“I try to avoid labels”: Jeff VanderMeer on his new novel, ecological disaster, and why he won’t run for public office

Jeff VanderMeer's novel Hummingbird Salamander
“I tend to zig and zag and if I get tagged with one label too heavily, it’s harder for readers to accept something that deviates from it.”

Jeff VanderMeer was not always an evangelist for the environment. If he has become known in recent years as a proselytizer for ecological preservation and rewilding, these efforts have, to some extent, come as latter-day developments in the work of a writer at one time more commonly associated with weird fiction and SF. It was the author’s bestselling Southern Reach trilogy – Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance (2014) – along with Alex Garland’s 2018 film adaptation of the first volume that brought his concerns about the natural world to a mass audience.

The writer’s latest novel, the eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander, has as a similar environmental focus. The book’s protagonist is a paranoid vulnerability analyst for a cybersecurity company who goes by the pseudonym Jane Smith. Handed a note by the barista at her local coffee shop, Jane is launched on a hunt for a taxidermied hummingbird and salamander, following clues left by an apparently deceased ecoterrorist named Silvina. As she pursues the trail left by Silvina, Jane comes to recognize the extent to which human-driven environmental depredations – including, but certainly not limited to, animal trafficking and industrial greed – are precipitating the end of the world.

“She is the prototypical clueless person who doesn’t think about the environment and is vaguely liberal,” says VanderMeer, on the phone from his home in Tallahassee, Florida. “That could describe me at certain points before I became more aware of my surroundings.”

Such an awareness came slowly, then all at once. Living in an ecologically rich place like north Florida, the author says, has the potential for inculcating complacency about nature; it’s easy to take the natural world for granted.

VanderMeer’s road to Damascus moment came with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to this day the largest environmental catastrophe of its kind in U.S. history. Following an explosion at the Deepwater rig on April 20, 2010, oil began leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually extending for more than 57,000 square miles and polluting approximately 1,100 miles of coastline. “They were reporting that they might never be able to cap that thing,” VanderMeer says. “For a nightmarish month and a half, none of us here could sleep, because the oil was just gushing in our heads. There was this idea that the entire gulf would just fill with oil for twenty or thirty years.”

Another flashpoint came with the publication of Annihilation, which resulted in VanderMeer being invited to speak at environmental conferences and science departments, putting him in touch with experts who were able to illustrate the extent to which the climate crisis is affecting us. “[Hummingbird Salamander] is also, in a sly way, documenting my own awakening to these issues.”

The novel adopts the generic form of a hardboiled mystery along the lines of The Maltese Falcon, with some of the scavenger hunt elements of The Da Vinci Code or the National Treasure movies thrown in for good measure. (Though the last two touchstones don’t do justice to VanderMeer’s craft, which is of a higher order than either.) The author had dabbled in noir tropes before – in 2009’s Finch, the final volume in the Ambergris trilogy – but Hummingbird Salamader might appear as something of a departure for people who associate the writer strongly with the SF and weird fiction genres. “I try to avoid labels for this very reason,” VanderMeer says. “I tend to zig and zag and if I get tagged with one label too heavily, it’s harder for readers to accept something that deviates from it.”

VanderMeer intended Hummingbird Salamander to be multi-faceted and complex, as opposed to simply operating on a surface thriller level. He says he has been lucky with reviewers, each of whom seems to pick up on a different aspect of the narrative. Some have focused on the character of Jane as a kind of soft liberal who never thought much about the climate crisis or ecological destruction until she was forced to by the circumstances of her own life. “Some people have glommed onto other things with regard to her physicality, her past, all of this stuff. That, to me, means that it’s working on all these different levels,” VanderMeer says. “There’s another reality out there where everyone just hates the book.”

Jeff VanderMeer
“To me there is never a point of no return”

If the novel appears more straightforward and accessible than some of his previous work, that’s all to the good, thinks VanderMeer. “I was very much eager for the day when I started writing stuff that was more in some version of our reality, because I knew the barrier for readers would be a little lower,” he says. “I also knew I needed the right publisher for that.”

Those two things came together with Annihilation, the first novel VanderMeer brought out with his current U.S. publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (His current Canadian publisher is McClelland & Stewart.) What FSG and M&S provide is access to audiences that cross over between genre and mainstream readers. That said, such a protean writer as VanderMeer seems unconcerned by the prospect of switching genres or the the danger that literary audiences might shy away from work in a more popular form. The artificial distinction between genre and mainstream writing is one that doesn’t really concern him. “I started out editing literary and poetry magazines,” he says. “The fact that there even was a divide was very curious to me.”

Equally curious to VanderMeer are those people who read the Southern Reach trilogy or Hummingbird Salamander as primarily works of environmental advocacy. Regardless of his subject matter, VanderMeer considers himself a storyteller first and foremost. “This kind of crystallized when a couple of people came to me and ridiculously suggested that I run for political office,” he says. “Immediately, I thought of just how badly that would go.”

Still, the author is adamant that novels have the potential to reach readers on a level that an essay or a polemic would not be able to achieve. “I do think a novelist has a certain skill set that can illuminate something in a certain way or perspective where the absurdity or the ridiculousness or the greed of it becomes clearer.”

Which is not to say that VanderMeer is not making real world change with his fiction. A portion of the royalties for Hummingbird Salamander will go toward environmental organizations opposing wildlife trafficking and habitat loss. This is an initiative that VanderMeer has undertaken with each of his novels since Annihilation vaulted him into the ranks of bestselling writers. “So long as the books consistently earn out, I feel like it’s a promise I can make without it being empty.”

It’s the kind of commitment to positive change that VanderMeer hopes readers of Hummingbird Salamander will come to embrace themselves having undergone Jane’s journey of discovery alongside her. “I want the reader to come out of this having felt something profound but also having seen all these ways in which someone has been trying, even if misguidedly, to do the right thing, to persevere, to try to come to a better future,” he says. “And know that it’s difficult but that’s something we have to grapple with.”

The one emotion VanderMeer is adamant about not succumbing to is despair. Though the final stages of Hummingbird Salamander return to a kind of apocalyptic dystopian setting that will be familiar to readers of the Southern Reach trilogy, there are nevertheless grace notes that provide a hopeful tone, even to the end of the world. And no matter how dire the warnings about our current climate crisis become, VanderMeer is determined to keep doing his part to effect positive change. “To me, there never is a point of no return because there is always going to be something worth salvaging.”     

“I try to avoid labels”: Jeff VanderMeer on his new novel, ecological disaster, and why he won’t run for public office
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