Jeff VanderMeer on the Saga of The Festival of the Freshwater Squid

"Annihilation Wasn’t My First Attempt to Write About Florida”

Of those traumatic events surrounding the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, I must now finally write, dear reader. Time enough has passed for the dull ache of hurt to have faded and a plate of calamari set before me not to trigger a deep sense of my own failings…

*

Why Squid
I’ve always loved squid—not in the culinary sense, but in the sense of a being that seems alien and conveys some sense of the vast wonder of Earth’s biosphere. When I began to write fantasy inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Angela Carter, I fixated on squid and on fungi for this strangeness, which seemed to me a way of describing the odd beauty all around us, while also adding something unusual to the fiction. Squid also were a familiar element from a childhood growing up in the Fiji Islands.

I wrote three books set in an imaginary city called Ambergris, now reprinted by MCD/FSG in one mammoth hardcover, aptly titled Ambergris. The first two, City of Saints & Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword feature squid prominently. The third, Finch, consigned the squid to the dustbin of history, possibly because my enthusiasm had dulled due to the events involving squid and my festival in the intervening years.

For, yes, in Ambergris, there is a celebration called the Festival of the Freshwater Squid. It’s a big deal, what you might call a shindig of gala—a veritable cornucopia of the senses. The partying goes on all night and with any luck the city’s not half on fire by the morning. Over the centuries, any number of terrible things have happened during the festival, including the Silence, during which 25,000 people disappeared overnight. (Likely due to the other half of the equation, the fungus, not the squid.)

The Ambergris books received a ton of critical acclaim, well beyond what one might expect for fictions centered around squid and mushroom people. They also sold well enough that a non-rabid, fairly polite fan base sprouted up around Ambergris.

In short, I wrote about the fantastical Festival of the Freshwater Squid for years without anything particularly odd happening. What did happen tended to fall into one of three categories.

Category the first. Dried squid. Tons of it. Acres of it. More dried squid than there are undried squid. Every year, without fail, people sent me dried squid in the mail. Never the same people, I must add, so this was not a stalkery situation, but merely an issue of proper methods of disposal. I don’t actually like to eat squid because having become an amateur squidologist, I know just how intelligent squid are and how likely it is that they would rule over us if they lived fifty years instead of two to four. But, of course, it’s the thought that counts, and the thought of receiving bags and bags of dried squid for the rest of my life might’ve been disturbing, but it was also a testament to the power of Ambergris. (Ironically, I never received any ambergris in the mail.)

Category the second. Pictures of squid. Hand-drawn. Cut out of magazines. Photocopied. Evidence of Squid. I’m tempted to say I already knew what squid looked like, but the truth is, I didn’t. Because there are so many different kinds, as became so very evident. Over time, however, I truly came to be in awe of the different varieties of squid, as presented to me by fans obsessed with the Festival of the Freshwater Squid.

Category the third. Squid sightings. All over the world. In every language. Posted on a myriad of websites. If it made the news, I knew about it. The same link would be sent all day long by dozens and dozens of people. “Look—a squid has been sighted. We thought you’d like to know.” With the endearing subtext of: Aren’t you going to do something about it?

For a long time, in addition to being a novelist, I bore witness to squid sightings, especially the kind where some floppy decomposing beast is breaking up along some distance shoreline.

Squid became my burden, some inert talent, even. To keep receiving squid and be happy about it. Because as repetitious as some of it might be, how can you not be flattered that your fiction has made such an impact? People I didn’t know had read my book and been so energized by it they had taken time out from doing good deeds, robbing banks, or going to get groceries. To send me stuff. (And preparing me for the absolute onslaught of miniature lighthouses, crawlers, and tower-tunnels sent to me in the mail when Annihilation became a hit.)

However, then things changed, or, rather, I changed them by switching the context, ruining the paradigm.

I brought my Festival of the Freshwater Squid into the real world.

The Real World Is An Unkind Place
In my defense, dear jury, I love the satire of Mark Twain, with the fierce perhaps mis-remembered nostalgia of one of the few things readable assigned to my teenage mind by our English teacher. Not only do I love send-ups and parodies, but I had had the experience of traveling around small-town Florida for one job or another, and experienced its endless array of crafts fairs, art shows, and, yes, festivals. I had developed a strange affection for these events. They were genuine. They weren’t that commercial. People enjoyed them.

So, one day, wanting to write about Florida for the first time, I decided to send them up Mark Twain-style. I decided to write about a made-up festival. I set it in Sebring, Florida, in the center of the state, during the summer. I wrote about it as if I were a reporter doing an article for a newspaper.

I lacked only one thing. Squid. Specifically, freshwater squid.

So I did a lot of research—and, voila!, I created the mayfly squid.

*

As you may or may not know, the tiny freshwater squid is an invasive species brought to Florida by mistake on container ships from Brazil. Now it lives in the lakes in and around Sebring in Central Florida. A whole industry and subculture has grown up around the squid, including a festival with T-shirts, plastic glow-in-the-dark squid key chains, and dubious self-published guides to the squid and festivities.

The festival starts with a parade through town, after which the Mayfly Squid Queen in her glowing tiara, flashing neon dress, and her special clear-plastic, hollow platform shoes goes out onto the lake in a special squid boat.

Have I mentioned her shoes are filled with squid? Once on the lake, the Mayfly Squid Queen releases the squid from her shoes into the water. Just in time for the mating season. While back on shore, the celebration has already started: Drunk tourists wearing squid hats while eating squid ink ice cream. Keeping chiropractors in business by allowing themselves to be wrenched around for five minutes at a time on squid-shaped amusement rides. All of it, as described, a harmless sort of fun. Right?

The results were published on the Fantastic Metropolis website, a center for sometimes experimental writing at the time. Complete with diagrams, photographs, and footnotes to scholarly essays from scientific journals.

It received the usual attention in literary circles for short fiction about squid festivals, which is to say, not a whole lot. Ambergris fans wanted their squid fiction set in Ambergris, not in small-town Florida. Clearly, a real-world festival wasn’t going to spawn a novel.

End of story.

Except it wasn’t. Two rather strange things happened, one quickly and one slowly.

Strange situation the first: An angry email. An irate phone call. Both from a cephalopod expert at the University of Texas in Galveston. The expert had been doing online research and seen my story, and in particular the page detailing the physiology and mating habits of the mayfly squid.

As he read this page, I imagined the cephalopod expert became more and more indignant. Still a sensitive 20-something, I further imagined, given the tone of the email, a rage arising within him as he realized with mounting horror that I had created a whole new squid. Indeed, something never seen before: a freshwater squid.

“Do you know just how difficult squid taxonomy already is?” he asked me. “Don’t go screwing around with people’s heads with your”—and the contempt in these last words before he hung up the phone (and his email) cannot be overstated, “FAKE SQUID.”

Concerned for the non-veracity of my much more important fake squid—namely, those residing in Ambergris, I asked Fantastic Metropolis to make the word “FICTION” much more prominent on the page in question. For a time, this appeared as if it had fixed the problem. However, it was not to be.

Cue: Strange situation the second. Over a period of two or three years, unbeknownst to me and bewildering several, the Sebring Chamber of Commerce began to get some mighty strange phone calls and emails.

“When will the Festival of the Freshwater Squid be held this year?”

“Do you have a brochure about the event?”

“Is it family-friendly?”

Freshwater what?

Squid festival?

These communications, of which I remained blissfully unaware, were brought to my attention when the local Sebring newspaper called to set up an interview about “the situation.” I had thought the situation could only be that of “Florida author made good” and would be about my Ambergris stories, but in fact it was about “Florida man made bad” and the growing notoriety of my real fake squid.

“Why did you do this?” the reporter asked me.

“Because?” I replied.

“Do you have anything to say to the people of Sebring?”

Not having a good sense of the non-hurt I had inflicted on the good people of Sebring by placing a fake festival in their off-season (from the racing circuit they’re known for), I deflected and talked about how great squid are.

But I got the point, even if the resulting article was kind.

A much more explicit “this is fiction” warning was emblazoned on each page of the online story. THIS IS FICTION in blaring, flashing neon.

THIS IS FICTION, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. FRESHWATER SQUID DO NOT EXIST, ALTHOUGH THERE ARE FRESHWATER SEALS IN LAKE BAIKAL.

Image by Mark Roberts

Haunted by My Own Squid
There then occurred a blissful interlude where I could focus solely on my flailing career as a novelist, as the three Ambergris books came out from different publishers, and one during the recession of 2008-2009, sinking any chances for consistent sales. I could tell things were going swimmingly by how few squid sightings people sent anymore and was beginning to wonder if I should switch to writing poems about people staring at thistles and aimlessly wandering a hiking trail near my favorite lighthouse.

Yet the “real” Festival of the Freshwater Squid continued to exert a presence out in the world. In 2008, my wife Ann and I came home from a dinner out to a message on the answering machine. Somehow a fisherman in Louisiana had not only read my freshwater squid story online, but found my phone number.

“I think I found two of them. The mayfly squid. It’s spreading. They’re headed west and north. Fishing here in Louisiana, in the swamp. Odd things. Odd things I’ve found. Call me back.” Suspected: prank, because I have dubious friends. But it wasn’t.

And I never called him back. I had a failure of nerve, or a failure of will to proceed. Surely, he would discover the truth on his own? Surely, I didn’t have to be the bearer of the message of both his disappointment and his vexation.

“You made up a FAKE SQUID?! YOU MADE UP A SQUID, VANDERMEER?!”

Later, another fish afficionado posted on angler message boards.

*

Once more, I contacted Fantastic Metropolis and pleaded for additional signage reading “THIS IS NOT REAL. I AM NOT REAL. SQUID IN GENERAL ARE REAL, BUT NOT THIS ONE.”

I breathed the proverbial sigh of relief. I would not be responsible for such prank-deceptions again. Fisherfolk who found squid could rest easy in the fact that whatever they had caught was real and not metafictional. I would receive fewer disturbing phone calls.

Except, two years later, a BBC wildlife show producer emailed me.

May I just mention the frisson of conflicting emotions as I read her email? The way in which the Devil and Angels whispered to me in that moment?

The BBC producer said she and her crew, and the presenter, would be shooting footage in the Everglades. She would love to travel to Sebring in Central Florida. She would love that because the mayfly squid sounded so intriguing.

“We could film you walking around the lake talking about the freshwater squid, since you are an expert.”

One thing was true: I am the world’s foremost leading expert on the freshwater mayfly squid. That is a fact.

I let the email sit there. Shining darkly in my inbox. A few days passed while I thought through the situation. It did not at first seem cut-and-dried to me. For the simple reason that I knew both a friend who could make a very convincing rubber model of a squid and another friend who was a scuba diver.

There was a startling scenario in which my dream of the mayfly squid could become, in a sense, real. The novelist between successes who needed a win spoke to me in soft tones of reproach: “When will you ever have an opportunity like this again, Jeff? No one ever wanted you on TV for your other fiction.”

“Yes, Jeff, but what if they find out?”

“Jeff, I’m fairly sure it’s not a crime. Deceptive squid?”

“Are you sure, Jeff? It might be a crime.”

“Well, Jeff, what else do you have going on in your life right now?!”

“Good point. Good answer, Jeff.”

Yet, ultimately, and with enough reluctance for me to report that I may be a very bad person, I emailed the BBC producer back and explained that what she’d read online was a hoax, a kind of surreal embodiment of the complexity of the real world. And that while I understood she might not now be interested, I would still be happy to walk around the lake talking about Ambergris and “how we got to this point.”

Oddly, I never heard back from the BBC producer and have never since been invited onto that particular show.

Even though to this day it is possible the Sebring Chamber of Commerce gets some mighty strange phone calls about the Festival of the Freshwater Squid.

Squid Pro Quo
But, then, too, everything fades in time—even attempts to write about Florida that come to a semi-disastrous end. Fantastic Metropolis eventually folded, and the black hole of the electronic world one day devoured its GoDaddy hosting account and all mention of freshwater squid vanished from those coordinates. Even if ghosts of “freshwater squid” still haunt the internet if you do a search.

Even with time to think about it, I can’t tell you that there’s any moral to this story, even though I know you urgently seek one.  I don’t even know that I learned anything from the experience—except, perhaps, that I needed to learn how to either lie worse or lie better. I certainly didn’t stop making things up, because that’s all I know how to do.

And, one fine summer day hiking in North Florida, in 2011—with the squid festival in the rearview mirror, along with the tattered remnants of my career—I told my subconscious, “I want to write about Florida again. BUT NOT in any way connected with festivals or squid. Something different.”

Eventually my subconscious said, “Sure, Florida it is…Mind if it’s called Annihilation.” And I replied, “Sounds appropriate.”

____________________________________

AMBERGRIS

Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris: City of Saints and Madmen; Shriek: An Afterword; Finch is available now from MCD/FSG.

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer is the author of Dead Astronauts, Borne, and The Southern Reach Trilogy, the first volume of which, Annihilation, won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland. His eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander debuts in 2021. He speaks and writes frequently about issues relating to climate change. VanderMeer lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, their cat Neo, and a yard full of wildlife (#VanderWild).





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