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!