Third Bear Carnival: Finale

When I came up with the idea for the Third Bear Carnival, I quickly knew one post I wanted: something by Ann VanderMeer, Jeff's wife, who first knew him as a very young and mostly-unpublished short story writer, and who was one of the first editors to publish him with any frequency.  She was Ann Kennedy back then, and it's partly the stories that put her on the path to becoming Ann VanderMeer, because in Ann Jeff found his perfect reader and his perfect love.

It took a bit of convincing for me to get Ann to write about her relationship not only to her husband, but to his stories.  Ann thinks of herself as an editor and not a writer, but she sent me a contribution back in July, and I've held onto it until now.   Much as I love what everybody else has contributed to the Carnival over these past weeks, and grateful as I am to each them ... well, this one's special...

Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer Stories: A Personal Reminiscence
by Ann VanderMeer

The earliest VanderMeer stories I read came from The Book of Frog, a self-published chapbook of stories that contained all manner of frogs and toads. In some stories the creatures were featured prominently, but in others, they were merely a whisper. I had to force the then young man of 20 (who was trying so hard to grow a beard) to allow me to purchase a copy (he wanted to give it to me).

“Nonsense,” I said. How will you ever be a full-time writer if you give your work away?” And then I bought five copies; perhaps one of the best investments I’ve ever made (and I am not just talking about how rare and valuable those copies are now).

I knew back then from reading those early tales that this was a writer to watch. He might find those stories sophomoric and simple, but there was a passion to the writing. And heart. And a great deal of playfulness.

He sent me stories for The Silver Web (a magazine I was publishing in the late 80’s early 90’s). One was a god-awful story about a high school girl going to her prom and some secret fantasy world hiding in her closet. I turned that one down quickly only for Jeff to tell me it was a test of my editorial taste. Yes, of course it was, I believe this. I did publish many of his stories during the years of The Web; “Heart for Lucretia” – a far future science fiction piece that fully illustrates the real sacrifice of sibling responsibilities, “Henry Dreams of Angkor Wat” – a surreal look at the horrors of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, “Black Duke Blues” – a story about a gifted musician in New Orleans (this one won him the Florida Individual Artist Grant) and “So The Dead Walk Slowly” – a zombie story long before zombies were popular. Each one more different than the last and yet so uniquely VanderMeer.

Jeff has always had a fondness for animals, as you can see from his fiction. From frogs he moved onto meerkats, then squid and now bears. He tells me that he doesn’t like talking animal stories and yet…his frogs talk. So do his meerkats. And in his latest new story, “The Quickening,” there is a talking rabbit. I think. At least, it seems to be talking (and it looks like a rabbit).

And this is his strength; writing fiction that has so many layers. When you read one of his stories you are immediately grabbed by his command of the language, the beauty of the words he puts together. You get caught up the characters and sucked right into their screwed up yet amazing lives. And it doesn’t matter if the character is a talking rabbit or a risk-taking surgeon, the president of an alternate United States or even a version of Jeff himself. Because they are all so honestly who they are. And you just gotta know what happens to them next.

When I first started reading VanderMeer, I used to hold one back. What I mean by that is I would leave one story unread until he wrote another one. Silly, I know (and it drove him crazy), but I wanted to make sure there would always be a new story for me to read. Now I am privileged to be on that short list of readers who see the work first. So all I can do is continue to encourage him, and give him the space he needs, to write the next one (‘cause I’m kinda selfish that way).

So yeah, I’ve read all the stories and I’ve read them in every version. Plus I’ve read all the stuff that didn’t go in. And when the final book (or magazine) comes out, it’s such a treat for me to sit and read the stories again just for pleasure as a reader, not an editor and not for critique or commentary. (I must have read at least 100 versions of his novel Shriek, yet when I sat down with the hardcover in my hands, I still cried when Janice considered herself so alone in the world she wished to leave it and I felt a hitch in my heart when Duncan discovered Mary’s betrayal. )

When I immerse myself into Jeff’s world through his fiction, I can’t help but be taken back to the time when I first encountered each tale. Much like listening to certain songs can take you back to the time when you first heard that song, so each of these stories is also a piece of my personal history. “The Quickening” reminds me of that trip to St. Augustine when Jeff picked up that postcard that sparked the story (he wrote the first few snippets then, making me impatient for him to write the whole damn thing so I could read it, damn it!).

“The Secret Life of Shane Hamill” takes me back to that crazy time when Jeff was doing a promotion for his book Secret Life, by writing a customized, unique secret life for each person who bought the book from Mark Ziesing (Ann, it will be easy, only about 10-12 stories – OMG why are there 200 people buying the book???). And he hand-wrote each one. Seriously ... I know because I spent hours seeking the “right” paper for him to use. And they are truly things of beauty.

I can’t read “Predecessor” without remembering when he woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me about a truly wacked-out dream. By the time I arrived at work a few hours later, there was this amazing story in my inbox. Forget about that customer whose computer system was down, I HAD to read this RIGHT NOW.

 Not all the memories are blissful, however. “Errata” takes me back to the worst time of my life. And every time I read it, I cringe and hold my breath because I know where it will go. But how can you appreciate the good times if you don’t have those dark moments, too? So I read it again ... and again. And each time the pain is a little bit less and the creativity of story overwhelms me.

And “The Situation?” Well, of course this is a version of his corporate working life before he became (thankfully) a full-time writer. I KNOW these people and he portrayed them perfectly. He might have even been too kind. So yeah, when I read this, I hear their voices, those turkey-heads. “Lost;” I remember sitting in the blue chair early one morning reading this story and my heart just going out to this poor, poor guy. And feeling a bit lost myself as my daughter was going through some rough times and I didn’t know how to help her.

“Three Days in a Border Town,” is, I believe, the last story he’s written (so far) that takes place in the same world as Veniss Underground. When I first read this I was ready for the rest of the novel. Because these are people and this is a world I want to know more about. At the time Jeff said there would be more. And maybe there will.

OK, so now this book is out. And Jeff is out of town. So this means I can sit back and relax and relive these stories once more. Heaven...

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