Redefining fiction: Virginia Tech English professor blends nonfiction, fiction

The clock in Matthew Vollmer’s office stopped working a while ago.

The hands are frozen somewhere between one and two o’clock. For Vollmer, an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech, it might be a sign that his time in the spotlight is just beginning.

Vollmer has written three nonfiction books, including “Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, ‘Found’ Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts.” The New York Times said that Vollmer’s work was “the arrival of a strong new voice.”

‘Blending genres’

“Fakes” is a work of unique nonfiction; Vollmer and co-editor David Shields took inspiration from real documents, such as tax returns and bumper stickers. Shields argued that popular culture is oversaturated with fiction, and craves reality.

“My goal is not to write the next ‘Hunger Games’ or ‘Harry Potter,’” Shields said. “I think the most exciting thing by far in popular culture exists in the space between nonfiction and fiction.”

Vollmer and Shields both said they wanted to tell the story that exists within real life. His latest book, “Reality Hunger” focuses on the same issues of creative nonfiction that “Fakes” does.

“I’m interested in the story whether it’s fiction or nonfiction,” Vollmer said. “You could make an argument that nonfiction, even though it’s supposedly about true events, exists as a language. I’m not just giving you the facts of the experience.”

‘Refining the work product’

“Fakes” is one of many experiments that Vollmer has used for experience. Vollmer regularly participates in writing workshops with his students. He said that some of those sessions have given him ideas for new books.

“In this new book of mine, there are only 30 sentences,” Vollmer said. “I never sat down and wondered whether I could write a book with 30 long sentences in it. That happened in a creative writing class.”

Vollmer understands that writing is not done in a box. In the classroom, he tries to instill that sense of community and collaboration during workshops. Vollmer said that doing workshops doesn’t stop once you leave college.

“My first book was a book of stories and some of those stories were written in workshops,” Vollmer said. “[My stories] always had eyes on them.”

‘Risky Writing’

As a student at the University of North Carolina, Vollmer found himself emulating writers who took risks. He cited E.E. Cummings and Sylvia Plath as two main influences in his early work.

“I could probably point to almost anything I’ve written and chart the people I’m ripping off,” Vollmer said. “But that’s what I see in writing anyway: the recycling of forms, structures, tropes and themes.”

But in the classroom, he encourages students to take it one step further. Just as “Fakes” blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction, Vollmer urges his classes to step across the same boundaries.

“I wanted to give students experience writing what they might not otherwise write,” Vollmer said. “I find more and more that I need to find a set of limitations I can push against to get excited about writing.”

Shields is also interested in the unique approach Vollmer uses in his writing.

“[Vollmer] and I both teach creative writing and have a great interest in what we call fraudulent artifacts,” Shields said. “They take place in an interesting space between fiction and nonfiction; they occupy a sort of limbo land.”

Shields labeled Vollmer and himself as two authors from different backgrounds: fiction and nonfiction. Shields describes himself as a writer who started out with fiction and merged into the world of nonfiction, and he says Vollmer is on a similar path.

“I was coming into writing [“Fakes”] from a nonfiction perspective, and to a certain degree I think he was coming from a fiction perspective,” Shields said.

‘Words of Praise’

Though Shield’s and Vollmer’s approach to writing seems new in the world of nonfiction, several publishers and reviewers have stated their approval. “Fakes” has received praise from Publisher’s Weekly, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Shields said that the source of such praise for “Fakes” was Vollmer’s interest in finding stories between the lines of nonfiction.

“The most interesting thing to me is [Vollmer] is a whole generation, if not more, younger than I am,” Shields said. “I think it’s important that he and I both love works that boundary jump.”

Vollmer is used to jumping between other types of boundaries, too. He’s in his fourteenth year of teaching, but he frequently blurs the lines between writer and assistant professor. He said that consistently writing and creating material can be exhilarating, but that distractions and confusion can be terrible.

“Nobody else gives a damn whether you [write] or not,” Vollmer said. “You’re the person who has to be the caretaker; you’re the one who has to care.”

‘Discovering a Calling’

Shields commended Vollmer’s work ethic, which makes him a unique person to work with.

“[Vollmer] is unusual in the sense that he’s incredibly rigorous and demanding of himself and everyone else, but he has such a good core.” Shields said. “To me, he is a very unusual combination of intelligence, talent and a really big heart.”

Shields isn’t the only one who has recognized Vollmer’s work. In 2010 Vollmer was awarded $25,000 for Literature Fellowship in Prose from the National Endowment for the Arts. That award gave Vollmer the resources he needed to take time away from teaching and focus on writing.

However, he still believes that teaching is his main calling.

“If someone asked me what I do, I might say I write, but I’m more likely to say I’m an assistant professor at Virginia Tech,” Vollmer said.

As someone who has explored the world of creative writing from both sides of the teacher’s desk, Vollmer still believes in teaching students about taking risks. After wading through difficult publishing processes and redefining nonfiction, the man with the broken clock knows the only limit a writer knows: himself.