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DarkEcho Horror
Blowgun by Rick Berry
Interview
JEFF VANDERMEER & EXOTIC AMBERGRIS
by Paula Guran

First appeared in
DarkEcho: 02.24.00 [V.7 #6]

Ever read something so...unusual...that you don't know exactly what to do with it? Of course, when I find something like that, I know what to do: share it with you darklings.

Jeff Vandermeer's The HOEGBOTTON GUIDE TO THE EARLY HISTORY OF AMBERGRIS BY DUNCAN SHRIEK is...unusual. The little chapbook (84 p.; no ISBN; $7.99) from Necropolitan Press is supposedly a travel guide to the exotic locale of Ambergris (named for the "most secret and valued part of the whale"). Written in a style only an Edwardian-era tourist would find completely natural, THE EARLY HISTORY is replete with glossary and as many footnotes as text. [As noted reviewer/author Paul Di Filippo put it, "No one could fill a footnote or endnote with more vituperation, consternation or exasperation than the haughty, witty Shriek!" (Evidently Di Filippo is a resident of Ambergris -- which may explain a lot.)] All-in-all the novella is an amusing and darkly surrealistic juxtaposition of "real" history and the imagined. (Of course, much of "real" history is imaginary and we often have trouble accepting many of the truths of history and....)

THE EARLY HISTORY commences with the bloody genocidal beginnings of Ambergris as perpetrated by John Manzikert (he ends deranged and with a rat fetish) and his wife Sophia (who winds up in almost as bad a state), then twists through the reigns of various rulers, a menacing proliferation of fungi, a mysterious mass-disappearance, and the controversial annotated historic interpretations of much of it.

Jeff VandermeerDuncan Shriek's amanuensis, Jeff Vandermeer, has had his fiction appear in periodicals such as Asimov's SF Magazine, Weird Tales, Interzone, Pulphouse, Magic Realism, The Silver Web, The Third Alternative, and anthologies including NEBULA AWARDS 30, BEST NEW HORROR 7, THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASTIC FICTION, DARK VOICES, DARK TERRORS, THE WHITE OF THE MOON and IMAGINATION FULLY-DILATED 2 (forthcoming).

Recent books include THE BOOK OF LOST PLACES (Dark Regions Press) and DRADIN, IN LOVE (Buzzcity Press). His nonfiction has appeared in NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER'S MARKET, SF Eye, THE ST. JAMES GUIDE TO HORROR & GOTHIC WRITERS, The New York Review of SF, and other publications. A nonfiction collection of convention, travel, and literary essays/reviews/interviews, WHY SHOULD I CUT YOUR THROAT WHEN I CAN JUST ASK YOU FOR THE MONEY & OTHER NONFICTION is coming out from Source SF in August of this year.

As for Ambergris: "The place is totally consuming me," says Vandermeer. "I am currently working on the novellas 'The Zamilon File', partially inspired by a piece of Alan M. Clark's artwork, and 'Duncan Shriek: An Afterword', which is a kind of follow-up piece to THE EARLY HISTORY. I am simultaneously working on a novel called FRAGMENTS OF A DROWNED CITY, set in Ambergris' far future." So far, three other Ambergris-related works have appeared in addition to THE EARLY HISTORY: DRADIN, IN LOVE (Buzzcity Press, 1996; a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist); "The Transformation of Martin Lake," a novella, (PALACE CORBIE 8, 1999); and "The Strange Case of X," a novella (WHITE OF THE MOON, 1999.) Taken together, the four novellas constitute "a kind of mosaic novel -- minor characters in one are major characters in another, and they all kind of weave together to form a kind of whole."

coverVandermeer sees Ambergris as "dark fantasy without any supernatural element. It serves as both an echo of our world and an utterly exotic and unique place. It also contains echoes of other fantasy worlds and is heavily invested with the history of our world. In Ambergris I have found the perfect setting for both my style and the themes I'm interested in -- relationships, the effects of history on the individual, the mysteries of the creative process, politics, etc. My science fiction stories tended to be too surreal and my mainstream stories too surreal as well -- but in the setting of Ambergris somehow that surreal element fits perfectly without overwhelming the plot or characters. And I can entertain using Ambergris -- many of the stories have a strong humorous element and/or adventure element. Even more importantly, I can experiment with structure. Many of the Ambergris stories are 'found objects' of some kind -- like THE EARLY HISTORY, which purports to be a travel guide published in the city itself."

"There are equal amounts of beauty and cruelty in Ambergris," says the author. "But the funny thing is, some of the darkest elements are pulled right out of our own history as are some of the most bizarre elements of Ambergris culture. I'm frequently surprised at how many readers think I made up something that came from, say, European history in the 1800s, or think I borrowed something that I actually made up. Fact and fiction kind of mesh in Ambergris, and I think that might be why many readers find it to be so real, despite being imaginary."

coverVandermeer began writing about Ambergris in a two-fold manner: "First, I had written a story called 'Learning to Leave the Flesh' that represented the apex of my rather florid style, but was very static plot-wise. [The story] actually mentions certain elements from Ambergris, such as the River Moth. So, I resolved after writing the story to try to use the same style but attached to stronger plots and characters. Then, a friend of mine, Duane Bray, told me the story of how his parents met: his father was walking by an office building and looked up and saw this woman in a third-story window. He immediately went up and asked her to marry him. She said yes and they were married two weeks later. One night, I woke up at about 1 a.m. and just had this inspiration -- I saw a missionary returned from some anonymous jungle walking through a fantastical city and looking up and seeing this woman in a window with whom he instantly falls in love. I immediately sat down at the computer and typed out the first eight or nine pages of what would become the first Ambergris story, DRADIN, IN LOVE. In the morning, I wrote a few more pages and, frankly, the whole story was written, at least the first draft, without consciously thinking about it at all. And it did what I wanted it to -- combined the style of 'Learning' with stronger characters and, ultimately, a stronger plot. From there, it was just a matter of consciously thinking about Ambergris and building on it. But most of the Ambergris stories have kind of popped up out of thin air and seemed to have written themselves."

Vandermeer is a co-founder of the University of Rhode Island's Council for Literature of the Fantastic (an organization that aims to bring to the attention of the general public those works of the fantastic in North America which might be termed "magic realism" or "slipstream") and also runs The Ministry of Whimsy, a literary organization and specialty press he founded in 1984. The Ministry was a finalist for a World Fantasy Award in 1998, and published the 1997 Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel THE TROIKA by Stepan Chapman. "Ministry of Whimsy is an attempt to publish works of fantastical literature that fall into the same category as the work CLF attempts to bring to the attention of readers: Works that combine elements of genre and mainstream, and also experimental works. THE TROIKA is an excellent example of that -- it has elements of horror, SF, mythic fantasy, experimentalism, surrealism, pseudo-science, philosophy, magic realism, etc."

The publishing company has an innovativeWeb site. [Note: No longer active.] "We wanted it to be a kind of maze. Sure you can find information, but we also wanted the viewer to be able to become lost in the site. In some parts of the site there are five or six levels. We also wanted it to be fun, so in some areas you'll find supposedly secret inter-departmental Ministry memos, things like that." The Ministry will soon be releasing an electronic book entitled METRO by noted Nabokov scholar Jeff Edmunds.

coverVandermeer is also known as the editor of the LEVIATHAN fiction anthologies. He began to co-edit them in 1994. The ambitious goal was to "map the world of fiction," with each anthology focusing on a different subject or different school of fiction, from minimalism to the surreal. LEVIATHAN and LEVIATHAN 2 were released (the latter was a finalist for a British Fantasy Award). The second "anthology was put out in the wake of the award-winning TROIKA and as a result we were at a low ebb energy-wise. We were still dealing with TROIKA publicity and were unable to effectively promote LEVIATHAN 2. Sales were mediocre. Therefore, we did not have the ready capital to put into Leviathan 3. We still plan to do a third volume, but has become increasingly clear that we cannot put out LEVIATHAN on a regular schedule."

Vandermeer's day job is as a technical writer and project administrator for Infinity Software Development in Tallahassee, Florida, where he lives with Ann Kennedy (Buzzcity publisher and editor of The Silver Web magazine .


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