I had a good reading year, mostly because of my favorite book. Seek by Denis Johnson wasn’t my favorite, but it was powerful, and it made me want to get a motorcycle. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis made me want to be smarter. Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch was stimulating in almost every line.
I found an old copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter and couldn’t put it down (except twice when I fell asleep—some bits are dull). It tells the story of a young woman awakening to her father’s and her own radicalism in contemporary South Africa. I thought about Gordimer later when I was reading Amis; Gordimer’s just as stylish as Amis, I think, but she doesn’t play the show-off, at least not here.
For short stories, Floodmarkers by Nic Brown was wonderful: naughty and covert. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was better than the hype—when does that happen?—riveting and powerfully anti-horseshit.
But my favorite of the year was Middlemarch. I loved it. The story doesn’t stop opening, there’s limitless room for consciousness. Eliot sustains her inquisition, loves gossip, and rewards patience—the perfect novel. Same pleasures as the best of Jane Austen, but with a much bigger payoff. I still think about it all the time.
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 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.
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.Read part two in which Nic interviews Matthew.