A conversation between Nicole Walker and Matthew Vollmer about Vollmer’s recently released winning nonfiction collection This World Is Not Your Home
Nicole Walker: What don’t all memoirs/creative nonfictions use ‘this distant third person’?
Matthew Vollmer: Great question. I feel like I first discovered or became aware of the possibility when reading J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life. I was so drawn to and mesmerized by the narrative distance it created. It seemed so natural but also so strange. I grew up in a cove at the base of a mountain between two streams and for a time during my youth was so obsessed by the National Football League that I couldn’t watch more than a few minutes of a game before I became so electrified with inspiration—surely I could twist and turn and leap and accelerate like the running backs I so admired—that I’d run down the mossy hill of our weird shadowy, clover-ridden lawn to impersonate what I’d seen, throwing the football high in the air, and leaping over shrubs and landing on fallen persimmons to catch it. While I did so, I always narrated my actions as if sportscasters were watching me. “Can you believe it? Another touchdown for Vollmer! He’s unstoppable! Is there anything this running back can’t do?” Turns out, there’s a connection between me pretending to be an NFL great and the religion of my youth: Seventh-day Adventists [As we edited the interview, MV clarified to me that “the hyphen because seventh modifies day, followed by the small “d,” the lack of capitalization there (which is official) I have no explanation for.”—NM] believe each person on Earth has a “recording angel” in heaven who writes their each and every action (but maybe not thought, I don’t think?) in a Book of Life, which, once the main character has reached his end, is delivered to Jesus Christ, who has been poring over the recorded lives of humanity since October 22, 1844 (initially mistaken by William Miller to represent the day of the Second Coming and hereafter referred to by SDAs as “The Great Disappointment) so that He can read it, judge it, blot out the asked-for-forgiveness sins to be forgiven, and decide whether said human has met the requirements for admission to heaven. I mean, that might be a crudely oversimplified way of depicting actual Adventist theology, but it’s not exactly inaccurate nor would it be an interpretation that a half-paying-attention person like myself would come up with. In short, I’ve been thinking of myself as a character in a book my whole life, and I suspect other non-SDA folks have, too, and the quintessential perspective, I’d argue, especially if you grew up Christian and listened to the parables of Jesus Christ, which are always in third person, is the same.
NW: How much fun is it to write sentences like “spends his days staring into mouths: flesh-scapes of rotting bone, where incomprehensibly strong tongues, coated with mucousthick yellow plaque, lap involuntarily against his rubbergloved fingers, like quick blind slugs.”(17) ?
MV: I can attest that it’s very, very fun. I’ve talked with my dad—and interviewed him extensively—for various projects over the years, and I’ve stolen a lot of his language and metaphors without ever really giving him credit; for instance, he once described one of the saddest mouths he’s ever seen as having a set of worn-down teeth that resembled “little erasers.” He’s a good storyteller. I mean, he always talks about how he could never do what I do—i.e., write—but he’s spent his life telling stories and listening to them. His office is basically a Moth Hour Storytelling Theater in miniature. Every person who comes in is a character, whether they think they are or not—and it’s always entertaining to meet them. And I had the pleasure and privilege of watching him recently, hours after his 75th birthday party, which was held in his dental office waiting room, open birthday cards that his staff had asked his patients to write him. For every one that he opened, aside from the one person he referred to as “whoever that is,” he had stories about them. He knows them. He loves them. And he’s connected to them by story. What else would he be connected by? Charts? Bloody teeth? Cakes delivered to the office by patients? Well, actually, all of that, but no better than by stories.
NM: How does writing in the third person help the reader to see the narrator’s understanding of expectations and norms? To be, I hope, a little clearer: How then do you, dear author, undermine those expectations and norms? In the following sentences, it is clear that the man knows the difference between perfection envisioned and reality performed. Does the third person point of view help the author show the schism between expectation and reality? For example, “One might even say—as the man couldn’t help but think—that they were walking right through the middle of a quintessential summer evening, as if the night itself was pulling out all the stops to put on the performance of the season. The man and woman turned a corner. (8)”
MV: Narrative distance is everything in this particular situation. I had a story to tell and one that did not always depict me favorably. I am also, I think, an essentially comic writer—that is, I am always playing with perceptions and interrogating and satirizing myself and others. Third person makes it sometimes easier—and actually more amusing to me, especially when I get to emphasize my character-ness—to achieve these effects. Writing is representative, and characters in writing no matter what the POV are always structures, though third person seems to highlight this, especially if the person writing it is writing themselves in third. For some reason, I find it essentially comic to tell a story about oneself without using the first-person pronoun. It also heightens the narrative’s essential deception. Stories always deceive and when they lean into the deception it’s almost like they’re getting closer to reality. See what I’m doing? Don’t trust me. You shouldn’t. Even if I’m trying to tell the truth.
NW: So, if above I ask you to describe the power of the third person, here I ask, what is the power of the second person? If the third person is the comparative point of view of, what is the second? The directive? Or the inclusive? An example of what I’m talking about:
“Oh, and this is important: overanalyze everything. When you enter the cafeteria, and Eve, sliding her tray toward the juice machine, doesn’t immediately see you and smile, panic. Is she ignoring you on purpose? Or is she only pretending to ignore you so that you won’t think she’s too into you? Is this a pride thing. (63)”
MV: I love second person. Probably more than I should. But for this specific story, it makes a particular kind of sense. If you grew up in a relatively strict religious environment, like I did, you were always negotiating what was permitted and what wasn’t. We used to have these cassettes we listened to on long car rides. “Your Story Hour,” it was called (even the title was in second person, I’m realizing). It was narrated by Aunt Sue and Uncle Dan. Familial figures. It had actors and sound effects and digressions where Aunt Sue and Uncle Dan would supply additional transitional narration (Uncle Dan was always the voice of the Lord, as I remember). But I remember that the stories often depicted situations where young people were tempted to engage in wrongful behavior. A boy, I remember, had been sweeping a bank vault as an afterschool job and a kind of nasally, ribald, gangster voice tempted him to, “Go ahead, take a little dough,” while another voice, a resonant baritone, instructed him to, “Don’t do it” and reminded him that “you know it’s not right to take money that isn’t yours.” So anyway, what I’m trying to get across is that if you’re introduced to the idea that voices exist in your head and some are good and others are bad, you’re going to listen for them, to fear their existence, and to actually hear or imagine you hear them. Even if you don’t grow up religious you inherit a shit ton of voices: your mother’s, your father’s, your teachers’. And they’re always with you, repeating shit, haunting you with their authoritative instructions despite the fact that the truth is that, at some point, they don’t know more than you do. Growing up in a religious boarding school amplifies this. You go to church three times a day basically. And there are always “messages.” You’re always being told what to do (be on time to church, don’t wear disheveled clothing, don’t endorse rock and roll bands by wearing their T shirts)—and what not to (don’t give piggyback rides to girls, don’t drink caffeine, don’t swear, don’t give in to self-pleasure, etc.). So what happens if you narrate the thoughts that go through your head as if they were the inevitable instructions for how to be yourself? Not the idealized self the school wants you to be but the self you actually were, despite trying not to be? Seems like maybe you end up ennobling that second-person point of view—or, in this case, imperative mode—with the ability to get closer to truth, or at least giving it the appearance of being able to do so.
NW: It takes the narrator a while to break the rules of his Seventh-day Adventist religion. Sexual desire eventually leads him to bend, then break rules of celibacy until marriage. Why do people break narrative rules—does some kind of desire lead them astray?
MV: One of the actual narrative threads of my existence—one that had been written by my mother in a diary she kept of her observations of her first born (this was apparently a thing mothers did in the seventies)—involved my predilection to disobey. Apparently, I liked the toilet. I mean what kid wouldn’t? It’s a throne with water that, if certain levers are activated, create a freaking waterfall. There’s experience—what you think is truth—and then there’s everything else: what others try to convince you is true. And it may be or not. But I think that people break narrative rules for the reasons they break the rules in real life. They’re mischievous. They’re fun-loving. They’re seductive. They’re convention-defying. Suspicious of the norms. Secretly wondering whether everything they’ve been told is bullshit. Have an inherent sense that everything about our world is a construct. To mess with form is to play. And I love everything that word suggest: lyricism, music, improvisation, pretending, making up, and becoming.
NW: To tell the truth is to admit complicity in everything you mention in this essay in the book—complicit in admiring beauty, in reverence, in friendship, in concentration camps. Is this a rule you hold for your writing—to admit complicity? And do you ever break it? What would it mean to reject complicity? This is a selfish question. As someone who writes about the west, I feel like I have to mention the land stolen by white settlers but as I point it out, I feel shame for just writing, not doing, anything about it. As you mention at the end, “I didn’t say a word.” Maybe words are enough. The quotation below made me think of this:
“A friend?” I said. I was incredulous. I said no way could he be friends with a man he merely humored, that true friends weren’t afraid to say what they thought, which was that the Nazi was (at best) misguided and (at worst) a lunatic; that he had constructed, unbeknownst to all the people living in trailers and cabins along this road, a private shrine to the Third Reich; that he apparently thought Heinrich Himmler was a character worthy of admiration; that he obviously thought
the Holocaust hadn’t existed—at least not in the way most understood it; and that unless my father had come out and said what he truly believed, he was silently endorsing the Nazi’s viewpoints. (94)”
MV: This is a difficult question. It’s true that white settlers stole western land—but what part of “America” didn’t they steal? But also, what can you—or me or any other person—actually do about it? What should you do? I often think about ignorance and its bliss and omg Ukraine and human trafficking and the man I know who lives five or so blocks from me who has committed heinous crimes and who I’ve fantasized about bludgeoning with a baseball bat so that I might to restore some kind of justice—but where does it end? When—and how—would my sense for justice and so-called order be satiated? I’m not arguing for complacency or non-action or sticking one’s head in the proverbial sand. But I am advocating for caution and self-awareness, because I don’t know everything. In fact, I know almost nothing. I’ve heard things and I’ve been told a lot—in fact, I’ve probably heard 100,000 times more stories than my ancestors ever did. But what does that translate into for me? I’m not sure I know. What I was thinking at the Nazi’s house: I don’t “know” as much as this guy. The Nazi had a kind of self-contained, airtight narrative he’d been constructing for years about a certain group of people and I suspected he would’ve disintegrated whatever anecdotes I could’ve supplied with laser-like precision. And to think I could’ve “changed his mind” down there in that vault? Please. But still, I knew he was wrong, and I let him think I might be on his side. That, to me, was the true crime. And one that will continue to haunt me.
NW: From “Never Forget”: “One of the few things we do know for sure is that no trace of these settlers’ cabins remains. When I say we, it’s not even clear what I mean. The massacre, which I’ve rarely, if ever, heard anyone talk about, has been largely forgotten. The majority of Blacksburg’s current residents seem largely unaware of the event. (99)”
This troubled ‘we” is lovely. In a book whose craft forwards point of view choices, this seems like a necessary explication. If you could make a rule about using “we” in nonfiction, what would it be?
MV: Avoid it, whenever possible! Lol. But honestly, that probably is a good rule. I had a friend read a manuscript of mine semi-recently who pointed out a couple times when I used “we” that made him uncomfortable—in fact, I think using “we” in place of “all humans” is probably, in most cases, problematic. Who can speak for all of humanity? Who can even speak for a town? I think the “When I say we, it’s not even clear what I mean” phrase stemmed from the guilt of deploying first person plural. It always feels at least somewhat false to use “we” because who the hell do I think I am? I am barely able to speak for myself, much less an entire collective, none of whom have been actually polled or signed off on what I’ve said. And yet, in this particular case, the “we” amplifies certainty, which is always an elusive thing to come by. All that remains of Draper’s Meadow Massacre is story. Hearsay. The use of “we” then is irrefutable. There are no physical remains of the settlement. And therefore, I suppose, the “we”—which also suggests “nobody” as in “nobody can find any remains”—is justified.
NW: How much is “not being alarmed” part of a writer’s rules? The postmodern idea of making the extraordinary ordinary, the abnormal normal. This postmodern flatness imbues our daily perspective to not be alarmed. The narrator latently judges himself with dramatic irony of knowing now what he couldn’t know then but with a tone of accusation that reads “you should have known.” “A couple of ambulances speed past. I am not alarmed. I don’t think, Those are for the dead and dying. Three girls, wearing coats and pajama bottoms, emerge from the dorm next door. They light cigarettes. They yell something incomprehensible and defiant. They laugh. (102)”
Or, later in the essay, is the cool flatness a prophylactic, as you write “spraying my brains against Hokie stone. But nobody does. For me, violence is an imaginary reconstruction, a sick fantasy I replay over and over, if only to prepare myself for the moment when it happens for real, and I can say, with some detachment, This is exactly how I imagined it. (123)” When should we be alarmed and how would we write it?
MV: Writing anything at all presupposes a kind of calmness—a “cool flatness” as you said, a description I like. I want to say that to depict an alarming situation with any semblance of fulness requires composure. I think of: “Be still and know that I am God.” Or Wordsworth’s insistence that poetry “takes its origin from emotion lines composed in tranquility.” Makes sense to me. To depict any emotion or state of mind—including “being alarmed”—necessitates a certain concentration and attentiveness. So to answer your question, I suppose we should be alarmed whenever we face danger but depicting it, at least for me, requires distance and serenity.
NW: The concern about pronouns and inclusivity of the ‘we’ comes back here:. “We will prevail—a phrase that’s already been transformed into signage, emblazoned upon the back windows of Blazers and Explorers and Range Rovers like so many talismans. I worry about the we. I worry it’s not true. Would we all prevail (119)?” I think this might be the core of this book—the question of who is ‘we’? How do you track the many “we’s”?
MV: This feels true: the core of the book could be asking “who are we”? What is useful to say about all of humanity? The entirety of a particular denomination? A family? Is the use of “we,” ultimately, a fiction? What could anyone possibly get right when invoking first person plural? What can I even get right about my own experience of the external world when literally everything I sense about it happens inside my body? As the scientist Karl Popper liked to say, the only thing anyone can say with any certainty—and the most profound thing one can utter—is this: “I know nothing.”
NW: Is an essay collection breaking the rules of book publishing?
MV: Man, it feels like it.
NW: Imagining the narrator’s wife’s death—fully rule breaking! Terrible and great?
MV: Terrible and great, yes. It goes back, I suppose, to the part in “NeVer FogeT” when I imagine my own brains being blown out—a kind of safeguard against the surprise of getting killed or simply dying. It’s a kind of magical thinking: if I can imagine something happening—especially if I can imagine something tragic—then it won’t hurt as much. But anyone who’s actually experienced the loss of someone they love will tell you: no matter how much imagining you do, you’ll never know what it feels like until it happens.
NW: If the first half of the book is geared toward point of view, in particular, the POV of a kid growing up in a Seventh-day Adventist household, what do you think describes the second half of the book, which has objects more at its center. Did I just answer my own question?
MV: I never thought of it like that but that’s interesting—and yes I think you did!
NW: Isn’t this the breaking the movie-version rule to space where silence is the only sound?
“Fifty years later, I talked by phone to Dr. Gurnett, who explained that—other than the sounds made by humans and animals—there aren’t all that many “natural” sounds to hear on earth. Wind blowing through trees. Thunder. Waves on the beach. Rain. Falling ice. But that’s about it. However, it turns out that plasma (that is, ionized gas) has various modes of propagation and thus creates a wide array of soundwaves. (170) ”
NW: Does the third person read like fiction? Can such a fiction still be an essay?
MV: I struggled with this exact question when attempting to categorize the collection. Hence the tagline to the title: “essays, stories, & reports.” An essay, for me, isn’t truly an essay unless it’s struggling to understand something. An essay is self-aware. It’s mobile. Capable of digressions. Of wanderings. And wonderings. A good essay is speculative, meditative, improvisational. Capable of self-reflection, self-critique. A story can obviously have all of those things—think Clarice Lispector’s narration in her novel The Story of an Hour where the narrator often confesses that he’s forgotten things or wonders aloud, “Am I a monster? Or is it this what it feels to be a person?”—but the ways in which both “Supermoon” and “Over the River and through the Woods” unfold (third person and more or less sequentially) feel more traditionally “story-like” to me. And this, I think, amplifies the fictional qualities of the narrative. Of course, all nonfiction is fiction—language itself being metaphorical and never capable of fully representing or capturing the radiant fulness of human consciousness—but some nonfictional forms feel more like traditional fiction. If I were to deploy “once upon a time,” and then begin talking about “a man” and “a woman,” readers would likely and immediately pick up these cues as signaling that we’re in Storyland. Which we are every time we speak or read. Only sometimes it’s easier than others to forget.
NW: I do have one more quick question about the title This World Is Not Your Home. Is the title meant to alert the reader to the shifting points of view? Is this world any pronoun's home (you don't have to answer the last part?
MV: The title is meant to underlie the position of the church I grew up in. There was a hymn I remember where a line was “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through, my treasures are laid up beyond the blue”
Matthew 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 (for examples of work that exhibit these traits, visit the Vollmer-curated literaryartifacts.tumblr.com). 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. His fifth book, This World Is Not Your Home, was recently published by EastOver Press in March 2022. Hub City will publish a book-length essay in 2023: All of Us Together in the End.
NICOLE WALKER is the author of eight books, most recently Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh and Navigating Disaster (2021), Sustainability: A Love Story (2018) and the collaborative collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. (2019). She is the co-president of NonfictioNOW and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a noted author in Best American Essays. Her work has been most recently published in the New York Times, Longreads, The Georgia Review and The Southern Review, among other places. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ and serves as the Crux Series Editor for University of Georgia Press, and, after a hiatus, curates the Breaking the Rules” column for Essay Daily.