The Millions Interview: Matthew Vollmer and Nic Brown (Part II)

June 25, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 7 min read

covercoverFuture Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer and Floodmarkers by Nic Brown are short story collections from debut writers with enormous gifts. Their work is beautiful, funny, and delightfully weird. Matthew and Nic were my classmates at Iowa, where they proved to be not only talented writers, but also sharp and passionate readers. Since they’re pals, I thought it would be fun if Matthew and Nic interviewed each other about their books. It’s a real thrill for me to see their stories in print, and to have them on The Millions.

In this second installment, Nic interviews Matthew about Future Missionaries of America. Of the book, the New York Times Book Review said, “Vollmer writes with equal dexterity about teenagers and adults, men and women, atheists and believers, Goths and jocks, dropouts and doctors – less interested in getting down any particular demographic, it would seem, than in revealing the humans beneath. Expertly structured and utterly convincing, these stories represent the arrival of a strong new voice.” In part one, Matthew interviewed Nic.

Nic Brown: In your book, you write several amazing, matter-of-fact, contemporary, and complicated stories involving aspects of Christianity – namely Seventh Day Adventists. I know you have some family background with this religion. Did you feel uncomfortable at any point writing about people of this faith (and those only encountering it, like the protagonist of the book’s title story), or worried about how any Seventh Day Adventists you know would react? How have they reacted?

Matthew Vollmer: Yes, it’s true I grew up Seventh-day Adventist. People may find it hard to believe that stopping each week for 24 hours (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) to rest, reflect, and abstain from “secular” activities (TV watching, sports, shopping, school, work, reading Mad magazine, etc.) could be great, but by and large being an SDA kid was pretty great, at least in my family. Sure, my church and grade school (and boarding academy) had some kooks, but as you pointed out in your interview, we’re all freaks and there are kooks everywhere. When you grow up SDA, you grow up in a very tight knit group of people, the majority of whom like to have fun, even if they don’t, by and large, dance or participate in competitive sports or listen to rock n roll or endorse the consumption of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, or “flesh foods.” I suppose my problem began to emerge in college, once I started to ask questions about the “27 Fundamental Beliefs.” Also, I started to meet people who weren’t SDA. I started to appreciate different cultures, different cultural experiences, and eventually, I just found the SDA culture much too inhibitive, too insular. From my perspective, the SDA church was one that wanted to provide answers for why everything is the way it is. And those answers were often unsatisfying. Not to mention I surrendered the idea of having to have an answer for everything. I realized that sometimes, it’s okay for things to remain mysterious.

For years I’d tried to write about the SDA experience. But usually, when I did, I aimed at the easiest possible targets, like hypocritical characters, or characters who cherish some secret sin or something; I wrote one really terrible story about a church Treasurer, who had a crush on a teenage boy operating a soft serve yogurt machine. But those stories didn’t work as well; they seemed forced – as artificial and agenda-ridden as the bedtime stories I listened to as a kid, where “little Sammy never disobeyed his mommy and daddy again!” It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the idea of writing about outsiders who experience SDA culture that I found I could really capture both the strangeness and earnestness of SDAs, and use representations of that culture as fuel for the story. Also, I could harness the energies of my own desire (and failure) to fully understand this peculiar group of people, while portraying them as real people with real struggles. Hopefully, despite the fact that SDAs might seem strange, I hope people will see them in a favorable light.

As for SDA reactions: I only know what people in my family have said (though I predict that plenty would be scandalized by the book). My father, who is one of my biggest supporters, has, as of this writing, still not read the book – but that’s not saying a lot: he’s more of a Suduku player and internet news reader. My mom read most of the stories beforehand, I think, and will usually offer some sort of vague praise, like, “I just don’t know how you do it,” or, “How do you think this stuff up?!” Which is sort of how my grandmother reacted. Imagine the nicest and sweetest person on the planet, a woman who has never said anything bad about anybody (and who always, always counteracts criticism of someone else with something positive), and who, when she sees a sex scene in a movie, says, “Aw… I was hoping they weren’t going to be naughty!” And then imagine her reading a story collection by her grandson that’s filled with foul language, sex scenes, violence, and all sorts of pathological behaviors. You know what she said? “It’s not exactly my cup of tea, but what an amazing imagination you have!”

Finally (I know this is a long response, but you ask me about this SDA stuff and it really gets me going), my Uncle Don, whom I adore, and who played in a folk band in the 60s (and recently revived that band) that was the equivalent of the Grateful Dead for SDAs, asked me if he’d be able to use my book for devotionals with his church members. It was a joke, of course, and we both laughed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Like, why couldn’t he use the book for devotionals? It was and is a book about people trying to figure out life and how to live it. So I wrote him and told him what I thought and lo and behold, he not only agreed, but said he’d felt bad about making that joke.

NB: You have some amazing settings: a national park, a laboratory researching hemophiliac dogs, an exhibition of preserved and dissected human bodies, and a religious boarding school, to name just a few. Can you talk about your inspiration for these?

MV: Evoking setting and using it to generate various effects in stories is one of my favorite things to do. I don’t travel that much, but (thanks in part to friends & relatives who’ve been spread over the globe, some as missionaries) I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of the world. Every setting in the book, I think, is a setting that I’ve visited in “real life.” I worked at Yellowstone. I worked at a laboratory researching hemophiliac dogs & pigs. I worked as a field technician in Purdue’s entomology department. I lived in Chapel Hill. I visited Idaho, Atlanta, Carolina Beach. And I attended a religious boarding school in north Georgia. All these settings offered up (at some point) ideas for characters and stories about those characters. Some characters are based on people I encountered in these places (like Mark Scheider, for instance). Others, like the widow in “Second Home,” I came up with on my own. That particular story suggested itself during a visit with my parents and aunt and uncle to a cabin on Lake Sunnapee in New Hampshire. To avoid the older folks, I took a walk through the woods to another lake house, looked around, saw nobody was home, opened the door, and walked inside. I guess that was probably illegal, but I’m glad I did it. I stole a story from that house.

NB: And – is there such a thing as a robotic human baby that records your interactions with it, as depicted in Future Missionaries of America? Or did you come up with this?

MV: I get this question a lot. I WISH I’d come up with it. Maybe I should start saying that I did. At any rate, it’s all real. I asked for information and the company said, “Are you an educator?” and I said yes so they sent me this brochure (which featured a cutaway diagram of one of the babies, which turned out to be really helpful) and a DVD (which I’ve since lost) that talked about how educators could use the babies in the classroom. It was awesome.

NB: Stylistically, your stories are all over the place. You have a footnoted will (in “Will & Testament”), a transcript of an answering machine message (“Man-O’-War”), a few first person narrators, a few third person. Some are more prose-driven (“Oh Land of National Paradise, How Glorious are thy Bounties”), and some defy reality (like my favorite, “Stewards of the Earth”). Did these stories arise from formal experimentation, or did the narrative ideas warrant the differing storytelling techniques?

MV: I’d ascribe the stylistic variations to several different factors. The first is that the stories in the collection came into being over the course of ten years. During that time, I played around with a lot of different styles and voices and narrative forms, and every year, the story manuscript evolved significantly. For a while, maybe during 02-03, I was really interested in the various forms a story could take and thought that it might be cool to publish a collection of stories in different sub-genres, since, in addition to the will and testament story, I had a story that took the form of the last entry in a hipster’s blog, a letter from a deranged and estranged father to his son, and a story called “The Ghost of Bob Ross Paints Shit Town,” which took the form of a transcript of one of Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” shows, only in this one, Bob Ross was dead and painting the neighborhood where I lived at the time, which included such characters a shirtless midget who liked to sit on the roof of his duplex, a boy with a rat tail, and a bearded man riding a moped with a parrot on his shoulder. Also, “The Gospel of Mark Schneider” was originally formatted like a series of chapters from the Bible, with a giant number at the beginning of each section and a number before each sentence (or verse). (At the time, however, VQR couldn’t figure out how to translate that into whatever software they were using at the time, so I agreed to lose the formatting altogether, which was probably a good thing.)

Basically, I get an idea for a story and hope the voice can generate enough energy to sustain the narrative.

NB: In the story “Straightedge,” a secondary character says that her father, “one of Marlon Brando’s personal chefs, had acquired psychic powers after surviving an auto accident, and on the eve on the first moon walk, he’d dreamed of her mother… who he met the next day.” I guess my question is: what? Did this actually come out of your brain?

MV: Ha! Yes!

NB: What are you working on now?

MV: I’m about four-fifths of the way through a first draft of a novel about young woman who has to postpone her dreams of being a collegiate basketball star because she gets knocked up by a soldier during a furlough. The young woman goes to work at a dental office as a receptionist, has the baby. The baby’s father comes back, but he’s changed – he eats all the time, chews tobacco, drinks constantly (though he claims he can’t get drunk), doesn’t sleep, and is obsessed with playing a disturbingly realistic online computer game called Operation Brutal Humiliation. By chance, the young woman meets another man named Donnie Trueblood, a whitewater rafting guide who claims to be a shaman and who informs her that she’s lost her power animal. The rest of the novel documents the young woman’s quest to retrieve this power animal and restore the man she fell in love with. Along the way there’s an overweight 12-year-old magician, a loudmouthed woman who extols the virtues of Christian sex toys, a six foot six barber with a goiter the size of a grapefruit in his neck, and a grandfather dressed up as a vampire.

NB: Who do you like most: Desi Arnez, the Fonz, Magnum PI, McGiver, or John Locke from the TV show “Lost”?

MV: McGiver? Do you mean MacGyver? McGiver! Sounds like some crazy new promotion at McDonald’s. Anyway, no question. Magnum rules.

Read part one in which Matthew interviews Nic.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.

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