Bookishly from Tallahassee
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Lake Ella in Tallahassee, site of the Black Dog Cafe, a writers’ hangout.
Jeff VanderMeer is the author of ‘City of Saints and Madmen’ and has twice won the World Fantasy Award. He and his wife, Ann, are co-editors of the anthologies ‘The New Weird,’ ‘Steampunk’ and ‘Best American Fantasy (2007).’ In between deadlines he shared his thoughts on books and the secrets of his adopted home city, Tallahassee, Fla.
Jacket Copy: Who are some of Tallahassee’s best-known writers?
Jeff VanderMeer: This is a city teeming with writers, so it’s a somewhat difficult question. At Florida State University, you have Robert Olen Butler, poet David Kirby and Mark Winegardner (best known for literary fiction until he did the ‘Godfather’ spinoffs), Bob Shacochis and Julianna Baggott, for example. Daniel Maier-Katkin, another professor, just sold his account of the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger to a major publisher, so he’ll be high-profile soon. Outside of the university, there’s Mark Mustian, also a city commissioner, who just hit it big with a sale of a novel to Putnam (a writer to watch next year). I’m probably the resident ‘fantasist mascot,’ so to speak, and then there are host of others at the university and elsewhere working in poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
JC: Do authors in Tallahassee have a favorite hangout?
JVM: The Warehouse is FSU’s hangout, since the university’s literary readings are held there. I like Black Dog Cafe by Lake Ella, and you’ll find other writers there on a pretty regular basis because it’s got a nice view and the place is laid-back but with good service and coffee. All Saints Cafe is another favorite for writers around here.
(Secrets of Tallahassee after the jump.)
JC: You’ve said that many Tallahassee writers come from somewhere else. What draws them to Tallahassee? Do you think you’re all helping to create a literary legacy for the city?
JVM: This is the kind of city where people say, ‘It’s a nice place to raise a family,’ and that’s also the kind of place, in this modern age, where you don’t need to be in New York or L.A. to have a career, a writer likes, I think. Some Renaissance painter once said, ‘Be normal in your life so you can be strange in your art.’ Tallahassee kind of epitomizes that idea. There’s enough to do culturally that you’re not bored, but not so much you can get enmeshed in it to the point of being distracted. Also, we’ve got beautiful canopy roads, lots of wilderness areas and nature trails, some of them riddling right through town. All of that makes this place relatively stress-free. When you add in a powerful university creative writing department, the relatively low cost of housing, the beach only an hour away, and Atlanta only four hours away if you want to experience the big city, I think it all adds up to something attractive.
Q: What’s the thing you like most about Tallahassee? What’s the city’s best secret?
JVM: For me, this place is in Florida and not in Florida. It’s too far north to be subtropical or metropolitan in the way people think of this state (i.e., Miami). It’s also too far north to have participated in the artificial plastic Renaissance of the Disney Empire in the center of the state. Yet, it’s got that sense of subtropical decay from farther south, almost a Southern Gothic sensibility, as in parts of Georgia and the rest of the South. People ask me where the inspiration for the fungal technologies and fascination with entropy in some of my work comes from. ... Well, it comes right from the front yard! I always say that if you took away air conditioning and pesticides for a year, Florida would recede back into wilderness.
As for the city’s best secret, there are a few: We have probably the best used-CD store in the southeast, if not the country, in Vinyl Fever. We have an incredibly cool tiki bar called Waterworks. All of the hidden, narrow trails out by Lake Jackson. A great cultural area called Railroad Square, where a lot of the artists have studios.
When I was investigating natural areas of the city a few years ago, I was deep into one city nature park and found an overgrown path that led eventually after much hardship to a carefully tended garden and some very antique-looking, white-washed buildings beyond. In the garden were two people wearing Spanish colonial clothing. Having hiked fast at an incline for a while, I was definitely having an aerobic moment, and for a second my brain told me I’d stepped into the past. Walking out into that space was possibly my favorite ‘secret’ Tally moment. It was, of course, the San Luis Spanish Mission/Museum, which I hadn’t even known existed. That kind of epiphany, that kind of discovery, is very much akin to the writing process and the imagination, and every once in a while Tallahassee surprises me in that way.