Matthew Vollmer on Crafting Short Stories

PrintMatthew Vollmer’s short fiction has appeared in a wide range of notable journals, including The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Tin House and others, and his work has twice been short-listed for the Best American Short Stories series in addition to being nominated numerous times for the Pushcart Prize. This month, his debut collection, Future Missionaries of America, hits bookstores, and it’s a truly beautiful book, showing a clear mastery of style and offering up a memorable cast of characters in uniquely compelling situations. A waiter at the Old Faithful Inn mourns his best friend, who didn’t pull through his coma, and desires that best friend’s girlfriend, waiting in her dorm room for him. A young woman lies to a fellow worker, an ex-Marine, about being a lesbian and then slowly finds herself falling for him while her relationship with her own boyfriend crumbles. A down-on-his-luck gambler watch his skateboarding son try a maneuver never before attempted in competition: the 720 Upside-Down Cake. And in the title story, a young goth girl and the teenaged son of a evangelical pastor find their plans — and their passions — conflicting and colliding in ways that may change both their lives. 

unknownVollmer earned a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina, an M.A. in English from North Carolina State University, and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He now lives with his wife, Kelly Pender, and their son, Elijah, in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he teaches in the English Department at Virginia Tech.

On the eve of his new book’s publication, Vollmer talks about his own short stories and the crafting of short fiction in general.

Art Taylor: You earned degrees from two strong writing programs: North Carolina State University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. What, specifically, did you learn about writing or about yourself as a writer from each of these programs?

Matthew Vollmer: The teachers I had at N.C. State were really encouraging and the workshops were definitely beneficial in the ways that good workshops usually are: you get your work read, readers say what worked and what didn’t then you decide who to listen to, if anyone. That said, the best experience I had as a student happened outside of workshop. I was taking an independent study in Contemporary American Lit with a professor named Nick Halpern. During that Fall Break, I took a trip to New York. It was Halpern’s idea that my assignment for that week, in addition to finishing Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Farina, should be to record as many observations of NYC as possible. So I did. Upon my return, I read this little travelogue aloud to Halpern in his office. He laughed a lot (a good sign) then told me to turn it into a story. So I did. I came back the next week. Read it aloud. Again he laughed, again he was really encouraging. Told me to write another story the next week. Again I did this. For the remaining eight weeks of the semester, I wrote a story a week, brought it in, and read it to him. It was an amazing experience, one that taught me that I could, under pressure, produce quite a bit of work that was halfway decent. Also, I was impressing a teacher who I had tremendous respect for and wanted badly to impress. (The first time I’d shown him one of my stories — a tale about an ex-punter living in Lincoln, Nebraska — he was like, this is okay, but there are probably 400 people in this country who could write the exact same story. Write the story that nobody but you can write. That was a great wake up call and challenge for me.)

The Workshop at Iowa was much much different. I mean, it’s like this little factory where a bunch of writers go to toil for two years. It happens so fast and you’re working so hard while you’re there, then it’s over, time’s up, and they’ve got a whole new batch of writers to replace you. I guess that might not explain how it’s different than a lot of programs out there. The main difference, and the reason I compare it to a “factory,” is the size: approximately 100 writers at any given time.

I’ll note several things about Iowa:

A. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, and despite playing host to frigid winters and swelteringly humid summers, Iowa City has all the amenities of a great college town: bookstores, coffee shops, diners, a co-op grocery, great local dive bars.

B. Authors — famous, semifamous, young, old, middling, great — are constantly making appearances. Who’s coming this week? Oh, it’s W. S. Merwin. John Ashberry. George Saunders. Jane Smiley. Whoever. Big names. Small names. Whatever. The names — and authors — just kept coming. It’s like there’s this gravitational field that yanks passing writers into town. Which makes you feel like you’re living at the center of something important.

C. There are around 50 fiction writers and 50 poets there at all times. Lots of strong writers, lots of good conversations about writing, lots of support and camaraderie. That’s the best thing about Iowa. The sheer numbers. It’s like, if you can’t find at least a handful of fellow writers to love and admire, you’re not trying.

D. Although faculty didn’t play as big a role as I expected, they were awesome in workshop and seminars. Oddly enough, Jim McPherson was the only permanent faculty member whose class I took and it was one of the best; lots of people have said this before, but he’s like some sort of Jedi in workshop. He says very little, but when he does talk, it’s on the money. I also took classes from visiting faculty, like Elizabeth McCracken, Charles D’Ambrosio and Chris Offutt. All of whom were great.

The weird thing for me is that I’ve done very little with what I produced at Iowa; only a couple stories I wrote there ended up in the collection. And the novel I was working on for the majority of the time I ended up putting away. But — and I guess this is sort of the point — I left feeling like I knew more about what I wanted to do and what kind of writer I was. I also knew that, by that time, I never wanted to step foot in a writing workshop again — unless I was the teacher. You just get to that point where, though you appreciate the suggestions, it begins to transform into this really toxic interference, which can seem almost paralyzing at times.

While individual stories in Future Missionaries of America cover a wide range of characters and plots, many of the stories share a common focus on love and are suffused with a sense of longing and of loneliness. What drew you to this combination of emotional elements?

Loneliness. I’ve heard this a time or two to describe these stories and it never really occurred to me before to think of them in that way, although upon reflection I do see it. I feel like any explanation on my part is going to feel artificial here, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that maybe it has something to do with my formative years, growing up in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina, being a part of a religious movement that defined itself as “not of this world,” attending a boarding school in rural Georgia. Like most humans, I experienced a lot of desires and longings, and though I wouldn’t necessarily have ever described myself as truly lonely, I did feel for many years that I was, thanks to my religion, different, not of the world, not meant to be a part of the world. And yet, that’s exactly what I wanted: to feel like I could make connections with anyone.

When I sit down to write something new, I usually begin with character — usually one who’s dealing with a strange problem, impulse, or desire: man wants to talk to wife but she’s dead, girl pretends to be a lesbian to get attention of ex-Marine, girl wants guy to love him but his religion won’t permit it, widow returns to family vacation home to find her son there with an older man. Then I just try to write the kind of thing I’d like to read. It’s pretty basic. Make something that sounds real, isn’t boring, and generates some linguistic energy. I’ve read and continue to read so many stories that seem like they want you, as a reader, to think them exquisitely written but end up seeming dead on the page (too predictable, too “literary,” not risky enough, etc.).

As for the collection as a whole, it’s gone through so many different permutations. The collection in 2002 looks nothing like the one now (thankfully). There were stories I’d published that I didn’t include because looking back on them, they didn’t seem that great. And then there were others that never got published and most of those were even worse. So it’s changed a lot. And I worried for a long time about a theme. The stories didn’t take place in one location. They weren’t linked in any way, except by the fact that I was the writer. Then I got to a place where I just had a bunch that I liked and felt like they belonged together. So I sent it out.

You talk about the starting point for several of these stories — and those set-ups are great — but it’s  the endings that ultimately impress me the most, both their lyricism and poignance and the fact that they don’t always settle things, that they sometimes end at a point where things might just be beginning in some way. A couple of craft questions from all this. First: Which is the more challenging to you as a writer: starting a story or finishing one?

Finishing one. Hands down. I could start a dozen — maybe three dozen — stories in one day if I tried. But finishing those, following through, developing the characters, getting the voices right, nailing the scenes, figuring out what goes where or if it even belongs — that stuff can and actually has taken years. Often, a story has to sit with me for a while. I need to start it, work on it, put it away, come back to it. Then, actually finishing one? Man. It happens, for me, like ten percent of the time.

Well, focusing on that ten percent then: What gives you a sense of satisfaction in the final paragraphs of a short story — both as a writer, bringing one of your own stories to a close, and as a reader of other authors’ works?

Like most people, I enjoy a sense of stuff having happened and then the character reaching a point where transformation has occurred, or might. I like not knowing how a plotline is going to end and then watching it end and feeling both satisfied and wishing I could keep reading. I like surprises. The inexplicable. I realize that I tend to like (and write) endings that are, for better or worse, rhapsodic. It could be seen as a sort of a weakness, I guess. Again, for me, it’s about the kind of energy and momentum generated by language and that energy somehow finding a way to wind down in a way that’s satisfying.

I think of that Cheever story “The Sorrows of Gin” that’s narrated, for the first ninety percent, in third person from the perspective of a young girl, who, at the end, goes to a train station to run away. And then suddenly in the last paragraph we get the father’s perspective, this guy who’s basically one of the main reasons that she’s leaving (he’s a raging alcoholic who fires a maid for  supposedly stealing his gin, when in fact his daughter has been dumping it out), who has this amazing quasi-epiphany about, well, shoot. I’m just gonna have to type out that paragraph to make my point:

“It was dark by the time Mr. Lawton got down to the station. He saw his daughter through the station window. The girl sitting on the bench, the rich names on her paper suitcase, touched him as it was in her power to touch him only when she seemed helpless or when she was very sick. Someone had walked over his grave! He shivered with longing, he felt his skin coarsen as when, driving home late and alone, a shower of leaves on the wind crossed the beam of his headlights, liberating him for a second at the most from the literal symbols of his life — the buttonless shirts, the vouchers and bank statements, the order blanks, and the empty glasses. He seemed to listen — God knows for what. Commands, drums, the crackle of signal fires, the music of the glockenspiel — how sweet it sounds on the Alpine air — singing from a tavern in the pass, the honking of wild swans; he seemed to smell the salt air in the churches of Venice. Then, as it was with the leaves, the power of her figure to trouble him was ended; his gooseflesh vanished. He was himself. Oh, why should she want to run away? Travel — and who knew better than a man who spent three days of every fortnight on the road — was a world of overheated plane cabins and repetitious magazines, where even the coffee, even the champagne, tasted of plastics. How could he teach her that home sweet home was the best place of all?”

I don’t think you can read that — whether you’ve read what comes before or not — and not be like: wow. There’s so much happening there. The prose itself is so elegant and elaborate and lyrical and surprising; there’s so many twists and turns, and despite how random the details seem at first, in the end they all feel necessary (even the glockenspiel) in building to this particular crescendo. The paragraph reveals a great deal about the father, and though it deepens our sense of his world, and thus his daughter’s world, it certainly doesn’t resolve anything. In fact, it sort of creates a new problem, which in its own way feels revelatory: a father realizes that he must try to teach his daughter that “home sweet home” is best, while we as the readers are not only thinking, well, THAT’S never going to happen, but also, wow, that rings really true, because we all live in these illusory worlds and have good intentions and dream about false legacies. And for Cheever to take this amazing turn at the end of a story and at the same time bring all of this stuff up in a way that takes your breath away — that’s really something.

Finally, and inevitably, I guess: I know that writing short stories can’t entirely be considered a “warm-up” for writing a novel (a mistake that’s too common to writing programs, in my opinion), but is there a novel in the works? If so, what are the new challenges you’re facing with a longer work, and how are you drawing on your fine skills as a short story writer to address those new challenges?

I am writing a novel. I wrote one before my son was born — it was a tale that took place in the mountains where I grew up, during the hunt for a fugitive — but it never got taken. I’m glad it didn’t now (way too many autobiographical details in there!) but at the time it was a crushing defeat. Even after the novel had been rejected by a few dozen houses, I kept revising it. Finally, I sort of let it drift away. A couple years later, I tried to write another novel about a rogue demon who, both for kicks and to feel closer to God, inhabits the bodies of kids at a Christian boarding school, and I may end up returning to that material at some point, but right now I’m about 40K words into a novel that’s been really fun to work on and that I think may even see the light of day. It’s about a young woman whose life has been derailed, in part because of her relationship with a soldier with whom she ends up having a child. The soldier goes to war, while she works in a dental office and takes care of her son — a very difficult baby — and waits for the soldier to return. During this time, she ends up meeting a charismatic shaman who tells her she’s lost her “power animal.” The resulting story centers on the young  woman, her baby, the shaman, the shaman’s ex-wife, and her husband-to-be — who returns from combat a changed man.

The main difference between short stories and novels is — and you won’t believe the genius of this — that short stories are short and novels are long. So I tend to think of it like I’m just working on a really long story. Or series of stories. And my goal is to keep stuff happening. Give the main character plenty to do and/or overcome or respond to. To me, a person in a strange and uncomfortable and even desperate situation generates a lot of potential energy, so I just keep on finding ways to make life hard for them. Because for most people, I think, that’s how life is.

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