Books In Conversation
MATTHEW VOLLMER with Weston Cutter
That Matthew Vollmer’d end up chasing stranger forms of prose—that he'd, for instance, co-edit a book of fictions masquerading in other forms (FAKES forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Company), or suddenly, sort of out of nowhere, begin and then real quickly complete a book of epitaphs, genre-bending single-sentence prose things one’d be hard pressed to clearly say much about other than that they’re touchingly satisfying (inscriptions for headstones, coming soon from Outpost 19)—was not, I don’t think, clear, at least to me when I met him: he was an instructor in the English department of Virginia Tech. I was an M.F.A. student. When his first book, the collection of stories Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam / Cage, 2009), was accepted for publication, he was down the hall in his office, and I was nearby, and the dazed look on his face was fantastic, thrilling, and I sort of figured it meant: that it’d come out, and then a novel’d come, and he’d follow the path that lots of young writers do. What’s happened instead has been more interesting and fun: He’s gone wilder, pushing his way into new forms, trying new shapes with a dexterity that should make everybody more willing to discard the vessels that’ve worked thus far. One hopes not to sound too Polyanna-ish, but, aside from the fine prose in evidence, Vollmer’s work as a co-editor and writer is a sort of unsubtle indication that we’ve each got much more under our hoods than we may be at present utilizing. The following interview—in which we discussed forms of fiction, teaching writing, religion and God, language and the Internet, David Shields, and The Dark Knight—was conducted in the first week of September, 2012, entirely over email.
Weston Cutter (Rail): The big question to start with, especially about inscriptions is, basically: what is it, genre-wise? Before we play the enlightened game of saying genre doesn’t matter, I’m curious what it is to you, or how it felt, inside of it as you wrote. And I guess equally: what problems, aesthetic or otherwise, are these prose pieces solutions to, for you (if you, as I do, buy the notion that whatever we’re writing is in some way a corrective of what transpired prior)? And then in general, larger, just to kick the theoretical tires a little more: do you feel anything like—hm. Like maybe a tiny bit messianic about this sort of writing, whatever it is. I ask only because while it may entirely be full of nonfictive details, there are clearly fictive moves. Here’s what I mean: I’m really, really sick of certain tics in poetry and fiction. And so part of me wondered as you began doing these and telling me about them: well, is some part of this, for you, a bit more than even just corrective but trying to lead/point toward something, aesthetically?
Matthew Vollmer: Wow. Okay. Interesting questions. Let me tackle what I believe to be the first one, which concerns genre. I am not, in fact, one who believes that genre doesn’t matter or that I can pretend to ignore it, in part because whenever we (and by “we” I mean “humans”) write, we are, in some sense, aware of the kind of thing that we’re working on, whether it’s a grocery list, a poem, a rant, a status update, or whatever. We’ve been programmed to think in categories, and we’re good at it. Which is fascinating to me as a writer and a teacher of writing. If I tell a group of kids to write a story, the majority of them will turn in half-baked ideas of what they think a story should be, how it should act, the little moves it should make: a little description here, a little dialogue there, a bit of action here. They’ll quite frequently if not most certainly add what they call a “twist,” which is supposed to be a surprising and revelatory turn of events but is often utterly forced and/or predictable. The story itself is often underdeveloped, convoluted, or under-imagined. Partly that’s because these students are floundering young writers and they haven’t read widely or written or revised many stories, but it’s also because the assignment they’re given: i.e., “write a story,” is so general. The truth is, obviously, that a story can come in many, many forms and shapes and voices and P.O.V.s. So if the assignment gets more specific, if I say, for instance, “use a genre of writing that you often encounter on the Internet to tell a story,” suddenly we’re dealing with stuff like idiosyncratic conventions and limitations and traditions and clichés and other features that are immediately recognizable (for instance: a student turned in something recently that was a catalogue of “alien artifacts,” but the author used the form to develop character and plot in satisfyingly absurd ways, in part because he was both using and abusing the conventions of “the catalogue”). So what’s interesting to me, and what I’ve been obsessed with recently (and I realize this isn’t exactly new but it’s exciting for me), is the idea of genre, of categories, and the pressures that categories exert on narrative, but also how narrative itself can blow open the genre and create something new and which doesn’t really have a name.
So anyway, back to what I’m doing in inscriptions. Basically, I had an idea to write an epitaph for myself—it might’ve even been a class assignment. So then I thought, okay, what are the conventions of the epitaph? Usually in third person, usually pithy, usually one sentence, usually general, and often (frankly) forgettable. I then wondered: how could I bust this—meaning the epitaph—wide open? How could I preserve some features of the epitaph and subvert others? What if I kept it in third person and wrote it in one sentence (though of course not all epitaphs are one sentence, but still, I thought this could be an interesting limitation), but what if I also made it super specific and really long? It seemed absurd. But so does the idea of writing an epitaph. I mean, how could an epitaph ever really do its job? How could something you carve on a stone sum up the entirety of a person’s existence? Wouldn’t you really need to write more than one? So I thought: what if I wrote a series of these things? Then I did.
“Messianic” is probably not the word I would use, but I’m intrigued that you used it. And I wouldn’t say “corrective” either, unless I happened to be correcting something in myself or setting something right by writing them.
The point at which I started writing these essays, I was in a good amount of despair. I had just come to the realization that a novel I’d been working on was in its death throes. It’d been sent to two dozen places and rejected by everyone. I’d tried to play the game, tried to write a novel, tried to tell a long story, and apparently no one was interested. In the meantime, I’d begun compiling works for an anthology, i.e., stories that were masquerading as other forms of writing, like stories as letters or explanations or interviews or lectures or e-mails or Twitter feeds or public addresses. I had enjoyed teaching these kinds of stories and had a hunch that an anthology might be welcomed by other creative writing teachers. I retrieved a list of the top fifty writing programs in the country and e-mailed every fiction writer I could find, asking them if they’d be willing to either contribute to the anthology and/or use it in their classes. I received tons of positive response. One person who seemed especially intrigued was David Shields. I knew the name, but hadn’t read his work. He said that he’d be interested in co-editing the book with me. I agreed, was psyched, actually, and soon after read his Reality Hunger. I started thinking more about genre. About ways to reinvigorate genre. I realized, eventually, that what I love isn’t necessarily fiction or non-fiction. What I love is language.
And so I gave myself license to write whatever I wanted to write. Screw everything. I’m going to write what I want. And, apparently, part of what I wanted to write were these epitaphs, these essays, these prose-poem-like stories that allowed me to free-associate and construct sentences that were like deep-sea divers on exploratory missions: they didn’t know, exactly, where they were going or what they would find, or even how long the trip would take. And because I kept finding interesting stuff, I kept diving.
Rail: How does religion affect your work? This seems real, real interesting to me, merely for the fact that, though epitaphs aren’t “religious,” they’re in that realm. I guess what I’m supremely curious about has to do with what you might perceive or understand to be the relationship between religion-as-structure more than just religion-as-spiritual thing. Maybe either side of that coin, but questions restructure seem more promising, given both books here under consideration.
Vollmer: First of all, I spend a lot of time thinking about God. I see this thinking-about-God as both a blessing and a curse, in part because thinking about God involves interrogation and a fight against complacency and an endorsement of the idea that our—i.e., humanity’s—concept of the divine is and has always been evolving. This is different than “writing about religion,” of course. Religion is (according to my computer dictionary, anyway) “a system of faith or religion.” That’s different. As are denominations. I emerged from one denomination (Adventism) and am now wading into another (the Episcopal church), while holding hands with Taoism and Buddhism and quantum physics. I do this partly because I believe that God can’t be contained or fully known by any particular denomination or science or faith-system, and in part because God exists beyond language, math, limitations, and definitions. As soon as I attempt to define what God is or does, I start reducing. Which is, of course, in my eyes, problematic. (Case in point, what I’m doing now.)
What I can say is that “religious people” and “religious systems” have exerted a great deal of pressure on me over the years: I’ve been asked to believe this or that, to act this way or that way, to accept these or those versions of what reality is and what it means to be human and have a consciousness. I carry the burden of that at all times. My brain has been programmed to think in certain ways, and certain of these ways, I’ve found, are totally fine ways to think.
Others, though, necessitate reprogramming. That’s what I find myself struggling with more and more.
Rail: I know you said in one of your answers that what you love is language, but let’s just play this game real quickly: you’ll admit that there’s all sorts of gorgeous, lush language to be found in “traditional” fiction which looks and acts according to the “rules” or mores of fiction, right? I guess what I’m trying to get at is: what is it about smuggling lovely language or whatever into these other forms, what is it about the act of infiltration or subterfuge that works for you? Maybe this is a monumental misread, though it seems to me foolish to not even ask stuff in this direction.
Vollmer: What I’m after, essentially, and what I’m trying always and often failing to generate, is pure linguistic energy. Honestly, I’m easily bored. Very easily. And it’s not that I want to be entertained. Simply engaged. I can be bored by lazily conceived action (The Dark Knight Rises is an example) as much as I am by lazily conceived descriptions. I want life in all its unpredictability and richness and chaos. I want to read anything that makes me think, oh my God, I can’t believe they just did that. I want to read something that I can’t stop talking about afterwards, stuff that burns itself into my head.
Of course, stuff that’s alive and “burning” is not limited to works that are re-inventing or subverting genres. I heard Ben Marcus say once that a writer, no matter what genre they’re working in, needs to appreciate and develop an appetite for as many different kinds of language as possible. That makes sense to me. I do my best to advocate that.
Furthermore, I think I’m just drawn to subterfuge because it’s proved (in the classroom) to be somewhat pragmatic. It’s easy (and incredibly fun) to show students how to make fire with words by taking a genre and subverting it. For instance, if you ask students to generate a list of kinds of writing that exist on the Internet, you get stuff like “Gchats” and “YouTube comments” and “status updates” and “e-mail.” And if you ask them to focus on one of those types of writing and create subcategories—take “e-mail,” for instance—you might get “instructions” and “forwards” and “accidental forwards” and “love letters” and “spam.” And if you focus on “spam,” you might get “penis enlargements” and “chain letters” and “offers from Nigerian princes.” And when you start asking questions like, “So what are the conventions of an email sent by a Nigerian prince,” the students get it, like immediately. They know the code and understand intuitively where it might be fun to take leaps.
Rail: What’s your take on Reality Hunger, given that you worked, after its release, with its author? If you’d rather keep your full spectrum of opinion to yourself, that’s fine, but I’d be real curious.
Vollmer: I was initially wary of Reality Hunger. While I was reading it, I was arguing in my head with a lot of what it seemed to be proposing, but in the end, I had a difficult time dismantling the idea that “all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, but I’d never thought of myself as a maker of “great works of literature.” The book seemed to be asking me—and other artists—to do that. But it was also claiming that fiction writers were really just putting on an elaborate puppet show. Shields, as a writer, appears to be done with pretending. I’m not in the same boat—I love to pretend—but I also think it’s an intriguing and essential argument that he’s making. Especially when I started to examine my own work and think, huh, I’ve got these ideas I’m obsessed with, that I can’t stop thinking about, but I end up cloaking them in fiction. Why not attempt to write about them directly? Which is sort of what I’m attempting now. It’s no less fictional, in the sense that everything I or anyone writes feels essentially like a fabrication, but it also seems to generate more urgency and immediacy.
If nothing else, the book really made me stop and think: fiction is art. No matter what I’m writing, no matter what I’m calling it, it’s art. It’s a representation of human consciousness, a thing that’s trying to mirror or reconstruct some facet of the human experience. As obvious as this is, I don’t think I always thought of “fiction” or “writing” in those terms. At least, those ideas weren’t at the forefront.
Rail: One of the things that’s always been striking, for me, about you, is your awareness of and sympathy for your students. Maybe empathy for. Certainly amazement of. I don’t know how to put this as a question. How about this: For several years, I’ve thought, at least once a week, of a woman whose kids are on a road trip together, and the family dog dies while her children are gone, and so the mom puts the dog in the freezer to wait for the kids to come home and bury the animal—and I think of that because it’s in a story by Rachel, a former student of yours and a friend of mine, a story I never read but you did, and one we talked about lots, in your office and elsewhere. How vital is teaching to you? How is it that teaching’s so important for you while teaching seems, at least from my view, to be a matter of bill-paying, at least among people in your demographic?
Vollmer: Here’s what’s funny: I had forgotten about that story about the dog in the freezer. I don’t mean that I’d erased it from my memory, only that I hadn’t thought about it in a long time.
Teaching is my life. I mean, there’s nothing better or more exciting to me than (forgive the cliché) seeing the lights go on in a student’s head, or for a student to rise to a challenge, to discover something about themselves or their work. The main thing is that I get to talk to students who are hungry to make art. My occupation is basically me talking with other people about making art. It’s an incredible privilege.
But back to the dog thing. It’s moments like that, when you see writers waking up to the stories that they need to tell—I mean, that’s the payoff right there.
Rail: Are there any tropes or tics you don’t like, or find yourself frustrated with in writing, your own or those by other folks? I’m sure my white-guy-mope thing’s entirely personal and inbent; have any? Also: who do you like or believe in of late, writing-wise?
Vollmer: In my own writing: I have a tendency to explain and digress, and I find myself often setting up qualifying phrases with stuff like “not only... but also” and “partly because of x, and partly because of y.” I don’t know about any particular tropes I’m frustrated with. I wrote a review of HTMLGiant for American Book Review recently, which necessitated spending a lot of time on the site. I realized a couple things: I’m actually indebted to them a great deal for introducing me to writers I really admire, especially Rachel B. Glaser. But then there’s also the whole sincerity movement that I’m a bit skeptical about, and there’s the babbling hipsters of the Alt Lit scene, and there’s that girl who posted, in her story, a photo of her face with semen on it or whatever, and a lot of that feels like it’s coming from people who are sort of dead to the world that exists outside their worlds, like you read their stuff and wonder if they’ve ever had a real conversation with an old man or woman out in the country or spent any time at all with people who work hard for a living. You get the sense that they might actually die if you took away their phones and computers. It’s hard for me to put into words, but I get the feeling that a lot of the writing I don’t like rises out of people who haven’t really experienced a lot of the rest of the world, and aren’t interested in it. And of course when I say “you” I mean “me.” Of course, I’m generalizing about stuff I don’t know much about and haven’t thought much about, so I should probably shut up. (Nothing better than reading someone’s generalizations based on vague impressions.)
Rail: Why’d you begin writing in the first place, ever? What made you want to write? Why writing instead of sticking with music, given that you used to play in a band?
Vollmer: I’ve always liked to make stuff up. I remember typing a story on a typewriter as a kid and enjoying the power of authority, and also beginning a story about the mansion I would someday live in once I got to heaven. (It had a slide from my bedroom to an indoor pool, naturally). Then, in high school, I discovered E. E. Cummings (whom my English teacher despised) and Sylvia Plath. I wrote a couple post-heartbreak poems, read them aloud to my friends. They were like, “Whoa.” There was something about that moment, something about understanding what language could do and the effect it could have on people. So I just kept doing it. Kept writing.
Rail: Have there been changes in how you write fiction since getting into this “nonfiction”?
Vollmer: One of the main things I’ve learned from writing the epitaphs is just sort of like, stop trying so hard. I tried really hard to write a novel, and when I re-read that thing—which I try not to do—it’s painful to me. I can see myself really trying to write it. With the nonfiction, sure, there’s an element of "getting it right" but I also gave myself permission to just write, and not to force anything. It’s interesting to go back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. Language can only transmit so much about experience, memory’s a sieve at best, your perceptions only allow you to experience so much of reality, etc., so in many ways all stories—whether they “actually” happened or not—are fictive. But there’s a real (and probably obvious) difference between “making something up” and “writing about stuff you’ve experienced firsthand.” Fiction for me now seems like this shamanic experience. As an author, you travel into another realm and return with news, with knowledge about that place. With nonfiction, it’s like time-travel: you’re going backwards, and your goggles are fogged up, and you can only access certain areas of the past (i.e., the ones you remember); and even then you can’t be sure that the world you’re visiting was ever “real.”