From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Imaginative Play: Jeff VanderMeer and Gio Clairval

I was privileged to meet up with Jeff VanderMeer (JV) and Gio Clairval (GC) via online chat to discuss their story “The Lizard Dance,” appearing this month in Fantasy Magazine. What follows is a fun and sometimes diverging conversation that I feel provides insight into a truly unique collaborative process:

How would you describe the genesis of “The Lizard Dance?” What inspired this piece?

JV: It was somewhat unique. I had wanted to collaborate with Gio and gave her a book of my flash fictions, Secret Lives. Many of the stories were more like little portraits of people. One included dancing lizards. She took that, discarded the structure of my original story, and wrote a story.

GC: Jeff had this strange book of his, and he suggested that I pick a story I liked. He had already used several cool ones, but when I stumbled across the lizard one, I couldn’t resist (I’ve always loved lizards). I spent hours playing with lizards in my mum’s garden.

JV: Yeah, so she took that image and made it her own. Then she gave me the draft and I added some to it, edits, etc. Then Gio ignored most of my edits and revised. Then I looked at it again, made comments, Gio ignored most of them, and we were just about done.

I have spent hours wondering why Gio spent hours playing with lizards. But we do have geckoes and anoles that live on the outside of the house.

GC: I’ve always thought that lizards could be tamed, and I chose one in particular and used the Little Prince’s method: Sit beside your lizard and keep still.

Lizards have eyes like foals. Ever notice?

JV: But foals don’t have eyes like lizards. Odd, that.

GC: They do, but foals have bigger, horsie-sized eyes.

JV: Anyway, so it was an interesting process, of inspiration-counter inspiration. Yes, Gio, if lizards had horse-sized eyes they’d have to roll around on their pupils.

GC: So Jeff’s flash about a lady who could make lizards dance struck me as prophetic. But it was a middle-aged lady. I can’t reason like a middle-aged lady, yet. Never will, probably.

JV: Just to be clear, there’s not a word from my original in this new collaboration.

GC: False. I took entire paragraphs, but Jeff has no memory of what he writes. So he crossed out a couple of his paragraphs.

As I was never a fat girl, getting inside Mai’s head was a bit of a challenge. But I was given a few insights by a person next to me.

This person, who used to be fat when she was a girl, told me what happened inside a girl’s head, what happened with her schoolmates. It was nothing like what happens in the story, but it inspired me.

I found “The Lizard Dance” to be an interesting meditation on the purpose and role of fantasy in our lives. What do you feel is the purpose of fantasy?

JV: Imaginative play, whether in crisis or in times of happiness is just incredibly important to all of us. We all create aspects of the world around us, out of necessity or out of a kind of deep-seated joy and curiosity. So fantasy is kind of a direct manifestation of that.

Fantasy doesn’t have to serve a purpose, really, any more than any kind of fiction. It’s often “just” a deep exploration of what it means to be human, what our world is like, to try to capture some kind of truth about the world, I guess. And to entertain, which is often the same thing. Art and entertainment aren’t actually in opposition to one another.

GC: I think Fantasy, because it doesn’t “explain” as much as SF does, helps us to keep in touch with our dreams and our subconscious minds. Our heroes battle and solve (or not) our archetypical conflicts, and when I say “archetypical,” I mean that they belong to the collective subconscious, as Carl Jung called it, the ensemble of fears and desires that the individual must battle to become a person. Those are the elements that make humanity what it is.  In this regard, Fantasy is as important as Science Fiction in exploring the human heart and psyche, only in a different way.

JV: I don’t actually see any difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, myself. Just science fiction writers who like to pretend they’re not writing fantasy.

GC: I don’t quite agree on the idea that there’s no difference. While Science Fiction “explains” the events and phenomena that occur in an imaginary word in a rational way, Fantasy accepts the unknown. Of course word-building should create a consistent setting in a Fantasy story, too.  The setting should be believable, given certain premises, but when you explain an event with magic, have you explained anything? So, Fantasy demands an acceptance of the unexplained. Rudolf Otto called “numineux,” the unnatural and the supernatural, something that is both fascinating and frightening.

But I don’t think “The Lizard Dance” is Fantasy (now that Fantasy Magazine has bought it, the truth can be revealed.)

JV: Oh dear. Now we’re screwed.

I think I have a more absurdist view of science, my father being an entomologist. There are lots of magical belief systems there, too.

GC: I think it’s more of a slipstream story. We never know whether Mai is actually seeing things or imagining or hallucinating them.

JV: This is why I don’t really engage in classification discussions, though. Is it relevant, whether she is or isn’t imagining them? Does it matter either way?

GC: And about the absurdist view, I agree. I know a couple of physicists who ramble on about philosophical meanders. But science is supposed to find rational explanations. It comes with the territory. Fantasy does not. Besides the internal consistency of a setting.

JV: Eh. There are always constraints. What form those constraints take doesn’t seem particularly important to me.

GC: I am interested in that debate because I’ve been a researcher, and I think my head works both ways: the rational and the unknown.

JV: Of course. But what we’re really talking about are two writers’ separate constructs of the world, and of the world of fiction. Each construct is equally useful–to the writer who believes in it. Because it’s that person’s entry point into the fiction.

GC: Absolutely, Jeff.

JV: Which is why I usually don’t engage in these conversations or debates on the blogosphere anymore, because it tends to become tangential to the actual work. It’s interesting here because I’m fascinated at the idea we interpret this story rather differently because of the constructs we’re using in general in our work.

GC: …And don’t forget I was trained as a clinical psychologist…

JV: I think that’s clear from the story. I was trained in history, creative writing, and B.S.

GC: I don’t care either about the “reality” of Mai’s internal world, but it’s important (to me) to state that it isn’t a magical setting.

Okay, going back to Jeff’s statement about fantasy being important as a kind of “imaginative play,” wouldn’t “The Lizard Dance” count as an exploration of “imaginative play” and therefore be an exploration of fantasy by default? That’s the way I read it.

GC: To me, the story is an exploration of Mai’s dreams. That’s what I said before. “Fantasy” is more free, in my opinion, in the exploration of dreams, because it isn’t supposed to offer logical explanations.

JV: Yes, but at this point, I think the reader can reach an alternative reading that does make it more so. In fact, I would prefer more of that ambiguity in the story. I would like to think in certain stories, there is the account, and then there are the signs and symbols, to reference Nabokov, that tell a different story–a story of the world that occurs without us present in it, even, the kind of fantasy and wonder and horror behind the mundaneity.

There’s also an interpretation of fantasy versus not-fantasy that comes into play here, I think, based simply on style and approach. Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War isn’t fantasy in the usual sense, but the style is fantastical, the descriptions are fantastical.

Whereas certain fantasists are actually *realists* and even in writing fantasy, their prose is realistic/mimetic, their approach is mimetic.

GC: In fantasy, there’s no need of kicking the rational, scientific streak in.

JV: Not to have a favorite part of a story I collaborated on, but the things she sees in the hospital take on a bit of a life of their own, in my opinion. I can’t remember how much of that made it into the final draft.

GC: Again, it’s more about the acceptance of the “merveilleux”, as the French say. The fantastical, yes. What fills us with wonderment.

JV: …This is going to become a circular conversation soon, though, but I can counter with SF’s sense of wonder. For example, that you could call the SFnal element is a delivery system for an epiphany, or engaging a sense of wonder. which is very similar to what you’re talking about.

GC: Wonderment is everywhere, I agree.

JV: As is bewilderment.

GC: Yes. But we don’t try to give (or search for) logical explanations.

JV: I also don’t think this story functions to instill a sense of wonder…horror more like! Poor leezards.

GC: I was answering a question about Fantasy. “The Lizard Dance” is not really fantasy (runs and ducks).

Speaking of Nabokov, I found Mai to be an interesting and unreliable narrator.

GC: Unreliable, yes, and yet convinced of the reality she sees, because all her world is filtered through her imagination.

Let’s talk a moment about the reality of the story. Gio, you mentioned above you were trained as a clinical psychologist. How did this training manifest itself in this story?

GC: Every time I explore a character’s psyche, I use what I learnt. Take Mary’s hallucinations, and the way they build her world. Not saying that a writer with no clinical education can’t do it…what I mean is that I tend to link what a character thinks to her internal conflicts.

JV: Yes, my role on this story was more or less provide the initial spark, then test it through questioning what Gio had on the page, and then finding a way to the best ending, by which I mean the wording of an ending for this kind of story is very, very important.

GC: I love those final words.

In the ending, Mai steps back from her imaginary world to accept the world as the adults (and the evil classmates) see it. She surely loses something. But maybe she’ll be able to come back to it when she gets older, like the protagonist of your initial story, Jeff.

I often like to ask a question taken directly from the text of a story. Near the beginning of “The Lizard Dance”–during a scene when Mai is being bullied mercilessly and sees a dancing lizard–the text asks of Mai “Why did she see nothing for so many years?”

JV: I think my original story is so different that the character in it is not a kind of psychic/symbolic extension of Mai as adult. The best fantasy, to my mind, always rejects escapism where escapism is counter-factual to the ramifications of a situation and the character’s position within that situation.

Usually, that’s within a construct that is clearly not-Earth or not-our-Earth and thus not as clearly a rejection of fantasy.

JC: Ah, very good question! Like Jeff’s protagonist in the Secret Lives story, Mai doesn’t remember what she used to think and see when she was little. She had given up her dreams, to be “normal.” As most people tend to do when they grow up. Unless they’re writers.

JV: On the other hand, we live in such constructs of reality anyway that we are all living in a fantasy even if we reject the openly phantasmagorical. We convince ourselves of fantasies every day.

GC: You see, I don’t think Mai and Claire Devereux are that different. That’s what I was saying just above. Claire inspired me directly.

Forgetting one’s childhood dreams.  And getting back again to them.

JV: And yet, because my stories in Secret Lives are reflections of real people, there is a true Devereux who is independent of my interpretation of her, so Mai is a further echo. I’m actually going to Devereux’s wedding next month.

One last thing I’d say is, I’m not arguing that “everything is a dream”, just that we under-estimate the subjective nature of the universe.

AND THEN WE WIND UP WITH CRAP LIKE INCEPTION THAT COULD’VE BEEN GREAT.

GC: I agree! They should have asked us to write the script!

“Vida es sueño…” – Calderon de la Barca.

JV: Well, that opening scene. It has to have emotional resonance later…and it doesn’t. I thought they must be old friends or something. But no, it’s just his damn missing boss. Big deal.

I’d rather go re-read Stepan Chapman’s The Troika.

GC: Exactly.

…and this went on like this for a while with myself getting lost in the ensuing discussion. For the record, while not perfect–I personally felt the romance was kind of tossed in–I rather enjoyed Inception, personally, especially from a visual standpoint…

One last question: What’s next? Do the two of you have any upcoming publications you would like to announce?

JV: In terms of books forthcoming, my nonfiction collection, Monstrous Creatures, is out in March, and deals with some of the same topics as this interview. In May, the coffee table book The Steampunk Bible (with SJ Chambers, Abrams Image), in June The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities anthology (HarperCollins), edited with my wife Ann (and featuring a pivotal story by Gio), and then in October from Atlantic, The Weird, a 750,000-word, 100-year anthology of weird fiction edited with Ann and featuring several definitive translations by Gio that are just masterful.

I’m also working on three novels, a writing book, a book on secondary worlds, and four other anthologies. (…at this point, I called Jeff a “slacker”…)

Oh, and this summer a Halo stop-action comic animation based on my collaboration with Tessa Kum, “The Mona Lisa,” will be put out by the Halo people.

GC: Stories of mine are coming out in Weird Tales (March 2011) and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (June 2011). I’m also working on two novels, and I’m brewing up the idea of an anthology.

JV: Gio also was instrumental in conducting negotiations with various agents and estates, too. The full story of which will only be able to told when we unseal the confidential account in 100 years.

GC: Working with you was great. Very interesting. And fun, too. I wanted to commit suicide a couple of times only.

We really did have a lot of fun. Also, I would simply like to note that I am extremely glad that Gio did NOT commit suicide. That would have been simply awful. I didn’t realize it was such a painful experience to be interviewed by me. *shrugs* Live and learn…

T.J. McIntyre has seen his short fiction and poetry published in numerous publications including recent appearances in Everyday Weirdness, Ruthless Peoples Magazine, and Scifaikuest. He is a member of various writing organizations, including the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), and serves as a moderator for the Lobo Luna and Western Writers writing communities on LiveJournal. Until earlier this year, he published Southern Fried Weirdness, an anthology and web zine celebrating speculative fiction and poetry with a Southern perspective. He lives in a busy household in the muggy heart of rural Alabama with his wife, two young sons, an aging Doberman mix, five tiger barbs, and three salt-and-pepper catfish.