“The soil is a shrewd old whore and has learned better than to give her gold for free”: Mary Volmer Reads “Crown of Dust” at Books Inc. in Berkeley

By Your Salonniere

Your Salonniere will never forget first meeting the talented and witty writer Mary Volmer in Lysley Tenorio’s craft class at Saint Mary’s College. The discussion was on a short piece of fiction, and Volmer was unpacking the piece with a keenness that was both exciting and intimidating, exciting because her passion for the written word is infectious and intimidating because her wisdom is fierce. Almost six years later, at her reading at Berkeley’s Books Inc. on Sunday, January 16, Mary Volmer proved she’s sharpened her skills, and that this is only the beginning to an impressive artistic career.

The evening covered a selection of readings from her novel Crown of Dust along with stories on how she became a writer and how the book came to be. Her identity aligned with athletics, Volmer explained, despite her rigid schedule playing on Saint Mary’s women’s basketball team, she was a “closet scribbler.” When she studied abroad in Wales for her M.A. she had to find a way to channel the energy she saved for matches, and the bookshelves at university became her court. Distanced from her hometown, she found herself researching the history of Grass Valley, CA, digging deeper than the stories she was taught in grade school to find more real, more vivid narratives that were beating with an urgency she had to share. Tales of the Gold Rush, finally, came alive, as she uncovered accounts of people who hailed from across the world, who were forced to eat the same food, sleep in the same bed, and pan in the same waters with strangers whose dreams often overlapped from one individual to the next. Abroad, reading stories of her birthplace, Volmer discovered that no matter where you are, you can’t escape who you are and where you come from.

Crown of Dust was borne out of an account unearthed at the National Library of Wales, “a monolithic building that stares out to sea.” She read Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush, which included a picture of an androgynous pan-handler, who could have been male or female, but the image was unforgettable.

“The soil is a shrewd old whore and has learned better than to give her gold for free,” Volmer reads from the first pages of her debut novel. The cadence of her words and the concrete details they weave together is one of Volmer’s greatest gifts. She has a wonderfully keen eye for both place and character, and the two are constantly in conflict, which makes for a gripping story. She also read a little further into the book where her two main characters, Alex and Emmaline meet, and it becomes obvious that these are not just characters on a page but living, breathing beings that Volmer has wrestled with and been inspired by.

A story-teller first and foremost, as she will attest, Volmer touched upon the history of hydraulic mining, which was outlawed in 1884 in California for environmental reasons and in favor of farmers. Pan-handlers really only prospered for two years at the start of the rush, after which, fortune seekers then had to get financial backing for deep mining. Usually, their financiers were from England and France. Volmer had worked on this project as her thesis for her master’s degree, which got picked up by a British publisher while she was earning her MFA at Saint Mary’s. She feels as if she had lost out on the four-year apprenticeship that most writers experience when they write several different manuscripts that get stuffed in the back drawer before coming to “the one” that finally gets published. Only recently has she decided that she wants “to be a writer,” knowing full well that it’s a decision one has to make again and again. Before writing stories she wrote countless poems about basketball, only thinly disguised as love poems.

The reading soon turned to Q&A from the audience, where the first question, raised by writer Ammon Torrence was “what did this story tell you about California today?” Gold rushes happen all the time, Volmer replied. There was the dotcom boom and bust, there’s the boom and bust we’re experiencing now, and Hollywood is always about boom and bust. “Mark Twain had said history doesn’t repeat but rhymes. Nothing is new but happens in new ways.” Volmer highly recommends reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which reveals a slice of history inter-generationally and from different view points.

Writer Jennie Durant asked about the difficulty of researching for a project like this, and Volmer said knowing what to leave out became problematic at times but remembering what your character knows and sticking to what characters can reveal in dialogue helped kept her on track so she wouldn’t get swallowed up. Relying on instinct was crucial as well but only possible “once you know what the story is about.” She had to keep her focus and remember that the novel was simply about boom and bust.

Another guest asked who her literary inspirations were. Shakespeare for his humor, she explained. In his plays, the fool is always the one to say the most profound things, full of wisdom. She loves the fact that this sagacity comes from such unreliable sources. Along with the great Bard, Volmer included Mark Twain and Brett Harp.

Torrence wanted to know how workshop helped her with this book, and Volmer was grateful to say she had readers to give their feedback. The discussion soon turned to the importance of setting, and Volmer recounted an important thread that creates the soul to her work, “You reject and reject, and reject where you come from, which can take a lot of energy, so that the place where you’re at, whether home or far away becomes a part of you.”

Mary Volmer’s first novel is available from SoHo Press. Check out the NY Times review.

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