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Jeff VanderMeer “Steampunk” Interview

Posted on July 18, 2008 by Flames

So, what is “steampunk”?

“Cool stuff, rich language, invented – reinvented — science,” says James Blaylock, a pioneer of steampunk and author of the novel, Lord Kevlin’s Machine. “Steampunk [a sub-genre of science fiction] offers a great deal of what is most flamboyantly, eccentrically, visually, and adventurously interesting about the Victorian era and its curious scientific hopes and speculations.”

The recently-released anthology Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, clatters and clinks with gadgets, airships, and forty-foot tall steam-powered men. The thirteen stories and novel excerpts contained in this collection are enhanced by a preface, an introduction, and two essays.

The editors themselves are no strangers to strange fiction. Ann VanderMeer is an editor for Weird Tales and Jeff VanderMeer is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Shriek: an Afterword as well as a collection of linked stories, City of Saints and Madmen, both set in the imaginary world of Ambergris.

“In [Steampunk],” write the VanderMeers in their preface, “we’ve tried to provide a blend of the traditional and idiosyncratic, the new and the old, while remaining true to the idea of steampunk as dark pseudo-Victorian fun. You’ll find stories about mechanistic golems, infernal machines, the characters of Jules Verne, and of course, airships.”

The resulting anthology is both a joy and a relief to read, for the VanderMeers have found a way to enhance the genre without suggesting (or imposing) a narrow set of parameters. Or, as Magpie Killjoy, an editor of SteamPunk Magazine, puts it, the anthology circles steampunk without “zeroing in on it.”

“Steampunk, as a philosophy,” adds Killjoy, “is a way of re-examining our interactions with machines. To this end we find whimsy in the age of steam engines and the promises, true and false, offered us by the 19th century. So steampunk is an aesthetic, a genre, a subculture, and a philosophy that revolves around this understanding.”

At the heart of steampunk as an ethos and as a sub-genre, says Paul DiFilippo, author of the novels Joe’s Liver and Fuzzy Dice, is a “desire to return to an era when technology and handicrafts had not yet been separated; when parts of the globe remained unexplored; where individual heroism trumped corporate or national might; when the line between good and evil was clearer; and when you could dress cool.”

Not long after the release of Steampunk, I spoke with Jeff VanderMeer about editing, writing, and working with his wife.

Jones: Do you have a primary strategy as an anthologist?

VanderMeer: [Ann and I] tend to work as a team, sharing duties and splitting them up as our other workloads allow. We do have a consistent approach, though, of wanting our anthologies to be well-organized, comprehensive, and not just thorough but also surprising in some way. If a reader comes away from one of our anthologies without having encountered something wonderfully different, maybe we’re not doing our jobs.

Jones: What challenges do you face as an anthologist in general and with Steampunk in particular?

VanderMeer: Not only selecting the right mix of material, but then being able to acquire it–for reprint anthologies. For original anthologies, making sure we make them as open to new writers and established writers as possible.

Jones: What are the pros and cons of working together?

VanderMeer: I don’t listen well enough sometimes. But we actually rarely argue. I think in general working together brings us closer personally.

Jones: Were there any funny and/or frustrating moments during the process?

VanderMeer: Not on Steampunk. On New Weird, we had Clive Barker call up to say “onions” in the story we’d taken from him should be “opinions”. Really not what I’d hoped the first phone call we ever had with him would be like! But he did say he enjoyed the anthology very much, and the typo was one he’d been tracking down for eighteen years.

Jones: And on a recent radio show you alluded to “green technology” in relation to steampunk Can you explain that a little?

VanderMeer: Although it may not be true to the industrial foundation of the Victorian age, I do feel that a segment of the modern steampunk culture sees the re-mechanicalization of technology as being a way to move toward being green. In the sense that being hands-on and being able to fix things (who could really fix their own car these days, since it’s all computerized?) is the first step toward being truly independent, growing your own food, etc. A future of sustainability requires that we take this interim step on an individual level.

Jones: For the last two decades, you’ve been doing a wide variety of work—editing, blogging for places like Amazon.com, journalism for places like The Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly, and of course, writing short fiction and novels. Does the non-fiction writing inform your fiction writing?

VanderMeer: Nonfiction in the form of interviews and reviews exposes me to other ways of thinking about writing. I also often re-purpose nonfiction forms in my fiction for ironic or absurdist effect.

Jones: What do you enjoy most about writing?

VanderMeer: The physical act of it–the literal writing in longhand or typing, getting lost in that. Getting lost in situation and character. Writing a novel in particular is an act of immersion.

Jones: Where does a story or novel start for you?

VanderMeer: With the ending. Until I know the ending of a story or novel, in my head, I can’t finish it. So until that coalesces, I don’t start putting anything down on paper. The ending often changes by the time I get to it, but I must have some general direction before I start.

Jones: You surprised — and excited — a number of your die-hard fans by writing Predator: South China Sea, due out this August.

VanderMeer: Working in a shared world like the Predator universe I had much more of a sense of the audience for the books. I was interested in writing a novel that would satisfy the Predator audience first and then if it could also satisfy my general audience, fine. But that wasn’t the goal.

I think with shared worlds you have to respect the core audience for it, while for my original novels, the best way to serve my audience is to ignore them in a sense. To satisfy myself first. This meant, of course, that the Predator novel is much less personal, and also very different from my other work. I am happy with the results, but have no idea what my wider audience will think. I just hope the Predator audience likes it.

Jones: Where does the work on an anthology start for you?

VanderMeer: It really depends on the anthology. First, any anthology I do is a collaboration with my wife Ann, who serves as co-editor. Depending on ?the project and other time constraints she may initiate the process or I? may. Sometimes a publisher approaches us, as was the case with New Weird and Steampunk. In other cases we have an idea and we approach a publisher.

The key at the beginning is to try to make sure the publisher, project, and format (hardcover or trade paper) match up properly. It’s also an initial challenge to think of the anthology in terms of constraint and opportunity. Which is to say–you want to explore the idea as thoroughly and deeply as possible while still maintaining a focus that will give the anthology form.

Jones: Which story in the anthology really gets under your skin?

VanderMeer: I still really love Stephan Chapman’s “The Minutes of the Last Meeting,” with a lovely experimental structure made accessible by its endless invention and folktale underpinnings. I also perversely love the way Joe R. Lansdale just takes the steampunk genre and rampages through it like some kind of impatient god.

Interview by Jeremy Jones

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