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Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

Interview by Michael Czyzniejewski (Read the Story) June 17, 2019

Matthew Vollmer

Art by Paul Bilger

The part of this gorgeous story that really sticks out is the narrator noting how Leon used to linger inside hugs and kisses, basically getting a little from his mom. As a storyteller, I do that all the time, adding the conflict (or counterargument) to any tale, even during a loving tribute. I can’t help it, can’t not add those moments. Why are we so fucked up like that?

Because if we’re writers who are interested in telling stories that ring true, then we’ll understand that a tribute isn’t worth much unless it contains at least a few flaws or transgressions. The most interesting things about people are often the ways in which they don’t conform to whatever molds have been prepared for them. I’m always interested in the ways characters hack their own codes. That’s part of the reason I’m so into the TV show Westworld. It’s all about sentient beings waking up to the stories they’ve been told about how the world works. The same thing often happens when you read a good story.

Another favorite moment here is you comparing Alzheimer’s to the icecaps melting and drowning our coasts. Can you do one for hypertension? Heart disease? Restless leg syndrome?

Hypertension: trending rage-Tweets

Heart disease: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Restless leg syndrome: a squirrel trapped in a paper bag

You invoke Denis Johnson in the first line, so I found myself comparing this to a Denis Johnson story the whole time. Pretty ballsy, setting yourself up like that.

Well, Denis Johnson wrote Jesus’ Son, which may be my favorite book of all time. That would make Denis Johnson my literary god. A kind of Christ figure. Which would make me Jesus’ Son—me and all the countless writers who also worship him.

In all seriousness, I think about that line—”the fear of the apocalypse is simply the fear of personal annihilation”—all the time, in part because I grew up in a denomination whose pastors preached every week about the impending Time of Trouble, where the members of my church would have to flee to the mountains in order to escape persecution, hiding out in caves until Jesus Christ returned in a cloud of angels. But it’s a line whose simplicity resonates, as nearly all of Johnson’s work does, with profundity. That’s what I love about it.

The corner store across from my house always had cap guns and those rolls of red caps. Your favorite cheap convenience store toy?

I grew up in a small town in southwestern North Carolina. Small convenience stores were basically all we had. My friend John and I would ride our bikes to a place called Cojo’s and buy Dr. Pepper gum, Little Debbies, Cokes, and G.I. Joe comic books. Does a comic book count as a toy? If not, I’d probably chose one of those cheap plastic knives with the retractable blade. I could stab myself in the legs and arms all day with one of those things.

Yet another theme in this story is that of ghosts, how our living can haunt us, perhaps even more than our dead. When you’re a ghost, how do you hope to haunt those you leave behind?

By rearranging my face, like the dead couple does in Beetlejuice. I think it would be cool to stretch my face out like Silly Putty and wear my plucked out eyes on my fingers. Or, if I’m invisible, by turning stereos way, way up and playing Sunn O)))’s new album Life Metal.

About the Author

Matthew Vollmer is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Permanent Exhibit, a collection of collage-style lyric essays. He teaches in Virginia Tech’s MFA program and lives in Blacksburg, VA.

About the Interviewer

Michael Czyzniejewski’s fourth collection of stories, The Amnesiac in the Maze, is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books in 2023.

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This interview appeared in Issue Sixty-Four of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Four

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