Stuart Kelly chairs a discussion at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival with explorers of the “landscapes of the mind”, speculative fiction authors Charlie Fletcher and Jeff VanderMeer.
Fletcher reads from his latest novel The Oversight, a magical fantasy set in Victorian London. “The London of the 1840s is a playground,” says Fletcher. “I wanted to set it in a London that could still remember the Napoleonic Wars.” Influenced by Dickens’ “clear eye”, Fletcher was also greatly inspired by the world of Celtic myth and legend. “I fell in love with folklore,” he says, reminiscing about a “formative but wasted academic year” at college where he read up everything he could lay his hands on about the supernatural. The result is a novel which is “steeped in the mythology of London”, and which lifts the veil between real and imagined worlds.
VanderMeer reads from the “collapsed quartet” which became his acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy. Described by Kelly as being as much works of “nature writing” as they are speculative fiction, Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance feature a team of scientists unearthing the secrets behind the mysterious ‘Area X’. With its enviornmental themes and avoidance of cliché, the series succeeds in realising VanderMeer’s goal of featuring “complex characters with real foibles.”
Both writers have been influenced by other media, Fletcher citing his experience as a film editor and screenwriter as helping him to learn about “plotting, payoff and pacing.” VanderMeer describes how he studied Kubrick’s The Shining “scene by scene”, which helped him create the sense of creeping unease which features prominently in the Southern Reach trilogy.
Both writers then go on to talk about their influences. Despite often being compared to Lovecraft, VanderMeer reveals he is “not a huge fan”, referring instead to the vast body of other authors’ work, particularly those he assembled together with his wife into The Weird, a compendium of “strange and dark” stories. “The impact of reading six million words in a year forms a layer in the back of your head,” he says.
Both writers cite a common early influence in the storytelling techniques of Hergé, with VanderMeer also referring to the works of Angela Carter as “life changing”. Fletcher acknowledges London itself as an influence, describing it as a complex, inspiring place – “a big city state which happens to have a nation around it.”
Both also agree on their desire to avoid the obvious, wishing to always keep surprising their audiences. As Kelly expresses his gratitude that the Book Festival is now giving speculative fiction the space he feels it deserves, both Fletcher and VanderMeer look set to maintain their ability to surprise, as they continue to forge their literary paths through the strange and mystical landscapes they are so expert at describing.