The challenge of creating an anthology is not just putting together excellent contributors on an interesting topic — it’s also how to make your collection stand out, so it’s irresistible to the people buying books. Ann VanderMeer has some experience with that: as a noted anthology editor (often collaborating with her husband Jeff), she’s always looking for new ways to engage potential readers while at the same time challenging creators to do their best. Her latest anthology is The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and for this, her and co-editor Jeff VanderMeer’s strategy of engagement was artful, to say the least.
Every day you see new anthologies being released. Some have very specific themes, some have loose ones and still others have none at all. It’s difficult to make an anthology stand out in this sea of other books, not to mention when you consider all the other fiction options available in today’s publishing world. So how do you capture the reader’s attention? One way is to fuse the visual and the text in such a way that you get a kind of hybrid between art book and fiction anthology. This approach also tends to make a case for the continued existence of print books. Our biggest, best experiment with this type of book is The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, just out from HarperVoyager. It features over 70 photographs, paintings, and illustrations in addition to fiction from the likes of China Mieville, Holly Black, Lev Grossman, Naomi Novik, and dozens of others.
Where did the Cabinet come from? We had done a previous anthology about eight years ago called The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. It was presented as a fake disease guide—supposedly the 83rd edition of a real guide put out by the eccentric Dr. Lambshead, a man who had passed away in 2003 at the ripe old age of 103. We had many requests to do a follow-up, but the last thing we wanted to do was another fake disease guide. We wanted to do something, but what?
A lot of our Big Ideas occur when we go hiking (Jeff always carries paper and pen). On one of our hikes we started talking about Lambshead’s house being a repository of hundreds of artifacts he had collected over his lifetime – indeed his entire house being a giant cabinet of curiosities. Although the fake disease guide had had a visual element, it was clear this anthology would have to up the ante considerably. So how about if this next book had images and stories from the cabinet?
We find that often the creators (both artists and writers) will do their most inspired work when we challenge them with something new and different—which is another reason to think outside the box when conceptualizing book projects. Everyone connected to the Lambshead Cabinet was excited about the idea, and that led to it growing larger in scope. The final book has several sections and a framing story. It was hard work because the anthology had so many moving parts, but the thought of holding the final book in our hands kept us going.
A few examples. Mike Mignola was so inspired by the idea that he created four images for us. Mignola wanted to create artwork for Michael Moorcock to write to because they had worked together so successfully in the past. Moorcock, in turn, wrote one of my all time favorite stories. It concerns a missionary who allows himself to be miniaturized and then injected into the bloodstream of heathens so that he can convert them on the cellular level. Needless to say, things do not go as planned and later tiny bits of missionary end up in the strangest places.
Then there is this absolutely crazy piece of old art that our friend (and partner in crime) John Coulthart found for us. It shows a large man with a parrot on either shoulder peering at what I can only describe as a large singing fish. So we asked Amal El-Mohtar if she could write story around that piece. A few days after she said yes (and had already started writing), Jeff then asked her if she could also include something about a frog pulling a coffin with another frog in it (with wings) because we’d just gotten that image from another artist. Well, why not, right? Lucky for us, she said yes again.
Having the artists and writers riff of each other’s ideas and visions turned out to be a Big Idea. With over 80 contributors, the book works on so many levels; beautiful to the eye and, yes, including eccentric tales, but also traditional stories, as well as micro-fictions and image captions that are an art form unto themselves. So we did finally, after years of thought, wind up with a worthy successor to the fake disease guide…and something readers should appreciate for all of the playfulness on display.