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A Flash of Genius: An Interview with M. M. De Voe

by Silver Webb

M. M. De Voe is the author of Borda Book's latest offering, A Flash of Darkness: Collected Stories of M. M. De Voe, now available for order in our bookstore.

Silver: Tommy Dean, author of Hollows, describes your stories as "inviting us into worlds that are slightly off-kilter but familiar and as creepy as a funhouse mirror." You took an MFA with Michael Cunnignham and Matthew Sharpe at Columbia University. How did that experience shape your distinctive style? What authors have most influenced you?

M. M.: My Columbia MFA was an awe-filled experience for me. I had never had a writing workshop in my life before, and while I had a vast and omnivorous appetite for commercial, historical, and classic fiction, I started Columbia having read only one living “literary" author at that time! My first workshop ended with me biting back tears as the class fiercely debated my (terrible) writing and how to slow down the pace of it. One woman (I will be eternally grateful to her) circled every adverb in purple and every adjective in pink and double underlined every exclamation point. It was brutal, but Raymond Carver sparsity was the New Yorker style at that time (I had never heard of him, much less read his stories), and I had to scramble to catch up to the current trends. I spent my grad school years reading every contemporary author my classmates and teachers suggested to me and producing endless literary short stories, desperately seeking “my” style. It was a frantic time, subsumed in words. I’d never been happier. I was most influenced during those years by discovering the literary surrealists of that time. I loved the combination of poetic turns of phrase and impossible situations in novels by Murakami and Ishiguro and DeLillo, I loved the brilliant observations of all of these contemporary writers like Ian McEwan and Richard Powers, and I was delighted by the intensity of the wit of Donald Barthelme, Nabokov, and Thomas Pynchon (whose books I ultimately loathed for their lack of satisfying endings, but whose prose I wildly admired). All of these writers hearkened back to my childhood favorites: Kafka’s short fiction, Alice in Wonderland, and Edgar Allan Poe. I love the idea of breaking out of boundaries -- Mark Z Danielewski’s brilliant books are each word sculptures, as much art as they are narratives. (To be fair, I haven’t read his Familiar series yet, but it makes great building material.) I learned to write to entertain myself from Michael Cunningham.

“M. M. De Voe’s collection, A Flash of Darkness, showcases deviously decadent morsels à la Black Mirror. Despair, longing, and regret linger in these unnerving, provocative stories.”

—Amy Grech, horror author with stories in Even in the Grave, Roi Fainéant Press & Tales from the Canyons of the Damned

Silver: Picasso learned to paint with immaculate realism before he veered into his wildly surrealistic style. He knew how to paint "pretty," yet chose not to, and that was his spark of genius. I've read your literary fiction; you know how to write "normal" stories very well, but in A Flash of Darkness, we have what Collection Curator Max Talley calls "the odd, the dark, the challenging stories." What inspires you to go to such far corners of the imagination? Where does the creepy come from? Is the darkness where the genius is to be found?

M. M.: Lithuanian folk tales were my bedtime stories. They are cautionary tales, frequently long and twisted, and very very strange. I grew up on them! For a short time while, I must have been 11 or 12, my father used to read to me in English at bedtime. I fondly recall him reading Edgar Allan Poe’s short fiction and poetry, and his delight in the vicious endings of "A Cask of Amontillado" and "Masque of the Red Death.” But what I remember most was how he enjoyed saying the difficult words and onomatopoeias like “The bells, bells, bells, bells, the tintinnabulation of the bells!” I may have gotten my passion for words from him. As for being inspired to go to weird corners, well I think that darkness exists in our everyday lives, all the time, and it is super-interesting. (Just the words “there is a weird dark corner” make me want to go explore there!) The hardest part of life, I guess, is in choosing to be a decent, pleasant, helpful human even while staring all of the existing darkness in the face. I am mysteriously able to find joy in the unpredictability of life. I am very fond of irony and of the human mind’s ability to manage multiple contradicting thoughts at once. I don’t love "the creepy" per se, what I actually love is our capacity as human beings to survive the creepy and manage to keep baking pies and getting coffee.

Silver: What is your writing habit and how do you generate ideas fast enough to keep up with your prolific story production? Have you ever run out of inspiration and stopped writing? And if so, how did you get your groove back? M. M.: I have been writing for so long that I feel like I should have “phases” like Picasso. In grad school, I wrote wildly and constantly, usually starting around 8 p.m. and ending around 1 or 2 a.m. I still frequently find myself back on this schedule for the weirder stories or when things are “flowing.” I love that the word for good writing makes it sound like it is coming from somewhere else and we are just a conduit. Because I have an all-consuming day job and two kids and a spouse, a lot of my daytime hours are occupied with mundane list-based tasks. I find that if I can manage to feed the artist in my head by noticing both beautiful and ugly quirks of reality while I walk from one appointment to another, I don’t turn into an automaton during the daylight hours. There have certainly been times when I haven’t felt up for writing, but not from lack of inspiration—only because mundane reality has managed to suffocate my joy. Money worries, or something is broken and I can’t figure out how to fix it, dealing with some website that isn’t efficient, or being involved with some kind of interpersonal drama—these things cloud my head. In these instances I will always find inspiration in the art of another field: a concert, a play, an art exhibit, an art film, a great TV series, a museum—anything that showcases the human mind’s capacity to create something of genius. Sometimes just walking down the streets of NYC and looking at the architecture. It is probably worth noting that I read copiously.

Silver: The amount of time it takes to write something as ambitious as a novel, and the quietude necessary to unleash the chaotic imagination of the storyteller, seems as big a commitment as marriage or parenting. Too many writers set their creative endeavors aside when they became parents because they feel it has to be one or the other. This is something you've given a lot of thought to, being the founder of Pen Parentis and the author of Book & Baby. What do you find to be the challenges of parenthood for the writer? M. M.: Easy: It’s the resources of Time, Energy, and Money. If you have a way to replenish these, then you can easily write and be a parent. Or a spouse. Or just a writer. Real life wants 100% of those resources (especially children and families!) but your career (whatever it is) needs you to allocate as much of them to your work as possible.

"Milda De Voe gives you femme Kafka in A Flash of Darkness — but American style: 'with nosies and lights that simulate the beautiful side of violence.' The stories cruise the scene with a chess-playing vicious granny and a Svetlana lounging against a furry elk, 'calling to mind every vodka ad young American Jim had ever taped to a dorm room ceiling,' One swain can't hold his date's hand ; though she has left it on the table: a treat between beers.' De Voe's especially brilliant on family life, and ends the book with a quirky story about a husband and what else? Horror."

—Terese Svoboda, author of Dog on Fire

Silver: Your story "The Scissors of Hope & Despair" tells the tale of a Kazakh "Granny" and her magical, sometimes malicious ways. The narrator, who is divorced from the language and culture of her Granny, may have lost most of her family to Granny's snarled sewing basket and sinister chess games. In this and other stories, there is the presence of Eastern Europe and Russia in your stories. You are an inaugural member of the Lithuanian Writers of the Diaspora Forum. Were you raised with Lithuanian cultural influences and how has that shaped your writing?

M. M.: I was in fact raised Lithuanian! Very much so. I lived in a small brick ranch-house on a flat mesquite-spiked rental property on the wrong side of the small airport in town. The water was sulfuric and the ground was clay and crawling with tarantulas, scorpions and snakes both friendly and poisonous. We were surrounded by horse fields and pickup trucks. There, I was raised with Lithuanian as my first language, and I and my three brothers were required to speak the language at home in Texas (to greater and lesser success). I joke but the culture influenced me greatly, from the actual folk myths, to the fact that the language was unknown to my Texan neighbors and frequently mixed up with religions (Lutheran) or conflated with Communism and Soviet Russia (My parents' generation fled Soviet Occupation—as a child, I was taught that Lithuania was the opposite of a communist culture.) More than anything, being Lithuanian made me an outside observer. I was resentfully made its ambassador to everyone who asked me to explain my name. Of course, as I grew up, my relationship to being Lithuanian evolved. Now I’m an avid ambassador for the country but I know it so much less.

Silver: What can we look forward to from you next? Do you have any projects in the works we should be on the look out for?

M. M.: Yes, thanks for asking! This collection arose like a mystical guide in the middle of the path I was traveling and pulled me away from a novel I was close to finishing. The problem with mystical guides is that now I'm a changed person with new eyes and fresh ideas. Stay tuned for further news on! Thanks, Silver, great talking to you!

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