When you hear Mary Volmer’s prose you want to savor them for yourself. Her words are so deliciously composed, you can’t help but repeat them so you can feel their rhythm and savor the roll of her alliteration on your own tongue. Volmer’s art seduces. Her ear for language is irresistible, and Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA Creative Writing Program Reading Series showcased both her brilliance and the ingenuity of Lysley Tenorio’s fiction on Tuesday, May 6, 2009 at Saint Albert Library Hall during Saint Mary’s annual alumni reading. Moderated by Rosemary Graham, Tenorio and Volmer graced a packed house with their prose and informal discussion on the nuts and bolts of writing and researching.
In her introduction of Volmer, Rosemary Graham related to the audience how Volmer had started out at Saint Mary’s as an undergrad majoring in Biology. When she took the podium, Volmer spoke of Graham’s words of warning before she embarked on her literary pursuits: “You could be a writer,” Graham had told her, “but I wouldn’t recommend it.” Volmer thankfully didn’t heed those words of caution, and on Tuesday evening she read a piece inspired by a class she took taught by Tenorio. In “Canyon” Volmer creates a narrator whose voice is as jagged, her life as craggy and precarious, as the Grand Canyon. The story empties itself out, and as the narrative builds so does the emotional landscape. Each phrase and image snags the reader through voice and language until Volmer reveals the expansive whole, which sweeps the audience as only moving stories can.
Tenorio read from “Monstress” published in The Atlantic and also featured on KQED’s The Writer’s Block. His crisp narrative, rife with evocative details, is propelled by slicing humor. In the panel discussion moderated by Graham, Tenorio described his research process mainly spurred by article clippings of strange but true news. His fiction highlights “weird moments of history.” And in the strangeness, as hilarity ensues, at the core of Tenorio’s work is a whirlwind of the human condition. He inflates his characters, so they’re larger than life, and his craft is so deft he avoids trivializing or caricaturizing what could easily be trivialized or caricatured. Tenorio admits his stories are “very situation or plot driven,” evolving from a moment that’s “weird and pretty much unbelievable. As a writer there’s no reason why I can’t make that moment believable on the page. The situation informs tone and the strangeness is built in.”
Volmer also described her research process as layered: “Figure out what you don’t know,” she says. “A writer can’t possibly know it all before they begin writing.” So the research takes place in fits and starts, where she’ll research and write, then research more, write, and research again, wherein she slowly uncovers the paradox of learning what she doesn’t know. Though her first novel, Crown of Dust, is historical, Volmer’s stories and characters can exist anywhere and in any time period. Some of the themes her book addresses is the impossible contract between mothers and daughters and the thin line between obscenity and beauty.
When asked about finding the time to write since both Tenorio and Volmer teach full time, Volmer said mornings are best for her, though as a professor and Director of the Honors Program at Saint Mary’s she allots there are periods when writing is next to impossible. Tenorio relies on summers and weekends. Both agreed that writer’s colonies and residencies are an artist’s salvation. There’s a different “time-space continuum” Tenorio swears by that enables writers to enjoy a freedom day-to-day life often can’t afford.
In this annual event, alumni and professors get to reminisce, classmates are reunited with colleagues, and writers are inspired to celebrate art and community. Tenorio, Volmer, and Graham treated the packed house to a night filled with laughter and remarkable prose. All three ultimately reminded us why we turn to pen and paper: to strive to be as great as these literary luminaries.
Mary Volmer was born in Grass Valley, California. After graduating from Saint Mary’s College of California, Mary traveled as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where she completed her first Master’s degree. In 2005, She graduated with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, and she published her first novel, Crown of Dust, in 2006. She is currently the Honors Program Director at Saint Mary’s and lives on campus with her better half, Professor Chris Jones.
Lysley Tenorio earned an M.F.A. from the University of Oregon and has published stories in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Manoa, the Chicago Tribune, and Best New American Voices. A Pushcart Prize winner, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and a former Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, he has also received awards and fellowships from the University of Wisconsin, Phillips Exeter Academy, Yaddo, Tha MacDowell Colony, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Whiting Foundation. He teaches in the graduate and undergraduate programs at Saint Mary’s College of California.