certain animals that will pretend to be injured in order to lure prey in, and so I liked this idea of this thing that was not what it appeared to be. And I liked the challenge of making something that seemed innocuous, or even friendly, not so, and so, soon after this there’s a whole section that just describes the duck devouring various animals. And if you read that, and you still think a duck is great, then, you know, this is a comic novel! But I don’t think that’s what happens. So that’s really where it came from. And I also liked the idea of subverting in the novel, in certain places, our cultural expectations of animals. What we project onto them and exactly what you’re talking about, and explode those. And so I paid great attention to the detail of creating that, in order to try to pull that off.
WT: I tell students to choose against type all the time when they’re writing about people, right—make the trucker enjoy romantic fiction, or something like that, but I never thought about it in terms of animals. But when I was reading the book I realized—and in your prior work—that you try to work against type of animals.
I wanted to try to explore the idea of failure as a kind of success, because I think we use capitalist metrics on our activism in ways that are very unhelpful.
JV: And this is something that you find when it’s well rendered in any kind of fiction. There’s a writer I love who writes short stories, Joy Williams, where in the backdrop, because she is big on ecology, anytime an animal appears it is actually doing the thing that it would do in that circumstance. And so she’s very aware of the fact that animals in the backdrop should not be furniture or something inert, that they can have some kind of power, even if they’re not the center of the story. So I think about that a lot. My prior novel, Borne, if you look at the backdrop you can read an entirely different story involving the little foxes that run through it. So yeah, that’s definitely something that I think about. And I apply it when I teach, because often someone will have an animal as a central point of the story, and they haven’t really thought through exactly what you’re talking about.
I think that what I wanted to try to explore in this novel was the idea of failure as a kind of success, because I think we use capitalist metrics on our activism in ways that are very unhelpful. And I think there are “failures” that actually move the needle, so to speak, in a way that you might not see the effects, right away but you see them down the road and I see so many people feeling defeated, even though I feel like they have done that. So I wanted to have this mission that’s incredibly difficult because the Company is everywhere, across all these different Earths kind of the way that companies have tentacles across our one world. And depict them trying in various different ways to find the weak point, to find the thing, the key that will unlock that. And without going into too much detail, they find out there is no one key, there is no one thing. That’s why I say the novel fragments because once they reach the end of what they’re dealing with, the novel opens up into the consequences of what they were dealing with both in the past and in the future of that section.
WT: So I have a question for you, because I thought, when you were introducing the book, you talked about the versions. I assumed that that meant time. But I’m not sure that I’m right about that.
JV: You know, I think that there’s things you put in where they can be both very specific, but they don’t have to be read the same way. So, sure, that that could work as well. I think what it was was liberating for me too, because I wanted to write a novel that was about different versions of the characters. I didn’t want to have to worry about the continuity aspects of that. And so by writing across different versions of Earth, that allowed me to have the freedom to show different versions of these characters, which is similar to how you show a character over time, either changing or you know, one day they don’t get their coffee and they act completely different, make different decisions. And so I find that aspect kind of interesting—literalizing that in terms of time and space and that kind of landscape, so to speak.
WT: I mean, we’ve been talking a lot about animals, but time is also something that shows up in your work a lot. Time passes differently in Area X than it does in the outside world if I’m remembering all that stuff properly. So maybe could you just talk a little bit about how you think about time in in your fiction writing?
JV: Fiction and poetry have this amazing ability to stretch out and to lengthen a moment, or to compress a century into a paragraph. One of the most amazing paragraphs I ever read was by Nabokov in Bend Sinister, where he’s in the foreground of this character who’s suddenly trapped on a bridge because he tried to go to one country and they rejected him. But the country he came from won’t let him back in. So he’s trapped on this bridge, and he’s thinking about what he’s looking at. And he’s thinking about what it was like back in Paleolithic times. And in one paragraph he manages to capture all of this, all of this this emotion that the character is feeling and go back in time and then come back into the present. And it was a kind of time travel. So I think of books as always being time traveling books in a sense, and that’s one of the major and wonderful things that we can do as novelists is to take advantage of that.
So literalizing it like this just allows you to create different effects that are actually things that you do in contemporary realism. They’re just not as noticeable. And so here time, time also works in the fact that character has a poem from another character, but they don’t read it until five years later. There’s all kinds of time travel that occurs in the novel and some of it is real time travel, and some of it isn’t.
VVG: Ann, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you think about time as an editor. The elasticity of time is something that people have played with, as you mentioned, throughout the history of storytelling. So what is it that makes for a fresh take on that when you’re acquiring fiction or editing fiction?
AV: Well, it’s really interesting because Jeff and I did do a massive anthology called the Time Traveler’s Almanac. And when I was done doing that anthology, I thought, I’m so done with time travel, I can’t do it anymore. However, shortly after that, I read a story at a workshop that a writer had written that was a time travel story. I was like, Oh, my gosh, I have to buy this story. And I think what it is, is that when we talk about time travel and moving through time, it allows us in a sense, to be nostalgic for happy times in the past, but it also allows us to think about a do-over. You know how sometimes you have these stories in your head and you’re replaying them over and over again—I wish I’d done this differently, I wish I’d done this differently. So I think that that time travel does allow you to do that. And when you read fiction, you get so engrossed in the lives of your characters and the things that are going on around them and what they’re facing that you forget where you are and when you are. And that, to me is a measure of a really good story, whether it’s a fantasy story, a realistic story, a science fiction story, a horror story, when the reader reads it, and everything else around them disappears, then I know you’ve done your job as a writer, you’ve written a successful story.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan and Chloe Seim. Photo of Ann VanderMeer by Kyle Cassidy. Photo of Jeff VanderMeer by Ditte Valente.