Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of fiction — Gateway to Paradise and Future Missionaries of America — as well as a collection of essays — inscriptions for headstones. With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. He teaches at Virginia Tech. His essay "Party Line" is featured in the Spring 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, April 2, for special savings and discounts.
We chose Matthew's story because it delves into a religious upbringing with humor and honesty. "Party Line" may be the funniest story we've published to date, but we didn't publish it just for its sense of humor. The unique perspective, clarity, and earnestness with which Matthew examines his religious upbringing allows the reader to fully consider Matthew's childhood predicament within a mature narrative. This essay is an excellent example of what can occur on the page when the author combines his sense humor with a deft ability to write and ask questions. — Nonfiction Editor, Cameron Maynard
One of the reasons we love this essay is its use of humor, especially in examining the crosscurrent of a religious upbringing and teenage sexual urges. What made you want to explore this idea in an essay at this point in your career?
As a writer, I have been slowly but steadily scrolling backward in time. The more I learn about the world, the more I realize that my formative experiences are truly unique. I grew up in a town of 1,600 in the mountains of North Carolina and had virtually nothing in common with kids my age. I went to a school of 30 kids in grades one to eight and attended church on Saturday. I didn't hunt, didn't play sports, was always kind of an outsider. I went to boarding school in north Georgia, and that world was as strange and harrowing and glorious as anything I've ever experienced. Almost all my relatives on both sides of my family are Seventh-day Adventists; I grew up believing we were on the cusp of the apocalypse and the day would soon come that we would, as a church, be persecuted for our beliefs. In the meantime, we should shun the world and learn to stand firm upon the word of God. It was this crucible from which I emerged, and the details of which I feel as if I'm basically just starting to really excavate.
The essay feels very Southern — and not just because of setting, but also in the way you approach religion. What is it about the Southern religious experience that can lend itself to humor?
I have to confess that I don't necessarily think of myself as "Southern," despite living the majority of my life below the Mason-Dixon Line. That said, I was thinking recently about how Ellen G. White, the co-founder of Seventh-day Adventism and a prolific writer herself, seemed to struggle with whether or not Jesus ever laughed. She seemed to think our time on Earth should be spent in somber contemplation and that excessive laughter should be frowned upon. My family is full to the brim with hilarious people; we are all laughers. I suspect that in a religious culture like ours, where so many activities are more or less forbidden — including meat-eating, movie-going, smoking, drinking alcohol or caffeine, listening to rock music, card-playing, and even novel-reading — that humor can act as a kind of subtle subversion, or even as a kind of pressure release valve. Making a joke or reacting with quick wit is a safe kind of improvisatory act and stands in stark relief to the prescribed behaviors and conformity conservative religious communities require.
On a sentence structure level, you employ a maximalist method more so than anyone we have published in Carve's nonfiction selection. While this can come from a combination of the author's voice, background, and mentality, what maximalist writers did you study that might have contributed to this type of approach?
I'm not sure that I would ever describe myself or my style as "maximalist," and I don't think that's only because I tend to resist labels, but also because I don't really know what "maximalist" means. I'm always thinking about voice and how sentences work and how to keep rhythm going and generating linguistic momentum. The authors I admire most seem to strive for similar effects. Stephen Dixon and Thomas Bernhard come to mind, George Saunders to a certain extent, Junot Díaz, Padgett Powell, Barry Hannah. But I also love the kind of strange and unpredictable narratives that writers like Mary Ruefle, Rachel B. Glaser, and Clarice Lispector have created. Inexplicable and propulsive: that's what I aim for.