Sunday, April 11, 2010

Monstrous mushrooms as the social other

For author Jeff VanderMeer, some organisms in our ecosphere are plain otherworldly.

"Squids and octopi are two and mushrooms are another. Some of the most recent research classifies mushrooms closer to animal than plant," VanderMeer said. "They're the perfect representation of the other - the thing we fear because we don't know it."

Mushrooms don't possess chlorophyll or the vascular structure to move it; neither do they dine on other plants and animals. The liminal space mushrooms inhabit made mushrooms the perfect choice for the fungaloid overseers, grey caps, in VanderMeer's latest novel, "Finch."

Vandermeer stopped at Willamette University last month to promote the book and speak to classes about his writing process.

"Finch" is Vandermeer's third foray into the fantasy/science fiction world of Ambergris. This time the story follows John Finch as he tries to unravel the mysterious death of a human and one of the grey caps. Tackled as a noir detective novel, Vandermeer takes Finch and the reader on an exploration of the seedy underworld of a seedy overworld, but Vandermeer relied on two modern cities when creating his vision.

"Paris during occupation of the Nazis during World War II and Baghdad over the past eight years were the source material," Vandermeer said.

While some might read the book as a commentary on U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Vandermeer said that wasn't necessarily his point.

"When you pull the circumstances out, it becomes much less message and, instead, it's a way of examining the world that Finch moves through. Making it fantasy gives you that leeway," Vandermeer said.

Matched up against many of his predecessors in the genre, John Finch makes a departure from some aspects of the prototypical noir detective. Rather than operating independent of the system which he is investigating, Finch is compromised by it - working under the oversight of a mushroom-headed supervisor. The conflict of his positioning is revealed through an inner turmoil that Finch feels as he moves through his day-to-day existence, a deviation from the persona of brash confidence he projects to the world.

"[Finch] is a genuinely good person, and the first one I've written in quite a long while," Vandermeer said. "He has a very strong moral compass, but he's working for the force that's occupying the city."

In preparation for writing the book, Vandermeer spent several years reviewing mysteries and thrillers for Publishers Weekly. He reviewed so many when he went to L.A. for the first time he started having flashbacks to the texts.

"I started recognizing streets and places I'd never seen before in my life," he said.

The soundtracks from VanderMeer's prior Ambergris novels heavily influenced the writing of "Finch," which has its own soundtrack by the group Murder By Death. VanderMeer has partnered with different musicians to create soundtracks for each of his Ambergris novels, and bringing Murder by Death on board was a special treat - he'd been listening to their albums through much of the writing of "Finch."

"There's a scene where there's an underground black market party where the band is using a violin, an accordion and two trash can lids for percussion. [Murder By Death] actually went out, got two trash can lids for the drummer and used exactly the same instruments in the book. It sounds exactly like I imagined the band in the novel would sound," he said.

VanderMeer also partnered with graphic designers to create personalized wanted posters and trading cards associated with "Finch" available at

The soundtracks, wanted posters and other associated media find their way into VanderMeer's writing process one way or another.

"They can make me see parts of a novel differently or provide the spark for an entirely new story," he said. "I don't always know how it's going to affect the process, but I know it's likely to, and that's always positive."

"Finch" is on book stands now along with "Booklife," VanderMeer's meditation on the use of 21st-century media to inspire the creative process. In February, he's releasing "The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals," with his wife, Ann VanderMeer.

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