Future 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 first installment, Matthew talks to Nic about his book. Floodmarkers is a collection of linked stories that take place in the fictional town of Lystra, North Carolina, on the day Hurricane Hugo hits in 1989. Daniel Wallace calls it “smart and funny and sexy,” and Publisher’s Weekly compared it to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio but, “simultaneously pared down and amped up, read to the sound of a jangly Strat.”
Matthew Vollmer: My favorite thing about your book is that it’s a total freak show. We’ve got a character who’s in love with his cousin, another who makes out with his friend’s wife, a veterinarian who’s into child porn, a guy who makes his mohawk stiff using microwaved gelatin, a guy who keeps a dead dog in his deep freezer, a former bodybuilder who’s feeling guilty about causing the death of a Vietnamese kid, and (my favorite) an aspiring actor who works in a hot dog factory and helps a fellow employee pop a zit on his back he can’t reach.
Nic Brown: Well, we’re all freaks! These people, if I wrote about the least interesting aspects of their life, might seem totally normal. Might. But we all have secrets or oddities, and that’s what I like to write about. I mean, we live in a weird world, but it seems like most people ignore the weird and claim that everything is normal. I am trying to do the opposite.
MV: Where did the idea for this book originate? Did you have a collection of characters first, then realize, hey, it would be cool if I followed these guys during a freakish weather event, or was it the other way around? In other words, when exactly did your vision for this project begin (what, exactly, did you envision the first time you thought of the idea) and how did that vision change over time?
NB: For a while I found myself writing stories set in the late ’80s, many of which had extreme weather. This tic made me recall Hurricane Hugo, and I began to hang all of these disparate scenes onto that one event. I think I was drawn to the ’80s not because of the decade specifically, but rather because I was 12 or so at the end of the ’80s, and at that age everything is magical and very important. So it’s a sweet spot in my memory. As for the weather, I don’t know. Storms are exciting. Hugo was very memorable for me, more for the build-up than the actual event. In Greensboro, where I was living at the time, we thought we were all going to die. We ended up just having some moderate flooding. But for the most part, the stories arose from the characters, or from a particular scene that I wanted to have happen. The weather was always secondary, and more a structural device that gave all of these events a shared catalyst.
MV: Once you knew that you wanted to write a series of stories set during Hugo, how did you proceed (apart from sitting down at your typewriter and pecking the keys with two fingers)?
NB: I decided to break the day into four sections (before sunrise, morning, afternoon, and evening), and try to make each proportional to the others. With this structure, I’d find that I had a character or event I wanted to use, then I would look at what I had written thus far and pick what part of the day needed to be filled. Writing short stories is so hard, because with each one you often have to create a whole world – a new setting, a new voice, a new tempo. This shared setting and structural formality made the writing a lot easier for me, and ended up producing a book that is somewhere in between a novel and a short story collection. It’s a novel about a town; it’s a story collection about a group of individuals.
MV: Were there other characters and/or stories and/or ideas you ended up not including? If so, talk about them and why you didn’t use them.
NB: I did cut stories. One involved a group of friends who drive to Randolph County to a dance hall called the Rand Ole Opry where, during a barn dance, a man gets on stage and plays “Auld Lang Syne” on the accordion. It was really beautiful, but… I don’t know. I guess it didn’t go anywhere. I wrote another one about a blind man who lives in a duplex and falls in love with the woman on the other side of the house, then goes over there during the storm because he thinks he can hear her pets in distress (due to sensory compensation, he has super-sensitive hearing). He gets locked in and ends up breaking a bunch of stuff, then the woman comes home and finds him in her side of the house. I don’t remember what happens after that. It made readers very nervous.
MV: Are any of your characters based on real people? Are you nervous about people recognizing themselves in the book?
NB: Many of my characters are based on real people. The most obvious is Manny (the trampoline thief in the story “Trampoline”). I have a friend who is Manny. Different name, and he never stole a trampoline or actually did any of the things the fictional Manny does, but he is basically the most uninhibited person I know (and one of the most unique looking – he looks like Sandra Bernhard). I have spent so much time with him that I can envision the type of thing he would say or do in a situation, and I enjoy embodying that uninhibited voice for a while. It’s a great character to write about. My new book features a version of the same character much more extensively.
As for all the others based on real people, yes, I am nervous. And so I am going to say nothing more.
MV: Did you ever get sick of Lystra? Did you ever feel, when writing the book, that you were boxed in? Like, man, I would love to write a story that’s NOT taking place during a hurricane? Or was it like hey, in this next story I’m gonna write, I’m excited to explore this part of this little universe I’m creating.
NB: I never got sick of Lystra – the structured format really helped my creative process – but I did long to write a story that involved different weather and took place over the course of more than one day. I think it is no coincidence that my new novel opens with a scene of extreme sunlight, told in first person.
MV: How much research did you have to do for the book – and what kinds of primary sources did you consult?
NB: I YouTubed weather reports from Hurricane Hugo. That was about it.
MV: You are known for liking small things. You drive a small car – when you’re not driving a moped, which is like a small motorcycle. I also know that you enjoy small burgers. And shots of something called “cacao.” Now, your first book is a book of short stories. And, unlike some collections, many of these are truly “short.” I haven’t counted the pages of most of your stories here, but I remember in workshop you used to turn in 15 or 16 pages like clockwork. I think most of the stories here are about that length. What can you say about the (relatively) short length of your stories?
NB: Hm. That is all true, and had gone basically undiagnosed until you pointed it out. It’s an aesthetic preference I have across medium. When I play music, I prefer very stripped down arrangements. I work at an art museum, and when I have to discuss certain artworks, I usually lean towards the figurative and simple. And the same goes for my food, my modes of transport, and of course – my stories. I am not against extreme complexity or complicated structures or narratives, it’s just that I respond more to something that I can grasp on all sides and feel like I have enough room to find every angle on it. For example, if I had a Ferrari, how would I ever explore all of the things it could do? And where would I park it? Whereas, with my moped, I know exactly how to maximize all of its engine capacity at every speed, I can work on its engine myself, and I can park it anywhere. To me, it’s just as fascinating and fun. It’s the same with my stories. If I can break them down enough where I feel like I’ve cut out everything unimportant and boring, then I can focus on a few simple aspects that I can get the most out of. If it works right, these smaller stories should be as complex as anything larger. And also less boring. I hope.
MV: One thing I saw you do especially well in your collection was to give readers a sense of what’s at stake immediately and save background information for later on down the road. In almost every story, you pull back at some point to deliver a tight, punchy paragraph of expository writing that provides context about the character. These paragraphs are usually only about half a page long, if that, but they become nice little windows for peeking into characters’ histories. Was it important for you to limit background information and flashbacks? And if so, why?
NB: I often write stories hoping to do without any backstory whatsoever. Backstory, flashback, exposition – I always feel like these are the areas that are most likely to lose a reader. That said, when I write a story without exposition or backstory, I usually find that I do need it, so I create these small condensed bits that give us what we need to know but don’t ruin the tempo I’m trying to set.
MV: You wrote a novel (which I read a draft of last year and found hugely entertaining) while your collection was shopped around. Can you discuss the writing process and how it differed from Floodmarkers? What might you say about the novel that would make someone want to read it?
NB: The novel is called Doubles and is about a professional doubles tennis player who is trying to get back into the game after being in a temporary retirement. While writing it, I spent a lot of time with an actual professional doubles player (who let me accompany him to a bunch of tournaments, including the US Open – where he made it to the semifinals and I got to be on CBS sitting in the coach’s box. Hilarious). In the process, I saw into the weird world of this ubiquitous yet obscure sport. The structure of a doubles team is like a marriage, of sorts, and I was fascinated with the personal relationships as well as the tennis side of things. I don’t know. Mostly the book has nothing to do with tennis. It’s about a complex love triangle, basically. But I am obsessed with tennis, so it was nice to work that in.
MV: I’m gonna throw you some names: Cliff. Cotton. Gary Malbaff. Pat Doublehead. Scoville. Evelyn Graham. Leanne Vanstory. Welborne Ray. Bojangles. Casper. Payton Craven. Confetti. Kylie Crook. Hyun Dang. Matthew! Explain how you come up with your AMAZING names!
NB: Well. Let’s see. Matthew is named after you. Bojangles was the name of my old bloodhound. Scoville is the first name of one of my favorite tennis players. Other than that, I just I just made them up, or slightly adapted names of friends that I liked the sound of. I actually never thought of any of those listed as being that weird. Now I’m getting a complex. You always do this. You notice things that are obvious but that other people don’t notice. That’s why you do those impersonations that are so creepy. Like when I last saw you and you did my walk. Or my point. Neither of which I really knew I did until you did them. I thought the weirdest names were Janet and Dan Organtip. Those are pretty ridiculous.
MV: Is/was Meats and Treats (a place mentioned in your book) an actual place? Explain!
NB: Meats and Treats was indeed a real place. All I remember them having stocked was cigarettes, giblets, and turkey necks. It was located on Airport Road in Chapel Hill, and is now Fosters Market, a place run by one of Martha Stewart’s homegirls.
MV: What’s your next book (after Doubles) gonna be about?
NB: Come on now. One or two at a time. I’m not talking about number three just yet.