“Narrative Life-Forms” illustration from Wonderbook.
Jeff VanderMeer is the New York Times best-selling author of more than twenty-five books over a thirty-year career, including the best-selling Annihilation. He has won the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award (three times) and has been a finalist for the Hugo Award. His highly imaginative guide to what he calls “imaginative fiction,” Wonderbook, features diagrams, maps, and renderings by the illustrator Jeremy Zerfoss that break down the mechanisms of creativity without losing any of its verve. It includes sidebars and essays by George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Karen Joy Fowler, and many more. First published in 2013, the recently released expanded edition contains an additional fifty pages of material, including a section on ecology and fiction as well as on the process of bringing Annihalition to the big screen. VanderMeer spoke about the project with one of its contributors, Nnedi Okorafor, an award-winning novelist of African-based science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism for both children and adults. “I don’t actually remember how I came to know Nnedi,” VanderMeer says. “It feels like I’ve known her forever, even though it’s only from 2011 or so, I believe. I have always loved her affinity for owls and other creatures.”
Wonderbook is one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read or experienced. And I’m not saying that because I’m in it, even though that certainly gives the book a kick! Wonderbook is a collaboration of many of the most creative minds in literature and art, it features examples of writing philosophies, methods, and styles, and it’s just plain fun. It also teaches about creativity by its very existence—it’s a beautiful book. How did you come up with Wonderbook’s spectacularly organized chaotic form?
Abrams Image came to me and gave me a suitcase full of money and said, “Come back with the world’s first fully illustrated writing guide, all laid out and camera ready.” Or something close to that. I hired the artists and the designers and commissioned the sidebar articles, like yours. Then I turned it in to Abrams. No publisher has ever said anything as compelling or invigorating to me before or since. But the energizing thing was that no one had done a visual writing guide before—the closest thing would be Lynda Barry’s marvelous imagination carnival What It Is or, in another medium, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It took three designers and dozens of artists across four continents and, a lot of stop-starts. It’s difficult, when you’ve written fiction for so long, to extract that muscle memory as a writing manual and especially to then translate it into visual metaphors, which hadn’t been done before in this way. Without Abrams letting me do the layout, it never would’ve happened. Because there was so much trial and error to get all the elements right.
One of my favorite illustrations in the book is the “Lifecycle of a Story.” The story is represented as a living organism (a frog-unicorn-dragon-thing, which is perfect—to me, stories are living things, which is why I believe dissecting them can kill them), and it also visually shows how a story is spawned, grows, can go wrong (the “mediocre to TERRIBLE” story creature cracks me up), die, multiply, thrive. It can even be “revived by an important literary critic.” Who was responsible for this illustration? It was you, wasn’t it? Seems like it would be.
I really think conveying the organic nature of writing helps to distinguish a book for writers from a book that analyzes fiction for readers. It’s perfectly fine to mechanistically dissect fiction for an English class. This is less helpful for writers because we all have to understand how the parts actually work in unison, in motion. So that idea permeates the book and animates it in the sense of focusing how the images were created and what they consisted of. The lifecycle is at the heart of that, and sadly, as with so many of the diagrams in Wonderbook, Jeremy Zerfoss had to work from my awful rough sketches. Many were the times Jeremy would come back to me and say, What. Is. That. But we got there in the end.
Jeff VanderMeer’s original sketch for “Lifecycle of a Story.”
This is a book for writers of imaginative fiction, and that’s very cool. For me, it also feels great to be the direct target of a book about writing for once. Can people who write unimaginative fiction benefit from this book as well?
Ha! Yes, that’s the question, isn’t it? And Wonderbook makes the argument that imagination is often a function of context and encouragement. Carol Bly, in her guide The Passionate, Accurate Story, tells an anecdote about a child who comes to dinner and says, “A family moved in next-door.” The father asks what they’re like, and the kid says, “It’s a family of bears.” Whether the father comes back with “Oh, tell me about these bears” or “That’s ridiculous. Who really moved in?” … well, that determines a lot about whether someone wants to engage in creative play in the first place. And these kinds of if-then alternate universes of potential keep splitting off throughout your life. Which is why it’s important to surround yourself as a creator with people who value creative play. Or the imagination.
I chose “imaginative fiction” not to suggest there are unimaginative fiction writers but to avoid the usual borders—between realism and nonrealism, between so-called commercial/genre and mainstream/literary fiction. These boundaries are forever being ignored or torn down by the best writers anyway. But once you settle on a word that has a set territory, then you exclude people from creative play, in a sense. Wonderbook is a general writing guide that just happens to use the imagery and examples from nonrealist fiction—it can be used by any writer.
Which parts of Wonderbook help you most as a writer of weird narratives?
I always go back to structure. I think more and more of structure as the scaffolding a writer needs in their mind to write a story or novel. So it may fall away in the end as a kind of personal construct, or it may be the actual structure of the novel. But it provides a framework or focus—it often gives a character a space to move through or inhabit. Unlike plot, structure, to me, can never become divorced from character because it is to some extent the negotiation between author and character that creates structure. So in creating the revised Wonderbook, I expanded even further some of the discussions of structure—including a diagram showing the similarities between Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. They’re two books that would seem totally unalike, but both use more or less self-contained anecdotes to construct each chapter and stacked exaggeration and absurdity to create their effects. It’s a very liberating feeling—to discover or understand that you can chart structure at a level from which you can distill a lesson and, at the same time, put very different approaches to fiction in conversation.
But just as important, the more structure I absorb personally, the more different ways I can allow the uncanny and the weird to manifest in my fiction. Some kinds of suspension of disbelief or engagements with the monstrous or the sublime will simply not work if confined by certain kinds of structures. So in a sense, I’m constrained by the kinds of stories I can tell if I don’t keep analyzing structure.
There are several pages in the book where I get distracted and just sit there gazing at the art. The illustration of “narrative life-forms” on pages forty-four and forty-five is a prime example. Was that the purpose? I always wonder if part of the overarching philosophy of Wonderbook includes the importance of writers becoming distracted and just sinking into art for art’s sake. Was this the case?
That’s a really astute comment. I do believe in Angela Carter’s dictum that your reach should always exceed your grasp if you want to get somewhere interesting. So there are places where the sense of play is equal to the instructional content, rather than the instructional content being paramount. The narrative life-forms illustration is, I think, hilarious, and there’s some intrinsic value just in that. And through the definitions that are included with each, from novel through flash fiction, the beginning writer may get some clarity on what roughly defines different forms. So Wonderbook is riddled through with things meant to be funny, usually as peripherals, but often there’s a bite to the humor too.
I was really happy to see mention of the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola. To me, he is one of the first writers of African fantasy, and his brand of it fused the oral traditions of his Yoruba culture with his own storytelling. To many, his work is still remote. What other remote non-Western authors are highlighted in Wonderbook?
Yeah, the tricky thing is … I wanted to introduce readers to some of my favorite writers that may be considered more “cult,” but most examples need to be widely read writers if you’re trying to convey a craft lesson based on their fiction. So other writers profiled or mentioned in Wonderbook include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stanisław Lem, and Haruki Murakami, who everyone knows. But I also sneaked in writers who are classic but not as well-known generally these days, like Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Alejo Carpentier. And Vandana Singh, who lives in the U.S. but definitely is influenced by India and uses it as a setting, destabilizing the hero’s journey by pointing out that it doesn’t fit certain non-Western models. In addition, there are a few Caribbean writers who are in this hemisphere, of course, but often come out of a different tradition than U.S. writers.
Why create an expanded edition? It’s already, like, forty pounds … not that I’m complaining. I’m utterly delighted and would be happy to see it expand more in another five years because it’s a wonderfully imaginative book (pun intended), and that’s what imagination does, right?
I served as the Trias writer in residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and taught a semester of creative writing. Before that, my wife—Ann—and I would usually come in to a university for a couple weeks. But doing a semester forced me to expand my formal teaching syllabus—and it tended to run toward expanding lessons on structure and on eco-storytelling. So much of the material in the expanded edition came from that semester, modified for a creative-writing book context. This was an incredibly fertile period that, for example, resulted in collaboration with Dr. Meghan Brown in the HWS biology program. She took the “White Deer Terroir Project,” which was about unique ways to understand landscape in the context of fiction but also about how science students could write short fictions—a kind of interdisciplinary approach—and Brown actually expanded on the module in the revised Wonderbook and taught it as part of her semester. The results are now on the Wonderbook website. So the revised edition has become a kind of living organism itself, beyond its own pages. I find that quite appropriate. Even if eventually it grows well beyond my control.
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