Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
Posted by Corporal Hicks on November 9, 2008 (Updated: 07-Feb-2010)
Despite its difficulties with initial releases, the Predator line from Dark Horse has proved to be of a very high standard. Each writer after the next raising the bar. And the writer tasked with this next daunting challenge? Jeff VanderMeer. I recently got chance to speak to the author behind the upcoming novel, South Sea China.
AvPGalaxy – First off, welcome to AvPGalaxy. It’s always nice to get chance to talk to the men behind the new adventures. For those who don’t know, tell us a little about yourself?
Jeff VanderMeer – I’ve been writing since I was eight, published since I was fifteen, and am the author of the bestselling mosaic fantasy novel City of Saints & Madmen, in addition to other novels and collections from Bantam, Tor, Pan McMillan, etc. I’ve also been involved in other projects, like a video based on one of my stories for Playstation Europe and a CD by the rock band The Church based on my last novel, Shriek. With my wife, Ann, I edit a lot of anthologies, including, most recently, Steampunk and Fast Ships, Black Sails. Fast Ships, Black Sails is all-original pirate stories by Mike Moorcock, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, and other great writers. I live in Tallahassee, Florida. We have three cats, love collecting books, love to travel””and luckily have had a chance to because of a lot of my books being published in other languages. I have a blog at http://www.jeffvandermeer.com if people want more info on any of this.
AvPGalaxy – Predator is one of those that films that everyone can remember the first time they saw it. Tell us about your first encounter with the friendly E.T that is the Predator?
Jeff VanderMeer – Ha! Well, it was definitely the first Predator movie. I don’t think I saw it in the theater””I think it was on video. What struck me the most was the pure simplicity of that movie, the kind of simplicity that’s really hard to do. To create an action-adventure SF movie that holds together all the way through the ending, where people don’t continually do stupid things and get killed because of it. And I liked the way large sections of the movie have almost no dialogue””it’s just Arnold and the Predator, and because of that you get a really good sense of the Predator’s personality.
AvPGalaxy – You’ve written the new novel South China Sea. What can you tell us about the story?
Jeff VanderMeer – I wanted to write something I could see Sam Peckinpah putting to film, and I wanted to pay tribute to the original movie in this sense: I wanted to write the novel I’d love to see as a third Predator film. In this case, you’ve got a rich man’s hunting lodge on a remote South China Sea island, run by an ex-Khmer Rouge colonel and stocked with dangerous wildlife. You’ve got possible Russian FSB agents, a Romanian ex-wrestler turned mobster, a couple of gun-runners, and some other intriguing characters, including a Thai pirate. I wanted a location that made sense in terms of a single Predator hunt””a Predator wanting a big challenge but also wanting to be able to control the battlefield. And I wanted to do some nice little “reveals” about the Predator along the way, while showing the increasingly tense dynamic between the human characters. And spring a few surprises. Oh yeah””there’s also a bad-ass 28-foot African crocodile.
AvPGalaxy – The recent two Predator novels are some of, quite possibly, the best written Predator novels as far as the fanbase is concerned. Steve Perry’s Turnabout is my favourite Predator novel. Given the popularity of the recent novels did you feel any sort of pressure when writing South Sea China?
Jeff VanderMeer – I wanted to keep true to what I see as a strong action-adventure tradition in the movies and novels. I leapt into the fray head-first and didn’t look back. When I take on projects, I don’t feel pressure””there’s just the excitement of the challenge and trying to make the best book I can. The only thing in the back of my mind is that I wanted Predator fans to have a good time reading the novel. And part of that is making sure the Predator is really integral to the novel.
AvPGalaxy – The novels have always played an important part in the Predator mythos. The Perry’s AvP Prey heavily influenced the way the Predators are portrayed in recent media. Shirley’s Forever Midnight introduced the Hish, a re-imagining of Predator culture. Does South Sea China carry on any of these themes or get inside it’s Predators head?
Jeff VanderMeer – I wanted to write about one experienced bad-ass Predator. I’ve put in some stuff that makes me happy as a Predator fan that I think will make other fans happy, too. But I didn’t want to make my Predators that familiar, like with the Hish stuff. Besides, that’s Shirley’s vision. If he wants to expand on it in another novel, I don’t want to have done something that makes it more difficult. You do get a glimpse inside my Predator’s head, to have a sense of his motivation, though, and you do get to see flashbacks to some of his encounters with prey on other worlds. I also offer an explanation for the “dreds”. And some other stuff I’d rather not talk about so as not to spoil it.
AvPGalaxy – Tell us about how you ended up in Dark Horse’s sandbox?
Jeff VanderMeer – My friend Brian Evenson, who heads up the creative writing department at Brown University, was doing an Aliens novel and mentioned there was a Predator slot open. Since Predator (and Aliens) are the only two franchises I’m really interested in, because I’m such huge fans of the films, I said, hey, put my name in. He put me in touch with Dark Horse, I pitched them an idea, and they liked it. I was thrilled. I really enjoyed being able to play around in this sandbox, as you put it!
AvPGalaxy – Have you ever read any of the other comics or novels? If so did you attempt to create any sort of connectivity with them?
Jeff VanderMeer – I read all of the other comics and novels before writing my novel. I thought it was very important to do so. I don’t think I was as interested in creating connectivity as not blatantly contradicting them, if possible. If there’s any connectivity, it’s mostly with the movies, especially the first one. (I’ll leave it to readers to figure out who that mysterious cigar-smoking guy is who helps out one of my heroes, John Gustat. For example.) I think I liked the Siberia Pred novel the most, along with the Perry, for totally different reasons. I understand why people like the Shirley, but it doesn’t fit my vision of who the Predators are. (It is very well-written, though.)
AvPGalaxy – From an authors point of view, what would you say is the most important aspect of writing media tie-ins?
Jeff VanderMeer – It’s not much different from writing an original novel, at least for Predator. Dark Horse only had about four pages of do’s and don’ts. Which made it easy in that I didn’t have to worry too much about constraining myself on some things. I had an idea and what you see on the page is one hundred percent what I wanted to write. I don’t think I could write a Star Wars tie-in novel just because there’s so much extra backstory to read that I’d feel like both my hands were tied behind my back before I even began.
AvPGalaxy – Over the course of developing, the novel were there any ideas you had to drop?
Jeff VanderMeer – No ideas, just ways things happened. Some settings in the novel became more important than in the synopsis and others ones less important. And some characters grew and became more major characters and others receded into the background. One thing never changed””I had a bad-ass, experienced Predator on my hands who wanted a challenging hunt.
AvPGalaxy – I remember reading something about the section of the novel the cover depicts being removed from the novel?
Jeff VanderMeer – No, it’s more that the artist couldn’t really paint the Predator wrestling with my 28-foot crocodile””just didn’t work for a cover. So he did a python instead. And there was some talk of adding a python, but that didn’t happen. So the cover is more symbolic of what goes on than literal. Think of it as a kind of outtake””the python fight that got left on the cutting room floor.
AvPGalaxy – As a writer myself, I always find that there’s a part of the outline I always look forward to writing the most. Were there any particular parts of South Sea China that you just wanted to get straight into?
Jeff VanderMeer -Â I think I was itching to get to the part when they begin to leave the hunting lodge and conspire against each other, while also trying to fight the Predator. I also wanted to get to a part where you see the inside of a Predator ship. And there’s one confrontation between a messed up rock star and the Predator that I had been wanting to write since I came up with it. Along with a shoot-out in the ruins of an old temple. But I could go on and on””I really enjoyed all of it. I’m very fond of the crocodile, though, I must say, and Horia Ursu’s made-up Romanian sayings.
AvPGalaxy – In recent media we’ve had a shift of focus onto the more shady of characters. Firefly and Battlestar Galactica come to mind in the widespread media. Aliens Criminal Enterprise is a prime example of it in the recent Aliens/Predator media. What is the appeal for an author about doing these kind of characters?
Jeff VanderMeer – They tend to create better situations for conflict, I think. Also their skillsets, at least for a Predator novel, make them harder prey for the Pred. But for me I really like ambiguous characters because they seem more real. I mean, we might not be gunrunners, but each one of us has made some dubious moral or ethical decisions. So when we respond to villains, we kind of are acknowledging that, yeah, we have a part of ourselves that’s like that, too. What I wanted to do in this novel is show that there are criminals and there are criminals. You can be a thief and still have a moral code””and you might even have a fairer moral code than someone who isn’t a thief.
AvPGalaxy – Who of the characters would you say is your favourite and what makes s/he so special?
Jeff VanderMeer – Tessa Marikova, the Russian assassin, is one of my favorites. She’s tough and pragmatic but she also understands the nature of beauty. There’s one scene where she sees the Predator without being seen, and it’s actually thrilling for her. She’s actually able to kind of pull back and think, “this is something 99.9 percent of people on Earth have never, ever seen.” And it’s a powerful moment. I also love the Romanian mobster Horia Ursu, who is based on a real Romanian named Horia Ursu. He has all of these insane Romanian sayings he keeps telling to people. I also feel somewhat sympathetic to Rath Preap, the colonel who runs the lodge, because he might be a villain, but he’s also pretty competent””he’s just faced with something from beyond the stars that would be difficult for anyone to deal with. But I tend to like them, all even the idiots and fools.
AvPGalaxy – From what I understand South Sea China is being published in Romania. I wasn’t aware that Dark Horse published in other languages?
Jeff VanderMeer – Yes. What they do is allow other publishers to buy the rights for foreign language editions. I know the Czech Republic has also published the Predator novels, in Czech.
AvPGalaxy – Why South China Sea? How was it your novel was the one published in Romania? Are there any other translations on the horizon?
Jeff VanderMeer – Well, the dirty secret is that my editor in Romania is “Horia Ursu,” and so it’s perhaps understandable he would buy it. But mostly it’s because one of the main characters is Romanian, so they thought it would be a good time to experiment with bringing the Predator brand to Romania. I do believe that other translations are on the horizon, but speaking about it now would be premature.
AvPGalaxy – The Predator is one of those wonderful adversaries that all writers find something special in. What would you say was your favourite aspect of writing the Predator?
Jeff VanderMeer – I keep saying “bad-ass” and I really mean it. It’s extremely liberating to write this character that has this very clear goal, or reason, for existing. Everything works off of that. We live in a world that’s full of gray””motivations that are suspect, people that aren’t what they seem. Predators, for better or worse, are working off of a simple””not simplistic””moral code. So, again, writing about this battle-scarred, four-hundred-pound creature trying to take out everybody and everything on this island in the South China Sea…that’s pretty powerful stuff. And a lot of fun.
AvPGalaxy – Most authors who write for Aliens/Predator find themselves returning for more. Do you envision any more novels?
Jeff VanderMeer – I would totally be up for switching it up now and writing an Aliens novel. In fact, I have a rather incredible idea for an Aliens novel that I’d love to write. I should be talking to Dark Horse soon about it””they seemed very happy with my Pred novel.
AvPGalaxy – I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of the novel. Until next time, any parting words for our readers before they enjoy the exclusive preview of the entire first chapter of South Sea China?
Jeff VanderMeer – Hey, I just hope readers like it. I wrote it for them, and for the Predator fan boy in me. Also, I had my friend Dave Larsen, a weapon’s expert, read through the book and correct any of my mistakes, so a huge shout-out to him.
Predator South China Sea – Chapter 1