‘Annihilation’ author Jeff VanderMeer prepares for his ‘weird fiction’ to go Hollywood

Jeff VanderMeer's bestselling novel "Annihilation" will open this week as a film starring Natalie Portman.
Jeff VanderMeer’s bestselling novel “Annihilation” will open this week as a film starring Natalie Portman.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There might be no contemporary writer operating on a weirder wavelength than Jeff VanderMeer. With his wife, the sci-fi and fantasy editor Ann VanderMeer, he compiled the fiction anthologies “The Weird” and “The New Weird,” and he’s steadily acquired a cult following for his novels about mysterious humanoid fungi and cities ruled by giant bioengineered grizzly bears.

Now, with the forthcoming release of director Alex Garland’s big-budget movie adaptation of “Annihilation,” the first book in VanderMeer’s celebrated “Area X” trilogy, the VanderMeer brand of Weird is receiving its first mainstream interpretation.

Sitting on a Beverly Hills hotel terrace before the film’s release Friday, the poised and disarming Prince of Weirdness, 49, seems unfazed by his novel’s Hollywood makeover.

Unlike his earlier work, VanderMeer said, “Annihilation” provides a much easier point of entry.

“It's set in some semblance of the real world,” said the writer, who’s based in Tallahassee, Fla. “In the past someone would ask, 'What do you write about?' and I'd say, 'Well, intelligent mushrooms inhabiting this strange fantasy city.' And now I could just say, 'This expedition into this pristine wilderness where something strange is happening.'”

That’s not an inaccurate summary of “Annihilation,” which follows an unnamed biologist (played by Natalie Portman) and her crew into a mysterious environmental disaster zone. Even so, it hardly hints at the confounding, all-encompassing ambient horror of the “Area X” novels.

The trilogy concerns a mysterious piece of coastal land — inspired in large part by Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge — cut off from the rest of civilization and managed by a dysfunctional covert agency called the Southern Reach. Those who have ventured into Area X have described it as a “pristine wilderness,” but the potentially nefarious force that created the environment also gave it the power to seemingly dissolve human identity and surrounded it with a border that disintegrates all who chance upon it.

Although the “Area X” trilogy is something much stranger than a straightforward parable about climate change, it describes a kind of slow-motion, unevenly distributed and difficult-to-fathom disaster. In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, David Tompkins referred to Area X as a “hyperobject,” using philosopher Timothy Morton’s term for phenomena that are too complex or massively distributed for humans to come to grips with.

Author Jeff Vandermeer.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

One reason we like ‘weird’ is that you can't commercialize it very easily. You're never going to find the ‘weird’ section of a bookstore.

— Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer, who told me he is increasingly convinced of the political power of fiction yet also has “thought about chucking the writing and becoming an activist entirely,” is sometimes asked to address scientific conferences on climate change.

As the son of an entomologist and as a writer who spent part of his childhood on the islands of Fiji, VanderMeer has a facility for ecological description and a skepticism toward the idea of a clear boundary between interior and exterior environments. (Last year the New Yorker called him “the weird Thoreau.”) VanderMeer’s novels, which can induce nightmares without ever being traditionally scary, are marked by a sense of porousness. They refuse to delineate between the real and the surreal, the political and the cosmic.

Speaking for himself and Ann, who sits in the adjacent room, VanderMeer said: “One reason we like ‘weird’ is that you can't commercialize it very easily. You're never going to find the ‘weird’ section of a bookstore, except maybe in Austin. And so that makes a more interesting conversation, when you don't have access to all the associated marketing [shorthand] that comes with a genre. For us, classification is like death.”

VanderMeer describes his writing career as a slow ascent. He’s been writing since age 8, and he published poetry in literary journals before switching to fiction. For years, he put out story collections and novels in small presses while working every angle to find an audience.

“If you write weird fiction, you have two choices: You can cultivate the shadowy personality thing, or you have to work 5,000 times harder,” he said, referring to all the promotion that’s needed to help a weird book find its readers.

In 2014 the highbrow publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux offered VanderMeer an innovative deal to release “Annihilation,” “Authority” and “Acceptance” separately over the course of a single year. He cracked the New York Times bestseller list, won a couple of major genre fiction awards and quit his day job.

In the three decades preceding his breakthrough, VanderMeer said, “I'd worked as an agent, as a publicist. I worked in a bookstore. I'd seen the book culture from all the different points of view you can. So I appreciated [success] coming when it did, because I was able to handle it."

Adapter-director Alex Garland, left, and Jeff VanderMeer on the set of "Annihilation."
(Miya Mizuno)

With his newfound popularity, VanderMeer got used to relinquishing control over his creations. He describes an outpouring of fan art around the “Area X” trilogy, with “readers supplying their own answers, supplying their own vision.” One of his favorite examples is one reader’s fan fiction that combines “True Detective” and “Annihilation” — “so that Rust from ‘True Detective’ is going down into the ‘tower tunnel’ with the Biologist and having a philosophical conversation.”

VanderMeer calls himself a huge film buff and said he studies movies for narrative technique. (He also has started writing TV treatments, and the novel he’s completing, “Hummingbird Salamander,” has been optioned by Netflix.) He knew that Garland, a former novelist who has had his own books adapted for the big screen, would bring a powerful vision.

“I wasn't really that concerned about it being faithful,” he said. “I was interested in it being a useful and unique interpretation.”

He continued: “Mostly my concern was not to get in the way of something he was passionate about. As a fellow creator who loves to tell stories, the last thing I would want to do is say, 'No, don't do that.' The way he was talking about the book, I knew that the things he was changing were in reaction to the book. I knew that the book was still there.”