Matthew Vollmer's This World Is Not Your Home
On Connecting and Forgetting in Counterbalance: A Review and Interview with Matthew Vollmer by Eli Megibben
In This World is Not Your Home, new from EastOver Press in 2022, Matthew Vollmer guides the reader on a dissection of his life via memories and reflections, braiding the threads of his Seventh-day Adventist upbringing with his almost literary coming-of-age stories and introspective adulthood into 226 intimate and revelatory pages.
Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction, Gateway to Paradise (Persea Books, 2015) and Future Missionaries of America (published by MacAdam Cage and Salt Modern Fiction, 2010), as well as two collections of essays, inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012) and Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2018). With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), which collects a number of stories that masquerade as other forms of writing. Vollmer is also the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, a volume of everyday invocations from over 60 writers, each of whom were charged with writing–regardless of their religious inclinations–a prayer. This World Is Not Your Home is Vollmer's fifth book.
Throughout the manuscript, Vollmer plays with form and delivery. The payoff of Vollmer’s innovations are perhaps most notable in the piece, “Notes for an Essay in Special Music.” Possibly the strongest essay in the collection, “Notes” serves as an introspective slice-of-life piece that explores the music played in and around the congregation of the writer's youth. The word notes in the title is a double entendre referring both to the notes that make up music and to the form Vollmer uses to tell the story. “Notes” is structured to read like a list of journal entries to be used at a later date in composing subsequent drafts of an essay.
Vollmer's choice to break the fourth wall, makes the reader feel like they have an exclusive peek behind the curtain of the author’s writing process. Through these notes, Vollmer offers a nostalgic meditation on music and the different functions it has served in both his spiritual and secular life. Vollmer’s notes eventually meander into a reflection on the start of his adult life via his relationship with 80's rock and pop. With this turn, Vollmer draws an interesting juxtaposition between the music that molded and reaffirmed his religious upbringing and the music that pulled him away from some of the strict rituals and rules of the Adventists and into discovering how he wanted to situate himself in the world and within his faith.
The most consistent theme of the book is the way that Vollmer relates to and reflects on his past. One of the ways that the writer interacts with his past is through the use of questions. He questions the reader and he questions himself. His questions often serve as jumping-off points for his writing and lend themselves to long sequences of introspection. It feels as if Vollmer is looking at a family photo album and then into a mirror and then at the next page in the photo album and then back into the mirror. This back-and-forth makes for writing that is well-paced and steady, allowing the reader to soak up every word of the writer's prose.
The most timely and universally-relevant piece in the collection is the essay titled “Never Forget.” This essay recalls Vollmer's experience as a faculty member at Virginia Tech during the infamous 2007 mass-shooting. Framing it within the context of a massacre that happened on the land hundreds of years before, Vollmer questions the significance of public memory and pokes holes in the cultural inclination to “never forget” by asking how realistic those inclinations are. Contemporary readers are living through (surviving) a particularly violent moment in recent history and thanks to technological advances and certain legislative decisions, the average person (and especially the average American) has relatively easy access to weapons that carry with them the potential to create carnage. While never explicitly mentioning technology or legislature, Vollmer’s reflections in this piece beg the questions: “what do we really mean by ‘never forget?' Which parts are we ‘never forgetting’ and which parts have we already forgotten? Is our energy better spent preventing than it is remembering?”
I had occasion to correspond recently about the writer regarding This World Is Not Your Home. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:
EM: One of the most consistent themes I noticed in your stories was the way in which you were able to offer critiques of some of the more unsavory faith-based experiences that you had growing up while still remaining steadfast in the aspects that you have taken into adulthood. How were you able to walk that line? Is that something that came naturally to you or something you have had to develop over the years?
MV: Writing about religion and spirituality isn't an easy thing to do but like most things that require effort and nuance, it takes practice. If you raise a child in a strict religious family, that child is not likely to have a choice in terms of what they believe—at least not at first. They likely won't be asked about what they think. They will be told. That's a hard wall to climb over, assuming one gets the gumption to do so. And if they one day figure out that their beliefs are different from the church in which they were raised, it can become a whole THING. I can't stress this enough. To disentangle yourself from a religion that has been uploaded into your brain since day one is incredibly difficult. In fact, even if you want to delete it you can't. And maybe you shouldn't. Your family's religion is your religion whether you like it or not. A religion is like a language. You learn how to speak it and then you realize whether or not it makes sense to make sense of your world. If it doesn't you find or make a new one. But the old words are always with you and will in some sense always be a comfort. The happiest moments from my childhood and the ones that are most precious to me now are entangled with religious practice. Every Friday, to prepare for the approaching Sabbath (which began at sundown), my family would make preparations for that sacred day and we would often begin observance by eating a simple meal together. Turning off the television and radio, lighting candles, singing songs alongside my piano-playing mother, saying prayers, telling stories: even though I am no longer a practicing Adventist, these are memories that I cherish.
EM: Easily the most harrowing piece in this collection was “Never Forget.” How did you go about writing that piece? Was your process different for that story than it was for the other stories you wrote?
MV: That was a difficult one. I remember that in the aftermath of the shootings, everything seemed distorted. What reality were we in? What could we believe or know for sure? The university shut down for a few days. People were wandering around campus, disoriented and dazed. Nobody knew what to do. Nothing felt right. I remember typing up fragments—phrases to document observations—without knowing why. I had no intention. I wasn't thinking at the time "I'll write about this." I was simply recording. Eventually, though, a narrative began to take shape. But it had to incubate. For years. I would revisit the document every so often, add a phrase, a paragraph. I was haunted by "never forget" and the notion that Virginia Tech would "prevail." I didn't believe either of those things, both of which had been uttered by poets and administrators nearly as soon as the shootings had happened. The university seemed to want to mythologize its survival—as a way of surviving. But it didn't seem fair—or realistic. Lots of people were not going to prevail. And many more would forget—or never know, not really, about the shootings. Violence on such a staggering level seems of course unforgettable and often is to those who are close by. But what about those who weren't there? We just recently commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the shootings but I suspect few students here remember that day. In five years, nobody will. It's reminiscent of the Draper's Meadow Massacre, which happened in the late 1800s on land that is now Virginia Tech's campus. My guess is that most residents here haven't heard about that gruesome event. Given enough time and distance, even the most awful occurrences will fade away. And that, I think, is part of what I was getting at in the writing of that essay.
EM: I was doing some research for this book (perusing your Twitter feed) and I saw where you mentioned that you shared the manuscript with your son. What was it like offering your son such an intimate glimpse into your inner world? Were you self-conscious or excited or something else entirely? Were there certain stories or parts of stories that you kept from him?
MV: My son, who is a first-year Architecture major at the University of Virginia, has read my work before. But this was the first time he'd asked to. I was excited to share the book with him, especially since he figures as a character in several of the stories. He texted me his reaction: "it was dope I enjoyed it." His favorite essay seemed to be "How to Write a Love Story," in part because he said he'd never heard me talk about that period of my life, which surprised me. I feel like I talk about boarding school ALL the time. It must have seemed exotic and flabbergastingly weird to discover that your father lost his virginity on an island in the Bahamas during a senior trip sponsored by a school that basically treated physical contact between boys and girls like a crime.
EM: Building off of my last question, what is it like having a public facing job (college professor) and writing so intimately? Do you ever worry about who will read your work? Have you had to grapple with finding a balance between blunt authenticity and diplomatic omission of detail? If so, how did you strike that balance?
MV: I don't worry who will read my work. I'm a writer. I'm here to document my experience as a language-driven, consciousness-owning mammal on a vibrantly populated rock orbiting a star. I try to practice what I try to teach my students: be brave, be vulnerable, write immersive narratives that take risks and experiment with form and tell only the stories you can tell. Be honest but also know that everything you make is a fabrication. Understand that you will make mistakes, that nothing is so fallible as memory, that life isn't a comprehensible, linear experience as much as it is a collage of often confusing sensory details. Learn how to perform yourself on the page. And recognize that if writing something makes you uncomfortable, you're probably entering territory whose fruit is worth harvesting. I have an urge to narrate. I think it's inherited. My parents were storytellers. They were very good at observing and cataloguing odd and idiosyncratic behaviors. Writing always came naturally to me—in a way almost nothing else did, aside from music and drawing. I don't think I was especially gifted as a child. I simply had an inclination. I remember in high school, after having read some Sylvia Plath, I wrote a poem about a girl who had broken my heart and read it aloud to my friends. I remember that the language I'd used had been raw and uncompromising and that my friends had been like, "damn." I appreciated their reaction. I felt alive. Powerful. I think I'm always looking for that when I write something. It's a way to gain control—or the illusion of control. And often the best stories are those that most other people feel are "too private." But I often think about something Mister Rogers once wrote in a book: "the most personal is the most universal." If I can zero in on the personal—however embarrassing or shameful—perhaps what I'm doing is making something that will connect with someone else on a deeper level.