An Interview with Matt Tompkins
Written by: Katya Cummins

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Brief Note From the Editor: Matt Tompkins is the author of Studies in Hybrid Morphology out now from tNY Press. His stories have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, New Haven Review, Post Road, and other journals. Conium Review published his newest collection Souvenirs and Other Stories earlier this month.

Lena Bertone, author of Letters to the Devil, described Matt Tompkins’ newest collection eloquently and succinctly: “With language that feels guileless and innocent, never overbearing, Matt Tompkins builds stories from delicate loops of life and metaphor, making the surreal become real. Amiable narrators talk to us like friends; with them, we discover worlds that turn ordinary life extraordinary—people evaporate, the world is set on fire. And then a different metamorphosis occurs right before our eyes when these genuine, open-hearted stories transform us into believers.”

I couldn’t have described this collection better myself. As a reader, I typically enter into speculative fiction with caution, aware of how most practitioners of this aesthetic forget to forge emotional connections between their readers and their narrators. Therefore, when the opening story of this collection, “The Water Cycle,” began with a father evaporating, I tensed a little. Then I read on, also aware of how talented writers are capable of making readers suspend disbelief regardless of how they’ve chosen to craft their fictional worlds. By the end of “The Water Cycle,” I was ready to listen to anything Tompkins’ narrators wanted or needed to tell me. I could sympathize with their losses, fears, and loneliness as they muddled through their bizarre and intense lives.

Tompkins’ language is understated, in the best sense, and never fails to influence emotionally. The centerpiece of this collection “Souvenirs” is perhaps the best example of what happens when an author successfully couples weird situations with precise language and potent emotions. When used effectively, these literary components can make us care, not about the mechanisms that are driving the story, but about the character within the story. Since “Souvenirs” is so expertly and tightly written, I will leave readers to experience that one for themselves. Besides, there are many other examples I can use. In “A World on Fire,” the narrator, Steve, frantic at seeing his world erupt into flames, spontaneously proposes to his very perplexed girlfriend. As he waits for the inevitable answer he sees, “still stunned, flames dancing around her head like cartoon stars.” In “Mel and the Microphones,” a lonely wife watches as her husband, a former sports commenter who is now suffering from advanced dementia, begins commenting on “the occurrences” of their daily lives, using the many microphones she’s set up for him. She tells us it is “the kind of chatter that says, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. The kind that reassures the speaker that she’s alive […] as if all the little moments—all the tiny details of your life—deserved attention, and documentation, and broadcast.” In a sense, this is what Tompkins’ newest collection accomplishes—it elevates the small and mundane things of the everyday and makes us look again and re-consider. Since I’ve also invited Matt to Niche Features to discuss his newest collection, I won’t give much more away here. Suffice it to say, “Souvenirs” is very worth a careful read and re-read.

NICHE: It is always nice to start somewhere near the beginning. How and why did you begin writing?

MATT TOMPKINS: I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I have memories of writing poems (or trying to) in a spiral notebook in the backseat of my parents’ car when I was in grade school. But I started writing fiction, in earnest, when I was in college. I took an undergraduate creative writing workshop, and the required reading for the course included stories by Aimee Bender, Italo Calvino, and George Saunders. I remember being awed by their use of language, and thrilled by their willingness to infuse absurd and magical elements into “serious” literary work. So that was a lightbulb moment, when I remember thinking, this–this is something I want to do! It also seemed like something that fiction was uniquely well-situated to do: to communicate heightened emotional stakes and states, and to play them out by manifesting them against strange phenomena in the (fictional) world.

NICHE: One of the many things I admired about Souvenirs and Other Stories is how it unapologetically embraces quirkiness. I think one reason your stories draw readers in the way they do is because you consistently pair even the most bizarre events with universal and yet precise emotions. For instance, “The Water Cycle” is essentially about loss. One very potent sentence is, “My tears evaporated, and rose to join him [the evaporated father] in the sky. Then I think neither of us felt quite as lonely or as sad.” I loved that sentence. It is touching and weird and beautiful, and since you’ve kept a straight tone throughout, it isn’t overly sentimental either. Can you talk a little bit about the form, or literary aesthetic, for lack of a better word, that you’ve chosen to write this collection in?

MATT TOMPKINS: You’ve articulated, succinctly, my mission statement as a writer: pairing bizarre events with universal, relatable emotions. That’s exactly what I look for as a reader, and what I strive for as a writer: the concoction of an outlandish, fantastic circumstance, in which I can identify a completely familiar feeling. That recipe, simple as it is, combines the two things I love most about fiction: the possibility that absolutely anything might happen, and the ability to witness, recognize, and reflect upon our own and others’ invisible, internal states of being.

You’ve also identified the central tonal juxtaposition of these stories: fantastic occurrences (and emotional moments) recounted with a straight, matter-of-fact presentation. It’s my hope that the surreal events, and the emotional responses of the characters, will be more readily absorbed and felt by the reader when presented in the simplest possible manner. I find that, for me, nothing kills an atmosphere of strangeness quite like a sensationalized delivery. Likewise, nothing seems to get in the way of real feeling more effectively than maudlin melodrama. Of course, you wouldn’t guess that I felt this way if you read my early story attempts.

NICHE: In some cases, you tune the reader in to how your stories are functioning, or how they’re meant to be read. In “Seeking Advice and/or Assistance re: Mountain Lions,” for instance, we know from the title that at least one (maybe two) e-mails have been exchanged and that we, the readers, are being dropped in the middle of an e-mail thread. Then there are more explicit hints, like when the narrator tells his reader, “Please notice that I’ve not yet entirely lost my sense of humor.” As a writer, how do you decide when to go “meta,” in a sense, or how do you decide when it is necessary to lead readers through a particular work?

MATT TOMPKINS: I’m interested in the mechanics of storytelling, in how stories work, and I’m aware that a lot of fiction readers are also writers, or students of writing, and so I certainly don’t avoid the use of metafictional devices. I feel like, I know I’m writing fiction, and the reader knows they’re reading fiction, so there’s no need to pretend otherwise. But, at the same time, I want the reader to be engaged in the story, and to connect to it on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. So, I try to have a clear purpose for any metafictional elements I’m using, to use them in service of the story, and to integrate them in as non-distracting a way as I can manage. Sometimes (as you mention with “Mountain Lions”) it’s a way to drop a reader right into the middle of the action of a story, without leaving them totally disoriented and disconnected from context–the literary equivalent of a sign post or navigational aid. Sometimes, as with the stories where there’s a kind of direct address to the reader (“The World on Fire” is one example), I use it (I hope successfully) as a way to draw the reader more personally into the story–to make them feel part of the telling, like a listener, rather than a detached observer. In theater terms, it would be an attempt to break the fourth wall. I don’t know quite to what extent I’ve succeeded–I guess that’s up to the experience of the reader to decide. But that’s my aim.

NICHE: Another element that I absolutely loved about this collection was the humor. All the humor “hit” exactly right. However, I’ve found that humor is one of those elements in fiction that is difficult to implement without overdoing it (being too slapstick) or underdoing it (being too dry). Can you talk a little bit about how you go about implementing humor in your work? Do you find that it appears naturally, or do you construct it consciously as pieces are re-worked and revised?

MATT TOMPKINS: Thanks! I’m happy to hear the humor landed right for you. Humor is so personal, you never know how it will (or won’t) connect.

Before I started writing fiction (and after my stint as an aspiring childhood poet), I wrote comedy. In high school, I wrote comic sketches with some friends, most of which were derivative of 90s sketch TV shows–The Kids in the Hall, The State, and The Upright Citizens Brigade. We would perform and videotape what we’d written, with aspirations of airing it on cable access television. I’m dating myself here, because cable access is probably something that no one under 30 has ever heard of. If you haven’t already gathered this, I was a nerd. I was anxious, introverted, and awkward, and, as it is for many awkward kids, humor was a refuge. When I got to college, I kept at it by joining an existing sketch comedy troupe. We wrote our own material, and once a semester we’d rent a theater for a weekend and put on a show. So by the time I started writing fiction, I had a lot of practice with humor. If anything, then, what I’m doing in my fiction is consciously toning down the comedy, trying to make sure that any humor I do include blends in, that it doesn’t overwhelm or detract from the heart of the story, and that it doesn’t feel too showy or “jokey.” I don’t want the reader to be yanked out of the story thinking, “Oh, this guy is trying so hard to be funny.” My hope is that any humor that makes the final cut will feel truthful (credit to Del Close), and become an integrated part of the emotional landscape of the story.

NICHE: I have silently and mentally given myself an answer to this next question, but I’m curious to know: How reliable or unreliable would you say most of your narrators are? I’m mostly curious because I see this question of reliability or unreliability linked to characters, most notably the ones in “BFF” and  “Souvenirs,” who appear isolated or lonely. Numerous other characters in your stories are unable to fully connect or understand one another. That’s just my interpretation  How do you view these ideas?

MATT TOMPKINS: My short answer to this question is, it’s about subjectivity. Each of the stories in this collection is a first-person narrative, and people are necessarily, unavoidably limited in their own perspectives, biased in their interpretations of events, and self-interested in their recountings and recollections. My intention is for my narrators to be as reliable as anyone you’re likely to meet, love, or be friends with. My intention is also for them to be as lonely, isolated, and imperfectly understood as anyone you might know–which is to say, generally, they are all of those things, at least to some degree, because as far as I can tell, all of us are all of those things. Each of these stories is a faltering (and, by nature, only partially successful) attempt to communicate and connect. So is, I think, every attempt at communication and connection. Anyone who says otherwise, who claims to be fully known, and truly expressed, and perfectly connected all the time, is probably lying. But the important thing, in my view, is to keep trying.

NICHE: You’re also a master at short form writing.  What draws you to micros as opposed to longer forms?

MATT TOMPKINS: First, that’s very flattering! Second, to answer the question-y part of this question, my gravitation to the short-form comes down to three t’s: topic, temperament, and time. It seems to me there are novel-sized topics (e.g. the rise and fall of an influential family over seven generations) and story-sized topics (e.g. this weird thing just happened, and this is how someone feels about it). The majority of my writing is of the latter topic-type: it tends to center on a single, focal event, and the inner life of a character, at a narrow point in time. Thoughts and feelings are fleeting–they tend to gather and dissipate, cloudlike–so brevity feels appropriate. I would rather write (or read) five pages about someone experiencing sadness, or anger, or confusion, than five hundred. Similarly, when it comes to the surreal, I find that suspension of disbelief is easier to sustain (without having to over-explain) over a shorter span. Of course, there are great, long novels written about characters’ inner states, and about surreal and fabulist events. So, maybe I’m just looking to justify my narrative nearsightedness, or short attention span (which brings us around to the second “t”: temperament). Personally, I hate multitasking. I am the first to admit I am terrible at it: I can only do one thing at a time well. A longer work means a broader scope, more characters and events to keep tabs on, and I tend to get overwhelmed if I feel like I’m spinning too many plates. I find a shorter story more manageable: I can complete a first draft, or do a full round of revision, in a single sitting, and I can give attention to every word. This is important to me because, like many writers, I’m also holding down a regular, full-time job, and trying to be a good spouse and parent (hence the third “t,” time). In order to keep my day job, and spend time with my family, I write in short, concentrated bursts. So the short form allows me to feel a sense of cohesion–I can hold the whole thing in hand at once. Likewise, I like a story I can read in one sitting and still have time to turn it over in my head. I think that’s important: I read because I’m looking for something to inform my experience; I read to reflect. If I run up against a thousand-page mountain of a book, I’m going to be spending more of my time trying to make vertical progress, so I’ll have less time to pause and reflect on the view (let alone remember where I started by the time I’ve finally reached the summit). Have I squeezed as much as I reasonably can out of that tired metaphor? Probably so.

NICHE: You’ve been published in several literary magazines, including Carolina Quarterly and Fiction Southeast, among others. You’re also an author of another book called Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press). What advice would you give aspiring writers who are looking to publish for the first time?

MATT TOMPKINS: This is commonplace wisdom, enough so that it’s a cliche, but I would say the best thing to do is to read a lot of literary magazines and journals. There are a ton of great publications out there, and many of them are available for free online, or browseable at libraries, so there’s really no excuse not to read widely. Reading journals is enjoyable, it’s a good way to lend support to your fellow writers, and it’s also the best way I’ve found to get a feel for the character and leanings of particular journals. Over time, you’ll come to identify those places that are hospitable to your particular literary flavor–to the type of stories (or essays, or poems) that you’re writing, and that you like and connect with.

Besides that, my best advice is just to keep at it. Keep writing, keep revising, keep submitting. Persistence pays.

NICHE: What are you working on now?

MATT TOMPKINS: Right now, I’m working on a surreal fictionalization of some of my childhood experiences. It’s not something that’s entirely new to me, digging into past experience and fabulizing it for story material. But I’m getting more expressly autobiographical than I’m used to, and have been writing in something closer to a hybrid fiction-memoir form, which is interesting territory to be exploring. I’m very comfortable writing fiction and completely out of my depth wading into memoir, so combining the two is allowing me to stretch outside of my comfort zone, while still keeping a foothold in the familiar. How it will turn out is anybody’s guess, but I’m enjoying the process!

Readers can buy a copy of Souvenirs and Other Stories from Conium Press, and follow Matt Tompkins on Tumblr

Literary Journal Spotlight: Iron City Magazine
Written by: Katya Cummins

 I am very excited and pleased to invite the co-founder Natalie Volin of Iron City Magazine to Niche Features. I want to take this opportunity to thank her again for taking the time to conduct this interview.

IronCityMagazineIssue1NICHE: There are so many literary journals out there, including my own, that publish fiction, poetry and literary nonfiction. So many, in fact, that people are often dismayed when yet another literary magazine is founded without any clear purpose. One thing that drew my attention to your magazine, however, is its very distinct mission statement and intent Can you tell our readers a little bit about how the idea for Iron City Magazine came about?

NATALIE VOLIN: The other co-founder, Cornelia “Corri” Wells, and I first met when she was my English 102 professor at Arizona State University. The next semester, she roped me into being an intern for the Pen Project, a distance learning program that connects inmate writers with students who critique and respond to their work. I responded to some really quality writing by authors who expressed an interest in publication.

Corri and I discussed what options these incarcerated writers had for that, and ultimately found that the opportunities were extremely limited. Most journals won’t take mail-in submissions anymore, and certainly not hand-written submissions. On top of that, the prison system puts up an array of restrictions. So, there’s a whole population of talented writers and artists who can’t publish their work. For a long time Corri and I bounced around ideas until we decided that we would make a journal that caters to this population and their challenges.

NICHE: Your website states that Iron City Magazine intends to publish both in print and online. What type of content will readers expect to read in print? What kind of content will they expect to read online?

NATALIE VOLIN: Our print magazine contains poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and art. We knew that at the very least we had to publish in print because the majority of our contributors wouldn’t have access to the internet. While this costs us more to produce, how could we justify creating a magazine that the contributors couldn’t access?

We also published the magazine as PDF online for those who do have internet access. Additionally, we have a section on our website called Iron Filings. This is a blog where we publish essays that are less literary, but still important for continuing conversations about prison-related topics. So far we’ve featured four prison educators and one incarcerated writer.

NICHE: Iron City Magazine accepts fiction, poetry, artwork (of any medium), and creative nonfiction. There’s a fair amount of discussion regarding how to define ‘creative nonfiction.” Some argue that a work can be labeled as creative nonfiction if the content is emotionally honest. Others believe creative nonfiction must be emotionally driven but also factual correct. I noticed that your creative nonfiction guidelines states that creative nonfiction pieces should be ‘based in fact.’ I’m curious as to how Iron City Magazine defines factual.

NATALIE VOLIN: It’s important to us that our creative nonfiction be based in fact for a couple reasons. First, because we want to honor the people who trust us with their stories. Incarceration—whether one’s own or that of a loved one—holds a weighty stigma. Writing about it and sharing it with the world takes courage, and we want to make sure that everyone’s story is met with validation and respect.

Second, because part of our goal is to open a window into the prison world and shine a light on what it means to be affected by incarceration. The best way to combat the stigma surrounding incarceration is to highlight inmates’ humanity. A true story achieves this wonderfully.

NICHE: I’ve read submissions for multiple literary journals, and so I know it is hard to describe what exactly ‘editors look for’ when they’re reading for an issue. So I ask the following question with that in mind: When the editors of Iron City Magazine are reading through submissions, what makes them go, ‘Yes, that’s it! We want to publish this one?’

NATALIE VOLIN: We are attracted to pieces that are not only honest, but artfully so. Especially working with the incarcerated population, we expect that there might be some ugly truths that come out. When these truths are artfully and deliberately crafted, though, they can become beautiful art.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the first issue of Iron City Magazine?

NATALIE VOLIN: This first issue has 31 contributors, 22 of whom are currently incarcerated. The rest are formerly incarcerated, prison educators, and family members of incarcerated individuals. Some pieces reveal the author’s situation through the writing itself, but we intentionally made no further effort to identify who is and isn’t incarcerated.

The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that over two-thirds of our contributors are currently incarcerated. It’s amazing because they heard about us through their teachers and family members and peers. It was all word of mouth, since it’s not like inmates can Google “prison lit mags.” It especially means a lot that so many incarcerated writers submitted work because if you’re only making 50 cents an hour, paying for a stamp and an envelope is a big deal.

NICHE: When was the inaugural issue of Iron City released? How many times of year will Iron City Magazine be published?

NATALIE VOLIN: We released the inaugural issue in March, which was a huge accomplishment for us. It took 18 months from when we first started toying around with the idea of making a magazine to when we held physical copies in our hands. Now that we’ve got our feet on the ground, it won’t take us nearly that long to get to the second issue! We’ve set the submission deadline for July 31, 2016. Our goal is to put out two print issues per year. We will be reading all year, however, and publishing select content to the Iron Filings page.

NICHE: Do you have any advice for those who wish to submit to your magazine?

NATALIE VOLIN: We love un-sugared honesty. We love surprises. We love a mix of perspectives; we want to hear from inmates, from prison educators, from prison staff, from family members. If you’ve been touched by incarceration, we want to hear your story.

Be sure to follow Iron City Magazine on Twitter, and Facebook!

Chats With Contributors: Christine Kendall
Written by: Katya Cummins

I’m pleased to welcome Christine Kendall to Niche  Features. I want to take this opportunity to thank her again for conducting an interview about her micro, “Finishing Up” which has appeared in the latest issue of Niche.

NICHE: Could you tell us a little bit about how you began writing?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: I was raised in a family of artists where I was surrounded by a lot of creative energy so I began writing as a child. I have a very active imagination and stories have always been in my head even though there was a long period of time when I didn’t commit them to paper or otherwise record them. Then, about ten years ago I started spending a lot of time in nature and that inspired me to write the stories down again. Maybe it was the peacefulness that gave me the space in which to write. At any rate, I’m fortunate  to now  have the luxury of writing full-time.

NICHE: Short form writing, such as micros, flash fiction and flash nonfiction, has risen in the literary community as a viable art form. Most micros straddle the line between poetry and prose-poetry. Your micro, “Finishing Up,” however, takes after the realist tradition, which some might now call “irregular.” Can you talk a little bit about how you go about spotting a story or condensing a narrative story?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: “Finishing Up” was originally a short story, but it wasn’t a very good one. It was clogged with too many characters and an awful lot of backstory. I’d lost my way with it until I decided to focus on brevity. Brevity of form and language. I cut everything away except the one crucial scene where each of the three central characters are revealed. That approach worked for me with this story but its not my only way into a piece of very short fiction. My stories are almost always character driven and sometimes I just want to paint a picture of a character in one specific moment and that’s how the piece comes into being.

NICHE: What attracts you to short-form writing? Do you like it better than writing longer short stories? That is, how is the process of writing a micros and short stories differ? Do you find one former easier or harder than the other? 

CHRISTINE KENDALL:  I’ve always been attracted to short-form writing particularly children’s picture books. I studied and tried to write them before I moved on to longer forms. Picture books are very difficult because, besides having word count limitations, you have to move the story forward without replicating what is going to be shown in the illustrations. I think struggling with picture books was good preparation for writing flash fiction where economy of words is the key. I’ve discovered that I also like to write novels but that is an entirely different writing experience. With novels you have much more time and space in which to unfold the story. All forms are fun to write and they all present a unique set of challenges so I can’t say that any one form is any easier than another.

NICHE: I know readers would be interested in hearing about the Bread Loaf Writing Conference.  What can you tell readers about your experiences there? Who did you get to work with? Was the experience beneficial?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: Attending the Bread Loaf Writers Conference was a magical experience. It was totally immersive and a bit overwhelming—ten days of eating, sleeping, drinking writing. I had the opportunity to study with the wonderful Margot Livesey who may be best known for her novels, but she’s also written short stories and essays. I was there in 2014 and most of the other participants were much more experienced writers. For instance, there were several creative writing instructors in my fiction workshop and that ended up being extremely beneficial for me. The level of writing was so high that I learned something from every single person I met as well as from the workshop leader.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the novel and the collection of short stories that you’re working on now?

CHRISTINE KENDALL: Scholastic is publishing my debut novel, Riding Chance, in the fall of 2016. It’s a coming-of-age story about an urban teen’s redemption through horses and the game of polo. It was inspired by a real mentoring program in Philadelphia that gives kids an opportunity to work with horses and play the game. I’m also working on a collection of linked short stories and, of course, I’m still struggling with my picture books..

____

Christine Kendall is a writer living in Philadelphia. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and studied children’s literature at the Southampton Writers’ Conference. Christine was named a semi-finalist in the 2014 River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.