Electric Eel


Issue 058
April 22, 2021

Hummingbird salamander cover

Happy Earth Day :)

This April, we’re reading stories about our environment, about the plants and animals we live with, about a world that, as Jhonen Vazquez says of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction, is often “freakish,” “bizarre,” and “otherworldly,” but also our only home. How, dear eels, do we write about that?

In Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade, Nathaniel Rich reports from the frontlines of our postnatural world. His stories –– proof that fact is so often stranger than fiction –– point the way to a new kind of environmental literature, in which dramatic narrative helps us to understand our place in a reality that resembles nothing human beings have known. See Nathaniel discuss the book with celebrated writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams here.

Then we have Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander, which is fiction, not fact, but still pretty strange! Here, VanderMeer is at his brilliant, cinematic best, wrapping profound questions about climate change, identity, and the world we live in into a tightly plotted thriller full of unexpected twists and elaborate conspiracy. Earlier in April, Jeff solicited questions from creatives he admires for a “celebrity questions” segment on his book tour. Below, the transcript, in which Jeff talks re-wilding, MMA fights, writing process, genre, and style.


Karen Han: I was fascinated by both the detail that Jane is a bodybuilder and wrestler and that the story begins with these taxidermied animals. You’ve said that those ideas just came to you, but I’m curious how much of an interest do you have in those fields? Are you a taxidermy nut? Do you love pro wrestling?

For a while, I watched a lot of MMA. That kind of took me into other mixed martial arts and wrestling. I was always fascinated by the MMA just because of the combination of the boxing and the wrestling and the Jiu-Jitsu and how it all gets combined. In fact, at one point, Jane basically describes the situation of being disoriented by the mystery and people being after her as like somebody switching levels on her MMA match suddenly—like going from boxing to trying to grapple with and throw somebody to the ground. So that’s the origin and the fact that the only thing I can consistently do exercise-wise is lift heavy weights. That’s the only thing that seems to interest me. Jogging, not so much.

Mike Flanagan: If you went on an expedition into Area X and were overcome by the brightness, what form would you prefer to transform into, and why? Also, what do you think I would transform into, and why?

My first thought was a bat, but I don’t know why I thought that. Probably something nocturnal, like a night hawk or something, just so I maybe could slip under the radar. What would Mike turn into? Oh God, that’s a tough question. I think it would be something fairly horrific, just given his interests. I hate to say that—like in a good way, a very emotionally resonant monster of some kind. Horrific in a good way. But I can’t really put my finger on exactly what that would look like. It’s a horrifying question to have to answer, especially when he sees this.

Ed Yong: How do you reconcile the planetary scope of the problems we are facing with the mission to save a single species? How do you work out where to make a difference when there’s so much difference to be made?

For me, being in the moment, so doing something personal and local that allows me to see change every day, whether it’s planting a wildflower or weeding out an invasive plant [helps] … Today, there was a towhee in the driveway happily eating insects. That doesn’t happen unless you have a good leaf cover. So that, the local, regional involvement in some of the issues going on that come before the city and county commission is something that I think about and try to involve myself in. And, then, nationally, helping environmental groups, including royalties from Annihilation going to [that purpose]. So, I do a little bit each week on one of those things. I try not to think about the fact that there are so many issues out there because that’s how you get frozen. Focusing on what’s in front of you is what really gets me through. But everyone has a different way of coping, more or less, and of helping.

Lev Grossman: I’m an avid follower of your #vanderwild hashtag on twitter. How does your work re-wilding your ravine in Tallahassee feed into your fiction and vice versa?

Great question. One answer is that plants can’t be separated from their surroundings—they have stories and their ecosystems have a kind of narrative. So, when, for example, we have endangered wildflower in the yard (like fringed campion) and then you hear about some area somewhere else in the panhandle that’s under threat from developers and that flower’s one of the things threatened, it becomes this blazing symbol in your mind. You really understand it. You’ve seen that flower through three years, and you’ve seen how it’s grown and how it adapts to its environment. It’s not just this academic thing. That comes also with all kinds of information about the plant’s history that then leads to all kinds of cultural, social things that you think about as well. A wider context always comes in that suggests storytelling.

Lidia Yuknavitch: What do you wish people understood better about species interactions and relationships?

I see a lot of folks still reacting to animals the way that they were taught to by their parents or from the foundational assumptions that we see from twenty years ago when, in fact, we know that most animals have much more intelligence than we ever gave them credit for, are much more complex as individuals, and that this is really important in terms of understanding that animals should have many more rights than they do.

One thing I can tell you from the trail cam, despite Raccoon Mother’s objections, is that I understand the behavior of these different raccoons. I can see personality differences. Some of them are shy. Some of them take risks. Some of them are more social than others. They have their quirks—like Raccoon Mother always standing upright on her two feet. That’s really made me much more aware myself of how my attitude needs changed.

Jhonen Vasquez: Your work, to me, is some of the most freakish and oftentimes impenetrably bizarre and otherworldly, and I wonder if that comes from you needing or wanting the world to be more so that you can find it in your actual life. Your love and fascination with nature is clear, but how much do you actually wish things were as apocalyptically wild as they seem in your books?

First of all, for Jhonen Vasquez to call my work freakish and bizarre is quite something. Oh my God. So I’m kind of rendered speechless by this question. I’m not quite sure how to answer it, except to say that he’s been a huge influence on me. So, it’s all his fault? And I’m not answering the question about whether I want the world to be more bizarre.

Joseph Mallozzi: From sentient squid to fungal subterranean dwellers, ornate labyrinthine underworlds to settings that exist beyond the bounds of space and time, your work has always pushed the boundaries of inventiveness, exploring the weird, the wonderful, and the downright unfathomable. Hummingbird Salamander stands out as a far more grounded, though not less engaging, traditional narrative, a straight thriller that is not without its VanderMeerian whimsies. I’d love to know what inspired you to write this book, what other works may have influenced the genesis of this story, and if you’re considering exploring other atypical to you genres, space opera, comic fantasy, a cozy mystery maybe?

It’s a good question. I have always written stuff that’s more realistic, like The Southern Reach is actually fairly realistic. There are a lot of scenes in a secret agency talking about words on a wall that have nothing to do with the supernatural or anything else. So I’m pretty used to writing scenes that are “normal,” and I’m pretty used to writing thrillers from writing Finch, which was kind of a noir fantasy that taught me all the beats and progressions of how that goes. It’s something I read a lot, so that’s one reason why I was drawn to it.

I would also just say that I am writing stuff that’s more, I guess you would call it, realistic. But I did have a friend say, “Hummingbird Salamander is a little bit usual for you.” I said, “Well, okay. Look at chapter so-and-so. Tell me what actually happens in that scene.” When they recited it to me, they were like, “Okay. Yeah, this is actually kind of stealth weird. It’s actually still very weird.” So I think it’s still got all the signatures. It’s just set very much in the present.

Alton Brown: * Now that the re-wilding of your Florida yard is complete, as complete as a natural work can be, do you consider yourself an invasive species?*

The answer is yeah, to some degree. I find myself being more reticent about being in the yard at certain times. I know when the opossums are going to come through in the early evening and I’m not as willing to just sit out on the lower area and be in their way. I know one of the raccoons, the old raccoon ,is going to come by at 6:30 to drink from the bird bath, and I don’t want to interrupt that because he’s very skittish. Things like that where I try to make myself less present. I also, and this will sound stupid maybe, but I tend to weed wack, when I do have to do some weed wacking or anything that requires noise, when another person in another house is doing it. So I figure they’re already disrupting the noise level. So if I do it then, it’ll be less of a disruption to the animals.

Adam Turla (Murder by Death): Some of your books have an extremely lyrical and mysterious language, see Dead Astronauts. Do you sit down and begin with a stream of consciousness approach for books or sections of books with that style? Is that something specifically crafted to match the tone of the book, or does it originate in that style?

Sometimes it’s a sound. For Dead Astronauts, sound was very important, and I was very much conjuring up how I started writing, which was as a poet. I had about 60 or 70 published poems very early on. I wasn’t a great poet, but it taught me something about the rhythm of language. I thought for Dead Astronauts, with so many point of view characters, that the rhythm of the language would be very important in terms of differentiating point of view, not just switching from second to third to first person, but also the rhythm.

The duck with the injured wing came to me through the language. I had the phrase, murder control, like a switch turned off, like a click. It just went on like that. Suddenly, I realized, that’s what it is because the duck is also kind of a machine. And then the language of that is what drew me into being able to write the point of view. So sometimes it does happen that way. I think it’s really helped me a lot to have been a poet, even though I wasn’t, like I said, a very good one.

Alton Brown: What is the true goal of a VanderMeerian protagonist?

Well, I like to think of a VanderMeerian protagonist as being very complicated in the sense that they often come with a lot of baggage that kind of trips them up at times, like a lot of us have in life. Lately, I’ve been dealing a lot with characters who have suffered some kind of trauma and been trying to be realistic and real about that in how I write it. Overall, though, the ideal is that these are people, no matter what their constraints, no matter what the baggage, are ultimately trying to do the right thing.

They may not always do it, but they’re striving for that. They’re striving to be better at some level. The other thing I think is that a lot of them see the world very differently than the norm. I think that’s important because that allows me sometimes to bring in the environment and a view of animals, for example, that’s different than the norm for novels, too.

Some proceeds from the event, hosted by Jeff’s local Midtown Reader, went to the Friends of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The money will help with conservation efforts for the endangered frosted flatwood salamander. If you’d like to donate, click here. And personalized copies of Jeff’s books are available from Midtown Reader here!