Masters of Weird

Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, known as the Masters of Weird, recently lectured at USF about writing, publishing and science fiction.


Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, known as the "Masters of Weird," flash the Bulls sign during their recent visit to USF.     Photo: Laura Kneski | USF News


By Laura Kneski

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (April 8, 2013) – A novelist whose work will be turned into a Paramount Pictures motion picture and a woman who was only the second female editor of a 90-year-old magazine came to the University of South Florida recently to talk to students about their success in the world of literature, magazine publishing and science fiction.


Jeff and Ann VanderMeer spoke at the Top of the Palms restaurant in the Marshall Student Center.


The “Masters of Weird”, as the couple is sometimes called, were invited by Rick Wilber from the School of Mass Communications and the Humanities Institute. The couple has known him for years, and each was excited to discuss some favorite topics with aspiring authors and fans of the science fiction field.


Jeff amused people with tales of fan encounters he has had in relation to a specific alternate universe he has used in his past novels. In an imaginary Florida town, the citizens celebrate what is known as the Mayfly squid: a freshwater creature that does not exist outside of the pages of Jeff’s work. His readers make sure to alert him of hundreds of squid sightings, show him squid images that range from hand-drawn to photo-captured, and send him dried squid in the mail.


“I don’t actually like to eat squid, but it’s the thought that really…really disturbs me,” he joked.


Jeff’s science fiction is so realistic that a BBC wildlife show producer emailed him a few years ago saying that her crew was coming to the Everglades, and they would love for Jeff to come and help educate people about the Mayfly squid.


He decided against pulling a prank on her and explained the truth.


Ann spoke more on the field of writing itself. Oftentimes, she shared, female writers – especially science fiction writers – are overlooked because they are not always taken as seriously as men are within this area. After all, science fiction writers were, for the most part, originally scientists who happened to be predominantly male. So during the five years that she was editor of Weird Tales magazine, Ann made sure to forget the cover letters and resumes in order to simply read the submissions of short fiction that were delivered to her.


She was also once a judge for a women’s short fiction contest, but before she could read any of the finalists’ work, the international shipment was delayed. To her shock, the envelope arrived much later than expected, not due to the fact that the package had been lost, but because Homeland Security had felt the need to search the contents of female writing.


“Women writing science fiction must be dangerous,” she said.


Ann also talked about her grandmother’s persistence in Miami. There had been a bus stop in front of her home, and the bus company had decided to post a large advertisement on the bench. As the company continued to disregard her calls of complaint, Ann’s grandmother decided to cover the ad in white paint. The company replaced the white space with another ad, and her grandmother repeated the process. This cycled through a few times before the bus company ceased its replacements.


Ann demonstrated that a first failure does not eliminate a final success.


A lot of Jeff’s favorite authors are women, and he is also interested in the recent debate over gender balance in anthologies. In honor of Women’s History Month, the couple wanted to promote that diversity of perspective is important within the world of writing. Undiscovered creators and the voices from faraway countries are like “hidden gems”, not as marketed as their English-speaking-male counterparts yet just as viable to provide a well-conceived story. Even the type of fiction should not always be key-holing a reader’s selection process.


“If you’re interested in writing science fiction, read something other than science fiction as well. Don’t limit yourself, and don’t limit your writing either,” Ann said.


Sometimes, the best stories can derive from even the most unexpected circumstances. Last year, Jeff contracted bronchitis. During this period, he was sleeping a lot and taking medications, as sick people often do. One night, he had a dream in which he found himself in a dark room, the wall in front of him covered in words.


The words themselves were made of slime. To Jeff, these words seemed almost alive as they writhed in front of his eyes. Adjacent to the scene, a light emanated around the corner. Jeff so badly wanted to know what was causing that light. He wanted to see what was so close and yet so beyond his knowledge.


He did know, though, that if he chose to discover the cause, then he would never want to write about it.


Jeff woke up and typed the first five pages of his novel, Annihilation (the first installment of The Southern Reach Novels trilogy). The book has since been published, and hours before the lecture at USF, the VanderMeers received an email from their agent confirming the movie deal with Paramount Pictures movie studios.


Jeff is flying out next month to meet with the series’ producer, Scott Rubin, to discuss details such as finding a screenwriter and casting roles. Rubin has produced movies such as Moonrise Kingdom, Julie & Julia, No Country for Old Men, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Clueless, and The Social Network.


Jeff said that he isn’t worried about the on-screen interpretation of his novels.


“A movie is such a collaborative process that it would be a waste of energy [worrying about perfection],” Jeff said.


When Ann was asked what her favorite part about science fiction was, she shared that it was the unlimited amount of possibilities that come with the genre.


Jeff had a bit of a different answer. “It’s like asking a dolphin why it likes to swim. I don’t have a conscious, concrete answer for that. I just like it.”


Jeff’s official website is located at