A Conversation with Matthew Vollmer

 

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two short story collections: the critically lauded Future Missionaries of America, a beautifully crafted sampling of spiritual longing and religious legacies amidst the lives of contemporary Americans, and, still fresh from the presses, Inscriptions for Headstones, an ambitious, poetic, and really quite singular work. There’s nothing else like it in the world. Close on the heels of his latest, Vollmer has co-edited with David Shields FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. Given that Inscriptions is actually comprised of thirty “epitaphs,” Vollmer seems especially interested in notions of authenticity, and, dare I say, Truth. I saw him read at powerHouse Books recently where, among other things, we talked (and then talked more over email) about Truth, Fakes, and fraudulence in fiction, plus his time spent at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And I must say Vollmer strikes me one of the most dynamic and sincere conversationalists I’ve met in some time. He means every last word.

–Interviewed by Scott Cheshire

INTERVIEWER

There’s something I find especially present about your stories, or perhaps I mean of the characters’ lives in these stories, and so one can’t use the story as a model for a character’s behavior and telegraph any sort of future like a boxer would a punch. Does that make sense?

 MATTHEW VOLLMER

I think the thing that you seem to be responding to in a positive way is the exact thing that many readers resent in contemporary fiction: ambiguity. If I were to make a generalization about humanity, and about the average story-consuming person (whether “story” exists as a poem, play, radio drama, film, or sitcom), it would be that these story-consumers prefer to have things wrapped up neatly. Rarely do people want to be “left hanging.” They want to know exactly “what happened” or have a sense of “what’s going to happen.” In many ways, the desire to consume and live out in our lives a coherent narrative is at the core of who we are, of who we strive to become. But in literary fiction, or in stories that attempt to capture what “reality” looks like, authors often seem to care less about wrapping things up neatly, because so often in life, that’s not how it works. People get divorced but still meet each other secretly. People die and the living continue to see them in dreams and real life. Furthermore, people are as predictable as they are unpredictable. People change, transform over time. Bottom line: my favorite and most cherished stories are those that are like snapshots of an imagined world of humanlike beings, narratives that are homes or better yet motel rooms visited by characters who are unaware that we the readers are watching them. They live their lives in our presence for a while and then go on. What we’ve witnessed resonates, stays with us, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about what’s going to happen to that character tomorrow or in ten years. So yeah, I think it’s probably good for writers to think of characters as having lives outside their stories, that maybe that’s an essential thing.

 INTERVIEWER

I know you’re interested in a form you refer to as a “fraudulent artifact.”  Did Inscriptions  predate the new anthology, Fakes, or the opposite, or did they feed each other concurrently?

 MATTHEW VOLLMER

It started around the same time that I was reading Reality Hunger by David Shields, who co-edited the anthology with me, and I was trying to think of assignments I could give my students that would force them to push back against genre and form. I thought Shields’ book was provocative. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, in fact, couldn’t stop wondering if it might be true that fiction was–more or less–this elaborate puppet show and what it would be like to write about “reality” without “dressing it up” and also about the idea that all great works of art redefine their genres in some way. I can’t remember how I stumbled on the idea of writing epitaphs for myself, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with an in-class assignment that I’d completed alongside my students. An epitaph as a subvertible form interested me for several reasons: one, its conventions were easy to undermine (epitaphs are usually pithy and their themes general; thus, making them long and specific seemed like essential if not obvious choices), and two, the rationale for writing an epitaph (to sum up one’s life) seemed not unlike what I and many other writers are often after — that is, to write something that will outlast or have a life beyond the writer. Once I started writing these epitaphs, it was difficult to stop. That was also another way of subverting the genre: most people only write one epitaph for themselves. I was writing LOTS. It was liberating in many ways. Finding ways to say “no” to the period, and in some cases, any punctuation at all…

 INTERVIEWER

Inscriptions is one of the more meditative books I’ve read in some time. And it’s the sort of book that teaches you how to read it as you read. Could you talk some about how the book came together?

 MATTHEW VOLLMER

So at first I just started writing a bunch of them, the epitaphs. I’d write one, go to the next one. The first ones were much shorter than the later ones, maybe because the more I wrote, the braver I got, in terms of allowing the sentence to wander, to meander, to just keep on going. Once I started to publish the epitaphs, and saw that other readers and editors were like, “yeah, this is a thing we can support,” it made me think, huh, I wonder what a whole collection of these things would be like. It seemed preposterous and presumptuous to think anyone would want to read more than one or two, and I felt a little sheepish whenever anyone asked me what I was working on and I said, “I’m writing epitaphs for myself.” It sounded self-important somehow. But then I thought, why not just own it? I didn’t know anyone else who’d written a collection of epitaphs, and it seemed, on some level, like such an obvious and straightforward thing for a writer to embark upon. So embark I did.

 INTERVIEWER

As I read the epitaphs they began to feel more like thirty versions of the same — thirty perspectives on one inner life. And when this happened to me, as a reader, the book just clicked. How do you see the book?

MATTHEW VOLLMER

Exactly as you have described. Except maybe that each one corresponds to a separate inner life, or that a body is a collection of selves or souls, a container — as ol’ Walt describes in one of the epigraphs — of multitudes.

 INTERVIEWER

The epitaphs bring death to mind, of course, but also the afterlife, and more specifically the life of the word. Set in stone as it were. I even began to think of these as thirty prayers at some point while reading. Does that resonate with you at all?

 MATTHEW VOLLMER

Absolutely. I began to think of them as prayers while writing them. In many ways, this collection allowed me to get down on paper how my mind works or has worked, how my consciousness might be represented at various times and on various occasions by language. The more I write, the more I read, and the more I attempt to construct viable representations of how consciousness works (supposing I ever do), the more it feels like prayer. Basically, I am offering a version of reality to the universe and asking: could it be this way? Is this how it was? Would this version be acceptable? Am I wrong in thinking this, for thinking this way? In a way, these epitaphs represent a mind coming to terms with existence, with the speaker’s failures, joys, obsessions, dreams, and gratitude.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you think the question of authenticity, or the authority of a “fake” text, has something to do with an interest in religious belief?

 MATTHEW VOLLMER

I never thought about that but I am interested in how writers arrange language so that it sounds authoritative. You can see writers aping this style in a number of stories in FAKES: in the excerpt of Crawford’s Some Instructions where the Husband character relays directives to his family members in grave, sometimes remote tones; in Daniel Orozco’s “Officers Weep,” which mimics the spare, efficient, and article-less description of police blotters; and especially in Rachel B. Glaser’s meandering “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellation of Christ,” which appears to begin as a formal academic paper but soon evolves into a completely different animal.

I’m interested in studying the conventions of all kinds of genres/texts, including those purporting to be holy. “The Gospel of Mark Schneider” in Future Missionaries was originally formatted so that each section of the story resembled a chapter from the Bible, and if the magazine in which it appeared hadn’t claimed such a layout would’ve been impossible to typeset (big number embedded in the text for each “chapter”; a smaller number for every few sentences), the story would’ve been (ostensibly) more interesting, if only because the reader would have to come to terms with the form. Which I think is important… Studying the conventions of any genre is simply another way of reading or expanding your interpretation of that genre, is it not? It seems more and more like a necessary exercise for writers to engage in.

INTERVIEWER

A writer that so often traffics in fakery and fraudulence must be preoccupied with “truth” on some level, maybe more so than most writers.

 MATTHEW VOLLMER

Hm. Do I traffic in fakery and fraudulence? My initial inclination is to resist that definition, partly because I want to resist or challenge all (or most) definitions, especially those that feel constrictive, and partly because “fakery” and “fraudulence” are words that feel negatively charged. Then again, if I’m being honest, I think I have to admit that yes, I probably do traffic in fraudulence, and that admitting to being a fraud is, actually, somewhat liberating. As a kid, it was, in fact, one of the things I feared most: that I was faking my way through my life, through religion, through my relationship (or lack of the right kind of relationship) to God, or that I would be exposed for the person I was, i.e., a fake.

Then again: how does one do it right? Live, I mean. How does one interact in a way that’s true? Maybe by admitting that we are all — to some extent — frauds. That everything we humans do, the ways we talk, dress, the jokes we tell, the ways we carry ourselves, sing, conform, rebel, etc… so much of that is the product of learned behaviors of what is acceptable to the people around us, all of whom are engaged in similar behavior patterns and socialization processes. It’s hard for me not to think that most of what we call living is merely a kind of performance art: we construct viable behavior patterns by imitating the behaviors of others that we deem to be acceptable or true. We learn how to exist in the world by imitating others. We may not be aware that we’re doing it–and I’d guess normally we aren’t aware–but it seems like that’s what we’re doing. I’m pretty sure that’s how I’ve been rolling for the last 38 years.

As for The Truth… it’s out there, but it’s difficult to find and impossible to contain, and I think if you could know everything, if you suddenly had answers to every question regarding what is real, the universe would probably disappear.

Here’s a truth: the reality we know is not built upon as solid a foundation as we’d like to believe (or maybe I should say, “as I used to believe”). Our memories are inadequate and unreliable. We often fail to see what is right in front of our faces. The majority of our prognostications fail. Events we replay over and over in our minds become part of our own flawed personal mythologies, and could thus be classified as–at best–fabrications. Even our best artistic or non-artistic attempts at capturing reality are nothing more than phantasmagoric representations; as a writer, I feel like I must acknowledge that language is capable of delivering only so much. This isn’t to say truth doesn’t exist or that you can’t know or experience it. It’s that as an artist, as someone who thinks a lot about how language and reality can be interpreted, and how reality is constructed in part by family, friends, society, government, school, etc., I am always wary when I hear somebody talk about absolute truth, especially when it pertains to any kind of religious doctrine or text. I believe the universe is in a constant state of revealing itself (and thus its truths), and that it is our responsibility to re-see, re-examine, and revise, revise, revise.

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