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Earlier this month editors Ann and Jeff Vandermeer released THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, the follow-up to their 2003 faux-medical anthology THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD POCKET GUIDE TO ECCENTRIC & DISCREDITED DISEASES. FANGORIA sat down with the duo to discuss their latest tome...
FANGORIA: Can you describe the events that lead up do to collecting these stories? In other words, what is this CABINET OF CURIOSITIES?
JEFF: We’d done a prior fiction anthology titled THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD POCKET GUIDE TO ECCENTRIC & DISCREDITED DISEASES. It was basically a fake disease guide—supposedly the 83rd edition of a real guide put out by the eccentric Dr. Lambshead. The events connected to the release of the anthology were fun—contributors would show up at the bookstore in lab coats, carrying beakers, and would proceed to read their disease entry, much to the consternation of passers-by who didn’t know it was a fiction reading. Motile Snarcoma?! Ballistic Organ Syndrome?! Perhaps the most wonder thing was having medical interns and doctors email us and say they’d found it in medical libraries right next to real medical guides.
ANN: Several years ago my daughter was living in a house with some other students here in Tallahassee. It was called the OAF house (don’t know why). The kitchen was the largest room in this house and on the walls in that kitchen there were numerous cabinets and lots of drawers. We did an online anthology called the Cabinet of 87 Drawers, with a story for each drawer. But later we were hiking and thinking about a Lambshead sequel and realized that the good doctor probably had a sizeable cabinet of curiosities. Artifacts and other things we possess tend to have an emotional history and a history behind who made them, so in a sense these objects would build characterization. We decided to take that idea for a kind-of-sequel. We love the idea of mixing art and fiction and most of our projects have a heavy visual component. It just seemed natural to us.
FANG: How did you get the authors involved to contribute to the fun?
JEFF: We’ve done a lot of fun and unusual projects, so creators like Alan Moore, Naomi Novik, and China Mieville had already worked with us before. Others, like Mike Mignola, had read our other anthologies like The New Weird and really enjoyed them. It came together rather easily, too, because the fake disease guide had been so popular.
ANN: We find that often the creators (both artists and writers) will do their most inspired work when we challenge them with something they’ve never done before. And everyone in the project was excited about it – we all shared this mutual craziness as this project evolved.
FANG: How were the items featured in the graphics created?
JEFF: Most are originals and a few are repurposed. Jake von Slatt of the Steampunk Workshop actually created two machines for the book. A few, like the two from iconic artist J.K. Potter are, we found out, just photographs of shelves in his home that hadn’t been published before! In one case, we bought an original print while in Prague by legendary Czech animator Jan Svankmajer and found a use for it in the book.
ANN: As the book started coming together, Jeff was further inspired to seek out certain images and write the connecting pieces between the sections. Some writers and artists led us to other writers and artists. That’s the beauty of this business – you never know where you will end up!
FANG: Were stories built around the graphics or vice versa?
JEFF: We gave writers a choice, but many chose to write to a story based on a piece of art. We tried to give each writer a few different images to choose from, keeping in mind their particular style of writing. Accommodating the writers—and the artists (some wanted to do art to fiction)—meant everything came together very organically. We also had different kinds of writing assignments—some did what you’d call traditional short stories, others accounts of visiting Dr. Lambshead’s cabinet of curiosities, still others extended supposed museum exhibit descriptions, since Dr. Lambshead loaned out a lot of his artifacts.
ANN: Mike Mignola wanted to create artwork for Michael Moorcock and a few other writers he’d never worked with before, so he was willing to do four originals for the book. There was this absolutely crazy piece of old art that our friend and designer John Coulthart had dug up. It shows a rotund man with a parrot on either shoulder peering at what I can only describe as a large singing fish (you just have to see it). So Jeff asked the writer Amal El-Mohtar if she could write story around that piece. A few days after she said yes (and had already started writing), he then asked her if she could also include something about a frog pulling a coffin with another frog (with wings). Well, why not, right? Lucky for us, she said yes again.
FANG: What was the most rewarding part of this project?
JEFF: We love the kind of cross-pollination that occurs in mixing together different kinds of writers and adding in a strong visual component. This was a great opportunity to take that to the next level, so that readers would have all of the normal joys of reading a great fiction anthology, but several other layers as well. The art is absolutely amazing, and includes many of our favorite creators. An anthology with original art from the likes of Svankmajer, Mignola, Broadmore, et al? Wow. And our editor at HarperVoyager, Diana Gill, has been great about providing direction while letting us express our creative vision.
ANN: Working with all the creators was a blast. I especially love seeing how each one inspires the other and what comes out of these collaborations. Also, we had an opportunity to discover so many other amazing talents and include them in this book. It’s truly a showcase for great imaginations, and for a nice mix of established and rising talent. And as Jeff already said working with Diana Gill is great. Working with her and all the other people at HarperVoyager has been like a dream for us.
FANG: What do you look for in a story when you are editing an anthology?
JEFF: This time we were looking for many different things. For example, for the traditional short story section, we couldn’t have been better served than we were by stories like Jeffrey Ford’s “Relic”. It’s a marvel of great storytelling, with its multiple versions of the tale behind a saint’s mummified foot, housed within a compelling frame. For some of the museum exhibit pieces, you’re looking for a writer with the ability to turn what looks like a nonfiction form—the exhibit description—into something that mimics that form while having its own three-dimensional life. Amal El-Mohtar’s piece about a singing fish is a great example of how to do that.
ANN: Each anthology requires a different approach. In general, though, we look for unique well-told tales that excite us and take us on a new adventure. We knew we were going to get some great storytelling with this lineup of writers, but we had no idea how amazing these stories would be until they came in. As far as I am concerned each story on its own is worth the price of the book. Can you tell that I am excited?
FANG: What is it like collaborating on such a large project with a close family member? Was it smooth sailing, or were there swells in the ocean? If there were any disputes, how were they settled?
JEFF: I’m sure Ann wanted to kill me, because when doing anthologies like this it’s a very organic process and I have a specific vision in my head of how to push it until it’s all there, even if it means I get obsessed and I’m spending every waking minute thinking through issues and ways of matching text and image.
ANN: No, it’s not all wine and roses, as some may think – ha-ha. We have our arguments but it always results in a better book. Jeff has great ideas but not all of them are practical. I see my role in some ways as the one who makes those grandiose ideas realistic and reachable. But the bottom line is that we respect and believe in each other. Without that, you just can’t work together. And we also trust in each other’s instincts when it comes to the creative decisions.
FANG: Is there a joy in putting together an anthology as opposed to being a single author?
JEFF: I find an anthology more of a problem-solving or structural type of task. Writing a novel has that aspect, but you’re not beholden on other people for the moving parts. When you are, you have to do a good job of evaluating each writer’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as allowing them to play against type sometimes. You’re putting together a kind of orchestra performance, and you need each instrument, each player, to do their part, while also standing up well on their own. Coordinating all of that is extremely draining but also very rewarding.
FANG: Are there plans for future discoveries from within the CABINET?
JEFF: I don’t think we’d want to repeat ourselves, but if there’s a viable way to do a third volume, we’d definitely like to.
ANN: We prefer to do projects that challenge us and provide an opportunity to do something new.
For more information on Jeff and Ann head to Jeff's official site HERE.
Read our review of CABINET... HERE.
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