A sense of unreality 

After spending years making a name for himself in the small presses of the fantasy/sci-fi genre, Tallahassee author Jeff VanderMeer has finally begun to take his imaginary cityscapes and dream-like prose into the majors, with two book deals and a growing international following.

Promoting his three most recent books, "City of Saints and Madmen," "Veniss Underground" and "The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases," VanderMeer will make two stops in Orlando this week: a book signing at Borders in Oviedo and a multimedia presentation at Trinity Preparatory School. The latter appearance, part of the school's Visiting Writers series, will focus on "City of Saints" and "Madmen" and "Veniss Undergound," two books that have moved well beyond the cult audiences typically associated with genre fiction and positioned VanderMeer outside the restrictions of such associations.

"One thing that has fueled City of Saints' success lately is it being taught in places like Notre Dame University in their modern fiction classes," VanderMeer says. "In fact, it's taught now in about nine or 10 universities across the country. And "Veniss" was just taught as part of a class at Brown University."

"City of Saints and Madmen" (Wildside Press) centers around Ambergris, an expansive fictional city that VanderMeer calls "a distortion and reflection of the real world." (Although its pronunciation should probably be "am-ber-GREE," VanderMeer says, he prefers to say "am-ber-GRIS" because of the resulting contrast within the word: "beautiful from the amber, tawdry and rundown from the gristle.")

The book is actually a compilation of interconnected novellas and short stories, including such oddities as a vignette entirely scripted across the cover and a numerically encrypted short story ("the most excruciating thing that I've ever done," he says).

"City of Saints" was published in 2002, but VanderMeer, 35, actually started writing it more than 10 years ago, in what he calls his biggest epiphany yet: "I was sleeping, and I woke up with an image of this city in my head, and sat down at the typewriter and wrote the first six or seven pages. It was strange, because it was all there in my head: You're not writing it yourself, and you almost feel like your hands are writing it for you."

A few years later, Ambergris showed itself to be a vast canvas for VanderMeer to paint more characters and situations, with minor characters in one story blossoming into major characters in others. Collected in the volume are some works that, although they were originally published separately by different small presses, are interconnected. The included novella "The Transformation of Martin Lake" won the World Fantasy Award in 2000.

"It's hard for me to say I write fantasy because I don't really write what you would call fantasy," VanderMeer says. "'City of Saints' is kind of funny, because it's a fantasy -- it's not set in the real world -- but nothing fantastical occurs in those stories. What I find useful in writing about settings like that ... it's kind of like when you write about autobiographical things and you need a distance -- it allows me to satirize the real world."

Both of VanderMeer's parents were in the Peace Corps, and he spent about eight years of his childhood in Fiji. "After we left the Fiji Islands, we traveled around the world for about six months and visited some of the great cities -- Calcutta, Rome, Bombay, Nepal -- just tons of cities, and I think what happened [after finally settling in Florida], is that I had enough distance from all of that, that all of these cities just kind of coalesced in my head into one city.

"I come from a painting background -- my mom's a painter -- and I was around painting and art history all my life. As a result I developed a very painterly eye when it comes to fiction. If you read 'City of Saints,' a lot of the semitropical descriptions are really kind of Florida transformed."

After "City" met some success, VanderMeer found it much easier to find publishers. Pan MacMillan picked up his first written novel, "Veniss Underground," and published it through their Tor imprint in 2003.

Incorporating a little more action and adventure than "City," "Veniss" takes place in another fictional city, this one far in the future. Artists have moved way past paints and Photoshop to "living art," incorporating genetics and biology into actual life forms they create, such as genetically enhanced meerkats.

Guests at the Trinity presentation will be treated first to the recordings of Robert Devereux, an experimental musician out of Pittsburgh who composed an entire soundtrack to accompany "City of Saints and Madmen." VanderMeer will give a tour of the city and include various visuals. A secondary focus will be "Veniss Underground."

VanderMeer's other stop, at Borders, will also touch on a third book, "The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases" (Night Shade Books), a fake medical guide of imaginary diseases. Edited by VanderMeer, the guide includes entries from 65 writers, including Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock and Rachel Pollack. One of the contributors, Brendan Connell, who lives in Switzerland, will just happen to be in Orlando this weekend and will also be at the signing, VanderMeer says.

Decorated as an actual disease guide, the unique volume already has something of a cult following, including many fans outside the general fantasy/sci-fi realm. Before the book was published, Vander-Meer had a doctor read each disease entry and check the accuracy of any medical terminology used.

"Doctors just love this thing," he says, adding that the British medical journal Lancet plans "a rave review."

VanderMeer has received interesting responses to the guide at other bookstore signings. "People who are just browsing and walking by, who aren't paying attention to the reading, will sort of perk up because they hear something totally bizarre," he says. "And they think we're real doctors. In one bookstore, the employees there did not know it was a fake disease guide, and one guy kept calling me doctor and pulled me aside and said, 'I've had this problem with my knee,' and asked me to diagnose it."

However, probably the strangest response VanderMeer has received to his work centers on "City of Saints and Madmen." The book includes several references to squid (particularly because VanderMeer is just fascinated by the oddness of the animal), including Ambergris's Festival of the Freshwater Squid and a chapter called "King Squid."

"I have received, over time, 200 pounds of freeze-dried squid from various readers," he says.

"Because I have written a lot about squid, readers assume that I would like to eat a lot of it."

Borders reading/signing:
Sunday, Feb. 22, 2 p.m.; Borders, 8285 Red Bug Lake Road, Oviedo; (407) 977-3385

Trinity multimedia presentation:
Monday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m.; Trinity Preparatory School, 5700 Trinity Prep Lane, Winter Park; (407) 671-4140

Jeff VanderMeer's website:

More by Cynthia Ariel Conlin


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