Quarantined fantasy-lovers looking for something to fill their time should put a big fat circle around July 21, because that's the publication date for The Big Book of Modern Fantasy. The almost 900-page anthology is edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, who previously performed a similarly Herculean task on The Weird, The New Weird, The Big Book of Science Fiction, and The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, which covered the years up to 1945.
How on earth do the couple approach choosing which stories to showcase from all of modern fantasy?
"You read a lot," says Jeff VanderMeer, whose own writing output includes the Southern Reach Trilogy and last year's Dead Astronauts. "You’re constantly fascinated by the modern stuff that holds up because you begin to realize that some of the modern stuff is basically just fanfic of stuff from the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s or whatever. So that's one thing. And then [we take] just a very scientific approach, even with authors you’re fairly sure you have to include, or want to include rather, going through all of their work and not just the story that’s always reprinted. It’s a combination of trying to read as much as possible, being systematic, and also going with your gut."
"We do a lot of research on the writers that we include, and even the writers we don’t include, and we learn from reading about them and doing the research who their influences were," says Ann VanderMeer, a Hugo-winner for her work as fiction editor of Weird Tales magazine. "So, it’s this huge world of influences, back and forth, and that's been very informative."
"The size of these anthologies is such a boon because we don’t ever feel the pressure you sometimes get to have the big names," adds Jeff. "We already know that we’re going to have a dozen or more of the big names that you can put on the front of the volume, but we have space to include so much more. So, the size of these books has been instrumental in it being fully inclusive of really cool stuff. And then also it’s so hard for reviewers and readers to ignore it, because they’re huge!"
Below, the VanderMeers talk more about The Big Book of Modern Anthology, their future plans, and rooster-riding hedgehog-men.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, having edited all these big anthologies, does your library look like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?
ANN VANDERMEER: You know what, we have a storage unit. We do!
JEFF VANDERMEER: Also, it really helps that, in Jacksonville, Fla., which is a two-hour drive from here, there’s a place called the Chamblin Bookmine. It's a bookstore so large it’s actually colonized buildings near it. So, the mystery section is as big as say a normal chain book store. We always go there and buy hundreds of single author collections, and other anthologies, and that's where we find a lot of the rare stuff.
You've got some big names featured in the anthology, your Stephen Kings, your George R.R. Martins, your Ursula Le Guins, and your J.G. Ballards. Could you talk about some of the less well known writers whose work you have included?
AV: Well, there is this one writer named Edgar Mittelholzer, he's a Guyanese writer, and he was not very well known, especially in this country. I was able to find out about him from a friend of mine named Karen Lord, who is also a very amazing writer, and she hooked me into him. I came across this story that he wrote, “Poolwana's Orchid,” which he originally wrote as a children’s story, but when you read it it’s like, oh my gosh, this is not for children, there's so much going on in this story. It was published by this small press company that came out of England, but I don’t think his work is widely known, and I know that the story is not widely known. So, that's one of the stories that I am so wildly excited about.
JV: And then I’ve always loved Maurice Richardson’s stories that are centered around a surrealist boxing club. Most of them are pre-World War II and not right for The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, but it worked out perfectly to find the one ("Ten Rounds with Grandfather Clock") that was from our period and to include it.
Do you have plans for another anthology?
AV: Not at this time.
JV: We’ve covered all these very vast general categories and this may be the last one. If someone was willing to bankroll us doing, say, a century of Latin American women writers who wrote fantasy, we would do that. That would be the right scope and there’s so much stuff that hasn’t been translated in to English. But then, people come to us with ideas like, “Would you like to do an anthology around cats in Christmas costumes?” I mean, that's an exaggeration but…
Can I stop you right there? I appreciate you are both already successful, but I think an anthology of stories about cats in Christmas costumes would put you into another league.
AV: [Laughs] It would probably be a very successful book. We’re also aware of the fact that there are other editors coming up, young people, and we want to make sure that they have opportunities as well.
JV: Yeah, we don’t really want to hog the scene. But the other thing is the permissions process is absolutely treacherous and exhausting, because you're dealing with hundreds of entities. So that wears you down a bit. [But] there’s quite a few people that are amenable now.
AV: When we did this anthology, I was really so excited to learn that Ben Okri and Haruki Murakami were excited to be in it, that they know our work and they trust us and they really wanted to be in the anthology, and so did Stephen King. So, those things make us feel good. It’s like, well, we’re doing something right, because they know that we’re going to take good care of their work and they’re going to be in really good company.
What are you doing next?
AV: I've actually just finished editing a new anthology that came out last month and it’s free online called Avatars Inc. It’s an originals anthology in partnership with XPRIZE and it’s all original stories around the idea of avatars. I'm very excited about that.
JV: I have a kind of fantasy misadventure on an epic scale called A Peculiar Peril (The Misadventures of Jonathan Lambshead) out in July. It’s really a cool synergy because the Big Book is out in July as well. I learned so much from reading for these two fantasy anthologies that has kind of gone into the subconscious and then come out in this book. To give a direct example, there’s a story called "Hans My Hedgehog" in Classic Fantasy, which is about a hedgehog-man riding a rooster, and in my fantasy misadventure epic there is a whole army of hedgehog-men riding roosters. [Laughs] So, yeah, it’s kind of an interesting year in that it’s all fantasy for me all the way around.
Exclusively see the cover for The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, below.