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Monday
Jan272014

"Not Everything Needs a Name”: An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections—Future Missionaries of America and the forthcoming Gateway to Paradise—as well as a collection of essays—Inscriptions For Headstones. He is co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts and is an editor for the University of Michigan Press' 21st Century Prose series. He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech.

His story, "Gateway to Paradise," appeared in Issue Fifty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Matthew Vollmer talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about quick-wit, Gatlinburg, and writing when you feel like writing. 

Can you talk about the origin of your story “Gateway to Paradise”? Did it begin with the idea of a robbery gone wrong? Or perhaps the Riley character? How did it come about?

I honestly can’t remember exactly where or when this story first began to unfold. In fact, I just tried to track down the original version of the story and it had the same first line. First page or so remained the same. I remember thinking that I wanted to try to write a crime story because I’d never written a crime story. I remember thinking that I wanted the characters to be young, that I wanted them to be from the town where I grew up. I thought a robbery gone wrong would be fun to write about, in the classical sense of having something substantial at stake. I remember thinking that Riley would work at McDonald’s because I worked at a McDonald’s. I remember wanting to base Jaybird partly off a friend of mine who isn’t a criminal and doesn’t possess the same kind of charisma but who knows how to do all the stuff that Jaybird does. I remember wanting to write from the perspective of a girl who wants to escape but who slowly gains a power and confidence of her own.

Humor is present throughout the piece, but it provides more than mere laughs. It adds to the character’s overall complexity—especially Riley. The descriptions of the people and locations in Gatlinburg—while funny—also lend to the piece’s sense of despair. How important is it to you to have that sort of blend in your writing?

Despair and humor seem closely related to me. There’s a fine line. My wife could tell you that, because she lives with me and can’t get a straight answer from me half the time, like she’ll ask me a question that needs a real answer and I’ll give her a fake one because I think I’m funny but instead of laughing she becomes greatly aggrieved. (Okay, maybe not “greatly.” Just “aggrieved.”) Furthermore, I think lots of things are funny, especially in my hometown, and especially in Gatlinburg, a place I visited a number of times when I was a kid. And maybe that’s why I’ve spent a good portion of my life making fun of others and myself. The people I knew growing up—the guys at the True Value, the old men in the barber shop, the women who worked at my dad’s dental office, the tellers at the bank—seemed to communicate solely by giving each other a hard time. They were all so quick-witted and funny. As a kid I thought, I’ll never be that quick or smart or funny. And I’m still not sure I am or ever will be. At any rate, I do like to use humor in fiction (or nonfiction) as a mechanism for generating linguistic energy—I think I’d classify it as a defamiliarization technique. Sometimes, simply describing something is funny because the thing being described is totally absurd. I feel like I could create an hour-long comedy special simply by putting into words the sights, sounds, and people that flow through Gatlinburg.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For those who haven’t experienced it, your story does a nice job of capturing the town. It’s a bizarre place. A sort of permanent carny town, surrounded by the beautiful Smoky Mountains. As with your humor, Gatlinburg itself also seems to be functioning as more than a mere backdrop. Did you know right away this was where the characters would end up, or did Gatlinburg emerge in later versions of the story?

In an earlier version, I imagined and actually wrote a scene where Riley and Jaybird purchased a bunch of camping/backpacking equipment and headed for the Appalachian Trail. Just get lost for a while. Then I got bored with that and came up with the idea of Jaybird’s truck breaking down and the two going their separate ways for a while. Also, my wife and I took our son to Gatlinburg a couple summers ago, where we visited the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Aquarium and took him to the Mysterious Mansion, which was so scary we had to ask the hooded monster who was pretending to torment us to show us the way out. At one point during our journeys up and down the main drag, we saw this family and the mother had a t-shirt that said “Property of Jesus,” and the dad had a t-shirt that said, “World’s Greatest Dad.” They were quite a pair. My wife said I should write a story about them. So I put them in the story.

At one point in your story, Jaybird tells Riley: “Not everything needs a name.” Names and how we identify/present ourselves are present throughout the story. Is this something you went in wanting to explore, or an aspect of the story that grew out of revision?  

Jaybird’s a mystic—at least in his own mind. I think, in general, he attempts to resist the confines of the literal. He seeks transcendence and transformation. A name defines and therefore encloses. A name serves to separate. If you asked him, he might say that from a Taoist’s point of view, the world was once whole. Then names came along, and things got separated. Anyway, when Jaybird utters that line in particular—that “not everything needs a name”—he’s expressing his resistance to names, but also his resistance to his own culpability. He doesn’t want to take responsibility for what he’s done, in part because he’s vengeful, and therefore has a screwed up idea of justice.

As for how “naming” works in the rest of the story, you’re right—I’m obsessed with names. At one point, I wanted to refer only to the mom as “Property of Jesus” and the dad as “World’s Greatest Dad.” And for many drafts that’s how it worked. I just thought it would be funny. But then it seemed too repetitive. Like I was telling the same joke over and over. The naming obsession, though, that’s totally related to Gatlinburg itself. Like many American vacation spots, there’s a glut of T-shirt emporiums. Why is this? Maybe because Americans want their identities to be clearly defined, want to be known, want to be recognized by what they endorse and support. In some ways, it’s an act of aggression. This is who I am. (And, as the T-shirt of one of the characters in the story says, “Deal with it.”) I love all this and at the same time it frightens and fascinates me.

This notion of wanting to be recognized by what one endorses and supports seems crucial to the scene in the story where Riley leaves her bag with the mother. Riley’s understanding of the woman—based entirely on how the woman presents herself—leaves Riley (and the reader) expecting the woman to go through her bag and discover the gun and money. Yet this doesn’t happen.  This seems a crucial moment in the story. Would you mind talking more about this? 

In an earlier version of the story, Riley returns to the room to find the mother in tears. There's a sort of melodramatic conversation about how the mother assumes Riley to be a criminal, and a revelation that the woman's family isn't in any position to help her, that in fact they're completely broke and running on fumes of credit cards. Riley ends up excusing herself to use the rest room, then leaves the money behind for the family. I wasn't satisfied with that version, partly because it seemed too convenient that Riley would find a way to dump the money and partly because it suggested a sort of false absolution. (Not to mention that finding a giant stack of money in one's motel bathroom might raise more problems than it solves.) I prefer the final version, where Riley transfers the burden to Jaybird; I see it as empowering for her. No longer is she at his mercy of his whims, and as a final act, it represents (I guess) a sort of liberation.

As a faculty member and director of the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech, how do balance your writing schedule with your teaching schedule?

I used to think that I needed to write every day. And I used to write (almost) every day. But now, more than ever, I write when I feel like it. And that feels okay, too. Some days, I write a lot. Some days, I don’t write anything. And my schedule is so screwy—I’ve got meetings out the wazoo—so I never really know when my writing time is going to happen. I write when it’s time to write. I write when I feel compelled to write. When it’s fun. And that might be in my office at Tech. It might be in a committee meeting. It might be while I’m walking the dog or cycling or hiking (I’ll stop to take a note, and, yes, I consider note-taking to count as “writing”).

What is the latest project you are working on?

I never have just one project. I work on things sporadically and piecemeal until they start to form themselves into something with real momentum. “Gateway” was years in the making, but only because I’d get interested in it, then get bored or frustrated and take a break. I think that’s important—to let the work breathe. Also, I have a short attention span, and flit around from one thing to the next, so I like to have and basically need at this point a ton of different things to work on; it’s sort of like building a monstrous house with a ton of rooms, and working each room one at a time.

As for what I’m working on specifically, I just finished editing a multi-authored book (with over sixty different contributors) called The Book of Uncommon Prayer. I’m looking forward to working with Karen Braziller at Persea on edits to my next collection of stories. And I’m also working on essays. I’ve been writing a lot lately about growing up in the mountains of North Carolina in a Seventh-day Adventist family. I grew up in a religion that I ended up leaving behind—except that I didn’t really. You grow up steeped in ways of thinking and even after you reprogram yourself the ghost thoughts still hijack your brain.

Are there any works of fiction you are excited to read in 2014?  

I’m excited about Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams, which is not fiction but totally worth mentioning and endorsing here. I want to dive into Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two before Book Three comes out in May. I recently received a galley of Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, and I know that’s gonna rock. And Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California just arrived in the mail. Which reminds me. I also need to order Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea. Excited to read that, too.

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