Matthew Vollmer’s new collection of short stories, Gateway to Paradise (Persea Books), is remarkably alive. His characters are seekers trying to navigate everyday existence. They screw up, find redemption, and screw up again. These short stories follow an impressive and imaginative body of work. Recently, Vollmer’s essay “Music of the Spheres: A Meditation on NASA’s THE SYMPHONIES OF THE PLANETS” was named a notable essay by Best American Essays of 2015. Best American Short Stories selected his story “The New You” for their list “100 Distinguished Stories of 2015.”
Gateway to Paradise
Vollmer teaches in the MFA program at Virginia Tech, where we met in the fall of 2009. As a new Graduate Teaching Assistant, I was assigned Vollmer as my teaching mentor. His influence quickly extended beyond my classroom. His office became a place where I could discuss anything: writing, The Simpsons, Michael Jordan, experimental rock band Gastr del Sol. Those meetings were affirming and central to my development as an artist. Vollmer always stressed the importance of being honest, fearless, and attuned to one’s own interests and truths.
The following interview, conducted via email, feels like those meetings in his office. The conversation drifts fluidly from his writing process and his Seventh-day Adventist upbringing to Ozzy Osbourne and the NBA. He explains Dutch ovens and bankwalkers. He remains curious and engaged.
Rob Kenagy (Rail): Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions, and congratulations on Gateway to Paradise. It’s a very thoughtful, human, and well-crafted group of short stories. What does it feel like to return to this particular genre? Your collection of essays, Inscriptions for Headstones, uses single-sentence epitaphs to explore truths. You edited A Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of pieces written as prayers, and co-edited Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and other Fraudulent Artifacts. All three of these books use found forms as the crux of their structure. What were you able to bring back to the traditional short story after working in nontraditional forms?
Matthew Vollmer: The truth is that most of these stories were written over a very long time—over the past eight or nine years. I don’t know that I think, in terms of making art, in “traditional” and “non-traditional,” at least not in terms of my own. I have an idea for a story or project and then it takes its own shape. For instance, I knew I wanted to write a ghost story, so I tried that. I had an idea for a crime story, and I’d never written anything like that, so I did it. But I hope that most of what I produce—and no matter what form it takes—will be character-driven. That is: stories will be focused on what happens inside a person. Also, hopefully, the voice/language will generate enough locomotion so that readers will be propelled forward. That’s sort of what I’m always trying to do, no matter what form I’m working in.
Rail: It makes sense that your characters and their decisions help reveal the structure of the piece—especially in Gateway to Paradise. Some of these characters want to escape themselves, others embrace—quite literally—their ghosts. They all seem to believe that a better version of themselves is out there and attainable. How does this sort of deep, internal reflection reveal itself in your characters? Do you have an idea of the questions they’ll ask before you start writing, or, similar to the shape of the story, do your characters’ desires become more tangible as you work?
Vollmer: That’s a good question. Not sure how to answer it. What I’m interested in, as a writer and reader, are the ways that human beings struggle with who they are and who they’re becoming. Some of my favorite passages in literature are those in which a writer is “hunkering down” deep inside a character and showing us what it’s like in there. I’m interested in characters that are in trouble, who’ve made trouble for themselves. Who are self-destructive but good-hearted. Who make mistakes. Who regret stuff. Who have secrets. Who yearn for change. Who make sacrifices or don’t. Basically, as far as I can tell, this is everybody on the planet.
The title story of the collection was the hardest to write, I think, because maybe, for Riley (the main character), there’s so much at stake. I’d never written a “crime story” before and I was interested in seeing if I could pull off such a thing. There’s robbery, murder, betrayal. Action! A lot of heavy stuff that I’ve personally never had to deal with, and was thus forced to imagine, from a young woman’s perspective. It was something that I felt like I got right, until my editor, Karen Braziller, told me that I hadn’t, not quite, and so began a long process of revision, most of which involved making various attempts to inhabit, more deeply, the ways that Riley would respond and think about and re-imagine the events—and people—in her life.
Rail: I’m glad you brought up the title story and Riley. She is such a complex character. Although she’s an accomplice to a murder, she spends most of the story annoyed by her bum boyfriend Jaybird. She isn’t naive or oblivious to the heinous act they’ve committed, but that heavy guilt doesn’t rise inside her in the way we might expect. It’s so surprisingly human. The end of the story leaves us wondering whether Riley is even aware of the weight of her actions. It’s a strong move within the crime story genre. Was this a part of that long revision process? What sort of walls did you hit while trying to inhabit Riley?
Vollmer: We re-worked the end a lot. And the rest of the story, too. I added backstory, took out backstory, re-jiggered dramatizations of various perceptions, speculations, and imaginings on Riley’s part. The interesting thing (to me, anyway) was that the main events of the story were more or less the same. The ultimate effect was more like re-mixing the story. Or what I imagine re-mastering an album would be like. Some instruments get clearer, cleaner, louder, fuzzier, softer. I felt as though I was sitting at a control board and Karen was listening carefully, asking questions, and I was experimenting with turning knobs and sliding levels up and down.
It was the first time I’d worked with an editor who was such a close reader. And boy, Karen was close. She wondered about macro-level type stuff, like what Riley's experience with guns was like or why Riley felt she needed to keep the money a secret from Jaybird. Was Riley’s imagined revenge upon Jaybird’s ex-girlfriend too extreme? (Maybe?) But Karen also zeroed in on tiny details. She noticed when I used the same last name for two different characters. She noted that I really liked to describe people's teeth and that I used the verb “mash” too frequently. She wondered what OBX stood for (the Outer Banks, in NC). She wondered what a Fiero was (tiny ’80s sports car). I mentioned “Dutch oven” in the flashback where Jaybird builds a bong, and what I meant was “a large cooking pot” but Karen Googled it and found a description on Urban Dictionary that described the phrase as what happens when a couple’s in bed and one person yanks the sheets over the other's head and farts; she was pretty sure I didn’t mean that, but she needed to be clear. In other words, no stone was too small to leave unturned.
For instance, this: The correct word for the food is “bologna.” Baloney means “nonsense.” However by common usage, “baloney” has become a variant of “bologna” […] Shall we agree to leave it as is?
She treated every line—every one—as if it were as important as all the others. She also treated the characters in these stories as if they were real people. And over the course of nearly a year, we went back and forth, in emails and over the hours on the phone, talking as if they were. Karen would point out a paragraph—sometimes even just a line—and then say, “I really don’t think Riley would think that way. Do you?”
Karen kept saying, there are people in the world that will read this very carefully. You owe it to them to make this world as real and convincing as possible. Hopefully, that’s what we did.
Rail: It sounds as if the collection had some real collaborative moments, similar to the way some record producers help musicians realize how interesting the details can be (to borrow your image). It’s amazing what “new ears” can find. That effort and questioning help all the stories in Gateway to Paradise feel fresh, subtle, and alive. These stories absolutely exist in fully realized worlds.
Those worlds are often rooted in Appalachia. Generally speaking, how does this area of America shape people? How does this landscape affect those that come from its soil? You’re a native son. Is there a quality that naturally weaves itself in when creating Appalachian characters?
Vollmer: Oh man, I don’t know. I guess? The mountains of southwestern North Carolina are special to me because that’s where I grew up. I try not to romanticize or generalize too much about them, and even though I spent the first fourteen years of my life there, I don’t necessarily think of myself as Appalachian. Growing up in a Seventh-day Adventist family, going to Seventh-day Adventist church schools, I think I felt more like a visitor everywhere that wasn’t my actual house.
I love those mountains, though. They’re full of secret places: waterfalls, caves, lookout rocks, creeks, lakes, meadows, mountain balds, snake dens, boar wallers. They’re steep and craggy, thick in summer with tangled foliage. In winter, some spots only see a few hours of direct sunlight. Some none. The people there are independent, generous, conservative, unpredictable, improvisational, and often wildly hilarious. Most of the people I knew growing up I knew through my parents, and mostly through my father, who was—and remains—a dentist. Go to town with him and it’s like hanging out with a celebrity. He’s recognized everywhere he goes. His office was this theater through which an endless stream of characters paraded: old mountain men in overalls and few teeth, mailmen, teachers, outlaws, bulldozer operators, truck drivers, electricians, etc. And so many of them had stories. All of them interesting. I’d be in the dental lab, watching I Dream of Jeanie or Gilligan’s Island or whatever and my father would call me to an examination room and put his hand on a patient’s shoulder and say, “This man downed a hog with nothing but a pocketknife” or “Did you know this man right here was an Olympian?” or “You remember Steve, right? He was the one who saw you peeing against the backstop at the baseball game and started calling you Bankwalker.” (“Bankwalker” being the most endowed guy at a swimming hole who prefers, out of sheer cockiness, to walk the bank rather than swim.”) My dad had a patient who buried his money in the ground for safekeeping, another who brought a live grenade in for show and tell. I remember a corn farmer nicknamed “Boomer” and a state trooper called “Bump,” an old, raspy-voiced man named “Munk.” An ex-railroad operator named “Junior,” who had a collection of Cincinnati Reds memorabilia, each object sheathed in plastic. A lady I knew at the bank didn’t take her jewelry off before she mowed the lawn and slept in full makeup. A buck-toothed guy at the local greenhouse always pretended to be mean to my mom, as a way of being friendly. In general, people showed their affection by giving each other "a hard time.” We knew the pharmacist, the guy who owned the movie theater, the manager of our tiny airport. I could go on forever like this, so I’ll stop here and say that it was a great place to grow up and the people and the geography had a profound effect upon me.
Rail: I love that. There’s a real sense of community and connectedness—an “all in this together” mentality. There’s a more lonesome connectedness in the book, though.
Ted in “Downtime” wants to connect with his dead wife and his mistress. In “Probation,” Abe relies on his son and estranged wife while searching for his daughter. Jessie in “Dog Lover” feels so disconnected from her husband that she turns to her dog for intimate companionship. Even when your characters feel isolated, alone, or act on selfish impulses, they’re still dependent and tied to others for direction. This feels particularly relevant today.
There’s a line in “Gateway to Paradise” that struck me. Riley and Jaybird are heading to Maine. We learn that Riley knows nothing about Maine, except “[the] state had simply been the head of the bloated dragon shape that was America.” For me, that image pushes beyond a physical and geographic description. Though it arrives in the last 40 pages of the book, the image seems apt for the stories that precede it. America often feels like something to be conquered—a bloated dragon, the confines of poverty, our addiction to consumerism. How conscious of this were you when writing? On how large a scale did you place these characters? They feel so connected to a pervasive modern loneliness.
Vollmer: I’ve sort of always thought of America as a dragon shape and I’m not sure where I got that. Might have something to do with the fact that the church I was raised in interprets the dragon in Revelation as the United States. And also that if you look at it, it does resemble some sort of bloated beast.
I never thought about America, specifically, when I was writing this (imagining serious- faced person typing two-fingeredly on typewriter, thinking “I am writing about AMERICA!”). Then again I’ve spent 99% of my life in America. I was taught to think I was outside of it, to an extent. And so, maybe, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been awake to its strangeness, its idiosyncrasies. I love ’em and hate ’em. It boggles the mind to imagine the sort of person who would wear a T-shirt emblazoned with a Rottweiler jumping through a tattered Confederate flag, but apparently, if the gift shops in Gatlinburg, Tennessee are any measure, they exist in great numbers. But people also dedicate themselves to hiking, for six months, the spine of a mountain range that isn’t too far from this same place where tourists flock to eat salt water taffy and pancakes and caramel apples and fried dough. America is a disease and a miracle. That’s what’s fascinating. People have guises they don that allow us to mindlessly categorize them but maybe—certainly—there’s something going on there that’s more complicated than we might think.
Rail: It speaks to your voice. Consistent and complex. Amazed and baffled. Intelligent and tactful. Barry and Inge in “Scoring” are more than foils to Martin’s drive, they also offer him some strange salvation. The family that helps Riley in "Gateway to Paradise" raises the tension of the story, yet offers some normalcy. This nuanced approach runs throughout Gateway to Paradise.
But it’s also one of the defining qualities of your nonfiction. In “Music of the Spheres: A Meditation on NASA’s THE SYMPHONIES OF THE PLANETS,” you weave your spiritual evolution, the cosmos, space rock, and five-volume collection of intergalactic sounds into an essay that celebrates questioning and the unknown. It's a moving piece, and yet another example of your willingness to unapologetically explore big spiritual questions.
How does the Seventh-day Adventist Church influence your writing? You mentioned being taught to think of yourself as an outsider. How easy is it for you now to challenge or question this world in which you were raised?
Vollmer: I grew up in an Adventist family. My parents met at an Adventist boarding school. My mom’s parents met at an Adventist boarding school. My dad’s brother was / is a pastor; his sister was / is married to a pastor, who now happens to be the president of the global Adventist church. I went to Adventist schools from the age of seven until I was twenty. For the first 18 years of my life, I went to church every Saturday. During boarding school, my classmates and I went to chapel twice a day and Bible class. I was steeped in the Bible—albeit through an Adventist lens that had been constructed, for the most part, by a 19th-century prophetess who was convinced the church was living in the last days and predicted that, just before the Second Coming, Adventists would be persecuted for keeping the seventh day Sabbath. Of course, that always freaked me out—partly because I didn’t like the idea of having to “flee to the mountains,” but also it was weird to think that Adventists could ever be the center of anybody’s attention; Adventists didn’t exist in popular culture. On rare occasions—the doctor who put a baboon heart in a baby, the African American actor who played a preacher on the Sherman Helmsley sitcom “Amen”—Adventists became famous. But mostly nobody knew who we were. Were we like the Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Mormons? The Christian Scientists? As peculiar as it was that we kept the Sabbath from Friday sundown to sundown on Saturday, nobody seemed to care. We were like invisible rebels.
The outside world then, was considered potentially dangerous. Almost all Adventists kept the Sabbath, didn’t drink or smoke or swear. But many of them also didn’t eat meat or go to the movies or listen to rock music or have TVs or read novels or dance. I’ve been to many Adventist homes and perused many a library there and found—for the most part—only books published by Adventist presses.
The model for “good behavior,” then and “being a good Christian” was instilled in me by Adventist culture. But then I went out into the world—namely Chapel Hill, NC, where I earned a BA in English at the University of North Carolina—and discovered other real people who seemed to be genuinely searching for truth and could articulate their beliefs in ways that seemed absolutely legitimate. Moreover, I read about humans—Taoist monks, 17th-century English poets, Amazonian shamans, and a host of others—whose spirituality was alive and vital and often reverberated with incontrovertible truths.
This is a roundabout way of trying to say that once upon a time I was not “of the world.” Now I am. Even so, there is part of me—of my history, and even of my thinking—that will always be Adventist. I will always be a North Carolina native. And I will always have emerged—and continue to be emerging—from Adventist culture. Questioning where I’ve come from and trying to understand who I am, I suppose, will never be something I stop doing.
Rail: You briefly attended Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist university in southwest Michigan. I grew up a few miles away. The rumor among my middle school friends was that Ozzy Osbourne was an Andrews alumni. Please tell me you can you can confirm this.
Vollmer: Not true. However, Prince (who became a Jehovah’s Witness) was raised Adventist, as was Busta Rhymes (who converted to Islam). Little Richard is supposedly still a practicing Adventist. Richard Wright’s family (or part of it) was. Malcolm X was raised Adventist. If there’s some connection between celebrity, Seventh-day Adventism, and being African American, I don’t know about it. But it seems that the most famous ex-Adventists (as well as the most famous one today, Ben Carson) are black.
Rail: Music plays an important role in your writing, especially in your nonfiction. “Music of the Spheres” discusses NASA’s otherworldly found sound ambient record while exploring the term “space rock.” You mention independent labels Darla Records and Kranky. You reference Tomorrowland’s fantastic Stereoscopic Soundwaves and talk with Stephen Baker. The Smiths, New Order, The Cure, your uncle’s folk group, Jane’s Addiction—they all feel like central pieces in your development as an artist.
Inscriptions for Headstones, your collection of essays written as single-sentence epitaphs, is also full of great band references. They often read as ways in which your subjects relate to others or tap into some larger consciousness. Music, and bands in particular, feel central to your subjects’ identities. In what other ways does music inform your writing?
Vollmer: Sometimes I listen to music when I write. I’m a big fan of instrumental music, most specifically “ambient.” I like stuff that sort of drowns out the rest of the world, washes it away with melodic noise. Flying Saucer Attack. Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Brian McBride and Stars of the Lid. This guy I recently discovered: Benoît Pioulard. Melancholic, rapturous, anthemic. That kind of thing.
But music has always been important to me. I grew up in a musical family. My mom played piano for church and it seemed like every Friday night my sister and I stood by the piano and sang while she played. Sometimes, my dad got his trombone out of the attic. We listened to an easy listening station during the day, classical on car rides. Then I discovered rock and roll. Namely, Michael Jackson. Whose music was verboten in my house. I have an essay I’m working on that sort of tracks all this, because in order to make certain kinds of music “okay” or “acceptable” I had to rationalize it in my head. “What’s so bad about Michael Jackson? Well, for one thing, he has this song about zombies and zombies aren’t real, the kind of thing that Satan thought up to make people scared and he’s making light of it.” I guess I didn’t buy those kinds of arguments. The Cure had weird songs and gory imagery—“I’ll nail you to the floor and push your guts all inside ow-ow-out,” for instance—but they were capable of singing really beautiful love songs. It could be worse, I told myself. At least I wasn’t into Ozzy or Judas Priest or Slayer.
I think of writing as a kind of music. It has rhythms and beats and sounds. The best writing is often lyrical and is lovely when read aloud and performed. Stories, novels, poems—they’re all kind of songlike, or can be.
Rail: Absolutely. The stories in Gateway to Paradise have that songlike quality. And the essays in Inscriptions for Headstones, too. Those long, single sentences are full of movement and energy, but they also create a sort of tender drone. The effect can be hypnotizing when read aloud.
While writing and editing, what role does listening play during your creative process? How do your ears help you work towards a finished product?
Vollmer: Ears are important. They hear things that eyes can’t. You can’t trust just your eyes. Which is why, when I get to a certain point, I start reading a story or essay aloud. I need to hear and feel in my body the rhythms and tones and music of the sentences. It's like test-driving the piece. How does it handle? When should I exhale? Good writing is good on the page and in the air. But you won’t know how it really plays until you speak it.
Rail: You mentioned that the stories in Gateway to Paradise were written over the span of ten years. How does it feel to have them collected and out in the world? Is there a sense of closure?
Vollmer: I think a sense of closure comes with each story. I think that’s why I prefer working on stories and essays rather than novels. It’s the difference between building a house and an entire subdivision, or even a town. Novels take so long to write. I can pop in and out of shorter narratives—I seem to have dozens going at the same time—and do a little work here and a little work there until eventually, they begin to take their final shapes. As much as I like the process, I also really like feeling like I’ve finished something. Writing a novel—I’ve started a bunch and finished two that thankfully never saw the light of day—is so time consuming, and there’s no guarantee, in the end, that it’ll even be any good. No guarantee with a story, either, but it’s shorter, and I feel less like a failure if it doesn’t ever pan out.
Rail: When do you let yourself move on from a story or essay that isn’t working? How do you know when a novel isn’t taking shape in the way you imagined?
Vollmer: There’s no way to pinpoint it. Lately, I’ve had so little time to work on my writing that I’ll open a file and choose whatever’s calling my name and stop working because I’ve got other obligations. In general, I tend not to force myself to work as much as I used to, trusting instead that the stretches of not writing are necessary spaces where I can let things stew. So I work when I want for as long as I want, usually in incremental bursts.
Imagine a novel as a fire. You have to get it going and keep it blazing. You can’t let it go out. The ones I never finish I just let die, I guess. At some point you’re interested in what that fire’s doing, or it’s keeping you warm or giving you light. You either keep feeding it logs or you don’t.
Or maybe writing a novel’s like playing a really great game of basketball—at the NBA level. You’re competing with the very best. You have to play with confidence and style. It’s gotta look effortless. You have to know when to fake, to improvise, to shoot or pass. It’s about timing and anticipation. And to make it really work you’ve gotta score a triple double. Not many people can do that. I certainly haven’t. At least not yet.
Rail: I heard you traveled to the southwest to spend time with a shaman writing a particular story. Do you have a typical approach to research? How do you deepen your understanding of your subjects?
Vollmer: Yeah, I went to visit a shaman a few years ago. Drove all the way to New Mexico. It was cool. She burned sage, beat a drum, and retrieved my wisdom soul.
I don’t have a typical approach to research. I just sort of follow my nose and trust my instincts. That “Music of the Spheres” essay began simply by listening to and becoming obsessed with NASA’s “Symphonies of the Planets.” I started writing down some of the thoughts I had while listening. I went back to my astronomy notes from college. I hunted down folks from the liner notes of the CDs, which led me to a recording artist who composed a kind of tribute to the album and who sent me to Donald Gurnett, a physicist at the University of Iowa who was the first scientist to put a microphone on a spaceship. I read a biography of Johannes Kepler. I bounced around the Internet. Then I wove it all together.
In every project, research figures in differently. “Probation” is totally based on an interview with a guy who actually did fire a toy laser at an FBI helicopter. I was interviewing people about the search for Eric Rudolph (the Olympic Park bomber), who hid for five years in the surrounding mountains of my hometown. That interview sat for years in a notebook until I got the idea to use it as backstory.
Each piece has its own challenges, requires more or less footwork, but I like it when I have questions, when the process is as much about discovery as it is “making stuff up.”
Rail: You’ve mentioned an essay on music and your upbringing. What else are you working on?
Vollmer: In a folder on my computer, I have a folder called “new stuff.” Inside there are dozens of essays in various forms of completion. A lot of these are exploring various beliefs I had as a child—or that people I knew had. Like, for instance, that if you went to a movie theater, your guardian angel would stand outside and weep. So there’s a whole essay on angels and movies. Another that re-imagines the Garden of Eden. One’s about an old mountain man I knew who’d never learned to read but watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! every night. One’s about the Sabbath. One’s about Grand Theft Auto.
Rail: What have you read recently that has inspired you?
Vollmer: Nell Zink’s Mislaid. Padgett Powell’s Cries for Help: Various. Rachel B. Glaser. Phil Klay’s Redeployment. Svetlana Alexievitch’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.