The cook’s assistant quotes a line from an unnamed poem, “No other breather . . .” According to my rigorous internet research, the word “breather” apparently originated with Shakespeare, and was used in “Sonnet 81” as well as in his play As You Like It (in which Orlando says, “I will chide no breather in the world but myself, against whom I know most faults.”). Did the title come to you early with this story, or did you find it only after writing it? Can you tell us a little about what inspired and shaped the story?
To be honest, I don’t remember when I first saw that quote or the one from the sonnet, “When all the breathers of this world are dead; You still shall live,” but there seemed something mysterious about it and it stuck in my head, probably without much of the original context or perhaps with more of it than I realized. The story came to me in the form of the first paragraph, and then the realization that of course it would be one of those rare short stories from multiple points of view. So then it was just a matter of following the threads of that idea, combined with the thought that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. And that sometimes after something has gone terribly wrong, it’s not so easy as picking up the pieces and starting over . . . not if something irrevocable has occurred.
Fiction of “the weird” like this often experiments with style and format, departing from what most consider traditional narrative in order to evoke a certain mood and elicit an emotional response from readers. This piece links story fragments from multiple viewpoints, just as the doctor’s mirror shards reflect fractured images. Did you write with that particular structure and theme in mind from the start, or did it evolve in the telling?
I think what fiction of the weird does first and foremost is commit to the reality and truth of its premise. Which is to say, a weird tale doesn’t wink at you and it doesn’t try to tell you that what you’re reading isn’t real. The story isn’t all that experimental; it’s just that there’s not much experimentation done in genre fiction in terms of structure. A binturong isn’t necessarily strange in a certain part of the world, but if you encountered it walking down the street in Florida you’d probably do a double take. It’s still a mammal, though. I also don’t ever think, “Let me write a story with a structure like a pretzel.” But a pretzel is tasty.
To me, this story conveys a sense of inevitability as the characters struggle to understand or escape the unfolding horrors. I wonder if the underlying message is that searching for an underlying message and trying to find meaning in it all is simply beside the point. What did you hope readers would take from it?
I think there are stories that are meant to hold your attention and surprise you during a first read, and then to reveal other things on a second or third read.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t like to fetishize the act of writing; that you prefer to vary your routine. That said, how and where did you write this story? Do your surroundings influence the outcome at all?
The surroundings don’t affect the telling of the story, but I wrote it in the Black Dog Café in Tallahassee, Florida, which is a place I frequently write in. I wrote it longhand like I write all of my stories and novels. I would say that writing longhand helps me get into the rhythm of a piece.
You have devoted a lot of effort to helping other writers improve, both in their craft and in living the writing life. Why is it important to you to pay it forward? What advice or support has had the most impact on your own development as a writer and in the way you have approached your career?
I grew up thinking that being a writer meant being involved in literature in all ways. Not just to write fiction, but to write nonfiction, to edit, to perhaps run a publishing house from time to time. And part of that too is the idea that your own success is likely to involve the help of other people, and that it just naturally should be part of what you do—to return the favor. Michael Moorcock embodies all of these virtues and was a big influence. When he got me my first big break by introducing me to his agent and I thanked him, all he said was, “pay it forward.” There have been lots of other people who have been inspirational as well. My wife Ann first and foremost.
You’re a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer and editor who usually juggles multiple projects at once. Which of your current works-in-progress are you most excited about right now? What forthcoming publications can we expect to see soon?
I am about to turn in Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Abrams Image), which is a groundbreaking creative writing book in that it has over 200 full-color images, many of which replace instructional text. And though it’s for any beginning or intermediate writer, it takes as its foundation fantastical fiction rather than realism. Then I start work on the second and third novels in the Southern Reach series, which is about a strange forbidden zone and the expeditions that try to discover what is going on there. Those books will be out from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2014. I’m also working on two other novels: The Book Murderer and Borne. I also keep my hand in at editing Weirdfictionreview.com and will soon begin work on editing a 900-page omnibus of the fiction of the great Finnish writer Leena Krohn. There are also several secret projects.
[Editor’s Note: Right before we published this web version of Jeff’s author spotlight, the news broke that he sold the film rights to the three novels in his Southern Reach series mentioned above. Details are available at deadline.com.]
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