Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

Use Your Senses to Be More Creative

It's noir! It's fantasy! It's imagination at work!

Finch (fantasy noir detective novel)
The enthusiastic cover blurbs for Jeff VanderMeer's Finch claim the novel belongs to many genres: detective, fantasy, fungal noir, steampunk delirium. They also say it's a melding of Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, David Goodis, Chandler, Ballard, Dick, James Ellroy, and more.

The more creative the mind behind the writing, the less easy to slot the novel into a single category. And the more imaginative the writer,  the more all of the reader's senses are called upon to fully experience the story.

Finch is the third in what VanderMeer calls his "Ambergris Cycle," which also includes City of Saints & Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. Each book stands alone. (VanderMeer also wrote the nonfiction BookLife. I previously posted about his advice on writing a novel in two months.)

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So that the interview below will make more sense, here's a very small sample from Finch:

Memory holes allowed the detectives to communicate during the day with their gray cap superiors. Finch had no idea if the memory holes were living creatures or only seemed alive. Fluid leaked out of them sometimes. ... Now Heretic's message vibrated atop writhing tendrils. Finch leaned over. Grabbed the pod. Slimy feel. Sticky.

Now here's my Q&A with Jeff VanderMeer:

Q: What's with all the sentence fragments, Jeff? I understand they give a sense of immediacy and intensity to the narrative, but you seemed to use them heavily and deliberately 

It's a fairly common convention in noir mystery fiction. Sentence fragments tend to give a sense of being close-in on the viewpoint character's point of view. I think maybe ten percent of readers have reported discomfort and irritation with this technique. Bleeding from the eyes, that sort of thing. Nothing major.

I didn't see it as a deliberate choice--I saw it as the only way to convey character--and also a sense of tension. You will note that the more tense the situation, the more sentence fragments. The flashbacks to past history are much less fragmented.

When I read, I read to be taken someplace else, to be shown something different by the writer. In a sense, I want to give myself up to the writer's vision. And I think the sentence fragments are, in some ways , a matter of trust on the reader's part and the writer's part. I trust the reader will recognize that I didn't just do it to be clever; they realize that if they let themselves go with it, there will be a reward by novel's end.

Q: Your sensory descriptions of things like memory holes are unusually graphic. Cinematic, certainly, but in a way that's felt. How do you do that? Metaphors are sometimes arrived at by determining what something actually looks like, and you do that wonderfully with what (impossible) things feel like.  

I will gently say that the art of using all five senses in a way that's both visceral/literal and symbolic and yet doesn't get in the way of enjoyment is becoming rarer and rarer--I'm a little old school. I still remember a marvelous Nadine Gordimer story that was a sensory marvel, and a wonderfully instructive lesson.

But the short answer is, I collect textures, sounds, smells, tastes. And I never create a metaphorical "thing," if that makes sense. The memory holes are first and foremost functional. Any subtext is buried, because there's nothing more embarrassing than to have your subtext thrusting up out of the surface of the story.

Another answer is, I think of the animal or plant equivalent. In the case of memory holes, I'm thinking lampreys, but also sea anemones, and then cross-referencing that to some William Burroughs, and then that's all subsumed by the context in which the "thing" is used in the imaginary city of Ambergris.

Q: Do you have any special routine to get yourself out of the mundane world of Facebook and making money and so on, into the world of boundary-less and boundless imagination?

Do I make money? My accountant is my cat. According to my cat, Massive Attack, I am kind-of making money, but then he may be embezzling... See how easy it is?

Interviewer's note: No, it's not so easy! But it's clear that a full use of a sense of humor, added to the usual senses, adds up to an original body of work.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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