“You promised,” Ted said.
Tavey’s cracked lips, caked with muck, parted to reveal a perfect set of teeth: white and smooth, they looked like they’d been carved from pearls. “I missed you,” she said.
—from “The Ones You Want to Keep” (Unstuck #1)
Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America, a collection of stories. His book of epitaphs, titled Inscriptions for Headstones, will be published by Outpost 19 in October. His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, Epoch, and Gulf Coast, among other journals.
Interview by Janalyn Guo
UNSTUCK: I’d like to start off with Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where "The Ones You Want to Keep" takes place. What is your personal experience of Gatlinburg?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: First, some context: I grew up in the mountains of southwest North Carolina, in a town of 1,600 people. We had three stop lights, a grocery store, a post office, a Happy Flounder seafood restaurant, a Twin Cinema, a couple of convenience marts, and a street that a dozen businesses had abandoned. Needless to say, there wasn’t much happening, except out in the woods. The thing was—and I’m not proud of this—I took little pleasure in the riches of the natural world; my sense of adventure was confined to whatever I could dream up in my bedroom, so I rarely ventured too deep into the wilderness by myself. Basically, to me, the mountains were—for the most part—boring and dull. Therefore, I yearned to escape. Had you asked me to list places in the world I wanted to visit, and to whose attractions I could have full access, Gatlinburg would’ve been at the top.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church (the denomination in which I was raised) holds a biennial medical conference at the Park Vista hotel, the same place where Ted and Allison stay in TOYWTK, and because my father’s a dentist, my family often attended. We’d spend Saturdays hiking trails in the Smokies, and on Saturday nights, we’d descend into the town. The bleating of arcades, the mesmerizing repetition of taffy-pulling machines, the t-shirt emporiums, the magic and souvenir shops—Gatlinburg was a lurid parade of bedazzlements. For as long as I could remember, I’d been obsessed with alternate realities—I’d fantasized about what it’d be like to visit Hon-ah-lee, Candy Land, Dagobah, and Fantasia (from the Neverending Story). I really wanted to see what the inside of Oscar the Grouch’s trashcan was like. Gatlinburg was a place that promised entrances into similar kinds of non-ordinary places—or, at the very least, cheap imitations of non-ordinary places. Which, for me, was good enough. The World of Illusions, The Guinness Book of World Records Museum, The Haunted Mansion, Ripley’s Believe It or Not: add all these things together and you had what, for me, amounted to a garden of earthly delights.
UNSTUCK: How did Gatlinburg become the backdrop for this story?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I’d been working on a version of this thing, off and on, for ten years. The first twenty billion drafts were set in Mexico, at an all-inclusive resort, and though that, too, had an absurdist bent of its own, it seemed probably too neat that Ted was returning to the very place he’d lost his wife. Plus, I’d been working on the story for so long, and I needed a way to invigorate the material, so I started thinking about where else Ted and Allison might go to get away from it all, and because Gatlinburg isn’t far from the mountain town where I imagined they lived, and because it is—like any place that swindles people out of money in exchange for flimsy reproductions of human fantasy—a fun place to set a story, I thought: let’s do it.
UNSTUCK: All right—my next vacation will be Gatlinburg! You brought up something else I’d like to ask about. There are lots of details about dentistry in TOYWTK because Ted’s a dentist; I’d love to know what you were exposed to being the son of a dentist that other people (who only visit dentists once or twice a year) never witness.
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I spent a lot of time in my dad’s dental office. From the outside, it looks like a small brick house. I could and maybe someday will write a book about this place. I spent a lot of time there. I pretended the dental chairs and the X-ray machine (though I never turned it on) were spaceships. I shot (and often got in trouble for shooting) water out of the little water gun thingy. My dad got cable in his office on a little TV he kept in his lab, so I’d often hang out in there; while he torched clay models of his patients’ teeth, I watched I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. I got first dibs on the toys he ordered for his patients who were kids. I typed on the receptionists’ typewriters. I got called in to meet patients, who, dazed and drooling, shook my hands and relayed garbled descriptions of what I’d looked like the last time they’d seen me.
In a town of 1,600 people, you sort of have to make up your own fun, and part of that involved visiting my dad’s patients or employees. A woman who sold Avon and whose skin was as dark as any I’d ever seen gave me cowboy shaped bottles of cologne; her husband, whose name was Junior, had retired from the railroad and spent his days in a room of sports and celebrity memorabilia watching Cincinnati Reds games via satellite. We traveled deep into the mountains, to the houses and farms of old men in overalls—men who had never married. These men let me crank rusted machines that de-cobbed corn. I was bucked off a horse, chased by a yak, and pulled down a gravel road on a wooden sled by an ox.
UNSTUCK: I’m a little surprised that dentists went out to visit patients just as doctors did; was this to check up on teeth? To keep relationships going?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I don’t remember my dad ever practicing dentistry on any of these people we visited. The point was to go see them. There was probably a bit of cultural tourism going on. Stuff like, wow, look at how these people live. Look at their clapboard floors and their JFG coffee cans into which they spit the juice from the Red Man they’re chewing. Look at their overalls. Their CAT hats. The flies. Etc. But that was only part of it. The real motivation for these visits was probably my father’s curiosity and his love of old mountain people. They had stories. They’d lived hard lives. They knew stuff. My father’s talked a lot about what the locals taught him: how to read the woods, to decipher tracks in the mud, how what’s important isn’t what you own, but how you treat other people.
UNSTUCK: I do wonder if there is less “visitation” in this age, this culture—another writer commented in her interview that we as a modern society seem under-haunted (wondering what you think of this)—but I also wonder if this could somehow be related to just a decline in the more earthly kind of visitation (the casual dropping by the house, etc.).
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I like the idea of relating a culture’s “under-haunted-ness” to a decline in visitations. Even here in Blacksburg—where I know eighty percent of the people on my street, and where I chat every day with at least one neighbor, and where we have a poker game every Thursday, and impromptu cookouts in people’s backyards—people don’t really ever just “pop in.” Everybody’s so busy. Unscheduled visits are rare.
UNSTUCK: It struck me how the loss of Tavey contrasts so much with the kitschy feel of Gatlinburg. What do you think of this juxtaposition, or rather how did you come to put the two sorts of moods together?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: What’s funny about this is that to me, there really wasn’t much contrast—at least not from my point of view. It made total sense for a Zombie Bride to appear in Gatlinburg. You walk down the street and see entrances for live shows supposedly involving dead people and haunted houses and ghost walks and then there’s Stumpy, who “hovers” outside Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and appears to be some sort of undead dude in a top hat whose spine and pelvic bone are dangling from his torso. Also, it’s a place of mass consumption, where it seems like three-quarters of the tourists are waddling, stuffing their faces with candy apples and popcorn and elephant ears. In Gatlinburg, there are already real and fake zombies galore. So why not one more?
UNSTUCK: It’s interesting how humor and dread sort of sit side by side for us. For instance, I’m thinking about the Fall River Ax Murders and the Lizzie Borden museum in Fall River, Mass—the house has now been turned into this sort of kitsch museum where you can get Lizzie Borden paraphernalia (like ax magnets, hats, and t-shirts). The place is also an inn; people can spend the night if they dare. (Randy Schaub’s story “The Dobbs House,” also featured in the first Unstuck, is set in just this sort of macabre tourist trap.) There are countless other examples, I’m sure. I wonder why this happens.
MATTHEW VOLLMER: My guess is that it happens for lots of reasons. People are morbid. People are funny. People like to make light of morbid stuff, maybe as a way to feel like they’re exerting control over something they can’t actually control. Also, people are intrigued by history, drawn to places where dramatic events have transpired. Like Gettysburg. Or Salem, Massachusetts.
I like your observation about humor and dread. It’s hard to be funny, but it’s also hard to be funny and establish a sense of dread. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell comes to mind.
UNSTUCK: What are your thoughts on vacations: the planning of them, the expectations around them? Have you been on any nightmare vacations?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: One of the worst vacations I ever took was supposed to be the best: my honeymoon. My wife Kelly and I flew to Cancun, were taxied through impoverished neighborhoods—shacks with sheet metal, gravel roads—and arrived at a resort. We walked on marble slabs bordered by still pools. We were happily greeted by Mexican employees. We weren’t there for a full day before I got sick. I spent the next two days in the hotel room bathroom, while Kelly brought me updates from the beach and poolside bar. We tried to make the best of it—took a trip to a place called Xcaret where we explored ruins and donned damp lifejackets to swim underground rivers that, we were told, the Mayans had used for sewers—but in the end, we packed it in and went home early.
UNSTUCK: But the swimming in sewers sounds fun! Did you go through an anxiety similar to what Ted went through on his honeymoon? I’m curious about Ted’s fear of “marrying a woman he barely [knows]”—why is this something marriage does to some when their relationships shift in name (i.e. boyfriend → husband)?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I definitely was dealing with some anxiety on my honeymoon, and in the throes of an illness, I worried that the storm brewing inside me was some kind of metaphor for what was to come (everything turned out okay!). It didn’t help that a trip my wife and I had planned and been looking forward to for months, which was supposed to be fun and ecstatic, had basically transformed into a nightmare. Of course, it could’ve been worse. And I suppose that’s where the seed of the story came from. I wondered about the “worse” part.
UNSTUCK: It’s interesting that sometimes we turn to our bodies to tell us things that we don’t know yet—or sort of “read” our bodies in many ways—accurately and inaccurately, the way we read text.
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I like the idea of misreading the body. I’m sure we all do it in one way or another.
UNSTUCK: In “The Ones You Want to Keep,” I feel sympathy for everyone –Tavey, Ted, Allison. Each has lost something irreplaceable: life, lover, child. I’m wondering if you felt stronger sympathies for a particular character in this love triangle while you were writing the story and if those sympathies have shifted now that you are further removed from its creation.
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I dunno. I never really thought about who I felt sorriest for. I simply wanted to tell a story about a man who was haunted by—and simply could not let go of—a long-dead lover. And I wanted to see what happened when I tapped into the energy of that horrific seduction.
I was also interested in this idea: that human beings make graves for things all the time and then bury things there—memories, dreams, fears, whatever—only to watch them resurrect themselves again and again. It seems often like the stuff we thought we’d buried deepest is what refuses to stay down.
UNSTUCK: How do you think the physical manifestation of the zombie bride brings forth this idea so much more powerfully than if—perhaps—all our experiences of Tavey were figments of Ted's imagination?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: Well, for one thing, it’s the difference between thinking about a ghost or dreaming about a ghost and actually seeing one. I think a lot about this—what it would be like to encounter the supernatural. I never have but I’ve met plenty of people who’ve said they have, and it’s always this sort of transformational experience. The appearance of a ghost would call into question everything I think I believe. It would complicate my notions of existence, but also, if the ghost were somebody I knew and had loved, it would be tempting to engage with them. And, like Hamlet, I probably would.
UNSTUCK: What projects are you working on currently?
MATTHEW VOLLMER: I’ve got an idea for a fictional memoir that involves alternate realities—but who knows if it’ll work. I’ve got some more stories I want to finish. And I’ve got a collection of epitaphs I’ve been working on—all one-sentence, all third-person, all autobiographical. They’ve been fun and challenging to write.
UNSTUCK: Are you on a death-and-ghosts adventure in your writing right now? I imagine there’s so much possibility around writing ghosts—and I wonder what it is that keeps you interested in dealing with the dead as material.
MATTHEW VOLLMER: This is actually the only ghost story I’ve written. Though, now that I think about it, my characters often dream about dead people. That’s because I often dream about dead people: friends and relatives who’ve “come back” or “didn’t really die” or whatever. The interesting thing about these dreams for me is that A) they’re never scary and B) I never question, in the dream, whether what’s happening is “really” happening. I think that was part of the effect I wanted to achieve in this story—to write something that unfolded like a nightmare. And what better place to set a nightmare than the very unreal town of Gatlinburg?
As for death: it’s something I think about a lot. Having been raised in a conservative, religious family, and having attended a church that was eschatology-obsessed, I was bombarded by images of the fantastic: Jesus coming in clouds of glory; the resurrected dead flying out of their graves; an armor-and-crown-wearing, sword-wielding Jesus fighting a giant dragon in space; pastoral scenes of paradise and a golden city gleaming in the distance; clouds of angels; etc. Thinking about that stuff could be fun (I remember designing, on paper, what my heavenly mansion would look like and how I’d have a water slide going from my bedroom to my indoor pool) but it could also be somewhat disconcerting (how long is eternity? won’t I get bored? what if I do something I’m not supposed to do and die before I ask forgiveness?). So from an early age, I was thinking about what would happen after I died, which means that meditations about death and what it means and what will happen to my body and what will it be like for consciousness to change or disappear altogether have been sort of hard-wired into my brain.
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Janalyn Guo is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She received her MFA in fiction from Brown University and lives in Austin, where she is at work on a novel. Her fiction can be found at Tarpaulin Sky, the New Yinzer, and Digital Hamper.