Mary Akers: I really enjoyed your story Bodies. Especially the fantastic voice of the first-person narrator who is a self-admitted drunk, but somehow manages to endear us to him through his fresh use of language and by being both hard on himself and funny. Here’s a good example of what I mean:
“Like a true hot shot, I woke up in the sand, among broken seashells and cigarette butts and ice cream wrappers and those plastic discs you snap on the tops of soda cups. I dragged myself into a sitting position, smacked ants from my legs, and stared at the churning sea. It occurred to me that Primordial Man might’ve watched a similar sunrise bleed across this same froth. He had not, however, smelled doughnuts, and that was one of a few things I could think of that separated his world from mine.”
That’s a perfect paragraph in my world. If I might ask you to analyze your own words for a moment, what do you think it is about that paragraph that works so darn well? And why do we, as readers, get enjoyment from reading about fatally flawed characters?
Matthew Vollmer: I actually like that paragraph, too. And I can’t say that about most paragraphs I write. This story came after a trip to Carolina Beach, where I’d been reading, for the first time, some stories by Barry Hannah. I liked how so many of his narrators seemed ticked-off, furious, bad-tempered, cocky, and rude. I wanted to try to harness that energy, and somehow, when I started imagining this dude and heard his voice, I just started to transcribe it.
MA: Not only did I like “Bodies” but your entire collection (Future Missionaries of America) was a really enjoyable read. You did some inventive things with structure that messed with my head in a wonderful way. In particular, I’m thinking of the story “Will & Testament” which is (stay with me, readers) a copy of the last will and testament of Andrew Walter, written shortly before his death and mailed to 27 unknown people, their names selected from the phone book, asking them to distribute his final remains and possessions. (Complete with extensive footnotes.) It’s brilliant, really, in the way it looks both forward and backward in time, anticipating all contingencies and getting the final say. I also appreciate how well it maintains the legal-speak throughout the story. If you received such a letter, would you agree to be his executor?
MV: Honestly, I don’t know. If I received a letter like that I would probably freak the eff out. But I would be intrigued and probably tempted to honor the requests. Though I’d have to check with an attorney about the legal ramifications. I’m not sure how legal it is to actually cut up and distribute sections of a dead man’s brain… even if the dead man left instructions to do so.
MA: And staying with the idea of structure a moment longer, could you say a little bit about how your stories find their structures? (i.e. ahead of time? in the process of the writing?)
MV: Mostly in the process. I rarely write from beginning to end. My process is messy and haphazard. I’m impatient to get to the “good parts,” whatever those may be, so usually I end up writing the sections of the story that I’m drawn to first, then perform a lot of shuffling.
MA: I love stories that incorporate a character struggling with a specific religion or any widely held belief system. I admire how seamlessly you do this in your stories. It’s been my experience that stories with any sort of religious reference or focus can be difficult to place. Have you found this to be the case, as well? And if so, why do you think that is?
MV: I actually haven’t had that experience. Epoch took the title story about two weeks after I’d sent it. And I don’t remember “The Digging” (the one about the boy performing “free labor” at a Christian boarding school) being all that difficult to place… I enjoy reading stories that focus on a character struggling with some kind of internal conflict, and because religion has been such a relentless presence in my life, I end up coming back to it again and again.
MA: Salt is the publisher of the copy of Future Missionaries of America that I own, but I understand that they were not your original publisher. Could you describe a little bit of the history of your path to publication? I think it would be a very interesting and instructive story for our readers…and could even speak to the idea of “recovery.”
MV: My collection was actually accepted first by Salt. I’d sent to MacAdam Cage as well, and when I got the news from Salt I checked in with MC. They said they wanted it, so I brokered a deal with both houses so that MC would do US and Salt would take care of UK/Europe. My book was originally slated for 2008 but due to some technical problems with the manuscript it got pushed back to 2009. Unfortunately, that was right after the economy tanked and MacAdam Cage was forced to basically fire their entire staff and replace them with interns. It was basically a nightmare. To make a long and super complicated if not maddening story short, let’s just say that the New York Times review of my book came out, but there was no book to be had. It didn’t come out until two months after that. Originally, MC was going to publish a hard and soft cover version simultaneously, but they ended up only publishing the hard cover, and eventually decided, despite having received a significant number of orders for the paperback, that they were done with the book. So I had my agent retain the rights, which we then gave to Salt, and now they’re distributing it in the U.S. So I suppose THAT was a recovery of sorts… Many times I wondered if this was it, if the book was on the brink of death, but it kept coming back.
MA: And finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?
MV: For me, recovery usually involves arriving at a place where I look back on a time in my life and think, dang, what was I thinking or why did I allow myself to be put in that particular situation? I made a lot of stupid decisions as an adolescent and college student and I often remember those days and think 1. I’m glad to have survived THAT part of my life and 2. thank God I’m not there anymore.