“The Story is This Weird Frankenstein’s Monster”: An Interview With Matthew Vollmer


The stories featured in Matthew Vollmer‘s collection Gateway to Paradise are impressive both in their range and in the stories that they tell. Some explore the lives of characters in the wake of horrific events; others take a more surreal turn, including one of the most unpredictable ghost stories I’ve encountered in a long while. Vollmer is also the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of invocations from the likes of J. Robert Lennon, Leslie Jamison, Catherine Lacey, Rick Moody, and Robert Lopez. I talked with Vollmer about the creation of both books, and what exploring different literary forms as a writer and editor has taught him.

Gateway to Paradise begins with a ghost story and ends with a story set in the aftermath of a crime. When you sit down to write, do you generally have a sense of where a given story will end up or what tradition you’ll be following, or is the process more freeform?

It’s freeform in the beginning. I need to feel as though I’m hunkering down inside a character, accessing their thought-spool, and writing without thinking too hard about it. For me, it’s all about tapping into a voice and being able to use that voice to generate energy and momentum. Most stories come as flickering, non-linear visions. I see certain scenes and try to write the ones that are most vivid in my mind. So at first, the story is this weird Frankenstein’s monster: it might have a completely developed torso, a skeletal arm, and a head with half a face. Little by little, I build. Then: revision. It’s a process that it usually very slow. For instance, I probably wrote the first draft of “Downtime” in the year 2000 or 2001. It went through so many drafts–and at one point I thought it might be a novel–before I discovered its final shape. That meant writing and rewriting, starting over, changing the setting of the story (from Cozumel, Mexico to Gatlinburg, Tennessee). I workshopped the story with Chris Offutt at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2006. I kept revising it. I think it was published in 2011, and I worked on it again as I was revising Gateway to Paradise.

Are there any types or genres of fiction that you’d like to explore in the future?

I’m always on the lookout to try new forms and genres. I’d love to be able to master the writing of very short stories. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by tiny replicas: dioramas, action figures, models–and that’s what a very short story seems like to me. A representation of experience, in miniature. I love that. I’d like to be able to write like Lydia Davis, only maybe with more humor.

I do like to experiment. Recently, when I’ve been feeling uninspired, I’ll pull out an old magazine–a retired professor recently gave me hundreds of vintage magazines–and start lifting phrases from advertisements (so dated and weird) and then use these words to build some kind of new narrative. Collage is fun and it’s so different from just sitting down and trying to make stuff up.

The main character in “Probation” is placed in a nightmarishly constrained legal situation. What inspired you to focus on this in your story?

I grew up in Andrews, North Carolina, a small town where my parents still live. In 1998, it was the hub for the FBI, who commandeered an old sock warehouse in order to hunt for Eric Rudolph, who had set off bombs at a lesbian nightclub, the Olympic Park in Atlanta, and an abortion clinic. The resulting manhunt was a failure. In 2002, I returned to Andrews, thinking that I’d do some research for a novel I planned to write that took place during a hunt for a fugitive. I interviewed a number of people, including a man whose home had been raided by the FBI, a realtor who sold Rudolph’s home (and had commented on how “good looking” he was), the couple who purchased said home (who showed me a home video of Rudolph giving them a tour of the house, which led to a room that was obviously used for growing marijuana), and a man who lived in a house next to my father’s dental office–a man who had been charged with interfering in a federal investigation after he flashed a toy laser at a helicopter that had been hovering near his house during a search for a citizen who’d fired a bullet into the FBI headquarters. The novel, like the manhunt, was a failure, but I did end up returning to the guy with the toy laser. I was most interested in the fact that he was placed on house arrest, in part because of the man’s characterization of his probation officer, who would show up at maddeningly random times to make sure he was home. I had also heard that this man’s wife had left him, and that he had charge of his kids. All this felt like a slow brewing storm of drama, and when I thought about what might happen if one of his kids didn’t come home after school one day, I knew I had a story I wanted to explore.

The stories in Gateway to Paradise appeared in a number of well-regarded journals. Were there any notes that you got from editors there that significantly affected them? 

From the journal editors? Not so much. In the past few years I’ve worked on essays with some fantastic editors (Matt Roberts, with The Normal School, and Ben George, formerly of Ecotone, now a senior editor with Little, Brown) but I can’t think of many stories I’ve published where editors pushed me to make major changes.

The big changes to these stories came after the collection was acquired by Persea Books (in 2013). At that time, I pretty much thought the collection was finished, especially since so many of the stories had been previously vetted by magazines. But, as my editor, Karen Braziller, reminded me: “we’re making a book.”

I had never edited a story that had been previously published. To me, it felt like unlocking a house you’d already built and renovating it, and at first I wasn’t interested, because I wanted to be done, and because I was scared that I’d mess it up or that the story wouldn’t let me access it in the way I had when I first wrote it. But Karen is a wonderful editor, an amazing reader of characters and people–in fact, she often talked about my characters as if they were real people–and she has vast amounts of curiosity, empathy, and patience: some of these “already published” stories were revised upwards of 15-20 times. And the stories did, in fact, get better. It was an amazing process and I was a little sad when it ended.

At around the same time that Gateway to Paradise was released, so was the anthology A Book of Uncommon Prayer. What first prompted the idea for this anthology?

As a member of the Anglican community, I have come to really admire the Book of Common Prayer. People have been saying–reading, reciting, committing to memory–these prayers for hundreds of years. Regardless of what you believe, I think that most people who care about language and literature would be able to find a prayer in that book that they found affecting, in the same way as they would if they picked up an anthology of well-known poems. The prayers are often quite lyrical, sometimes tinged with melancholy. There’s a section in the book called “Prayers and Thanksgivings” and in this section you can find all sorts of prayers for various occasions (“For All Sorts and Conditions of Man,” “For the Good Use of Leisure,” “For Cities,” “For the Oppressed,” etc.). It struck me that it might be fun to try to write some prayers for “uncommon” things, and so I started to write some: “For Beds,” “For Not Knowing,” “For Guns,” “For Flight Attendants,” and so on. People seemed to like them. I mentioned the project to another writer who wondered if I’d be interested in opening it up to other writers, which made a lot of sense to me, since the writing of the original Book of Common Prayer was collaborative. So I started asking the writers I knew if they’d write something, and to ask the writers they knew to join us. Pretty soon I had more prayers than I could even use.

Has being exposed to so many different forms of invocations had any effect on the writing that you’ve done since editing the anthology?

Writing the prayers was a lot of fun. I sort of wish I could just write them in perpetuity. But I also think maybe it’s time to move on…

Were there any particular invocation forms that you’ve found to be underrated, from a literary perspective?

Hm. I don’t know. I guess I’ve never thought of any particular form as over or underrated. It’s hard for me to imagine a form of writing that might not be useful for a writer to inhabit… The rules and conventions and structure gives a writer a particular space to inhabit but also gives her/him something to push against, and even explode.

Your short story “Fat Kid” just ran on Autre; what’s next for you?

I’m working on a series of essays about having been raised in a Seventh-day Adventist in the mountains of North Carolina. And I’m also toying with the idea of writing a work of creative nonfiction that explores the glorious strangeness that is my family.

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