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Monday
Apr232018

"My Nonfiction Is Fictional": An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech and is the author of Future Missionaries of America, inscriptions for headstones, and Gateway to Paradise. With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Documents, and other Fraudulent Artifacts. He also edited A Book of Common Prayer, which collects the invocations of over 60 writers. His next book, Permanent Exhibit, is forthcoming.

His essay, "Sinkhole," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Matthew Vollmer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about juxtaposition, stream-of-consciousness writing, and turning experiences into myth.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay, “Sinkhole.” What sparked the initial idea?

I wrote “Sinkhole” during a time when I had assigned myself to produce work especially of this nature—that being a “day-driven” kind of essay, in which I paid close attention to the particular and idiosyncratic motions of a mind in search of both meaning and senselessness. In other words, I wanted to capture and reproduce, as realistically as possible, the movements of consciousness as they pertained to my present dispositions. I would begin with an idea—in this case, the notion that one should not, at the beginning of the day, turn first to one’s phone—and proceed from there, shifting as instinctually and freely as possible from one association to the next, working up a kind of rhythm that hopefully led “somewhere.”

The essay consists of one paragraph, about 1,500 words long. I think it’s fair to call the work a stream of consciousness, or at least it’s presented as one. How do you revise a piece that is supposed to replicate the natural associations made by your mind? How much did this essay change from the first draft to the final?

Honestly, I can’t remember how much it changed. I feel like this essay and the book of which it’s a part required less revision than previous books I’ve written, but saying that now from a relative distance, I can’t tell how true that is. The trick for me in producing associatively-driven work is knowing when to make explicit connections and when it’s cool to place images or perceptions side-by-side and trust the reader to connect the dots. Also, it’s not fair to say that the brain’s primary mode of motion is one of “connectedness.” A chain of associations can feel “right” in terms of its fidelity to the way one’s brain-tape unfolds, but just as frequent—if not more so—are random intrusions. Therefore, juxtaposition can become a useful tool when attempting to create any kind of analogue for consciousness. That’s part of the joy of working in a collage-like mode: the unexpected image or thought can feel like a necessary subversion.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

The longer I work and the more I write, the so-called line between my fiction and nonfiction becomes less and less distinct. Perhaps that’s because my own experience—which has always informed and guided whatever I write—has become the dominant subject matter of my writing, and because writing about that experience feels both true and false. I am trying to write what I’ve lived, to catalog the significant idiosyncrasies of that life, and I’m using language to do that, and because words are merely representational and fail to capture the radiant fullness of experience, and because I am an unreliable narrator whose memory can’t be trusted, it feels to me as if I’m working in the realm of myth. In other words, my nonfiction is fictional.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I recently finished the final edits on a book of essays—Permanent Exhibit, to be published by BOA Editions, Ltd in September of 2018—that are, like “Sinkhole,” collage-like in nature—each one a single paragraph unspooling. I’ve since returned to the book I was working on when those essays began to arrive: an accounting of having grown up in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina, in a loving family who counted themselves as members of a little-known American denomination whose tenants were central to our lives and gave shape—for better and worse—to my childhood.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn and Winter. Otessa Moshfegh’s

Eileen and Homesick for Another World. Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts. Tara Wesotver’s Educated: A Memoir. Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories. Valerie Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd.

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